PG&E Customers to Foot the Bill for Wine Country Fire Costs, Under Revised Bill

Following the deadly and destructive Northern California wildfires, crews worked to clear debris from homes that were destroyed.  (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Pacific Gas & Electric wants its customers to pay for the costs of the October 2017 wildfires that tore through northern California, destroying more than 8,000 buildings and killing 44 people. Under legislation now at the state capitol, PG&E customers would be charged an involuntary fee to help the utility company pay off settlements stemming from pending wildfire lawsuits.

The legislation comes just weeks after Cal Fire investigators concluded that PG&E power lines and poles were responsible for 12 of the October wildfires, prompting hundreds of lawsuits against the utility.

AB33 would allow PG&E to use state-issued bonds to pay for property damage, personal injury and fire-fighting costs resulting from multiple blazes last October.  PG&E customers would pay off the bonds in the form of a "non-bypassable" charge on their bills. From the Chronicle:

'That means even customers who generate most of their own electricity with a rooftop solar array or who buy their electricity from a community choice program such as CleanPowerSF would still pay the charge.'

PG&E could be liable for billions of dollars in damages in wildfires that destroyed 8,880 buildings and killed 45 people. The company told shareholders in June that it has set aside 2.5 billion dollars in expected liability. But that could be a fraction of the total cost. AB33 explains that the burden on PG&E would be too great:

'...the magnitude of potential damage claims undermines Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s ability to invest in the infrastructure necessary to meet the state’s aggressive wildfire mitigation and clean energy plans and has the potential to create an unsustainable hardship for customers if passed on in the form of higher rates through the typical ratemaking processes.'

John Franzman, who lost his Fountaingrove home in the fires, blasted the proposal.

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“I read the legislation and scratched my head,” Franzman said. “Why is it fair for someone in Santa Cruz to pay for what happened in Santa Rosa? That means my 90-year-old father who lives 150 miles away is paying for this. I’m paying for my own recovery.”


Erin Brockovich, an environmental activist and attorney, is suing PG&E on behalf of Bay Area residents who lost their homes in the fires. She attacked the bill on Monday and accused PG&E of shielding itself from wildfire lawsuits.

“This company is a ginormous monopoly that has the privilege of working in this state," she said Monday. "Yet you take no accountability and no responsibility for your actions that harm people and kill people.”

The bill, first introduced in 2016, was originally aimed at promoting electric cars. It was gutted and amended last week, however, to address PG&E’s liability.

“The potential liability from the 2017 northern California wildfires requires immediate legislative action,” the bill reads. “The number of persons affected by the wildfires, and the extent of their losses, highlight the need for timely and equitable resolution of their claims.”

A PG&E spokesperson called the bill a  "common sense" approach.

“The measure does not absolve PG&E from responsibility,” said spokeswoman Lynsey Paulo. “Instead, it takes a balanced, common-sense approach that will protect electric customers, the communities PG&E serves and our state’s clean energy future.”

The October wildfires in Northern California wound up being the largest group of wildfires in recorded state history. The damage resulted in about $10 billion in insurance claims.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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