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Ratepayers Say SDG&E Is Misleading State Regulators In 07 Wildfire Rate Case

The Witch Fire, which started outside of Ramona in 2007, burned hundreds of structures and forced thousands of evacuations.
Sandy Huffaker
The Witch Fire, which started outside of Ramona in 2007, burned hundreds of structures and forced thousands of evacuations.

Ratepayer advocates claim San Diego Gas & Electric may be playing a numbers game as it attempts to gain regulatory approval to bill customers for uninsured costs from the 2007 wildfires, which state investigators say the company's lines started.

Ratepayers Say SDG&E Is Misleading State Regulators In 07 Wildfire Rate Case
Ratepayer advocates claim San Diego Gas & Electric may be playing a numbers game as it attempts to gain regulatory approval to bill customers for uninsured costs from the 2007 wildfires, which state investigators say the company's lines started.

Advocates suspect the utility is deliberately lowering its uninsured 2007 wildfire costs as a strategy to convince regulators to vote for customer reimbursement for those expenses. The utility denies that.

It’s long been reported that SDG&E has gone far over its $1 billion liability insurance limit in settling claims from homeowners who lost homes in the 07 fires and that it has more than a billion left in uninsured claims. In fact, that’s what the company told financial regulators in September. But two weeks ago, SDG&E told state regulators in an off-the-record meeting its most recent balance was just $126 million.

Then, a company lawyer corrected that figure and said it was more than $300 million. SDG&E spokeswoman Stephanie Donovan said that last number is accurate and based on best and latest estimates. But Attorney Mike Aguirre, who is representing a ratepayer in the case, said the company is using smoke and mirrors.

“What they’re doing is to lower the number so it seems not to be that big of an imposition on new rates but to establish the principle that they’re entitled to the money and once they have the principle in place, then they’ll come back with the larger number," Aguirre said.

SDG&E customers already have some of the highest electricity rates in the country. Consumer groups say if the California Public Utilities Commission allows the utility to recoup its 2007 wildfire losses from customers, the total increase could cost anywhere from $350 to $700 per meter. Aguirre says customers are not entirely powerless in this case.

“The public needs to keep the pressure on their elected officials," Aguirre said.

Commissioners did not respond to a request for comment. They are scheduled to vote on the matter December 20.

An administrative law judge recommended in October that commissioners reject SDG&E's request for reimbursement. In an alternate opinion, Commissioner Timothy Simon suggested his colleagues allow SDG&E customer reimbursement for future uinsured wildfire costs under certain circumstances.

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