Public Utilities Commission eyes heightened consumer protections after wildfires

The new rules would require utility companies to suspend late fees and shut offs for nonpayment during declared states of emergency.|

Utility customers across California can anticipate added financial protections following future wildfires after state regulators voted Thursday to consider adopting stepped-up post-disaster rules to govern electric, gas and water companies.

The California Public Utilities Commission unanimously approved creating uniform safeguards for consumers affected by large natural disasters that prompt a declaration of emergency from the governor. Proposed protections include payment plans for those unable to pay bills, and bans prohibiting late fees and disconnection of service in the event of nonpayment.

The commission previously passed resolutions requiring utilities take action on a limited basis to offer relief to customers impacted by large wildfires. The state lacked such measures last year, when destructive fires struck Northern California in October, displacing tens of thousands of residents, and when flames overtook parts of Southern California in December.

“I think this (rulemaking) will be an important step in memorializing those, making them permanent and consistent throughout our utilities,” Commissioner Liane Randolph said during the commission’s hearing Thursday. This will help us “to institutionalize the emergency provisions that would be put in place to protect utility customers and residents in instances of disaster.”

The 5-0 decision establishes a process for the commission to collect public comment on the proposed emergency consumer protections. After receiving input, the utility board may also modify or strengthen the previously approved temporary safeguards.

Locally, a number of customers displaced by the Tubbs fire in October grew frustrated when Pacific Gas & Electric Co., the dominant utility in Northern and Central California, delayed billing in the wake of the fires, with large charges accumulating as a result. The company’s standard approach to natural disasters prevented those who relocated and restarted their service from receiving scheduled bills, too.

Based on the preliminary schedule, the new protocols - if ultimately approved - would take effect around the start of this year’s fire season. The proposed rules would apply to communications companies, as well.

PG&E said in a statement that it has already taken several steps to support customers affected by the October wildfires.

“PG&E is offering billing and credit relief for customers who lost their home or business in the wildfires,” company spokeswoman Deanna Contreras said by email. “For these customers, PG&E has or is in the process of bringing their balance to zero for the PG&E energy charges associated with their lost locations.”

In addition, the company said it has refunded security deposits for customers who lost homes, and is pursuing no credit action through the end of 2018 for fire survivors. In conjunction with PG&E, Sonoma Clean Power is offering similar credit and billing relief measures.

PG&E is currently seeking to contact customers who have transitioned to temporary housing ahead of sending bills to ensure they are not also charged for the destroyed property. Payment plans are available to lend further flexibility to impacted individuals.

To avoid possible scams, customers can call 800-743-5000 to verify whether someone is actually with PG&E. Customers who have questions may also reach Sonoma Clean Power at 855-202-2139.

The utilities commission will begin accepting comments on the rulemaking proposal in late April and plans to issue an initial decision in October.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or at On Twitter @kfixler.

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