California utilities agree to deposit $10.5 billion into new wildfire fund
SACRAMENTO — California’s investor-owned utility companies have agreed to open up their wallets to pay into the state’s wildfire fund in exchange for less financial responsibility when blazes are linked to their equipment.
The unprecedented decision to spend billions of dollars from shareholders under a new model to pay for damages championed by Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks to the immense financial threat that power providers face as they operate in a state that endured the worst blazes in the country last year. The fund, propped up by $21 billion split equally between utility customers and shareholders, is meant to act as a second insurance policy for publicly traded electricity companies and to offset concerns from Wall Street about massive monetary liabilities that have threatened to upend the energy market in California.
“The reason it makes sense is that the risk could be so great, and the stocks have been hit so hard, that the value of getting better certainty made it worth putting up money with no return,” said Steve Fleishman, a senior utilities analyst for Wolfe Research. “But in the normal course of the utility, no one would ever do this.”
Under state guidelines, a utility or its customers are responsible for paying property damages from wildfires linked to the company’s equipment. With aging infrastructure electrifying remote areas of increasingly hot and dry terrain, the cost and risk have grown significantly in recent years. Pacific Gas & Electric filed for bankruptcy, anticipating some $30 billion in liability for fires in 2017 and 2018, earlier this year.
Ratings agencies threatened to downgrade Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric if lawmakers failed to pass legislation this month to significantly reduce the industry’s risk.
Newsom pushed the wildfire fund at the Capitol as a solution to the problem. Utilities will be required to earn a safety certification before the onset of wildfire season in order to participate.
The law takes $10.5 billion from electricity customers through the continuation of a charge on monthly bills that was set to expire next year. In return, wildfire costs that would typically lead to higher bills for customers will instead be paid out by the fund, potentially avoiding price hikes.
For their $10.5 billion, the utilities are allowed to tap into the fund to pay wildfire damages that exceed insurance coverage. The law also shifts the burden of proof in regulatory proceedings — another benefit for the utilities — and requires outside groups to intervene to prove that the company failed to properly manage its system to prevent the fire. If proved, the utility would have to repay the wildfire fund for the costs up to a cap, a first-of-its-kind limit to a company’s risk exposure defined as 20% of its transmission and distribution equity.
The state gave the utilities until Friday to signal their intent to participate in the fund. The companies will be responsible for depositing their share of an initial $7.5 billion total into the fund in the first year and then $300,000 annually for the next decade.
One week after Newsom signed the law, SDG&E said it would join the fund and pay its share of the total, set at 4.3% or roughly $450 million. Edison on Thursday agreed to pay its initial contribution of approximately $2.4 billion and follow with annual contributions of approximately $95 million for the next decade. PG&E also notified the California Public Utilities Commission of its decision to pay into the fund on Thursday.
PG&E’s participation must be confirmed through the courts and its initial $4.8 billion contribution would not be due until the bankruptcy process concludes, while the other utilities must make their payments by Sept. 10. In order to participate, the state is requiring the company to exit the bankruptcy process no later than June 30, 2020, without raising costs for its customers.