Following a spike in consumer complaints, the California Public Utilities Commission is quietly investigating a range of Pacific Gas & Electric?s billing practices. While not revealing the investigation to the financial community, PG&E this week attempted to convince investors that it intends to polish its track record on customer service. The CPUC has received 1,360 consumer complaints over PG&E billing practices so far this year. The commission?s two-month-old probe was prompted by a ?noticeable increase in the amount of consumer complaints against PG&E? about back-billing, deposits, unsent bills, and bill estimates, according to Terrie Prosper, CPUC spokesperson. The Consumer Affairs Branch is now working with the Energy Division to determine the cause of the jump in complaint numbers and whether PG&E is adhering to CPUC regulations. While defending its need to estimate certain bills because of inaccessible meters and other problems, PG&E conceded it submitted data to the Energy Division on estimated and ?delayed? bills. Peter Darbee, PG&E chief financial officer, assured the financial community that the utility is doing well, saying that PG&E expects to be a $17 billion company this year with a projected growth rate of 1.7 percent. Darbee told investors at a Lehman Brothers conference that some of that financial wherewithal will be invested in customer service improvements, so regulators will ?view us more positively than they have in the past.? However, Darbee and PG&E Corp. declined to provide specifics on the nature of planned improvements either to the financial community or to Circuit. Just as PG&E faces scrutiny over consumer complaints, the utility is angling to impose charges for late bill payments through an advice letter filed with the commission in July. The commission approved a late charge for PG&E customers eight years ago, but it was never implemented. The Utility Reform Network is troubled because PG&E failed to include assumptions about revenue from these charges in its 2003 general rate case. As a result, TURN said, the settlement that led to a general rate case decision for PG&E ?is based on false premises with respect to other operating revenues and cash working capital.? TURN was a party to that settlement and would ?not have offered its support had PG&E disclosed the fact that it intended to establish a late payment charge that would produce revenues that were omitted from the settlement,? stated the advocacy group. General rate cases set revenue requirements for operations, maintenance, and other utility expenses. PG&E didn?t mention its late payment fee plan in its general rate case because such a charge had already been approved in 1996, maintained PG&E spokesperson Christy Dennis. The utility is now ready to implement the fee, she added. Even though the commission is investigating PG&E?s billing practices?including those that could lead to customer late fees?Dennis said customers always retain the right to contest bills if there are questions about their accuracy. PG&E is ?always there to assist a customer if an error has been made,? said Dennis.