California Burning: The Fall of Pacific Gas and Electric--and What It Means for America's Power Grid (Hardcover)
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2022 Winner of the Golden Poppy Award for Nonfiction (California Independent Booksellers Alliance)
A revelatory, urgent narrative with national implications, exploring the decline of California’s largest utility company that led to countless wildfires — including the one that destroyed the town of Paradise — and the human cost of infrastructure failure
Pacific Gas and Electric was a legacy company built by innovators and visionaries, establishing California as a desirable home and economic powerhouse. In California Burning, Wall Street Journal reporter and Pulitzer finalist Katherine Blunt examines how that legacy fell apart—unraveling a long history of deadly failures in which Pacific Gas and Electric endangered millions of Northern Californians, through criminal neglect of its infrastructure. As PG&E prioritized profits and politics, power lines went unchecked—until a rusted hook purchased for 56 cents in 1921 split in two, sparking the deadliest wildfire in California history.
Beginning with PG&E’s public reckoning after the Paradise fire, Blunt chronicles the evolution of PG&E’s shareholder base, from innovators who built some of California's first long-distance power lines to aggressive investors keen on reaping dividends. Following key players through pivotal decisions and legal battles, California Burning reveals the forces that shaped the plight of PG&E: deregulation and market-gaming led by Enron Corp., an unyielding push for renewable energy, and a swift increase in wildfire risk throughout the West, while regulators and lawmakers pushed their own agendas.
California Burning is a deeply reported, character-driven narrative, the story of a disaster expanding into a much bigger exploration of accountability. It’s an American tragedy that serves as a cautionary tale for utilities across the nation—especially as climate change makes aging infrastructure more vulnerable, with potentially fatal consequences.
About the Author
Katherine Blunt covers renewable energy and utilities for The Wall Street Journal. Her team's reporting on PG&E has been honored with a Barlett & Steele award for business investigative journalism, the Thomas L. Stokes award for energy and environmental reporting, and was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She is based in San Francisco.
"[PG&E's] story comes in a recognisably irresistible form: juicy backroom dealings, Wall Street leeches, hapless politicians...Some of the most entertaining exchanges take place within the corridors of power in California’s state government, with a mood reminiscent of HBO’s The Wire."
“[An] intensely researched, deeply unsettling chronicle . . . Blunt delivers detailed accounts of complex, ongoing political, business, and courtroom maneuvers that would overwhelm readers if not for her abundant journalistic skills. . . A compelling and heart-wrenching study.”
"Blunt’s book is not a technical tome but a drama, a human tragedy, loaded with fascinating characters and tales of death and destruction, incompetence and chicanery, malfeasance and greed. Any detail necessary to understand the electric grid and how it works is woven seamlessly and clearly through the narrative."
"Diligent reporting and a clear focus make this a must-read for anyone interested in the future of energy."
“Copiously researched . . . Only a careful excavation such as Blunt's can chart the thin course between wrongdoing, simple incompetence, poor governance, and bad luck.”
“A portrait of a state in crisis . . . Blunt is a thorough reporter and a lucid writer. She makes the struggle to supply California with power on a warming planet clear and compelling.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“One does not need to be interested specifically in utilities or the energy industry at large to appreciate this book-length reportage . . . If you were a business leader having to choose between the latest self-help pablum that populates much of the literature about how corporations work and California Burning, you certainly should choose the latter.”
—American Affairs Journal
“This urgent and compelling book is a wild tale of old-school corporate malfeasance colliding with the scary new realities of climate change, a story that only grows more important with each passing dry season. The cast of characters—including feckless corporate managers, criminal commodity traders, and crusading public prosecutors—seems straight out of a Hollywood script. But this story is all too real, and its implications matter to everyone. This is literally the story of who controls power in America, and how they have misused it.”
—Christopher Leonard, New York Times bestselling author of Kochland and The Lords of Easy Money
“California Burning is more than an entertaining and important depiction of the fall of a key American company. It’s an examination of how unprepared we are for the dangers of climate change and how unwilling we are to invest in keeping critical systems safe as we transition to cleaner energy.”
—Gregory Zuckerman, author of A Shot to Save the World
“Katherine Blunt’s gripping writing takes you through the bankruptcies, lawsuits, and human tragedies to illustrate a company in a long, slow-motion decline. An absolutely fascinating tale filled with extraordinary insights, and highly recommended for anyone who likes to see rich narrative writing and investigative reporting at its finest.”
—T. Christian Miller, author of A False Report and winner of two Pulitzer Prizes
"Told with care, rigor, and an old-school attention to detail, Katherine Blunt's California Burning is the ultimate history--and indictment--of the utility company that lit the state on fire. The climate crisis leaves no room for laziness and greed. This should be required reading for citizens, regulators, and everyone who cares about living safely and well on our heating earth."
—Elizabeth Weil, features writer at New York magazine, co-author of New York Times bestseller The Girl Who Smiled Beads
“California Burning reads like an energy thriller, filled with intrigue and complete with villains, victims, fraudsters, politicians, and heroes. Most of us already know the ending –bankruptcies, power outages, wildfires, death and destruction – but few of us know the plot. Blunt fills that in for us by masterfully investigating the missing details to paint a colorful picture of the consequences from a century-plus of decisions and indecisions. Though I have studied energy closely for two decades, I learned something new on every page.”
—Michael Webber, author of Power Trip and chief technology officer at Energy Impact Partners
"California Burning left me rattled. Katherine Blunt's reporting is searing and essential. This book gracefully pulls together a complex story whose consequences may never end."
—Jon Mooallem, author of Serious Face and This Is Chance!