Pacific Gas & Electric had an abominable 2010.
First, the utility giant wasted $46 million on a cynical, self-serving ballot initiative to block competition. (Thankfully, Proposition 16 tanked with the June voters.) Then in September, one of its major gas lines exploded in San Bruno, killing eight people and demolishing a neighborhood. Investigators revealed a seriously inadequate safety and inspection process, but nothing seems to have resulted from the findings. We don’t know yet what recent news of a PG&E computer failure regarding the gas line means. Finally, the company’s initiative to install millions of “smart meters” in homes across California faced an unexpected backlash from consumers.
As Jonathan Weber noted in last Sunday’s New York Times, all of the above somehow, amazingly, didn’t stop PG&E from having, on balance, a pretty good year on the bottom line. PG&E’s stock is doing just fine. And the utility’s customers continue to pay close to the highest electricity rates in the country.
Maybe the utility gets away with it all due to the “revolving door” many people believe exists between the California Public Utilities Commission and the utilities they are CPUC is supposed to police. As Weber notes: “Close relationships between regulators and the regulated are common in the utility business.”
Well, this must end, especially as California sets itself up to lead the country in a green-energy revolution. Let’s hope Gov. Jerry Brown appoints some strong consumer advocates to the CPUC soon—people who will help give some bite to the watchdog and hold utilities like PG&E accountable for their blunders.