A year after a neglected Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) power line sparked a wildfire that tore through northern California, presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders on Thursday visited Chico, Calif., 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 underinvest 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’ 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.
The birthplace of the monopoly for-profit utility, Chicago, just introduced an order to study the feasibility of taking over Commonwealth Edison after years of rate hikes and inaction on climate change. Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa said that “through municipalization, Chicago could accelerate decarbonization, and implement a progressive rate structure that ensures better rates for working-class Chicagoans.”
Over the past months, multiple Democratic presidential candidates have come out in favor of democratizing our energy system. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (who this week dropped out to run again for governor) centered much of his plan for a clean energy economy on community-owned and community-led renewables. And Julian Castro—the former mayor of San Antonio, where one of the more progressive public utilities is located—has voiced support for policies that empower the public to set up democratic utilities not only for electricity but also internet services and water.
But Sanders has voiced the most direct support for 100% public power, and this demand is fundamental to his climate plan. Unlike other proposals to date, Sanders’ plan explicitly commits to using public dollars for everything, refusing to leave the transition to corporate investors who so far have failed the public.