Increase in Utility Shutoffs Feared

By Published On: November 14, 2008

A wave of utility service shutoffs could begin as early as the holiday season, as the economy shrinks customer pocketbooks. Already, Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison are reporting increased shutoffs due to bill non-payments. As of October 31, PG&E shutoffs were up 16 percent for the last 12 months due to lack of payments, according to spokesperson David Eisenhauer. He added there was also a 12 percent increase in late bill payments in that time frame. Customers put on pay plans,which allow them to pay in installments, were up 3 percent, he said. In Edison territory, cutoffs are up slightly more than 10 percent over last year, according to spokesperson Vanessa McGrady. Sempra, with two utilities, SoCal Gas and San Diego Gas & Electric, did not respond to requests for comment. Utilities can begin shutoff procedures when a customer misses a single payment. Utilities then must give customers a 15-day notice and a pending shutoff notice 48 hours ahead of time, according to the California Public Utilities Commission. The Utility Reform Network is investigating what it as a consumer advocate can do about pending shutoffs, according to spokesperson Mindy Spatt. The state’s other large consumer advocate group, Utility Consumers’ Action Network, has not yet focused on the issue, according to its executive director, Michael Shames. Another California-based group, the Carbon Institute, also predicts increased shutoffs. “Shutoff statistics are unbelievable,” noted Spatt. “That is going to increase.” Qualifying consumers have access to several utility-, state-, and federally-sponsored plans to help out with payment problems. If they fall into the low-income category, for instance, there’s CARE, California Alternative Rates for Energy. Energy efficiency programs also are available, including rebates for getting rid of energy wasting appliances. Last week, regulators unanimously approved an increased budget of $3.6 billion for offsetting struggling ratepayers’ utility bills and increasing home energy efficiency. As the new wave of shutoffs could occur in the middle of winter, consumer advocates worry that a public health crisis may be looming. According to sources at the state Capitol, legislators have yet to begin to address the potential issue. Requests for information from the CPUC’s consumer division on potential reaction from regulators were not returned.

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