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PG&E, SoCal Edison and SDG&E Push to Boost Shareholder Profit

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California’s investor-owned utilities are urging state regulators to authorize bigger profits for shareholders. (Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

California’s investor-owned utilities are urging state regulators to authorize bigger profits for shareholders. On Tuesday, Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric are expected to tell the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) that investors — spooked by the utilities’ liabilities from sparking recent wildfires — demand more incentive to hold stock in the companies.

Ratepayers would get hit with higher bills if the CPUC greenlights the boosted profit payouts, known in finance as the “return on equity.”

After asking for significantly higher payouts in April, in recent weeks the utilities have scaled back their profit proposals. Those revisions come in the wake of Assembly Bill 1054, which lawmakers passed on an urgent basis this summer. The law establishes a wildfire fund paid for by both ratepayers and shareholders.

PG&E, California’s largest investor-owned utility, had initially asked the CPUC to let it hike its return on equity from the current 10.25% to 16%. But with AB 1054, PG&E argues that investors are likely to accept a smaller bump in profits.

“Because of the leadership of the Governor and the Legislature in creating a statewide fund to cover the costs of future wildfires in California, PG&E is able to reduce its proposed return on equity from 16% to 12%,” a PG&E spokeswoman told KQED in a statement.

The PG&E Bankruptcy

She said the change would support investments in its infrastructure and service reliability. PG&E has been in bankruptcy protection since January, shortly after its equipment sparked the 2018 Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive fire in state history.

Critics argue that the CPUC shouldn’t agree to the utilities’ proposals because of how AB 1054 weakens the standard for holding the companies accountable when their equipment causes fires.

“AB 1054 gives away the whole store to the utilities financially,” said Loretta Lynch, former president of the CPUC. “They’re playing a shell game with financial concepts, using the guise of wildfire risks to pump up their profits.”

In testimony submitted on its behalf ahead of Tuesday’s CPUC hearing (see below), PG&E acknowledges that AB 1054 “improv[es] the credit quality and risk perception of PG&E in connection with wildfires.”

But PG&E also maintains that uncertainty for investors remains, including the possibility that the wildfire fund could run out of money.

PG&E’s request for a higher return on equity is part of the CPUC’s “cost of capital” proceeding, which comes as the utility is embroiled in another fight to hike rates in its General Rate Case, or GRC. California utilities are required to submit a GRC every three years to justify the rates they plan to charge consumers.

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The debate over the return on equity “is the battle behind that other battle over the rate increase,” said UC Berkeley Haas School of Business Professor Severin Borenstein. “The rate of return establishes how much revenue they should be allowed to recover. That, in turn, establishes how much they’re allowed to charge.”

For PG&E customers, the utility’s efforts to increase both rates and the return on equity could cost the average residential customer an extra $360 a year by 2022, according to CalMatters.

PG&E has the added challenge of trying to attract investors while being the nation’s only investor-owned utility that currently pays no dividend, a consistent payout that’s a key incentive for shareholders. The utility suspended its quarterly cash dividend after the deadly 2017 North Bay fires.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who oversees PG&E’s felony probation for the San Bruno gas pipeline explosion, has questioned why PG&E was paying dividends when company officials knew it was falling behind on system maintenance.

With so many factors involved, experts say figuring out an accurate payout for shareholders is more art than science.

“What we’re predicting here is what it will take in additional return to get investors to still want to buy this stock,” said Borenstein. “Nobody really knows the answer to that.”


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