California wildfires are everyone’s problem, regardless of who’s at fault

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

The recent wildfires that struck seemingly everywhere all at once, but particularly hard in the northern California wine country, might have been caused, in part, by wind whipped electric lines surrounded by a canopy of dense, dry trees. If that’s what happened, then electric companies, and particularly PG&E, could be liable for billions of dollars worth of damage.

It poses a difficult public policy question: who pays? Ratepayers, shareholders or taxpayers?

Coincidentally, the California Public Utilities Commission is due to decide that question at this week’s meeting, at least in regards to a series of wildfires in San Diego County in 2007. San Diego Gas and Electric, Cox Communications and contractors who worked on utility pole routes had to pick up a $2.4 billion tab for damages and legal fees. SDG&E is asking the CPUC for permission to pass $379 million in costs on to ratepayers, at the rate of $1.67 per month for six years.

As written, the draft decision on the table for the CPUC would deny the request, because “the costs of the 2007 Wildfires were incurred due to unreasonable management by SDG&E”.

If commissioners go along with it, SDG&E shareholders will absorb the immediate cost, in the form of lower dividends or a depressed share price.

The immediate cost.

Long term, it’s a more complicated question. If more money has to be spent on tree trimming, wind loading mitigation and similar measures, it’ll change the maintenance cost calculation that determine how much telecoms companies have to pay for the right to attach their fiber and copper to utility poles that are primarily designed to support electric service.

Going forward, someone will have to pay. Whatever the immediate decision, that someone will be the people who live in SDG&E service area, directly via higher electric rates, indirectly to meet return on investment goals necessary to attract investment or via higher broadband rates driven by the cost of maintaining joint pole routes.

With the cost of rebuilding after the recent wildfires not even calculated, and a future with even bigger disasters looming as a real possibility, the CPUC has hard choices to make. Simply kicking the cost of the San Diego fire back to current investors is tempting, but a nuanced solution with a statewide mandate – including electric and broadband customers as well as investors – is needed.