Most Americans—about 68 percent—obtain their electricity through distribution systems managed by investor-owned utilities. By nature, an investor-owned utility is beholden to both its customers and its shareholders, and while customers may prioritize reliable power requiring expensive new equipment, shareholders are generally interested in profit. And that means companies might push replacements off as long as they can. “It’s a private industry,” says Mukherjee. “So besides caring for the customer, they look for profit … so they try to stretch the lifespan [of equipment] as long as possible.”
Some also argue that the companies tend to favor investors over customers. “By and large, utilities are profit-seeking entities which are granted monopolies,” says Mark Paul, an environmental economist at the New College of Florida. “What we’ve seen time and time again is that utilities effectively charge ratepayers for maintenance and then delay that maintenance. And instead, they prioritize shareholder dividends.” A case in point, according to Paul, is Pacific Gas & Electric, which serves a large portion of northern California. Earlier this year, PG&E pled guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter after regulators found that the 2018 Camp Fire was sparked by their poorly-maintained equipment. “This is directly attributable to failure to engage in proper maintenance,” says Paul.
If performing basic maintenance now is a struggle, things will only get worse in years to come.