California regulator suggests charging rural areas more for electricity to pay for fire prevention

California’s top utility regulator suggested charging residents in rural areas more money for electricity since they are at risk for power issues stemming wildfires, reports on Monday said.

Michael Picker, president of the California Public Utilities Commission, made the suggestion during a Jan. 31 meeting on fire safety. He questioned the fairness of all utility customers paying the costs of averting wildfires in rural areas.

“Should we actually start to charge differentially for the use of the distribution system for those sections that are in the high-fire-hazard zone and people who choose to live there?” Picker asked, according to The San Francisco Chronicle.

Picker later told the newspaper that California is facing the threat of wildfires even at times that used to be considered safe.

“If you’re in Richmond, do you want to be paying to protect vacation homes in Napa?”

- California Public Utilities Commission president Michael Picker

“As we spend more to harden the grid and protect people in those high-risk areas, how do we pay for it?” he asked. “If you’re in Richmond, do you want to be paying to protect vacation homes in Napa?”

The paper reported that it is pricey to prevent fires in rural California.  Some of the measures require chopping down millions of trees, replacing wooden poles with steel and burying the lines underground.

“Here we’re facing costs for upgrading the grid that primarily benefits one group of people,” Picker said. “I’m just trying to come up with ways to figure out how we do this fairly, but still manage to serve people who live in these high-risk areas. Because, no doubt, they need electricity.”

Increasing electricity rates for residents living in high-risk areas has never been tried before anywhere in the U.S., the report said.

“It’s a policy decision that’s pretty firmly entrenched that the price should be the same wherever you live,” Mike Florio, who served on the California Public Utilities Commission from 2011 through 2016, told the Chronicle.

Residents in rural areas also do end up paying more extra to utility companies for starting the service, especially if the rural home is further away from existing power lines. But the price of the electricity remains the same for all the people, even as utility companies admit it is more expensive to provide services to someone living in the hinterlands.

Any serious consideration to charge rural residents more than their urban counterparts for electricity is sure to cause a political backlash. Their representatives would surely object to the initiative.

Florio reminded that the unpopular fire-prevention fee levied on rural homeowners in the state was suspended last year after California Gov. Jerry Brown tried to court the votes of lawmakers from rural California in a bid to pass the state’s greenhouse cap-and-trade system.

“The rural legislators made the price of their support getting rid of that fee,” Florio said. “And that was a modest attempt at making the user pay.”