Energy service shut-offs due to non-payment are on the rise, according to documents filed by California’s two biggest utilities. The rise comes as the number of California energy customers seeking federal utility bill payment assistance is expected to more than double. “California’s social services are stretched to the limit and many consumers have nowhere to turn when they can’t afford to pay their bills,” said The Utility Reform Network spokesperson Mindy Spatt. Utilities did not comment on customer shutoffs. According to data from Southern California Edison, out of 4.18 million residential accounts in the state, 767,449 were in arrears and 22,745 were disconnected for non-payment as of January--the most recent month for which numbers were available. Another 497,594 customers were sent disconnection notices during the same month, according to the data. Residential customers owe the utility a total of about $108.9 million in late payments. Those who are 31 to 60 days late make up the largest percentage and dollar amount, 45 percent and $49.4 million, respectively. At the same time, the number of Edison customers is declining--apparently due to the fallen economy. Edison’s number of residential customers has decreased by tens of thousands since October 2008, the first full month of the economic crisis. Data suggest that more customers in some areas are also making partial payments of bills rather than paying the full amount each month. According to information filed by Pacific Gas & Electric, the state’s largest utility, from October 2008 through January 2009, only about half its customers paid their bills in full within 19 days of when they were mailed. In Edison territory, the reduction in the number of utility customers has slightly reduced the actual number of delinquent bills and disconnections, according to data. However, the percentage of customers who are delinquent or have been cut off has risen. When it comes to bills that were 30 days or more overdue, 80 percent of PG&E customers paid them in full last October and November, but that number shrank to an average of 77 percent in December and January, according to the most recent data available. With the economy tanking, the number of California households projected to participate in the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program is expected to increase to 434,141 this year, up from 165,678 in 2008. If the prediction holds true, the 162 percent increase would be the third largest in the nation percentage-wise after Florida (200 percent) and Texas (201 percent). The average rate of increase for all 50 states is projected at 25 percent, with the national number of participants in the program projected to increase to 7.3 million. The projections, according to Mark Wolfe of the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association, stem from state estimates based on applications received through Jan. 9. Also, cognizant of the way the bad economy has affected ratepayers, the California Public Utilities Commission, along with various utilities, including Southern California Edison and SoCal Gas, held resource fairs throughout the state in April to raise awareness about programs that help income-qualified utility customers save money on their bills. There are an estimated 900,000 ratepayers throughout the state who could be eligible for programs to reduce energy bills by at least 20 percent, according to the CPUC.