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American utilities get the John Oliver treatment

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Christopher Neely's picture
Independent Local News Organization

Journalist for nearly a decade with keen interest in local energy policies for cities and national efforts to facilitate a renewable revolution. 

  • Member since 2017
  • 686 items added with 335,591 views
  • May 16, 2022
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Since it first aired on HBO in 2014, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver has been one of the channel’s most watched and most influential and informative shows for mass audiences, as it breaks down complicated topics that directly impact many Americans despite the minimal amount of mental energy the wider population gives to the topic. 

This past week’s episode focused on electric utilities, their monopolistic structure and the leeway given them by federal and local regulation. Typically, this wouldn’t be worth noting, but Last Week Tonight has a history of bringing issues to the fore and creating some ripples that often touch off a push for change. 

In the episode, Oliver criticizes utilities for their ability to operate as the only game in town, escape harsh punishment, and their profit motive behind massively expensive projects, the burden of which gets passed down to ratepayers. As I watched, I couldn’t help but think about PG&E, a company found responsible for deadly wildfires yet has been able to steadily increase their rates while their CEO continues to make an ungodly amount of money — more than $51 million in 2021, mostly from stock awards and bonuses. Meanwhile, the utility is proposing a multi-billion undergrounding project for transmission lines which will certainly further pinch ratepayers, and they are supporting an overhaul of the solar industry that would weaken financial incentives for residents producing their own power. 

PG&E is, of course, among the most reviled examples in the utility overlord conversation. However, outside of our industry, these issues aren’t getting as much attention even though the effects are felt by anyone who uses electricity.  A spotlight from John Oliver’s show does much to bring attention to the issue but it’s going to take a sustained attention over years to challenge the power America has given to its electric utilities. 

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