The Bill for Energy Shifts from the Office to Home

4 Aug 2020

The increased hours people are spending at home have driven up residential power demand in California, and with it, utility bills. Late summer with its higher temperatures only makes the situation worse. The highest increase in home energy use reported among the major private and public utilities was 15%, in the southern part of the state.

Meanwhile, electric and gas system demand has fallen because of the drop in commercial and industrial load.

Pacific Gas & Electric saw its overall electric demand drop 3% and gas use 4% from mid-May to July compared to a year earlier.

The actual increases in residential consumption may be higher than reported because it is not known just how much new solar energy and energy efficiency projects are pushing down demand from the grid.

“Given the confounding factors involved, it’s hard to isolate how much of the increase in energy use is strictly attributable to Covid,” Helen Gao, San Diego Gas & Electric spokesperson, said.

Mark Toney, Utility Reform Network executive director, worries that the “involuntary” increase in residential demand will lead to higher investor-owned utility rates next year. Ratepayers could face heavy burdens with the combination of higher pandemic power bills plus any rate increases state energy regulators authorize next year.

“We are concerned that residential customers will be punished for lower industrial and commercial demand,” Toney said.

The large private utilities and munis are shying away from projecting residential demand while the pandemic is in full force, at least publicly.

“There is a high level of uncertainty around what the future will look like, and it will depend heavily on the pandemic and economic recovery,” Chris Capra, Sacramento Municipal Utility District spokesperson, said.

Home Power Use Increases up to 15%

From April through June, SDG&E’s residential electric load rose 15% compared to the previous year. It and the other utilities factor weather conditions into their load analyses.

Residential electricity demand in Southern California Edison territory between mid-March-and July 11 rose 11%. That dropped to 9% when including up to July 22, compared to the previous year.

From May 15 through mid-July, PG&E saw residential use rise 7% over last year. Residential core gas was up 6% compared to the same period last year.

SMUD, which is not regulated by the CPUC, saw a 6% increase in residential usage in April and May. The next two months saw the increase fall to 3%. “We believe June’s and July’s increase is smaller because many students would have been home anyway over the summer,” Capra said.

The Los Angeles Department of Water& Power did not provide residential demand information by press time.

Residents Still Protected Against Disconnection for Non-payment

The California Public Utilities Commission in mid-June prohibited utilities from disconnecting residents and small businesses over non-payment of bills until April 16, 2021. The ban also eliminates deposits and reconnection fees and directs utilities to increase the medical baseline. Customers also are to have a portion of their debt forgiven for every one-time payment made. It also prohibits disconnections of elderly and medically vulnerable customers and prevents disconnections during very hot or cold days. The commission made the suspensions retroactive to mid-March of this year in response to surging unemployment and economic dislocation suffered by so many in the state.

None of the private or public utilities disconnected residential or small business over unpaid utility bills since the issuance of stay-at-home orders, they told Current. Toney confirmed TURN has not received calls on disconnections during the pandemic to date.

California utilities initiated temporary disconnection suspensions in mid-March, even before the CPUC order. They also said they would waive deposits and reconnection fees and offer less rigid payment plans.

SCE said the process for disconnecting medium and large businesses for unpaid bills recently resumed, while for residential and small business customers it is paused until mid-April. To date none of the big businesses have had their power cut, Ron Gales, utility spokesperson, said.

SMUD suspensions for nonpayment of residential utility bills runs to Jan. 4, 2021.

Disconnections in other parts of the country are a different story, however. An Aug. 2 report by Truthout estimated 800,000 struggling ratepayers nationwide have had their power cut off, whether or not state moratoria are in place.

Following a May survey, the authors found “13% of respondents had been unable to pay an energy bill during the prior month, 9% had received an electricity utility shutoff notice and 4% had had their electric utility service disconnected.” The report did not include a state by state breakdown.

Elizabeth McCarthy

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