Thomas Elias: Power rate shift: Utilities seek to soak small users

A strong spotlight shines these days on the state Public Utilities Commission as it gets set to rule on how much the state’s biggest utilities will have to pay for their sometimes fatal blunders and how much consumers will be soaked for the negligence of utility executives.

As much as $8 billion over the next decade rides on decisions of the five-member commission, about to rule on the 2010 PG&E gas pipeline explosion that killed eight and destroyed dozens of homes in San Bruno and on the Southern California Edison decisions that caused the premature shutdown of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.

These are critical cases, but no matter what the commission rules on them, the average electric bill won’t rise by more than a dollar or two per month.

A much bigger increase rides on another issue now under much quieter consideration by the same commission, which has for decades favored big companies over small utility customers.

The seemingly arcane question to be decided sometime soon is how many rate tiers should appear on the typical California electricity bill. Tiers have a lot to do with how much customers pay for power, as for decades the rule has been that the more you use, the more you pay for each kilowatt hour. A typical Edison bill last winter showed up to 314 kilowatt hours costing just over 12 cents each for a total of $40.06, while the top tier of that same bill had 135 kilowatt hours priced at almost 30 cents each, for a total of just over $50.  So the price was $10 more for one-third the power in the higher-priced tier.

Now the commission is about to consider a plan by PG&E — yes, the same company under federal criminal indictment over San Bruno — to cut the number of rate tiers from four to two, a move sure to raise the rates of low-usage customers and lower what’s paid by factories, office buildings and other large power users.

This would essentially see people who have cut their power use to conserve energy and fight climate change often paying more for using less. If PG&E wins the new formula it seeks, the same plan will soon come to Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric customers, too. Edison already proposes a such pricing.

A further change, added to raises in raw rates, would cut discounts given to the lowest-usage (read: poorest) customers by as much as 20 percent.

It’s all part of an effort begun by Democratic Assemblyman Henry Perea of Fresno to help the big utilities “simplify” their billing.

A measure he pushed last year, known as AB 327 and eventually signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown, also will soon impose a flat fee of about $5 per month on every electric customer, most likely coming atop what they pay now.  This fee will supposedly compensate big power companies for continuing to maintain the state’s electric grid while more and more consumers install rooftop solar panels.

This isn’t big money for most folks, but it is a slight disincentive to install solar, since the savings from it won’t be quite as good as before. Is this really what Brown and other loud advocates of renewable energy want?

It all may be the product of a 2012 legislative conference on Maui, where some lawmakers saw their expenses paid by corporations and/or labor unions. It’s documented that rate restructure was discussed there, and that the Perea bill followed.

If that conference had even the slightest influence on the coming changes, the plane tickets and hotel rooms the businesses and their union workers paid for will turn out to be choice investments.

For these changes would mean billions of dollars in additional revenue each year for the big utilities, lower bills for the state’s biggest energy hogs and higher prices for millions of consumers.

Sadly, all that’s standing between those consumers and the higher expense is the PUC, whose corruption in the San Bruno affair has been thoroughly documented.

Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. His book, “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It,” is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For ‘more Elias columns, go to californiafocus.net   

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