California electricity customers began paying a surcharge on their utility bills at the beginning of 2021 to help cover the cost of wildfire damage. The charge is estimated to cost the average consumer $2.50 per month. It will go to the California Wildfire Fund, a $21 billion initiative set up to help pay damages resulting from fires triggered by the equipment of the state’s major investor-owned utilities (IOU).
The Wildfire Fund will be supported by $10.5 billion from ratepayers. Another $10.5 billion will come from California’s three largest IOUs. These include Pacific Gas & Electric, San Diego Gas & Electric, and Southern California Edison. Contributions from ratepayers will amount to $900 million per year for the next 15 years.
The surcharge has provoked disagreements. Opponents argue that it amounts to a bailout of the large utilities. These IOUs failed to take safety precautions to reduce the risk of wildfire outbreaks. Critics say it is unfair for ratepayers to foot the bill since shareholders have continued receiving substantial dividends.
“The bottom line is this,” commented San Diego attorney Michael Aguirre. “The governor, the Legislature and the Public Utilities Commission are forcing the customers to pay for the wildfires that the utilities caused imprudently.”
Advocates of the surcharge point out that the Wildfire Fund will have utilities contribute at least half of the total cost. If the measure had not been introduced, ratepayers would have had to pay the entire cost. Additionally, supporters note that ratepayers benefit from the financial stability of the utilities, which will in turn prevent consumer electric rates from rising.