CA Utility’s Idea To Prevent Wildfires? Shut Down Power to 5M Residents

P. Gardner Goldsmith | May 3, 2019
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Most of us are familiar with that business expression, “the customer is always right.” But in the day-to-day tumult of political disputation, some might forget that one of the important distinctions between freedom and statism is that the state never has to please any customer. In fact, it's not possible to know if a customer is pleased, because the state doesn't have customers. It has subjects.

A perfect example of this comes in the form of California’s major government-licensed energy corporation, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), and its recent brilliant idea for how to prevent wildfires.

As the Wall Street Journal reports, PG&E’s answer to protect people during times of high fire risk is…

To shut down power to 5 million residents of the state.

If, by any chance, you find yourself shaking your head, filling with negative feelings towards this beneficent, blessed-by-government energy corporation that has already manifested numerous signs of incapacity to handle the interests of consumers, you’re not alone.

If your mind is filling with services and businesses that might be outstandingly important and need power during wildfires, and if you’re cranium is flooding with speculation about what might happen to lives and property should PG&E shut down power to these places, again, you are not alone.

Tim Pearce of The Libertarian Republic observes:

A blackout could cost the utility’s customers a significant amount financially, as well as endangering many, such as senior citizens who are dependent on electrical medical devices.


PG&E’s argument rests upon the potential that its open power lines could spark and start fires when the landscape is highly prone to fire.

Which opens up two powerful lines (pun intended) of exploration, both of which lead to the same final destination.

First, the core and majority of PG&E’s power lines run above government owned and mismanaged land. As numerous commentators have observed, the lack of private property ownership, control, and real liability for management of land has led to a shocking history of fires in California and elsewhere in the US. The government won’t go out of business if it causes damage to other peoples’ property through the mismanagement of land it claims as its own.

Second, PG&E is one of only a few companies allowed to sell power on a retail level. Its prices are capped by the state, drawing from a government controlled system of power offerings. In other words, there is not only a government-inspired risk problem when it comes to the land over which the lines run, there is no freedom in the consumers’ ability to choose or not choose a company to provide the power.

This means that real competition for energy provision doesn’t exist in the state. This, in turn, means that there is no real incentive for PG&E to serve customers based on the consumer calculations for efficiency, cost, and safety.

So, PG&E can announce that it will try to reduce fire risks by, essentially, cutting power for people who might desperately need it during a wildfire.

Reported Pearce:

PG&E is working to minimize the threat of cutting off power to those most vulnerable, but “we simply don’t have the luxury, given the extreme weather conditions we are seeing, to wait to get it perfect,” PG&E vice president Aaron Johnson told The WSJ.

But Mr. Johnson either mischaracterizes what consumers want, or he doesn’t’ understand it.

The market is not designed to reach a destination. It’s a process that includes in it possible mistakes, allows those who made them to suffer and learn, and allows those observing the mistakes to learn and take measures to avoid them. It’s the perpetual laboratory where ideas are tested by consumers and prices are applied based on consumer valuation. And in order for that to occur, private property must be recognized as its foundation. This, in turn, means ownership of oneself and the ability to acquire and control property.

All lines in this crazy situation lead to the lack of market freedom and private property integration. Citizens suffer higher fire risks because of government control of lands. Power lines run by companies that have no real market competition are put over those public lands, increasing the risk of fire.

And consumers have nowhere to turn.

This PG&E idea is an answer to the wildfire problem the same way a punch to the head is an answer to a headache. It solves nothing, and leaves consumers frustrated.

No real business would run this way and stay in business long. In fact, PG&E is already on the brink of insolvency. One wonders what their operations would be like if the market for energy were actually free in California, and not prescribed and managed by politicians.

The world my never know.


(Cover Photo from Max Pixel)