Hearing on request to raise rates paints 2 portraits of PG&E

The state Public Utilities Commission heard two markedly different descriptions of Pacific Gas and Electric Co. during a hearing Tuesday in San Luis Obispo to discuss the utility’s request to raise rates.

One description — provided by local business owners — was of PG&E the good neighbor and reliable power supplier. The other was of PG&E the profligate spender, delivered by ratepayers angry over recent political activities by the utility.

The hearing before Administrative Law Judge John Wong in the Meadow Park Building attracted about 100 participants.

The utility is proposing to increase its gas and electric rates by 6.7 percent starting next year, which will generate $4.2 billion in additional revenues over the next three years.

PG&E says it needs the money to upgrade its aging distribution infrastructure. Supporters of the increase said the upgrades are necessary to ensure electrical reliability.

“Having the electrical power we need is important,” said Tim Williams with Digital West Networks of San Luis Obispo.

They also praised PG&E for being a good member of the community and contributing to many local charities and nonprofits.

Critics of the rate increase urged the PUC to reject it. They are particularly angry about PG&E’s backing of the failed Proposition 16 on the June primary election ballot.

The utility spent $46 million on the initiative, which would have required a two-third voter approval before local governments could get into the power business.

This is not the only time in recent years that PG&E has spent ratepayer money to protect its customer base. In 2006, the utility spent

$11 million to keep the Sacramento Municipal Utility District from expanding in eastern Yolo County, and it spent $10 million in 2008 to defeat a public power measure on the San Francisco ballot, known as Proposition H.

Others criticized the $9.4 million in compensation PG&E’s Chief Executive Officer Peter Darbee received in 2009.

Some complained that PG&E rates are higher than most other utilities in the state and nation.

“We are all tightening our budgets; maybe PG&E should, too,” said June Cochran of Arroyo Grande.

Officials with the utility say they are hopeful that customers will not see the full 6.7 percent increase on their monthly bills. Decreases in the cost of buying power could bring the overall increase down to about 1 percent.

Every three years, PG&E applies to the Public Utilities Commission for permission to set its rates.

Tuesday’s hearing was the last of 14 the agency held throughout PG&E’s service area of about 15 million customers in Northern and Central California.

Reach David Sneed at 781-7930.