Editorial: Thank you PG&E, and other signs of Stockholm Syndrome

“Thank you, sir. May I have another?” – Kevin Bacon, “Animal House”

Bay Area residents can be forgiven for momentary expressions of gratitude toward PG&E when the utility began turning power back on toward the end of this week, as its widespread and futile safety-for-PG&E power shutoffs came to an inglorious close.

Because those knee-jerk thoughts of “thank you PG&E” when your bathroom lights came back on Thursday were perfectly natural, after over half a week of fumbling for the flush in the dark.

But write it off as classic Stockholm Syndrome – the psychological phenomenon in which captives develop sympathetic feelings toward their captors over small kindnesses bestowed upon them during confinement. Because PG&E’s restoring power after hijacking our lives for five days deserves no sympathy and warrants no quarter.

It’s difficult to gauge which is more infuriating: The shared opinion among many that the power shutoffs are entirely unnecessary – an over-reaction affecting hundreds of thousands of people in towns that were under no threat of fire. Or, the idea that PG&E knows its own equipment-maintenance negligence to be far more pervasive than previously imagined – and essentially NONE of its power lines can be trusted to withstand changes in atmospheric pressure or, as they call it in meteorology class, “wind.”

Pacific Gas and Electric unrolled its second wide-scale power shutoff of the month to areas of the North Bay last Saturday – this time dipping its blackouts into the weekend, creating a wholly new kind of potentially unnecessary disruption for energy customers who pay generously for the utility to provide safe and reliable power and, in turn, reasonably expect PG&E to uphold its end of the bargain.

The earlier blackouts were of the mid-week variety – forcing businesses to close and causing no shortage of uncertainty for community members over work, school, child care, sick family members, you name it.

This time we enjoyed the more unique, but every bit as confounding, weekend installment, in which long-planned events, day trips, family outings, dinner plans and kids’ birthday parties were shot to hell because PG&E equipment has about as much chance of holding together as my kids’ 5,000-piece Lego Hogwarts play set.

By Monday, the problems had progressed from lost weekend business revenues and blackout weddings to another midweek of canceled… well, pretty much everything, heading toward the end of the week when an entire holiday was on the line. Remember those Rankin/Bass animated holiday specials from the 1960s and ‘70s when some animatronic ne’er-do-well or other was threatening to “cancel Christmas”? This week PG&E was Mr. Heat Miser putting the screws on a night of Halloween fun. (As bad as its reputation currently is, there was zero chance PG&E was going to risk further ire by keeping the lights out for trick-or-treats. Safety shmafety.)

But PG&E warned us days in advance! Their helpful online address-search to find out who’s affected by the PSPS informed most North Bay residents their power “might” be turned off at some unspecified time Saturday and would eventually be restored at some unknown date in the future – and who can’t plan accordingly with that type of detailed information? And for those who did hightail it to the market for D batteries and ice, PG&E forgot to supply those markets – and by that we mean those with backup power generators that could remain open in the first place – with the additional truckloads of ice bags and they were going to need to prevent Valley refrigerators from taking on that faint scent of rind that develops after a day or two of room-temperature mayo.

At this point, the utility’s long-term plan is anyone’s guess, but so far we haven’t heard “dip into company profits in order to fund the proper level of maintenance required to ensure our equipment is safe to operate in inclement weather” as part of a strategy. In fact, we’ve seen quotes projecting PG&E plans 10 more years of so-called Public Safety blackouts. (We didn’t see an abundance of public safety when navigating pitch-black four-way stops while driving at night this week.)

PG&E has two basic jobs: 1) Provide reliable power to customers. 2) Don’t kill the customers while performing Job 1.

By its own admission, the utility can’t do both simultaneously. At least that’s the message one gets sitting in a candlelit home at 8 p.m. on a Saturday eating peanut butter sandwiches with your family – imagining that if more than one of us were to sneeze simultaneously multiple power poles would topple from the sheer force.

PG&E has had a long run – more than a century – of supplying power to Northern California. But given its felonious incompetence of the past 15 years – and the state Public Utilities Commission’s equally egregious spinelessness in regulating the utility (i.e. doing its job) – loud calls are being made to end PG&E’s monopolistic stranglehold over our electricity-dependent lives.

Maybe breaking up the utility is the answer. It’s certainly the question of the moment being asked – the City of San Francisco made an offer to buy PG&E’s SF equipment; Gov. Newsom is lobbying Warren Buffett to take the reins. Maybe an entirely new paradigm involving a public takeover with real state oversight, but local control, is the answer – much like local water agencies and fire departments work today.

What’s clear is the current model of depending entirely upon a single, private utility to maintain a labyrinthine energy grid across half the state is no longer feasible, and hasn’t been for a long time.

Meanwhile, thousands of residents are discovering a newfound appreciation for the electricity that powers their garbage disposals, which were turned back on just in time to grind down the hundreds of dollars in rotting perishables now festering in freezers across the Valley.

Thank you, PG&E.

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