By Renée Bartlett-Webber
I sat at my dining room table, researching labor laws, higher education funding and gentrification of the Mission to shape an editorial that would be most relevant for our San Francisco community. In the midst of my furious googling, I took breaks to warm my hands, put on another sweater, and add socks to my already slippered feet – anything to avoid turning on the heat. My utility bill has more than doubled since January 2022, partly due to this year’s harsh winter, but also because our cost per “therm” (the unit used to measure gas usage) has increased by $0.61 (22%.)
“As required by law in California,” Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) charges a higher rate for customers who use more energy. This supposedly encourages people to use less energy, but often ends up hurting the customers who can’t afford to replace their old equipment with new, energy-efficient appliances. Additionally, the cost of procurement is passed on to the customer so when demand goes up, so does the cost. To make matters worse, the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) approved increases for 2023 that will result in an 18% bill increase for “residential customers with average gas and electricity consumption.” PG&E has submitted an additional rate increase petition to the CPUC to cover its “cost of capital” that will be decided on in the fall. So, when the weather drops to abnormal low 40s (with a side of hail) as it has this winter, we are paying a double or even triple whammy bill.
PG&E is an investor-owned utility (IOU) which is a private corporation “regulated” and protected by the state’s public utility commission. It’s a “monopoly utility,” because there is no competition for their guaranteed customer base in each territory. Our rates are determined by the utility commission and the private entity “based on the cost of operating, maintaining, and financing the infrastructure used to run the utility; and on the cost of its procured fuel and power,” as stated by the CPUC. The private corporation is technically not allowed to make a profit off its services, but only from its assets and stocks. However, the relationship between the utility provider and its state regulator “has come under intense scrutiny, undermining public trust” as reported by KQED in their 2015 article “10 Emails That Detail PG&E’s Cozy Relationship With Regulators.”
With the complex finances and powerful resources of state “regulated” private entities, it’s shocking that these monopolies continue to exist. PG&E has a history of negligence throughout its more than a century-long existence. It has been accused of rigging meters to increase rates, tax dodging and lobbying, colluding with the CPUC, falsifying documents, and shutting off residential power to reduce liability. Some of PG&E’s most alarming atrocities resulted in their convictions for the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion that killed eight people, and for 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter after their equipment caused massive wildfires in 2019.
Despite the rising costs of utilities, the corporation made $16.92 billion in gross profit for the 12 months ending Sept. 30, 2022, a 22% increase since 2018. In 2021, CEO Patricia K. Poppe collected a salary and bonuses of $9.43 million (not including the $41.1 million in equity,) just two years after the company declared bankruptcy protection due to its liability in multiple wildfires. This makes us wonder, are the million dollars in salaries for top executives baked into our monthly rates?
I admit that when it gets unbearably cold in my house, I turn on the heat, but many families have had to choose between heat and food this winter. With additional increases on the horizon, “monopoly utilities” cannot be sustained