Utilities Back Off Shutoffs

By Published On: December 18, 2009

Following protests and a recent report about the rise in power shutoffs, Pacific Gas & Electric and the other state investor-owned utilities told regulators they’re suspending disconnections for belated or lack of bill payments during the holiday season. The moratorium is set to disappear January 3. At a December 16 California Public Utilities Commission “en banc” hearing, some investor-owned utilities also noted they have halted the practice of requiring significant deposits for late utility bill payments or for power reconnections. PG&E’s rate of disconnections for customers delinquent on paying their utility bills rose 69 percent from the 2008 level. Southern California Edison’s shutoff rate increased 11 percent, according to a state sponsored commission advocate report released last month. Ratepayer advocates welcomed the CPUC hearing, but pointed out the disconnect between approving rate increases and attempting to decrease power shutoffs. “We need to take the distracting issue of rate increases off the table so we can genuinely and assiduously tackle the problems of keeping the lights on,” said Samuel Kang, Greenlining’s managing attorney. Commissioner John Bohn said the rise in shutoffs should be assessed in the “context of the economic mess we are in, rather than pointing fingers at utilities.” The issue gained traction in recent months because some PG&E customers in the Central Valley that have new “smart” meters have experienced energy bills that are higher than those prior to the utility installing the devices. Senator Dean Florez (D-Shafter) held hearings in the valley. He’s considering legislation to address smart meters and potentially related shutoffs. “We urge the commission to be cautious in how it allows utilities to use smart meters. Let’s use them smartly,” Dana Appling, Division of Ratepayer Advocates director, said. Regulators applauded San Diego Gas & Electric and Southern California Gas for their drop in disconnections. According to Michelle Mueller, SDG&E vice president of customer service, the decrease stems from the two utilities’ push to increase enrollment of customers eligible for low-income payment assistance as well increasing public outreach. The two utilities also have lenient payment arrangements, which include extending the time to pay off bills and acceptance of partial payments, Mueller added. Other utility representatives told regulators they plan escalating outreach and hope to meet to compare payment strategies that aim to reduce shutoffs. Utilities are also sending out bill stuffers to encourage ratepayers to conserve energy and warn them of the impact of new “smart” meters. CPUC member Dian Grueneich agreed to hold a January workshop on utility practices aimed at decreasing power disconnections Ratepayer advocates noted that 70 percent of customers disconnected were reconnected a few days later--requiring a significant cash deposit. Edison noted it discontinued its practice of requiring deposits for late payment last year. It won’t recommence requiring them before the end of 2010, or until the economy improves, said Linda Ziegler, Southern California Edison vice president of customer service. PG&E announced it dropped its requirement for deposits for reconnecting customers temporarily shutoff. The deposits run a few hundred dollars. The Utility Reform Network welcomed the suspension of disconnections and deposits but continued to insist the commission hold a rulemaking on utility policies and practices on arrearages and disconnections. Pulled off the CPUC December 17 consent calendar was a vote on rejecting TURN’s petition. After the hearing, Mark Toney, TURN executive director said the mid-week hearing was a step “in the right direction.”

Share this story

Not a member yet?

Subscribe Now