Read: California’s wildfires are 500 percent larger due to climate change
Which is not to say that the fires are purely a natural event: They have other human causes. Thanks to decades in which every wildfire has been fought, the California woods are much richer and denser in fuel than they would be otherwise. And for all their environmental encouragement, the autumn fires only actually ignite because people live in the woods. “All these fires in the fall are set by people, or by the infrastructure that people need,” Williams said.
And the main infrastructure that people need is the power system, which, in Northern California, is managed by PG&E.
Across the United States, the electrical grid was designed with two ideals in mind: reliability and efficiency. Power, as often as possible, as cheaply as possible—that was the vision. In the past few decades, environmental goals have been “layered on” to that dual mandate; for instance, regulators require less toxic pollution, says Leah Stokes, a political scientist at UC Santa Barbara. But this process has been incomplete. For proof, look to the 28 percent of American carbon pollution that still comes from power plants. Or look to the blackouts themselves—PG&E cannot keep the lights on and avert wildfires with the system as designed.
Americans clearly need new ways to manage utilities. But where are they? Earlier this week, the libertarian economist Tyler Cowen castigated his colleagues for failing to address the crisis. “My Twitter feed includes plenty of the world’s greatest (or at least best-known) economists. They love to debate Elizabeth Warren’s plan for a wealth tax, an idea that probably isn’t going to happen,” he wrote. But “when it comes to designing a better incentive model for California power utilities—a concrete problem for which economics is remarkably well-suited—there has been close to complete silence.”
Virtually the only new idea about how to fix utilities comes from Senator Bernie Sanders, whose Green New Deal includes their de facto takeover by the Department of Energy. Sanders wants to use existing federal authority to displace the utilities, essentially, by building enough renewable energy to power every home and business in the country. A group of leftist scholars has proposed a broad campaign of “public power,” aiming to assert public control of an “energy system dominated by shareholders and driven by all the wrong priorities.”
The idea may be catching on. Representative Ro Khanna, a Democrat from Silicon Valley, yesterday called for California to wrest PG&E from investors and hand it over to customers and local governments.
Stokes, while no fan of the utilities, has doubts about public power. It could allow wealthy municipalities such as San Francisco to cut themselves off from the more fire-prone surrounding areas. And when it comes to fighting climate change, public utilities have not performed incredibly well. Today, roughly 42 million Americans get their power from rural electric cooperatives, a form of public utility created by the original New Deal. Yet those cooperatives are among the slowest to prepare for climate change, and they have significantly more fossil-fuel assets than private utilities do, according to Stokes’s calculations.