Trinity County’s Takeover of PG&E Power Grid Illustrates Promise and Perils of Public Ownership

Trinity County did in the 1990s what Gov. Gavin Newsom is threatening to do today: It wrested control of the power grid from Pacific Gas & Electric.

The origin story of Trinity Public Utilities District, which now serves several thousand customers in Northern California, is an encouraging precedent for advocates of replacing PG&E with a government-run utility. Trinity customers pay half as much for electricity as PG&E customers do. The public utility’s rates, set by a locally elected board, have hardly changed over the years.

At the same time, Trinity faces several lawsuits and $138 million in claims stemming from a 2017 wildfire — the same type of financial liability that landed PG&E in bankruptcy court. Trinity is contesting those claims, saying its equipment didn’t cause the fire.

As Newsom considers a government takeover of PG&E, Trinity’s experience illustrates both the promise and the perils of public ownership. Although the potential benefits are significant, there’s no guarantee a government entity could provide safer, cleaner or cheaper electricity than the reviled company it replaces.

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