Local customers of Pacific Gas and Electric Co. are invited to comment in person this week on the company's request for an 18.8 percent rate increase over three years starting Jan. 1.

The California Public Utilities Commission has scheduled two hearings on the matter for Thursday at Bakersfield City Hall, 1501 Truxtun Ave. One is to begin at 2 p.m., the other at 7 p.m.

The San Francisco-based utility has asked the commission for permission to raise its residential electric rate by 6.3 percent next year. That would increase its average residential customer's bill by about $5 to about $95 per month; this would be followed by a 2.4 percent rise in 2015 and another 2.4 percent increase in 2016.

PG&E has also proposed to boost its residential natural gas rate by 14.5 percent starting next year. This increase, which would raise the average customer's monthly bill by about $7 to about $53, would be followed by a 5.5 percent jump in 2015 and 4.4 percent rise in 2016.

Together, these changes would bring in $1.28 billion more than the utility's current annual revenues of $6.83 billion.

Generally speaking, PG&E and other investor-owned utilities in California do not make money by selling power but by earning interest on their investments in infrastructure.

The utility says the rate increases would cover safety and reliability improvements. Specifically, it wants to spend money upgrading its natural gas pipeline leak-detection measures, speeding up its schedule for replacing older gas lines and building a centralized gas-distribution control facility, among other projects.

As is usually the case when such requests come up, consumer advocates contend that the spending level proposed is too high.

The commission's Division of Ratepayer Advocates has recommended against a PG&E rate increase. Its analysis concluded that the utility's rates should be lowered overall by $357 million, or 5.2 percent.

(A summary of the DRA's findings can be found online at http://www.dra.ca.gov/general.aspx?id=2034.)

DRA Program Manager Mark Pocta said Tuesday that, under his division's counter-proposal, PG&E would still get to make many of the infrastructure improvements it proposes. He said the savings would come from non-technical adjustments to PG&E's plans, the biggest of which would be how the company accounts for depreciation costs.

"Our expense levels are lower than theirs, but I don't know we disagree that they shouldn't be making some of these improvements," he said.

The commission is collecting public comments from across PG&E's territory before delivering a final decision by year's end.

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