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Utilities need to do more to improve power grid, reduce wildfires, state audit finds

Kimberley Morales, THE MERCURY NEWS

A 91-page report by the state auditor says California utility regulators need to do more to ensure utility companies reduce the risk of wildfires.

According to the March audit, utilities led to two of the largest wildfires in the state from 1932-2021 including the Dixie Fire, caused by a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. line, which burned 963,000 acres and sits as California’s second-largest wildfire, and the Thomas Fire, which the report said was caused by Southern California Edison and burned 282,000 acres. The audit later adds that the cost of fighting fires has nearly doubled when comparing the 2016-2017 season to the 2020-2021 season from $1.9 billion to an estimated $3.5 billion.

The audit included that the state Office of Energy and Infrastructure Safety has failed to hold its standard for granting safety certifications to utilities such as PG&E despite serious deficiencies in mitigation plans.

“The office approved plans despite some utilities’ failure to demonstrate that they are appropriately prioritizing their mitigation activities, and subsequent reviews have found that some utilities failed to focus their efforts in high fire-threat areas,” wrote Michael Tilden, acting California state auditor in the public letter to the California Legislature.

Read more at https://www.mercurynews.com/2022/05/15/pge-is-not-doing-enough-to-reduce-wildfires-state-audit-finds/?

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Russian River flows at risk: New studies show potential path forward for Potter Valley project

Mother of All Groups (MOAG), SONOMA COUNTY GAZETTE

PG&E’s license to operate the Potter Valley Project expires in April of 2022. For more information until then: http://pottervalleyproject.org/

A group of studies released last month paint a clearer picture of how Sonoma and Mendocino counties can meet future water needs while reducing environmental impacts in the face of a decision by PG&E to cease operation of an aging hydroelectric power project.

The Potter Valley Project (PVP) is located approximately 15 miles north of the City of Ukiah on the Eel River. The Project’s facilities include two dams, a diversion tunnel and a hydroelectric plant located in Potter Valley in the headwaters of the Russian River. The 100-year-old project produces little electricity by modern standards and is a net money loser, but Sonoma and Mendocino County water users have grown accustomed to the water diverted by the Project which flows from the Eel River into the Russian River watershed where it is stored in Lake Mendocino – ultimately flowing down the Russian River where it benefits agricultural interests and residents.

This arrangement was put in jeopardy when PG&E announced in 2019 that it would not seek to renew its federal license to operate the Project, which expires in April 2022. In recent weeks, PG&E also notified the public that the Project’s powerhouse had suffered a transformer failure, which eliminated its ability to generate electricity and reduced water diversions into the Russian River. Given PG&E’s goal to dispense with the Project, it is unlikely the powerhouse will be repaired or that the Project will ever function as it once did.

In response to PG&E’s decision to divest from the Project, a diverse group of stakeholders called the Two-Basin Partnership was formed to develop a plan to take over and modify the Project in a way that reflects regional needs and priorities in both basins. Among these priorities are fisheries recovery in the Eel River – one of the few major rivers left in California that has the potential to support abundant, self-sustaining wild populations of salmon and steelhead – and water supply reliability for Russian River water users. The Partnership’s proposed plan included the removal of Scott Dam, restoration of the drained Lake Pillsbury footprint and modifications or the replacement of Cape Horn Dam to maintain a diversion.

Read more at https://www.sonomacountygazette.com/sonoma-county-news/russian-river-flows-at-risk-new-studies-show-potential-path-forward-for-po/

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California proposes big changes to rooftop solar incentives

Sammy Roth, THE LOS ANGELES TIMES

Walker Wright, vice president of public policy at San Francisco-based Sunrun, the nation’s largest rooftop solar installer, said in a written statement that Guzman Aceves’ decision would “impose the highest discriminatory charges on solar and energy storage customers in the U.S., putting rooftop solar and batteries out of reach for countless families in California just as more households are demanding that the state do more to combat climate change and provide them with reliable, sustainable energy.”

California officials want to slash payments for rooftop solar power while adding incentives for homes and businesses to install batteries, saying the changes will help the state achieve 100% clean energy in a way that keeps the lights on, prevents electricity rates from spiraling out of control and also encourages people to drive electric cars.

The proposal from Martha Guzman Aceves, one of five members of the California Public Utilities Commission, would revamp an incentive program called net energy metering that has helped the state become a national solar power leader, with more than 1.3 million rooftop and other small-scale systems installed. The solar industry and climate change advocacy groups have lobbied Gov. Gavin Newsom and his appointees on the utilities commission to keep the program’s basic tenets unchanged.

But in an interview, Guzman Aceves said net metering needs to evolve to reflect California’s changing energy needs. The Golden State’s power grid is increasingly flooded by solar energy during the afternoon but strained on hot summer evenings, when millions of people throttle up their air conditioners to cope with high temperatures made worse by the climate crisis.

Read more at https://www.latimes.com/business/story/2021-12-13/california-proposes-big-changes-to-rooftop-solar-incentives

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Upper Russian River flow decisions being delayed

Rollie Atkinson, SOCONEWS

The long-term picture for reliable water flows in the Russian River, above Healdsburg to Mendocino County, will remain uncertain for at least two more years, if not longer. The hold up stems from ongoing studies and multi-agency negotiations over the future of the Scott Dam on the Eel River and the century-old Potter Valley Project (PVP) that diverts Eel River water into the Russian River and Lake Mendocino.

On Sept. 2, the five-member Two-Basin Partnership asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for a one-year abeyance to continue evaluations of a proposed takeover of the PVP from Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) which has announced it will not renew its FERC permit after 2022. The Two-Basin Partnership is seeking removal of the Scott Dam but continued Eel River diversions into the East Fork of the Russian River. The proposal would add 288 river miles of access to salmon and steelhead while assuring an annual diversion of 62,500 acre/feet of water.

The partnership is citing a shortage of funds to operate the PVP and said last week “we have made substantial efforts but have not yet secured public and philanthropic funds for that work.” In May, PG&E declined to fund the project and by statute the utility is barred from seeking a new license.

Read more at https://soconews.org/scn_county/upper-russian-river-flow-decisions-being-delayed/article_a91725c4-1bbf-11ec-8e56-e7467a39b2f4.html?

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Governor Gavin Newsom’s office ‘micromanaged’ PG&E’s independent state regulators

Brandon Rittiman, ABC10

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office exerted control over a powerful state agency that is supposed to operate independently, “micromanaging” decisions big and small at the California Public Utilities Commission according to its former executive director.

“We do whatever the governor tells us to do, period,” former CPUC executive director Alice Stebbins said. “You don’t do anything without [Gov. Newsom’s] staff reviewing it or talking to you or approving it. And that’s the way it was.”

Internal CPUC documents obtained by ABC10 reveal the agency took direction from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office and even submitted its work to the governor’s staff for multiple levels of “approval.”

The records show that on at least one occasion, the need to secure approval from Newsom’s office delayed CPUC business for a matter of days, frustrating the agency’s employees.

The documents were obtained as part of ABC10’s FIRE – POWER – MONEY investigation, which will examine how the state government under Gov. Newsom responded to PG&E’s crimes by offering the company financial protection.

Read more at https://www.abc10.com/article/news/local/abc10-originals/newsom-pge-cpuc/103-24f1c7ba-fd61-4015-9ee7-bc184ad405bc

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Local coalition advances plan to remove Scott Dam on the Eel River, acquire Potter Valley Project from PG&E

Ryan Burns, LOST COAST OUPOST

n a major development for both water rights and the environment on the North Coast, an unlikely coalition of five regional entities today filed a plan with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to take over the Potter Valley Project, a hydroelectric facility that diverts water from the Eel River.

For Humboldt County residents in particular, the plan is significant because it calls for the removal of Scott Dam, a 98-year old hydroelectric wall that has had major detrimental impacts to native migratory fish populations, including salmon and steelhead.

The five entities in the coalition known as the Two-Basin Partnership include the County of Humboldt, the Mendocino County Inland Water & Power Commission, the Round Valley Indian Tribes, California Trout and the Sonoma County Water Agency.

These groups have distinct and sometimes conflicting objectives for the water that’s at stake, with environmental interests clamoring for fisheries restoration while agricultural users in the Potter Valley and water agencies in the Russian River basin have their own uses in mind. Agricultural interests in the Potter Valley and upper Russian River basin want the water to irrigate their crops, primarily vineyards. Sonoma and Mendocino water agencies want it to supply their customers and meet their contract obligations.

“The glue that has held this two-basin solution together is that everybody has a heck of a lot to risk here,” Congressman Jared Huffman told the Outpost this morning. “Nobody has a slam dunk on what they want.”
Continue reading “Local coalition advances plan to remove Scott Dam on the Eel River, acquire Potter Valley Project from PG&E”

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Op-Ed: PG&E – Monopoly power and disasters

Peter Phillips and Tim Ogburn, PROJECT CENSORED

The Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) has diverted over $100 million from safety and maintenance programs to executive compensation at the same time it has caused an average of more than one fire a day for the past six years killing over 100 people.

PG&E is the largest privately held public utility in the United States. A new research report shows that 91% of PG&E stocks are held by huge international investment management firms, including BlackRock and Vanguard Group. PG&E is an ideal investment for global capital management firms with monopoly control over five million households paying $16 billion for gas and electric in California. The California Public Utility Commission (PUC) has allowed an annual return up to 11%.

Between 2006 and the end of 2017, PG&E made $13.5 billion in net profits. Over those years, they paid nearly $10 billion in dividends to shareholders, but found little money to maintain safety on their electricity lines. Drought turned PG&E’s service area into a tinderbox at the same time money was diverted from maintenance to investor profits.

A 2013 Liberty Consulting report showed that 60% of PG&E’s power lines were at risk of failure due to obsolete equipment and 75% of the lines lacked in-line grounding. Between 2008 and 2015, the CPUC found PG&E late on thousands of repair violations. A 2012 report further revealed that PG&E illegally diverted $100 million from safety to executive compensation and bonuses over a 15-year period.

PG&E has caused over 1,500 fires in the past six years. PG&E electrical equipment has sparked more than a fire a day on average since 2014—more than 400 in 2018—including wildfires that killed more than 100 people.

In October 2017, multiple PG&E linked fires (Tubbs, Nuns, Adobe fires and more) in Northern California scorched more than 245,000 acres, destroyed or damaged more than 8,900 homes, displaced 100,000 people and killed at least 44.

In November, 2018, the PG&E caused Camp fire burned 153,336 acres, killing 86 people, and destroying 18,804 homes, business, and structures. The towns of Paradise and Concow were mostly obliterated. Overall damage was estimated at $16.5 billion.

PG&E has caused some $50 billion in damages from massive fires started by their failed power lines. They filed bankruptcy in January 2019 to try to shelter their assets. PG&E’s 529 million shares went from a high of $70 per share in in 2017 to a low of $3.55 in 2019. Shares are currently trading at $10.55 with zero returns. At this point PG&E actually owes more in damages then the net worth of the company.

All but two members of the board of director resigned in early 2019, and the CEO was replaced. A new board of directors was elected by an annual stockholders meeting in June of 2019. PG&E now has a board of directors whose primary interest in 2020 is returning PG&E stock values to $50-70 range and returning to annual dividend payments in the 8-11% rate.

The new PG&E management took widespread aggressive action during the fire-season of 2019 shutting down electric power to over 2.5 million people statewide. Nonetheless, a high voltage power line malfunctioned in Sonoma county lead to the Kincade fire that burned 77,758 acres destroying 374 structures, and forced the evacuation 190,000 Sonoma county residents. Estimated damages from this fire are $10.6 billion.

The fourteen new PG&E directors were essentially hand-picked by PG&E’s major stockholder firms like Vanguard Holdings 2019 (47.5 million shares 9.1%) and BlackRock (44.2 million shares 8.5%). A new PG&E Director, Meridee Moore, SF area founder & CEO of $2 billion Watershed Asset Management, is also a board member of BlackRock.

Only three of the new fourteen directors live in PG&E’s service area (four if we count the newly appointed CEO from Tennessee). One board member lives the LA area. The remainder of the board live outside California, including three from Texas, two from the mid-west and the remaining four from New York or east coast states. Pending PG&E Bankruptcy court approval, new directors are slated to receive $400,000 each in annual compensation.

Ten of the new 2020 directors have direct current links with capital investment management firms. The remainder have shown proven loyalty experience on behalf of capital utility investors making the entire PG&E board a solid united group of capital investment protectors, whose primary objective is to return PG&E stock values to pre-2017 highs with a 11% return on investment. They claim that wide-spread blackouts will be needed for up to ten years.

All fourteen PG&E board members are in the upper levels of the 1% richest in the world. As millionaires with elite university educations, the PG&E board holds little empathy for the millions of Californians living paycheck to paycheck burdened with some of the highest utility bills in the country. PG&E shuts off gas and electric to over 250,000 families annually for late payments.

The PG&E 2020 board is in service to transnational investment capital. This creates a perfect storm for the continuing transfer of capital from the 99% to the richest 1% in the world, all with uncertain blackouts, serious environmental damage, widespread fires, with multiple deaths and injuries.

We need to liquidate PG&E for the criminal damages it has afflicted on California. The “PG&E solution” is to manage PG&E democratically on the basis of human need, rather than private profit. It is time to take a stand for a publicly owned California Gas and Electric Company as the way to reverse the transfer of wealth to the global 1% and provide Californians with safe, low-cost and more renewable energy. All power to the people!

For the full report with all PG&E board names see: www.projectcensored.org/pge

Source: https://www.projectcensored.org/pge-monopoly-power-and-disasters-by-the-rich-1/

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Santa Rosa wastewater quandary linked to Kincade fire could get worse as rainy season ramps up

Will Schmitt, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Nearly two months after the Kincade fire was fully contained in northeastern Sonoma County, Santa Rosa is struggling with an after-effect of the massive blaze: its wastewater disposal pipeline at The Geysers was disabled for six weeks, backing up the Sebastopol-area plant with about 400 million gallons of treated wastewater.

As a result, by February city water officials anticipate nearing maximum capacity at the plant’s storage ponds, forcing them to release treated effluent into the nearby Laguna de Santa Rosa, a step that would put customers on the hook for an estimated $400,000 in environmental charges.

The wastewater quandary is one of the lingering repercussions of the county’s largest ever wildfire, which scorched about 77,000 acres and more than 170 homes after igniting near a faulty PG&E transmission line in late October.

A clearer picture of its impact on The Geysers geothermal field — the complex of power plants near where the fire erupted — and the city’s wastewater system, which sends most of its recycled daily output to The Geysers, emerged over the past several weeks in public records and in interviews with city water staff and representatives of PG&E and Calpine, which operates most of the power plants.

PG&E has restored power to most of the lines that went down due to the Kincade fire, but it is still weeks away from reactivating the transmission line where equipment broke shortly before the start of the wildfire, a PG&E spokeswoman said.

That same high-voltage line previously powered the city-owned pumps that deliver water about 40 miles from Santa Rosa’s Laguna Wastewater Plant to The Geysers as part of the city’s wastewater disposal system, in operation since 2003.

Without electricity from that line, Santa Rosa found itself sidelined for six weeks — without the ability to pump the 15 million gallons of wastewater it regularly sends per day on average to help sustain steam power at The Geysers, said Joe Schwall, the city’s deputy director of water reuse operations. The Laguna Road plant is one of the largest sewer operations in the North Bay, serving more than 200,000  people not just in Santa Rosa but in Rohnert Park, Cotati, Sebastopol and parts of Sonoma County.

Read more at: https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/10513689-181/santa-rosa-wastewater-quandary-linked

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PG&E should belong to Californians. Not to its Wall Street shareholders.

Charlie Eaton, THE SACRAMENTO BEE

As the lights went out across California this month, residents wondered if we will ever fix PG&E — the nation’s largest for-profit electric utility.

Some predictably joked that we should simply unleash the power of that mythical institution, which some economists still refer to as the “free market.” But PG&E’s latest failure illustrates that markets — and how well they work for consumers — always depend on state regulation. For this reason, California must use the crisis to deeply reform its utility regulations.

A critical regulatory choice for any market is the allowed forms of ownership for organizations that sell goods in the market. California’s courts, lawmakers and regulators are confronting this very issue as PG&E seeks to emerge from a bankruptcy that stems from its responsibility for recent wildfire catastrophes. The specific questions are: Who will own PG&E? How much control will regulators give them? And how much profit can owners extract from the utility?

Any changes to PG&E’s ownership will have big consequences for consumers and communities as California tries to transition to a carbon-neutral power grid. So, policymakers should take into consideration the latest social science on how the form of ownership will affect both consumers and society.

The first big lesson from recent research is about who should not be allowed to own PG&E – namely Wall Street. Gov. Gavin Newsom and other policy players should take every step necessary to block a consortium of 24 private equity and hedge funds that are currently attempting a hostile takeover of PG&E. Why?
Opinion

The interests and track record of the investors trying to take over PG&E speak for themselves. These types of funds explicitly seek to extract windfall profits from the companies they acquire, with little concern for the long-term economic viability or social importance of the company. It is telling that PG&E’s largest current group of shareholders are Abrams Capital, Knighthead Capital and Redwood Capital — a rival alliance of hedge funds that is trying to maintain control after running PG&E into the ground just 17 years since the company’s last bankruptcy.

Private equity and hedge fund ownership is especially pernicious in sectors with large public subsidies and little competition. For example, my colleagues and I show in a forthcoming article for the Review of Financial Studies that investor ownership has had dire consequences in the for-profit college sector. When federally subsidized for-profit colleges are owned by outside investors, we find that they are more likely to increase student loan debt, cut faculty-student ratios and engage in fraudulent recruitment.

Read more here: https://www.sacbee.com/opinion/california-forum/article236541993.html#storylink=cpy

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Will overhauling Scott Dam save native fish?

Alastair Bland, THE BOHEMIAN

Salmon three feet long seem to clog the water as the chrome-colored fish, fresh from the ocean, begin their journey upriver toward the high-elevation gravel riffles where they were born. Here, in the remotest tendrils of the watershed, they will lay and fertilize the eggs that ensure the next generation of salmon.

At least that’s how it once was early each autumn on the Eel River. But nature’s security system for fish survival is only as good as the health of a river. In the case of the Eel, a local power company built a dam on the Eel’s main fork in 1920. As a result, Chinook salmon lost access to about 100 miles of spawning habitat.

Steelhead, which swam farther upstream into smaller tributaries, suffered even greater impacts. Intensive in-river commercial fishing, water diversions, logging and other land degradation took their toll, too. Today, annual salmon runs in Eel River that once may have totaled a million or so adults consist of a few thousand. Lamprey eels, too, have dwindled.

Now, there is serious talk of removing Scott Dam, owned by PG&E since 1930.

For fishery proponents, such a river makeover is the optimal way to revive the Eel’s salmon runs.

“We want to see volitional passage, both ways,” says Curtis Knight, executive director of the conservation group California Trout.

Volitional, in this context, means the salmon are able to make their historic migration on their own—downstream as newly born juveniles and, later, upstream as sexually mature adults—all without the assistance of human hands.

“We think dam removal is one possibility here,” Knight says.

California Trout is one of several local groups and agencies now formally considering taking over the operation of Scott Dam from PG&E. As a hydroelectric facility, Scott Dam is not very productive, and with PG&E’s operating license scheduled to expire in 2022, the utility giant recently stepped away from the project. PG&E even briefly put the Potter Valley Project up for auction, though the offer attracted no takers.

Read more at https://www.bohemian.com/northbay/saving-salmon/Content?oid=9360901