The California Legislature is still struggling with whether and how it should protect PG&E from a $17 billion liability from the Sonoma wildfires that could push the utility into bankruptcy. The latest proposal would have the CPUC conduct a “stress test” on PG&E’s finances if it faced a large liability, and then PG&E could raise rates sufficiently to cover the difference between the total liability and exposure deemed sufficient to maintain financial solvency. We don’t have enough details to understand how well the stress threshold is defined and how it would differ from the current cost of capital evaluations, but this is a bad idea regardless.
Firms need the threat of bankruptcy to perform efficiently and effectively. We’ve already seen how PG&E manages and performs sloppily, whether its maintaining vegetation (which has been a problem since the early 1990s), tracking its pipeline maintenance (which led to the San Bruno accident), or managing risk in its renewable power portfolio (which has added a $33 per megawatt-hour premium to its cost.) Clearly CPUC oversight alone is not doing the job. Outside litigation may be the only way to get PG&E’s attention, especially if it creates an existential threat.
Policymakers have taken the wrong lesson from PG&E’s previous bankruptcy, filed in 2001 during the California energy crisis. The issue there that lead to the final resolution was whether PG&E was required to provide power to its customers at whatever cost. This situation is not about PG&E’s obligations but rather about its management practices, and a bankruptcy court is much less likely to require a cost pass through.
Instead, the state could simply step in buy PG&E for $1 if the utility declares bankruptcy (an option that Governor Gray Davis was too much of a coward to consider in March 2001.) The state could then directly manage the utility, or better yet, parse it down to eight or ten smaller utilities. (Two studies in PG&E’s 1999 General Rate Case, and the subsequent decision, found that the most efficient utility size is about 500,000 customers. PG&E now has over four million.) Customers would find the utilities more accessible and responsive, and by creating municipal utilities, rates could be much lower with cheaper financing cost. It’s time to rethink where we should head.