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Ignoring public outcry over soaring bills, regulators approve another PG&E rate hike

man with hat shouting at a lectern
Richard Becker, 77, of San Francisco, leads a chant after making decrying proposed PG&E rate hikes at the California Public Utilities Commission meeting Thursday in San Francisco | Source: Jungho Kim for The Standard

After nearly two hours of vociferous—at times enraged—opposition to planned PG&E rate hikes during a meeting of the California Public Utilities Commission on Thursday, commissioners took five minutes to issue their decision. 

The regulators would allow PG&E to raise rates. Again. 

The new fees will stack on top of already historic hikes that went into effect in January and averaged 13%—around $414 in additional annual fees—for the typical PG&E electricity and gas customer. 

That sticker shock will be compounded by an average of $4-$6 in additional monthly fees for the typical ratepayer approved by the California Public Utilities Commission. Those hikes, intended to cover the costs incurred by the company for wildfire mitigation and infrastructure modernization, will take effect in April.

Public commenters at the commission meeting in downtown San Francisco were uniformly against the rate increases, with chants of “Stop the rate hikes!” and “No rate hikes!” breaking out. Some referred to the utility’s recent record revenues—its earnings statement released last week reported profits of $2.24 billion for 2023, a nearly 25% year-over-year increase.

“This rate increase is to cover last year's cost overrun,” said Mary Zhu, 84. “It is a rush to judgment, and a company with $15 billion in the bank is not entitled to charity.”

The increases were greenlighted without any specific discussion by the five CPUC commissioners, and the vote went so quickly that several activists missed that the decision even happened. "Did the vote happen?” asked one attendee who stepped out of the room briefly.

women with paper delivers statement
Mary Zhu, 84, of San Francisco, was one of dozens of public commenters speaking against proposed PG&E rate hikes at a California Public Utilities Commission meeting Thursday. | Source: Jungho Kim for The Standard

Since early 2021, PG&E bills in California have increased by 38%—an average of $52 per month, according to regulatory filings—20% more than the rise in the consumer price index over the same period. 

The recent increase in rates means that PG&E has now leapfrogged San Diego Gas & Electric as the state’s priciest power provider.

But the bad news for ratepayers doesn’t end there: rates could continue their dramatic rise in 2024. PG&E has a pending application to raise monthly rates a further $14 a month starting later this year to recover costs from damage caused by last year's storm season.

Much of the criticism from public commenters on Thursday was lobbed at the five commissioners themselves, who were accused of passing through additional costs to consumers in deference to corporate interests. 

The five members of the Public Utilities Commission are appointed to their positions by the governor and are confirmed by the state senate to a six-year term. All current commissioners were appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom and most have held public service positions focused on energy policy.

“We reject the premise that the name of your body is the Public Utilities Commission; it’s more like the private utilities commission or the property utilities commission,” said activist Gloria La Riva, 69.

The rate hikes date back to an application filed by PG&E last year to recover nearly $2.5 billion in costs, including some $688 million that the company said it spent on wildfire safety work, electrical system modernization and gas line safety work.

“Delaying the recovery of costs could negatively impact our ability to secure competitive finance rates and increase the costs for capital investments,” PG&E spokesman Mike Gazda said in a statement.

An administrative law judge approved the recovery of up to $516 million in expenses, citing the need to preserve the utility company’s credit rating and “effectively manage” the rate impacts for customers.

Rate increases are “appropriate in order to stabilize PG&E’s still precarious financial position,” Administrative Law Judge Camille Watts-Zagha wrote in her preliminary decision published March 4.  

Members of the public angrily pushed back on concerns about the company’s finances.

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

“We're opposing this. It’s outrageous, especially with a $2.24 billion profit,” said Mark Toney, the executive director of The Utility Reform Network, which filed an official objection to the rate hike.

PG&E leaders have said the company has reduced its physical and financial risk in the wake of a 2019 bankruptcy filing caused by its role in deadly and destructive wildfires across California in 2017 and 2018.

The company officially exited bankruptcy in 2020. In January, PG&E restarted payment of its quarterly dividend, a portion of profits paid out to shareholders.