PG&E rate hike jolts through state utilities commission

Commission approves PG&E rate hike; customers can expect to see energy bills increase by $5 to $6 starting April

(Ameer Mussard-afcari/Wirestock)
(Ameer Mussard-afcari/Wirestock)
Darren Fraser
Published March 14, 2024  • 
10:00 am

SACRAMENTO – At its last meeting in San Francisco, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) approved PG&E’s latest request for a rate hike, which becomes effective in April and would add nearly $4 to the average customer’s gas bill and just over $1 to the average electric bill. 

But for one critic, how the CPUC handled the vote was nearly as odious as the outcome.

“They put it (the item) on the consent agenda,” said Mark Toney, executive director of The Utility Reform Network (TURN). “Which means it was buried with 40 other items. There was no explanation, no discussion because there was one vote on all 40 items. That was something I thought was insulting. Customers deserve an explanation on why they decided to vote that way.”

The 4-0 vote at the March 7 meeting transpired so quickly that many members of the audience who turned out to protest the proposed increase did not realize it had been approved.

“Did the vote happen?” asked one person, according to The San Francisco Standard.

Toney, who is a fixture at CPUC meetings, said the move surprised even him.

“I can’t remember the last time they did that,” he said.

He also had trouble remembering the last time the CPUC rejected a proposed rate increase.

“I can’t get you an absolute but I can’t remember the last time the commission told PG&E no,” he said.

In an email to the Times, Assemblymember Devon Mathis, 33rd District, placed the blame on what he considers California’s desultory approach to its energy costs.

“Our state already has some of the highest energy prices in the nation due to our unfriendly tax and regulatory policies towards our energy producers,” said Mathis. “Instead of the state taking active measures to increase our energy supply to reduce energy costs, once again the CPUC decides to just approve even more PG&E-recommended rate hikes for already-struggling ratepayers without even having a serious debate or hearing out public opinion.”

According to the website RentCafe.com, the average monthly energy bill in Fresno County is about $270. The cost increases dramatically in hot summer months, with some customers paying upwards of $900 per month.

LITANY OF COMPLAINTS

The consent agenda vote adds to the litany of complaints the public has with the commission and the company.

This latest rate increase follows a rate hike the commission approved last January. That decision resulted in approximately $400 additional annual fees for the average PG&E customer.

So far this year, the company has raised electricity rates by 20%.

PG&E maintains that the recurring rate increases are required to offset costs the company has incurred as wildfire safety work and ongoing efforts to update its aging power infrastructure, including burying thousands of miles of power lines. But this explanation did not sit well with many protesters at the last meeting, particularly in light of the fact the company’s latest earning statement showed PG&E reported profits of $2.24 billion for 2023 – nearly a 25% percent increase over 2022.

Amid chants of “Stop the rate hikes” and “No rate hikes” echoing throughout the meeting, one San Francisco resident said the company was simply trying to recoup losses due to its own mismanagement.

“This rate increase is to cover last year’s cost overrun,” said Mary Zhu, 84. “A company with $15 billion in the bank is not entitled to charity,” she added, according to The Standard.

Toney and others said the five commissioners, who are appointed by the governor, were more concerned with PG&E’s bottom line than they were with protecting consumers.

“It seems they’re more concerned about the Wall Street Investors and the PG&E’s financial situation,” said Toney. “Bailing out PG&E from their own financial mess and placing all those costs on the customer. They don’t seem to care about the customers but they do seem to care a great deal about the investors.”

Gloria La Riva, 69, echoed Toney’s frustration.

“We reject the premise that the name of your body is the Public Utilities Commission,” she said. “It’s more like the private utilities commission or the property utilities commission.”

Richard Becker, 77, of San Francisco, added, “You five are all unelected and can make decisions for millions and millions of people. You have stood on the side of PG&E and other utilities as they’ve reaped billions in profits.”

With the public feeling their voice is not being heard, and the fact the commission has not refused a rate increase in recent memory, Toney said the answer is reform.

“We’re looking for reform at the legislature,” he said. “We have a legislative package we’ve put together. We’re still looking for the centerpiece, which is a ratepayer reduction act which would require utilities to take some measures to lower their costs. And to set a cap on increases to be no more than the cost-of-living adjustment provided by Social Security. Right now, there’s no limit.”

Until that time, many PG&E customers no doubt echo the frustrations of one speaker at the meeting, who questioned how high CPUC is going to allow the rates to climb.

“I’m a ratepayer for PG&E, but I feel more like a hostage,” said the speaker.

Darren Fraser
Reporter