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PG&E Gets Green Light to Raise Rates for Wildfire Prevention Efforts

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The back of a blue PG&E truck is seen.
The new proposal aims to fund burying 2,000 miles of power lines by 2026, with PG&E asserting that it will support wildfire mitigation, promote clean energy growth and reduce the risk of sparking Northern California wildfires. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Update 11:45 a.m., Friday: State energy regulators approved a plan Thursday that allows PG&E to raise rates on its customers to help the utility pay for burying power lines to prevent wildfires, as well as investments in clean energy.

PG&E plans to put more than 1,200 miles of lines underground in the most wildfire-prone parts of the state. The utility wanted to do more, but regulators said that plan was too expensive and didn’t think PG&E could complete the work on time.

“The alternate proposed decision reflects our expectation that PG&E must substantially drive down risks from its infrastructure and improve overall safety for ratepayers,” said Alice Busching Reynolds, president of the California Public Utilities Commission.

Ratepayers will see an average increase of about $30 a month on their bills next year.

Original story, 7:30 a.m., Thursday: California regulators plan to resume a vote on Thursday on whether to approve PG&E’s latest rate increase proposal, which has an estimated price tag of nearly $6 billion. If approved, the plan would result in an estimated monthly average customer rate increase of about $40.

The proposal would pay for the utility to bury 2,000 miles of its power lines by 2026. PG&E has said the plan would also fund investments in other wildfire mitigation work and clean energy growth, and it has argued that the undergrounding plan would help prevent its equipment from touching off the next big Northern California wildfire.

The California Public Utilities Commission bristled at the cost of PG&E’s proposal and expressed skepticism that the company could complete the undergrounding work on time.

The utility needs state approval to raise customer rates and to pay for the costly undergrounding.

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Officials have released two alternative proposals. They intended to vote on the various options earlier this month but pushed that back until Thursday’s meeting.

The plans ask PG&E to keep more lines above ground but install protective covers to insulate them.

One proposal would allow the company to bury 200 miles of line and install 1,800 miles of insulation and other safety measures.

The second plan would install 1,230 miles of line underground.

Both plans would result in an estimated average monthly bill increase of just over $30, or about $10 less per month than PG&E’s plan, according to a commission fact sheet.

PG&E’s equipment sparked the 2018 Camp Fire that killed 85 people, burned 13,900 homes and destroyed much of the town of Paradise.

The utility eventually pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter for its role in igniting the fire.

PG&E filed for bankruptcy in January 2019 when it was faced with shelling out billions of dollars in damages to the victims of these and other wildfires started by its equipment.

The utility’s infrastructure also started the 2021 Dixie Fire, which torched more than a million acres and burned all the way across the Sierra Nevada.

Climate change has greatly amplified California’s wildfire risk, especially in PG&E’s territory. A problem that has also been exacerbated by more people moving into forested areas and fire officials suppressing wildfires over many decades.

In recent years, PG&E has shut off power to especially at-risk neighborhoods during strong, dry wind storms — and the utility argues its undergrounding plans would prevent the need for these “public safety power shutoffs.”

Once approved by the commission, customers would see changes to their bills beginning Jan. 1, 2024.

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