Why PG&E’s blaming Climate Change for $17B wildfire damages is a crazy cradle-to-cradle conundrum

As brave firefighters and first responders continue to battle -- and tragically lose their lives -- history-making wildfires, one of the US’ top energy utilities just presented what may be one of the craziest twists yet in the Costs of Climate Change Blame Game.

The CEO of PG&E says that climate change, not sparks caused by PG&E’s downed power lines, is responsible for loss of life, property, trees, wildlife and health from last year's and future wildfires. Thus, the current $17 billion (USD) fire damage bill and any moving forward should be covered by insurance or government agencies, not energy utilities.

I don’t know about you but this cradle-to-cradle conundrum makes my head spin.

Before untwisting the thinking, let me preface the following by saying I don't want to see utilities go into bankruptcy as a result. Or insurance companies, FERC and our government and/or the individuals harmed by wildfires. As monopolies, energy utilities own the power lines that transport electricity. So if we are to broaden solar and wind distribution when and where the sun doesn't shine nor wind blow, then we need energy transportation (and more storage too). Utilities have the capital resources to stall or accelerate clean energy use.

I also have a number of good friends at PG&E and admire many of their professionals. As someone living in Sonoma County California, home of claimants to much of the $17B bill now up for debate, I am so very, very grateful that so many dedicated PG&E boots were and are on the ground helping fire ravaged communities.

So let’s lay out the facts.

Climate change is caused by human practices, specifically those involving releasing Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions into our atmosphere. Scientists have found a direct link between climate change, global warming and increased heat extremes. Soul-disturbing studies released this week estimate that we may have already tipped into “Hothouse Earth.” Wildfires and other wild weather swings will grow as a result.

Humans burning fossil fuels over the past 100+ years have accelerated GHG emissions that build up in Earth’s atmosphere. Utilities and fossil fuel companies remain the top GHG emitters.

Since it began burning gas to help power gold rush society over 150 years ago, PG&E has always burned fossil fuels to make light and electricity. Today, PG&E is a top 10 US energy utility with nearly one third of its generation portfolio still comprised of natural gas and other “non-emissions free sources.”

On the positive side, that means PG&E over the past 20 years has successfully shifted to generate more than two thirds of its power “emissions free” -- 24% nuclear, 12% hydro and 33% renewables generation.

Weirdness moment: we’ve done such a great job of deploying energy efficiency and investing in renewables that California now produces far more power than it needs. As much as 21% more. So it’s part of the Crazy Climate Change Blame Game that regulators and PG&E continue to pursue building new power plants that are simply not needed.

As a means to help battle climate change and appeasing customer demand for renewable energy, PG&E and the Northern California market it serves are now seen as solar success stories. In 2015 and 2016, as "rooftop" solar installations purchased by residential and business customers exceeded 5% of PG&E's total generation, PG&E has since:

  • Added $145 fee for every new solar rooftop added to “their” generation matrix.

  • Added a "Minimum Delivery Charge" of $10 per month for solar owners, regardless of generation or usage. The monthly fee supposedly helps cover cost of using and maintaining PG&E’s power lines.

  • Instituted Net Metering 2.0, which limits homeowner or business solar generation to 1000Kw. Most home solar installers estimate that this is roughly 60-75% of annual usage. Net Metering requires all excess solar power generated to go over PG&E lines (see Minimum Delivery Charge) and PG&E will credit generation against future bills.

  • Allowed Community Choice aggregation to enable those who can’t afford or can’t install their own solar to still use emissions-free energy.

  • Charged Community Choice customers an additional "Power Charge Indifference Adjustment or PCIA." This is a truly horrible name for a fee to cover “the adjustment that includes (generation) costs prior to the customers’ departures.” It’s dubbed an “exit tax,” paid monthly, and is based on some super secret formula I can’t find (please advise if you know how it’s calculated). For me, 70%+ of my monthly electric bill pays for PCIA and PGE’s other "electric delivery" costs. Less than 30% is actual generation.

Cradle-to-cradle conundrum recap:

  1. Utilities want to blame wildfires on climate change so somebody else pays damages.

  2. Climate change is caused by human actions, primarily GHG emissions from burning fossil fuels.

  3. Energy utilities have profited from burning fossil fuels for 100+ years. Utilities remain chart-topping GHG emitters.

  4. Energy utilities are charging customers numerous fees for choosing 100% GHT/emissions-free renewable energy, such as solar.

  5. Utilities charge solar owners fees to cover costs to maintain power lines. Excess solar benefits other rate payers and reduces need for new power plant investments. Customer-owned solar helps bump up utilities' renewable generation portfolio percentages.

  6. Downed utility-owned-&-maintained power lines emit sparks that set wildfires ablaze.

  7. Utilities want to blame wildfires on climate change...

Next stop? Insurance company rebuttals. Push back from FEMA and the Trump Administration. Where will this Climate Change Blame Game go next?

Laura Stadler