After hundreds of thousands of Northern Californians endured a string of deliberate wildfire-safety blackouts last fall, state regulators created millions of dollars in rebates so the neediest of households could buy high-tech batteries to store up electricity.
The plan had a loophole, however, allowing well-heeled customers to take advantage of the rebates. In some cases, residents have been receiving cash to buy storage batteries for their vacation homes, according to officials with the Public Utilities Commission, which runs the program.
“We should have put tighter controls on this,” PUC Commissioner Liane Randolph said at an Oct. 8 commission meeting.
Now the PUC is scrambling to fix the program.
On Thursday, the PUC will vote on a proposal to overhaul the program by imposing income limits on applicants. The idea is to “direct our scarce resources to the customers with the greatest need,” said PUC Commissioner Clifford Rechtschaffen, who’s spearheading the changes, in an interview this week. “We need to target it.”
The proposed fixes come as the PUC’s “self-generation incentive program” has proven enormously popular in an era in which wildfire-safety blackouts have become increasingly common. California’s major utilities have imposed eight “public safety power shutoffs” so far this year, and PG&E Corp. warned another blackout could hit Wednesday evening for 54,000 homes and businesses.
The incentive plan, approved by the PUC last January, provides $830 million in rebates through the end of 2024 for a variety of programs to help Californians cope with the effects of the shutoffs, the blackouts imposed when fierce winds kick up and wildfire risks intensify.
The cost is paid for by customers of the major utilities. For most PG&E residential customers, the charge adds about 23 cents a month to their bill, according to figures provided by PG&E spokeswoman Ari Venrenen.
A big chunk of the PUC’s incentive program, dubbed the “equity resiliency budget,” allocates $612 million for Californians in high-risk wildfire areas or have lived through at least two wildfire-safety blackouts.
To be eligible, they have to be either low-income residents (with household incomes that don’t exceed 80% of the area’s median) or medically vulnerable — people whose health would be endangered if the power gets shut off.
‘These are very generous subsidies’
One other group of people are eligible: Californians who rely on electricity to power their water wells. As things stand now, these customers don’t have to meet any income standards.
That’s where the problems have crept in. The program has proved wildly popular among electric-well owners, to the point that Rechtschaffen and his fellow commissioners are worried that these customers are crowding out other, needier Californians.
The program has become wildly popular. Just nine months after the program was authorized, customers have already applied for $390 million of the $612 million fund, which is supposed to last through the end of 2024.
Little wonder. For those who qualify, the rebates cover all or nearly all of the cost of a storage battery — a device that can cost many thousands