Posted on Categories Climate Change & Energy, ForestsTags , , , ,

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/

Posted on Categories Climate Change & EnergyTags , ,

Op-Ed: How to protect California ratepayers, expand clean local energy and avoid bailing out PG&E

Craig Lewis, UTILITY DIVE

Craig Lewis is the executive director of Clean Coalition, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to accelerate the transition to renewable energy and a modern grid through technical, policy, and project development expertise.

Since 2017, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), California’s largest utility, has racked up more than $30 billion in liabilities for wildfire-related damages caused by its equipment. In January 2019, PG&E filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection with the goal of shedding these liabilities.

This grave situation also represents a golden opportunity for the Golden State.

Experts have been weighing in on what should become of PG&E. Ideas include making PG&E a public authority controlled by the state, breaking it up into municipal utilities, and making it a fully deregulated utility.

But there’s a better solution, one that should be applied to all the state’s investor-owned utilities (IOUs): require the utilities to divest their transmission assets. This solution avoids another utility bailout, protects utility customers from rate increases and wildfire risks, and fixes a major obstacle to California’s zero-emission, clean energy future.

A broken business model

The current utility business model is fundamentally broken and needs to change. IOUs now earn a guaranteed rate of return on infrastructure investments, which incentivizes them to build more transmission infrastructure and has led to out-of-control transmission costs around the country.

Because transmission costs are the fastest-growing part of electricity bills, it could soon cost more to deliver energy than to generate it. And it’s worse than it looks.

The capital costs of transmission infrastructure, high as they are, represent a fraction of total transmission costs. Operations and maintenance (O&M) and returns on investments drive up transmission costs significantly over the life of these assets, with those excessive costs borne by ratepayers.

Read more at https://www.utilitydive.com/news/how-to-protect-california-ratepayers-expand-clean-local-energy-and-avoid-b/554564/

Posted on Categories Climate Change & Energy, Sustainable LivingTags , ,

Op-Ed: Four climate friendly steps for Santa Rosa

Kevin Conway & Mike Turgeon, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

With the catastrophic wildfires of 2017, climate change has already had a devastating impact on Sonoma County. Because Santa Rosa already has an excellent Climate Action Plan, here are four cost-neutral steps that the City Council can take this year to prepare for further climate emergencies while at the same time reducing our carbon footprint:

— Elevate the climate crisis to the tier 1 priority, so that any project before the council must be in compliance with the Climate Action Plan before a vote is taken.

— Establish a council subcommittee on climate to manage the plan so that future climate-related policies can be more readily enacted.

— Pass an electric-ready building ordinance as a first step to requiring all-electric homes.

— Update the Climate Action Plan to reflect current science as staffing and financial resources permit.

However, the climate crisis isn’t even on the council’s radar.

Recently, the council was given a lengthy report on the city budget that was followed by a public hearing on budget priorities. Chuck McBride, the city’s chief financial officer, reported on the sobering challenges our city faces. He pointed out that we need to come up with $6 million to $7 million to balance the budget. The primary reasons for this are lost property tax dollars because of the fires and unfunded pension liabilities.

Another sobering fact is that the city’s mandated reserves is 15 percent of general fund expenditures. That means the city should have about $25 million in reserves. Today, the amount of money stands at about $4 million. Again, this is largely because of money spent after the fires.

Surprisingly, no mention was made of the fact that the fires were the result of the climate crisis.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/opinion/9303599-181/close-to-home-four-climate

Posted on Categories Climate Change & Energy, Habitats, Land Use, Sustainable LivingTags , , ,

Wildland development escalates California fire costs

Bay City News, NPR

The sky above Ron Beeny turned black.

The 71-year-old was stuck in traffic as he evacuated from his home in Paradise on the morning of Nov. 8.

Trees and brush lined both sides of the two-lane road. In the darkness, Beeny had no idea where the fire was. A former firefighter, he knew that getting trapped between walls of fuel could be deadly.

“[When] daytime turns to night, the fire is burning extremely intense,” he said.

For more than an hour Beeny inched forward in his red Toyota pickup, heading west toward Chico. His home of 41 years was incinerated by the Camp Fire. The blaze that destroyed Beeny’s home is just the latest mega-fire in California — and the cost of fighting such fires has risen dramatically.

California dwarfs other states in fire-suppression costs, an analysis by a Stanford journalism class has found. The Stanford class analyzed daily reports from the most expensive fires in every state from 2014 to 2017, and found that dense development at the border of wildlands — in communities like Paradise, Cobb, and Santa Rosa — helps explain California fires’ exceptional damage and expense to put out.

A 2015 federal audit showed that fire suppression costs vastly more in these transition zones between wild and developed areas — Wildland Urban Interface areas, or WUIs, for short.

The Stanford analysis of fire costs found that, among the states that spend the most on suppression, California fires overlapped far more with the WUI: More than 30 percent of the 2015 Butte Fire, for example, burned on WUI lands, destroying almost 1,000 buildings. Much of the state’s WUI is made up of chaparral — dry shrubland — that burns fast and hot.

Read more at https://www.kqed.org/news/11713393/wildland-development-escalates-california-fire-costs

Posted on Categories Climate Change & Energy, Forests, Land UseTags , , , ,

We came, we planned, we were wrong

Pete Parkinson, NORTHERN NEWS (California Chapter of the American Planning Association)

You are all too familiar with the headline by now: California Is Burning.

Last fall, more than 6,000 homes were destroyed in Sonoma, Napa, and Mendocino counties (including my own home near Santa Rosa). Homes went up in flames in rural, sub-urban, and urban settings, including 3,000 homes lost within the city limits of Santa Rosa.

CalFire had designated some of those areas as very-high wildfire hazard; others (including my neighborhood) were considered “only” moderate wildfire hazard. Still other areas — like the suburban Coffey Park neighborhood in Santa Rosa where over 1,300 homes were lost — were not considered wildfire hazards at all.

This year has brought no relief. As I write (in mid-August), we’ve seen new wildfires sweep into the city of Redding and threaten Yosemite National Park. The Mendocino Complex, the largest wildfire in California history (eclipsing a record set only a few months ago in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties) continues to burn 45 miles north of Santa Rosa.

Wildfire hazards have been a consistent theme in my career as a planner and planning director in three northern California counties (Napa, Sonoma, and Santa Cruz). I have
overseen the preparation of General Plan Safety Elements, Local Hazard Mitigation Plans, and regulatory codes that addressed the full range of hazard management strategies, including road access, water supply, defensible space, and structural design. The underlying theme of these efforts was a belief that wildfire risks can be managed to an acceptable level of public safety, if not eliminated altogether. In fact,
I cannot recall any development project that was denied, or where the density was substantially reduced, because of known wildfire hazards.

The firestorm that swept into our Santa Rosa community last October has fundamentally changed my thinking about development in California’s fire-prone landscapes. Now, 10 months post-catastrophe, let me offer a few lessons learned from one planner’s perspective.

Read more at https://norcalapa.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Oct18.pdf

Posted on Categories Climate Change & Energy, Forests, Sustainable LivingTags , , , ,

‘It’s getting worse:’ Climate change stokes fiery future for California

Guy Kovner, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Striding through the brown, sun-dried grass on a slope at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, Caitlin Cornwall stopped to touch a slender stalk of blue wild rye, crowned by a tasseled seed pod.

The 3,900-acre park in the Mayacamas Mountains near Kenwood was largely overrun by the Nuns fire in October, and the signs of recovery are abundant. Most of the live oak, bay and madrone trees survived; smaller Douglas firs perished and are being dismantled by beetles and woodpeckers.

The grasslands are generally healthier than they were before last fall’s blaze and could readily burn again, said Cornwall, a biologist with Sonoma Ecology Center, which has managed the park since 2012.

“This is all a fire-created natural community,” she said. The park burned in 1964, also by a fire named Nuns.

Indeed, fire shaped the drought-prone landscape for thousands of years, as Native Americans used it to maintain meadows and forests that provided deer, elk and acorns for food as well as grasses for basketry.

But now, climate change has thrown the symbiosis of humans, fire and the landscape into catastrophic disarray. Much of California is a yearround tinderbox, with fast-moving wildfires erupting so quickly this year that firefighters have rushed from one to the next, with the usual peak of the fire season still to come.

“It just takes one spark,” said Scott McLean, a deputy chief with Cal Fire, the state’s firefighting and forestry agency.

As heat-trapping gases continue to pour into the atmosphere and temperatures inch upward, drawing moisture from the soil and vegetation, the state’s vast landscape is growing increasingly volatile, costing lives and billions of dollars in fire damages.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/8737270-181/its-getting-worse-climate-change

Posted on Categories Climate Change & Energy, ForestsTags , , , , , ,

Gov. Brown’s wildfire plan will only make things worse

Chad Hanson and Char Miller, THE LOS ANGELES TIMES

Responding to the tragic losses of homes and lives in wildland fires in California over the past year, Gov. Jerry Brown announced a “major offensive” against fire, in the form of a “Forest Carbon Plan.” The governor proposes to use $254 million of taxpayer money to double logging levels in California’s forests — to “at least” 500,000 acres a year — and to achieve it, he wants to reduce environmental protections.

Although the governor’s May 10 proposal is ostensibly designed to protect human communities from forest fires and to mitigate climate change, it ignores and misrepresents current science. The Forest Carbon Plan will exacerbate climate change while doing little to protect communities from fire.

Most of the devastating impacts to communities from recent California wildland fires have occurred in grasslands, chaparral and oak woodlands — not in forests. This includes the October 2017 fires in northern California, and the December 2017 Thomas fire and Creek fire in southern California. Claiming to protect towns from fire by increasing logging in remote forests is a bit like proposing the construction of a sea wall in the Mojave Desert to protect coastal populations from rising oceans.

Moreover, reducing environmental protections in forests, and increasing logging, as Brown proposes, does not tend to curb fire behavior — in fact, it typically does the opposite. This is because logging reduces the cooling shade of the forest canopy, creating hotter and drier conditions, and removes tree trunks, which don’t burn readily, while leaving behind “slash debris” — kindling-like branches and treetops

Read more at http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-hanson-miller-governor-fire-orders-20180525-story.html

Posted on Categories WaterTags , , , , , ,

Fire retardant use explodes as worries about water, wildlife grow

Matt Weiser, KQED SCIENCE

In 2014, scientists at the National Marine Fisheries Service published a study showing that two fire-retardant formulations are deadly to Chinook salmon, even when heavily diluted in streams.

Chemical fire retardants are considered a vital wildland firefighting tool, helping to slow the spread of flames while ground crews move into position. But as their use increases, the harmful side effects of these chemicals are coming under increasing scrutiny.
The chemicals, usually dropped from low-flying aircraft, largely consist of ammonia compounds, which are known toxins to fish and other aquatic life. Studies have shown retardants can kill fish, alter soil chemistry, feed harmful algae blooms and even encourage the spread of invasive plants. Yet there is little regulation of their use, and no safer alternatives on the market.
In California, state firefighting crews have applied 15.3 million gallons of chemical fire retardants so far this year, according to data provided by CalFire, the state’s wildland firefighting agency. That’s a new record, and double the amount used just three years ago.
CalFire applied 2.7 million gallons of retardant in a single one-week period starting October 9 – also a record. Of that amount, about 2 million gallons were used on the North Bay wildfires, which killed 43 people and burned more than 8,000 structures in October as they swept across several counties north of the San Francisco Bay Area, including Sonoma and Napa.

Read more at: Fire Retardant Use Explodes as Worries About Water, Wildlife Grow | KQED Science

Posted on Categories Climate Change & EnergyTags , , , , ,

Close to Home: What new climate report says. It’s urgent

Carl Mears, PRESS DEMOCRAT

Carl Mears is lead author for the Climate Science Special report: Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume I, U.S. Global Change research Program

As was recently reported in The Press Democrat, the U.S. government recently released the first volume of the Fourth National Climate Assessment. As one of the 51 authors of the report, (and the only one from the private sector), I was relieved that there was no political interference in the writing and editing process. The report accurately represents the conclusions of the expert scientists on the writing team.
The report is 477 pages of fairly technical reading, so I doubt that most people are ready to read it cover to cover. But I can summarize it in just three sentences:
— Global warming is happening now.
— It’s caused by human activities, mostly emission of carbon dioxide.
— And the consequences are beginning now
— and becoming increasingly serious as the warming continues.
These statements are not the personal opinions of the writing team. Every “key finding” in the report is defended by a “traceable account” that describes the scientific reports we read and synthesized to reach that conclusion.
Since this column is titled “Close to Home,” I thought I’d highlight several new findings that are of special concern to Californians and residents of Sonoma County.
Our report is the first to address sea level rise while considering troubling new results about the stability of ice sheets in Antarctica. By 2100, the expected range of sea level rise is between one and four feet. But because we do not know exactly how the ice in Antarctica will respond to warming oceans, a sea level rise of eight feet cannot be ruled out. This amount of sea level rise would flood a lot of low-lying land around the San Francisco Bay, including significant parts of downtown Petaluma.
Much of California depends on the Sierra snowpack to store water. New, more advanced climate models are able to predict the state of the spring time snow in the Sierra. Unless we begin to curtail carbon dioxide emissions soon, warming temperatures will lead to rising snow levels and more wintertime precipitation will fall as rain in the Sierra Nevada. Under the assumption of continued high carbon dioxide emission, the snow levels increase by more than 1,000 feet, leaving much of the mountain region north of Interstate 80 snow free at the end of the winter.
The water that should flow down the rivers in July and August comes much earlier in the year, threatening vital infrastructure such as dams and levees and reducing the amount stored for summer use.
Another consequence of warming temperature is the drying of soil and vegetation during our long, dry summers. Last month’s tragic fires bring the threat of wildfire to the forefront of our attention.
Because of dryer summer conditions, and the large swaths of dead trees killed by the warmer, more stressful climate, our report concluded that wildfires will increase over the entire western United States, a trend that has already been measured in almost every region of the West.
Drier conditions will also increase the need for irrigation, even as our state’s capacity to store water is reduced by the dwindling snowpack.
So, what should people do with this information?
Get informed and involved with organizations that work on policy solutions. While personal commitments such as riding your bike to work are good, they must also be supported by deeper systemic changes to our energy system. These changes cannot be achieved by individuals acting in isolation.
Read more at: Close to Home: What new climate report says. It’s urgent