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As PG&E Leaves Millions Without Power Amid Wildfires, Sanders Says Time to Think About 'Public Ownership of Major Utilities'

The 2020 Democratic presidential candidate has proposed a Green New Deal that would create "a modern, high-volt, underground, renewable, direct current, smart, electric transmission and distribution grid."

A fire burns a hillside near PG&E power lines during firefighting operations to battle the Kincade Fire in Healdsburg, California on October 26, 2019. (Photo: Philip Pacheco/AFP via Getty Images)

As two million Californians go without power in the midst of for-profit utility giant PG&E's intentional and unprecedented blackout—which the company says is necessary to prevent more wildfires—Sen. Bernie Sanders said Sunday that "it is time to begin thinking about public ownership of major utilities" to prevent such catastrophic corporate mismanagement in the future.

"Our hearts go out to Californians affected by the devastating wildfires," tweeted Sanders, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate. "Climate change is real, and when I am president, we are going to treat this like the existential crisis it is."

Sanders' tweet came just before Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a statewide emergency over the more than a dozen fires raging across California, which have forced nearly 200,000 people to evacuate their homes.

"No one in this country should be losing power in their home because large corporations have failed to invest in a smart, safe, and modern electrical grid."
—Rafael Návar, Sanders' 2020 California state director

PG&E began its latest phase of shut-offs Friday afternoon as high winds threatened to damage above-ground power lines and spark more fires. As the Los Angeles Times reported, "by Sunday evening the utility had cut current to 940,000 homes and businesses, affecting more than two million people, with one more phase to come in Fresno and Madera counties."

"The winds are not expected to subside until Monday, but it will take another 48 hours to get power flowing again," according to the Times. "The utility will have to deploy thousands of inspectors to make sure the lines were not damaged in the wind, or else they could ignite a fire."

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Following PG&E's initial round of blackouts earlier this month, the Sanders campaign touted the Vermont senator's sweeping Green New Deal proposal as a way to prevent the outages California's utility giant has imposed on millions of people and build a modern and clean electrical grid.

"No one in this country should be losing power in their home because large corporations have failed to invest in a smart, safe, and modern electrical grid," said Rafael Návar, Sanders' 2020 California state director. "When Bernie is in the White House, he is going to take on the corporate greed and recklessness of the energy industry and build a 21st century energy grid that will deliver clean, reliable power to all."

Sanders' 10-year Green New Deal plan, released in August, states that a "smart grid means a resilient, secure, and intelligent electric grid system that is capable of managing high amounts of renewable energy, charging electric vehicles quickly, and maximizing efficiency."

"We will spend $526 billion on a modern, high-volt, underground, renewable, direct current, smart, electric transmission and distribution grid [that] will ensure our transition to 100 percent sustainable energy is safe and smooth," the plan says. "The renewable energy generated by the Green New Deal will be publicly owned, managed by the Federal Power Marketing Administrations, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Tennessee Valley Authority."

Johanna Bozuwa, research associate with The Next System Project at the Democracy Collaborative think tank, wrote for In These Times in August that Sanders is right to call 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," Bozuwa wrote. "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."

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