State agency files revised money needs, but no details

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The Associated Press

An administrative law judge with the Public Utilities Commission has given utilities and consumer groups until Tuesday to comment on the state’s latest estimate of how much money it needs to keep buying power.

The Department of Water Resources, the state agency responsible for buying power for customers of three utilities, revised its revenue requirements a third time, saying it would need about $13.77 billion from ratepayers through the end of 2002.

That’s slightly higher than the $13.72 billion estimate DWR filed earlier with the PUC, but state officials say it’s not enough to merit a rate increase for customers.

State officials say the amount falls within the existing rates, but utilities, consumer groups and the PUC say they need more information from DWR to confirm that.

Administrative Law Judge Thomas R. Pulsifer on Thursday gave critics until Tuesday to DWR’s estimates, including “the basis and validity of DWR’s methodology and assumptions underlying its revised allocations,” according to his ruling.

The state has been buying power for Pacific Gas and Electric Co., Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric Co. since January, when the three utilities were billions of dollars in debt due to high wholesale costs and could no longer afford to buy power.

The utilities, which lose more ratepayer money the higher the department’s funding estimate climbs, say the agency’s tightlipped track record has them worried about a proposed agreement that exempts its spending from review by the PUC.

“Given the incomplete data and ever-changing numbers, we’re still trying to determine if the DWR revenue requirements can fit under the existing rate structure,” said Ron Low, spokesman for PG&E. “That has been hampered by the failure of DWR to provide useful information.”

The DWR maintains that it doesn’t have to provide further information under the bill that put the department in the power-buying business in January.

Now, the PUC is considering a plan that would allow DWR to pass on its costs to customers without PUC review, no matter how high wholesale prices rise, something utilities weren’t allowed to do.

PG&E, Edison and two consumer groups have asked the PUC not to approve the draft rate agreement at their Aug. 23 meeting.

“It seems entirely evident that we should not give them this type of control,” said Doug Heller, consumer advocate for the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. “The PUC, which is so frustrated by the lack of detail, is considering a deal that would allow them ongoing secrecy.”

State Sen. John Burton, D-San Francisco, wrote a bill that would let the PUC set aside a portion of consumer rates to repay bondholders who are fronting $12.6 billion for power purchases.

But other expenses, including costs for long-term power contracts or administration costs, would still be under legislative and regulatory oversight.

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