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Do PG&E, Edison need higher profits? It's time for California to decide

Sammy Roth, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

"The commission threw a dart. There's no evidence on the record for the numbers they came up with," she said.

SDG&E spokesman Wes Jones said in a written statement that the utility is "evaluating the Proposed Decision and will work through the regulatory process in the coming weeks leading up to the final decision."

A SoCalGas spokesman declined to comment on the proposed decision.

Ron Gales, a spokesman for Southern California Edison, said the company "welcomes several aspects of the commission's (proposed decision), including approval of SCE's requested capital structure and the commission's timeliness in managing the proceeding." He added that Edison "continues to assess the (proposed decision) and the treatment of unique California risks, such as wildfire and industry-leading changes to the electric sector."

That last bit is a reference to arguments made by all four utilities that California's aggressive climate change policies create additional financial risks for investors -- and that those risks should be compensated with higher shareholder returns.

In a filing to the Public Utilities Commission requesting increased financial returns, Edison cited the state's mandate of 100% climate-friendly electricity by 2045. Around one-third of California's electricity now comes from renewable sources such as solar and wind power. But natural gas-fueled power plants are still the state's largest source of electricity.

 

The 100% clean energy standard "will require procurement from new technologies at an unprecedented scale" and "creates substantial operational risks for SCE that are greater than those utilities face outside of California," Edison argued. The utility also mentioned the need for massive investments in electric vehicle chargers and other grid infrastructure to support a transition from oil-based transportation to clean cars.

Public Utilities Commission staff were unconvinced by those arguments, writing in the proposed decision that any financial risks stemming from state climate policies are "already priced into the models."

Michael Colvin, who leads the California energy program at the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund, said Edison was "talking out of both sides of their mouth" because the utility has also argued that investments in clean energy and grid modernization can boost profits.

For instance, Edison has proposed spending $561 million over four years to support the installation of 48,000 electric vehicle charging stations. Those types of investment could pay off handsomely for shareholders because utilities can charge customers that roughly 10% premium when they invest in new infrastructure.

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