Politics

PG&E rate increase would hurt valley’s most vulnerable

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The Bakersfield Californian

The California Public Utilities Commission is poised to approve a rate proposal from Pacific Gas and Electric that would jack up rates for moderate energy users and the Central Valley’s poorest and most vulnerable in order to give a handful of mainly wealthy customers a discount. Amazingly, this is being pitched with a straight face as something that will give valley residents a break.

The CPUC has issued draft decisions that propose to grant three out of four of PG&E’s main residential rate proposals, each of which would raise electricity rates for low-income customers and customers with low or moderate levels of energy use. These rate changes could get final approval as soon as May 26.

One proposal would immediately add a $2.40 monthly customer charge to every low-income customer’s bill and a $3 customer charge for all other customers. Perhaps most shocking is PG&E’s proposal to create a brand-new higher-rate category, dubbed “Tier 3,” for low-income customers who qualify for reduced rates under the CARE, or California Alternative Rates for Energy, program. Astonishingly, these new higher rates would target customers with moderate energy use, kicking in when they use roughly 30 percent less power than the average customer.

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This proposed change would add an additional $18 monthly to the summer bills of customers in the valley who use a moderate amount of energy. That may not seem like much, but the CARE customers — whose annual income must be no more than $44,400 for a family of four — are already struggling. Since September 2010, more than 10 percent of PG&E’s CARE accounts, more than 100,000 customers, were more than 90 days behind on their bills.

While an increase of $20.40 per month seems manageable to many of us, these families already struggle each month to choose between keeping the lights on or buying groceries, paying for medicines or having enough money to get to work. The new rates would make already difficult choices nearly impossible, inevitably leaving thousands of valley families without power during the hot summer months that are nearly upon us. Customers in cooler coastal areas wouldn’t be hit as hard, but low-income customers in these areas would still see their monthly bills increase by at least $8. In contrast, all of PG&E’s rate proposals would lower rates for customers who have the most extreme level of power usage. The Utility Reform Network has already given the CPUC empirical evidence showing that the high levels of energy use that would get a break under the new rates are related to maintaining large homes and the heavy use of energy-guzzling appliances, swimming pools and other luxuries.

These high-end users have already received big rate cuts. Last summer, as a result of another CPUC proceeding, these customers received a rate reduction of almost 10 cents per kilowatt-hour for their high-level usage (above 300 percent of the baseline usage level that covers essential energy needs).

Contrary to the spin, the proposed new PG&E rates won’t provide relief for most electricity users in the valley, most of whom would actually face higher bills. They would literally rob Peter to pay Paul — when Peter is saving energy and struggling to make ends meet, Paul sits back enjoying his swimming pool and 65-inch flat-screen TV — and raise rates for the majority.

The CPUC should reject this proposal, which would discourage energy conservation and punish our most vulnerable neighbors.