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Ratepayers get the shaft in San Onofre fiasco

Nearly $1 billion was charged to ratepayers of Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric Co. over the last year, and the charges continue to mount as the nuclear plant sits idle.

March 12, 2013|Michael Hiltzik

Edison's position is that it's just following the law. "We have statutes and a regulatory process we abide by," says its spokeswoman Jennifer Manfre. Retroactively changing the rules just for San Onofre, she says, would saddle the utility industry with an unfair "regulatory uncertainty."

Ratepayer advocates say that's all hooey designed to allow the utilities to hold on to money they've squeezed from ratepayers for services not rendered, and to defer a final accounting. They say the PUC has the legal right to take a useless power plant out of the rate base whenever it wants, and that halting collections for San Onofre is long overdue.

They're especially galled over Edison's contention that any refunds must be delayed until it knows how much the utilities recover for the shutdown from Mitsubishi and their insurance companies, or in lawsuits.

"We're not sure why ratepayers should be responsible for Edison's success or failure to collect from insurers," says Matthew Freedman of The Utility Reform Network, or TURN. If matters end up in court, he adds, "we don't want ratepayers to be on the hook for the Edison lawyers' ability to make good or bad arguments." The right solution, he says, is for the PUC to hold Edison responsible to the ratepayers, period.

Be prepared for Edison to play the poverty card in its efforts to hang on to ratepayers' money as long as it can. In a brief it filed with the PUC last month, it said that cutting off its San Onofre-related customer billings would "hamper" its efforts to ensure that the plant is "available and operational." Keeping San Onofre operational, obviously, is a train that left the station long ago, and long ago ran off the rails.

If Edison had to stop collecting $54 million a month (its share of the total ratepayer billings), would it be unable to keep working to fix San Onofre? Hardly. That would add up to about 5.5% of the nearly $12 billion in revenue its parent, Edison International, collected last year. The change would mean a gain for the average ratepayer, though it might require a reduction in the $1.35 annual dividend per share paid out to stockholders.

But isn't it about time that they feel a little bit of the pain their customers have been suffering?

Michael Hiltzik's column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Reach him at mhiltzik@latimes.com, read past columns at latimes.com/hiltzik, check out facebook.com/hiltzik and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.

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