Goods & Services

Traveling to 1946: Best new supplier

Illustration By Leif Jones

Sacramento Municipal Utilities District (SMUD)

In 1946, the entire country was coming to terms with the end of World War II and the beginning of a new, riskier relationship with energy production. While the nation began to grapple with the possibilities of nuclear power, Sacramentans tried to fill a much more immediate need for greater electricity.

On a recent trip back to the old days, I walked through Sacramento’s downtown, eavesdropping on local conversations. I found the roots of some of today’s most interesting political battles seated in 1946. On city streets, Sacramento streetcars were giving way to individual automobiles. Local politicians were discussing the newly formed Sacramento-Yolo Mosquito and Vector Control District. In barbershops and diners, residents were talking about how President Harry S. Truman had just approved the construction of what would become the Port of Sacramento. And everyone was watching to see how SMUD would implement 23 years’ worth of planning when it finally got control of local electricity distribution.

In 1923, Sacramento, with 200,000 people, had voted to create a publicly owned utilities district, a nonprofit supplier that would be accountable to the people through an elected board. Sacramentans had looked forward to having local control over rates and policy, but SMUD wasn’t created in a vacuum. Electricity had been available in the area since 1895, and the existing distribution system was managed by Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E)—a privately owned company that wasn’t really interested in releasing its hold on the local energy market.

In 1946, however, a small number of SMUD staffers were celebrating because a California Superior Court judge had just ended 12 years of litigation by ruling that PG&E had to relinquish its system to the nonprofit supplier for $13 million. Sacramento finally would be one of the few California communities that would elect its own utilities board and hold it accountable for managing the area’s resources the way the people wanted.

If only the community—and the small staff at SMUD—had realized how big the challenges would be over the next few months, there might have been less celebrating. While all that litigating had been going on—along with the raising of $13 million—requests for power had piled up during the war, and SMUD wasn’t going to get much help from PG&E as it tried to learn how to run a utilities district.

In spite of predictions to the contrary, SMUD took control of Sacramento’s power grid on New Year’s Day, 1947. It hasn’t relinquished control to PG&E yet.

What we still don’t know is whether SMUD will wrest much of Yolo County out of PG&E’s grasp in the future. Even in 2005, that remains to be seen.