The California Public Utilities Commission voted to launch a pilot project to curb power disconnections at struggling customers’ homes as part of a new rulemaking. It also acted to add yet another layer of safety to reduce utility gas leaks and blasts, and equipment-sparked fires.
The Oct. 7 CPUC meeting was also the first since President Marybel Batjer announced her upcoming departure. But she said nothing about her exit.
Disconnections of gas and electric services at low-income homes due to inability to pay is an acute problem that became even worse during the pandemic, amid widespread job loss. A CPUC moratorium on disconnections that began early in the pandemic ended at the end of September.
Now regulators have unanimously approved a four-year pilot that limits poor customers’ bill payments to 4% of their monthly household income, as urged by low income community advocates. Most of the people unable to pay their utility bills in California are elderly living on fixed incomes in very hot climate zones.
“This is one of the benefits of democracy,” said Commissioner Martha Guzmán Aceves, pointing to the adoption of the community advocates’ proposal. She added that California has failed to lead in the area of limiting utility disconnections. Many other states have ongoing programs to protect disadvantaged customers from having their electricity or gas cut off because of financial constraints.
Those with household income up to 200% of the federal poverty guidelines and who live in a zip code with high disconnect rates are eligible.
The $38 million, four-year project, is to cover 15,000 at-risk customers of investor-owned utility and community energy. An independent auditor will oversee the program and will evaluate it after the first 18 months. The cost will be paid by the ratepayer-funded Public Purpose Program surcharge.
Proceed with caution
The commission opted to proceed with caution before adopting a long-term bill assistance program because of its lack of experience in administering a program of this kind.
The five Commissioners also voted to develop a “utility safety culture framework” under an order instituting a rulemaking. This was required by SB 901, the state law allowing the private utilities to securitize ratepayer bonds to cover their massive wildfire liability. The 2018 law also requires the CPUC to order the utilities to put in place a safety culture that protects against gas and electric accidents.
The CPUC has imposed other safety requirements on Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison, SoCalGas and San Diego Gas & Electric.
In related news, Commissioner Guzmán Aceves announced there would be a CPUC workshop Nov. 3 to discuss five options for phasing out SoCalGas’s massive Aliso Canyon gas storage facility. The months-long blow out in 2015-2016 sickened thousands of people in nearby communities.
Last week, SoCalGas proposed a $1.8 billion settlement with the 36,000 victims. The same day the agreement was announced, residents again gathered to call for the permanent closure of the pressurized storage field.