Why don’t we make all utilities public?

Lightbulb with a glowing wire in the shape of California (series)
Public ownership of utilities could improve accountability, but also increase the public’s costs. Image via iStock

The idea: California is home to a mix of public and investor-owned utilities, but the investor-owned ones (think PG&E) have a fiduciary duty to shareholders that complicates spending on public safety. So let the government run the grid. 

The pros: The public, not shareholders or investors, would set rates through a governing body or a board and there would be clear accountability to improve safety and maintain equipment. Public utilities operate their own generation facilities or purchase power through contracts. And they would have access to public financing. No more worrying about shareholder returns.

The cons: Turning private corporations into government-run providers would be difficult, pricey — and a gamble. The public would have to pony up billions just to acquire all private providers, including the biggest three: Pacific Gas and Electric, San Diego Gas and Electric, and Southern California Edison. Then the public is left holding the bag if there are problems, such as deadly wildfires. And publicly owned utilities aren’t necessarily without controversy. Consider the history of corruption at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which serves 3.9 million customers, and whose power lines appear to have helped spark the Getty Fire.

The odds: One in 10. Newsom talked of a state takeover of PG&E but ultimately signed off on a reorganization plan.