CHICO, Calif. (CN) – Not a single one of the nearly 100 people who spoke Thursday at a utility regulator’s public workshop about Pacific Gas & Electric’s intended rate hike spoke in favor.
Instead, many spoke intensely about how their lives were upended by the most deadly and economically destructive fire in California history and how outraged they felt that the investor owned utility would seek to raise their rates so soon after such a tragic event transpiring in part due to PG&E’s negligence.
“It feels like such a gross affront as to the timing and it’s almost incomprehensible a rate increase is being asked at this time,” said Kimberly Young, who lives on a rural property outside of Chico.
PG&E is seeking permission from the California Public Utility Commission to increase rates for customers for the time period covering 2020-2022. It’s a process the investor-owned utility must undertake every three years but this year such a request is particularly fraught for a community devastated by a wildfire that was caused when a transmission line snapped in northeastern Butte County.
Protesters attempted to shut down the evening meeting, chanting “People over profits” loudly until they were escorted from the meeting room. The group of 25 to 30 people decamped just outside the door banging drums and continuing their chants.
Inside, many customers took issue with the proposed hikes that PG&E says it needs to carry out various programs. The company is asking the CPUC to approve hikes that would give it an additional $1.1 billion over 3 years, which the company promises will go to safety infrastructure and related programs.
“We recognize it comes at a difficult time,” said Robery Kenney, PG&E vice president of external affairs. “But the funds will help increase resiliency and further enhance our ability to address wildfire risk.”
During two meetings — one in the afternoon and another during the evening — attendees weren’t buying it.
“This is a private company out to make profits and they’ve given out millions in bonuses to their employees,” said resident Brad Nichols. “That’s even after the Camp Fire.”
The Camp Fire sparked in the early morning of November 8, 2018 when a transmission cable owned and operated by PG&E failed, causing a spot fire near the mountain town of Concow in Butte County. By the time noon hit, the 26,000-person town of Paradise was almost entirely burnt with about 75 percent of the housing stock in the town consumed in the fast-moving blaze.
The fire killed 85 people and two people are still missing. The Camp Fire scorched approximately 150,000 acres and razed about 18,000 buildings.
Some of the speakers said they supported increased wildfire safety provisions, but said PG&E needs to foot the bill by taking money out of employee bonus pools, executive salaries and shareholder profits.
“PG&E should take money from its investors, not its ratepayers,” said Mike Schultz, a Chico resident.
“I’ve never seen it where the damaged party needs to pay itself back while enriching the party that caused the damage in the first place,” said Elle Hill, another resident in attendance during the afternoon.
Patti Savage emotionally recalled the morning she awoke at a friend’s house up the mountain from Paradise and saw a large column of dark smoke hovering ominously over her hometown.
“I thought it was a storm cloud with the rising sun poking out of it,” she said.
Later that day, she learned her entire house was burned to the ground and the community in which she’d lived for years was gone.
“There was a lot of stuff that got burned up sure, but some of that stuff are things I’ll never replace,” Savage said, talking about photos of her grandchildren and the jacket of her dead mother.
“In the meantime, their executives make millions, they go into bankruptcy so they don’t have to pay survivors and they still threaten to turn off our power for days at a time,” she said.
Rafael Liang, who will work as an administrative law judge for the CPUC, will help adjudicate the rate hike and decide whether to grant PG&E’s request for a rate hike.
“The numbers are based on whether the CPUC gives PG&E everything they ask for,” Liang said at the outset of the evening meeting. “It’s possible the process will produce a different result.”
PG&E will go before the CPUC law judges in September and then October to make the case for the rate increases.