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CPUC Launches Probe of PG&E Utility Billing Practices

Responding to a request from The Utility Reform Network (TURN), a utility consumer advocate, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) earlier this month kicked off an investigation of Pacific Gas and Electric Co.'s billing and collection practices that could ultimately result in refunds or fines for the utility. The five-member CPUC ordered the probe at its last business meeting.

Billing and collections for both residential and large customers are going to be part of investigation, although TURN's emphasis is on residential customers.

CPUC President Michael Peevey issued a scoping memo to set the parameters for the investigation, which the state regulatory commission initially began examining last February in response to allegations by TURN that the PG&E utility abused the use of estimated bills and delayed bills since changing its practices in 2002. Generally, the CPUC will be trying to determine if the utility is staying in compliance with state regulations on utility billing.

The regulatory probe aims to find out how many PG&E customers who had their service terminated because of nonpayment had received estimated or delayed bills since 2002; what the utility's practice on requiring deposits is; how many customers since 2002 have been required to provide new or additional deposits; and finally, whether fines and refunds are in order.

"This investigation is not intended to set new billing/collection policies, but to determine if PG&E's [utility] actions were consistent with existing policies," said Peevey in the scoping memo.

Under the current schedule, evidence and testimony along with rebuttal testimony will be gathered over the rest of this year, a prehearing conference will be held early in January next year, and evidentiary hearings will be held in the winter leading to a final decision a year from now. In the meantime, PG&E has indicated it will try to settle the case through the CPUC's "alternative dispute resolution."

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