Regulators Take Notice of Recession in Considering Rates

By Published On: January 30, 2009

While the California Public Utilities Commission was set to rule on nearly $550 million in new ratepayer-funded utility programs, as well as a 26.5 percent increase in Southern California Edison’s ratebase, only a single item involving ratepayer funding was approved. Another vote launched a closer look at utility energy efficiency incentives. The single vote impacting greenbacks, however, drastically cut back Pacific Gas & Electric’s and San Diego Gas & Electric’s emerging renewables program. PG&E requested $30 million. SDG&E asked for $15 million. Regulators only allowed PG&E $4.8 million for potential wave-powered generation. Utilities “failed to substantiate the need for public funding,” said Commissioner Tim Simon. Among the agenda items held this week were PG&E’s $495 million request for smart meters and the increase in Edison revenues. A second energy decision approved by regulators questioned spending ratepayer funds in the current economic climate. The order opened up a new docket to consider utilities’ energy efficiency rewards. Regulators allowed utilities to self-report their successes in achieving energy efficiency. The December 18 decision allowed up to $82 million in ratepayer-backed income for efficiency gains. It was a controversial 4-1 decision. In opening a new investigation into how to streamline the efficiency declaration process, the commission was unanimous. Not only did the one anti-self-reporting voter from December--commissioner Dian Grueneich--support it, but other commissioners were vocal too. It’s time for a “relook,” said commissioner Rachelle Chong. She added that regulators should “stay focused on the central goal of increasing efficiency and cutting greenhouse gases.” “We must maintain the integrity of this agency,” said Grueneich. Commissioners voted in a somewhat unusual context--at least for the current regulators. However it’s one that reflects the economy. At the beginning of each CPUC meeting, the public is allowed to directly address the commission. When speakers line up, they usually have a gripe about a particular looming decision. In this case, a dozen speakers addressed the economy in general, how it’s impacting their personal finances, and the resulting difficulties in paying utility bills. The speakers were urged on by the ratepayer group, The Utility Reform Network. After the public testimony, commission president Mike Peevey called TURN executive director Mark Toney to the microphone. He cautioned the consumer advocate to not abuse the public process. Peevey noted the topic of public concern--help for low income customers--wasn’t on the agenda. “It was held last night,” noted Toney, who invoked the “spirit of public participation.” The dynamic riled commissioner Simon. He lauded Toney for his efforts, “So we don’t find ourselves in a bubble.”

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