RETHINK this: “monopoly utilities know best”

Think your electric utility knows what’s best for you and the public interest? Your utility is probably not looking out for you nearly as much as it’s looking out for its profits and executives. Can we imagination a better way? Could these big utilities be equitably transformed to “public utilities?” (1) We’re at a real inflection point now; a fork in the road that may lead us to changes we’ve simply not dreamed of–if–if that is, we can imagine the road going there.

Energy democracy or shareholder profits?

If you haven’t given it any thought, and you’re probably not alone, consider this– PG&E, the biggest utility in the country, just declared bankruptcy.(2) I googled “PG&E files for bankruptcy protection” and got 367,000 returns, some of those no doubt reaching back to a previous bankruptcy. This is in California, where the infamous Enron scandal took down an incumbent governor who used public money to bail out PG&E and ushered in one Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. PG&E paid the creditors billions then soaked the public to cover its own corporate malfeasance.

Reports I read on the current bankruptcy tend to frame the story as “either-or” meaning either the shareholders or the public will pay. Maybe it plays out different this time around. The debt-holders might end up with the company, in which case it still comes back to the question of who pays. But there is yet another way to imagine this– public ownership. Our work in community-scale, distributed renewable energy would advance exponentially toward a democratic energy transition, if that “first domino” were to fall. If we think it, maybe it’s possible.

Profits over people and planet is what drives the electric utilities and all that is in that supply chain. Too big to fail? We’ll see. But let’s at least rethink who gets bailed out and to whom the benefits accrue.

1. I’ve elaborated on this in a recent paper and cited some cases and research showing that public ownership isn’t unheard of or impossible. It’s quite possible and there are equitable ways forward. But first we have to imagine it.
2. In terms of number of customers.

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