A year after a neglected Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) power line sparked a wildfire that tore through northern California, presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders on Thursday visited Chico, California, where many who fled the fire made a new home. He held a town hall the same day he released a new climate plan, in which he declared that the days of investor-owned utilities — with their profit incentives to under-invest in the electric grid and double down on fossil fuels — have to end.
He’s right: it is time for a massive public takeover of the nation’s electric grid.
The for-profit companies that reign over our energy system now have shown no meaningful sign of being willing to transform our energy system; they are much more interested in shareholder gains and business as usual. Together, for-profit utilities and fossil fuel companies have created powerful political-economic machines across the country to solidify the status quo of extraction and extortion. In contrast, democratic public ownership of our energy system could prioritize community benefit over profit, paving the way for a just and equitable energy system.
“We will end greed in our energy system,” says Sanders’s climate plan. “The renewable energy generated by the Green New Deal will be publicly owned.”
His plan comes as public power ownership campaigns mobilize across the country. California’s movement took off after the state’s largest for-profit utility, PG&E, requested a bailout after the fire forced the utility to declare bankruptcy under the weight of liability claims. Communities across the state are now demanding public ownership, and the company’s hometown of San Francisco has begun looking into municipalization.
In New York, in the midst of a July heat wave, Con Edison sacrificed low-income communities of color in Brooklyn by cutting their power to avoid a larger blackout. Residents responded with outrage, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, another presidential contender, called for kicking out the utility in favor of public ownership.