Former Department of Energy official Steven Koonin expressed unwarranted confidence (PHYSICS TODAY, January 2012, page 19) that “energy needs to happen through the private sector. It owns, builds, operates essentially all the energy infrastructure in the country, and I don’t think we have any intention of changing that.”

I offer the following example to illustrate why I take issue with Koonin: During the night of 30 November–1 December 2011, residents of the West San Gabriel Valley, about 15 miles northeast of Los Angeles, experienced a severe Santa Ana windstorm that produced hurricane-force gusts. Thousands of trees were blown down, and power outages were widespread. The area is served by two utilities: Community-owned, not-for-profit Pasadena Water and Power (PWP), which provides electricity for the homes and businesses in Pasadena; and privately owned, for-profit Southern California Edison (SCE), which powers the surrounding communities.

Pasadena itself was probably the hardest hit, with about 1200 downed trees and nearly $30 million in damages. The wind speeds there during the event were at least as high as, and perhaps higher than, those in the surrounding communities. Nevertheless, only 10% of PWP customers lost power during the windstorm.

Meanwhile, Altadena, Arcadia, La Cañada Flintridge, and San Marino experienced total blackouts. In other nearby communities, such as Sierra Madre, South Pasadena, and Monrovia, at least 80% of homes and businesses lost power. In a front-page story in the Pasadena Star-News on 13 January 2012, SCE admitted that 75% of its customers in the area affected by the windstorm lost power.

In addition, while nearly all PWP customers had their power restored within 48 hours, many SCE customers had to wait much longer, some as long as a week.

The performance of SCE during and after the windstorm was so bad that it is now being investigated by the California Public Utilities Commission. Simply put, private-sector, for-profit SCE put in a dismal performance compared with the not-for-profit, community-owned PWP.

Perhaps Koonin needs to reconsider his belief that the private sector, with its focus on profits and stock dividends, can reliably provide for our energy needs.