California utility customers $1.25 billion behind on bills
- Feb 24, 2021 2:50 pm GMT
As the financial effects of the pandemic persist, more Californians are falling behind on paying their utility bills.
Looking across the customer base of the state's major investor-owned utilities, the California Public Utilities Commission says 3.3 million residential customers have past-due bills and taken together, the amount eclipses the $1 billion mark.
Here are the figures in dollar amounts from data as of January for residential customers, compiled by the commission:
Pacific Gas & Electric: $605.6 millionSouthern California Edison: $338.1 millionSouthern California Gas: $161.7 millionSan Diego Gas & Electric: $145.3 millionTotal: $1.25 billion "Those numbers are extraordinarily frightening," said Commissioner Clifford Rechtschaffen after the CPUC's energy division delivered a PowerPoint presentation Feb. 11. "The extent of the debt owed and the amount of the debt, they're really, really jarring."
One of the more alarming findings relates to the number of customers more than four months behind on their payments. For three of the four utilities, that number is higher than it is for customers only one to two months in arrears.
For example, the number of customers 120 days or more behind in SDG&E's service territory came to 147,285 while the number of customers 31-60 days in arrears totaled 76,881 — indicating that many are falling further behind as the financial impact of COVID-19 lingers.
The CPUC data show more than 300,000 California households owe more than $1,000 in past-due bills and of that number, 95,244 owe more than $2,000.
"I agree with Commissioner Rechtschaffen, those numbers are pretty horrendous," said CPUC president Marybel Batjer.
Last March, after statewide lockdown orders by Gov. Gavin Newsom went into effect, SDG&E said it would not disconnect service to customers who did not pay their bills and waived late fees. Shortly afterward, the CPUC announced the utilities they oversee would not cut off power for non-payment for one year.
Following the PowerPoint presentation, the CPUC voted 4-0 to pass a resolution extending the moratorium on disconnections through June 30.
"SDG&E recognizes the ongoing impacts of the pandemic on our customers' ability to cover their household expenses and we applaud the CPUC's decision to extend customer protections," SDG&E spokeswoman Helen Gao said in an email.
Here's the breakdown of the number of residential customers behind on their monthly payments, as of January:
PG&E: 1.139 millionEdison: 670,734SDG&E: 301,354SoCalGas: 1.231 millionTotal: 3.343 million When applying SDG&E's 301,354 figure to the utility's overall residential customer total of about 1.326 million, that means 22.6 percent of SDG&E residential customers are currently in arrears.
Last November, the Union-Tribune reported that SDG&E roughly estimated in the first six months of the pandemic, the number of its residential customers technically classified as 121 days or more past due on their payments had increased 22.5 percent.
The numbers — not just for SDG&E but for customers of all the big California utilities — have grown with each passing month.
"While there is a prohibition on disconnection for non-payment at the moment, the unpaid bills still create challenges for utility customers, especially since there's still an expectation that these bills (will) be paid in full at some point," CPUC deputy executive director Edward Randolph told the commissioners Feb. 11.
"Additionally, the uncollected bills by the utilities are generally passed on to other ratepayers. So (if there is no plan) in place to enable struggling households to manage their bills and keep them affordable, other ratepayers will ultimately bear some of that burden."
To help customers who have fallen behind on their bills, the commission last June directed each power company to offer Arrearage Management Plans for customers who qualify. The plan allows for one-twelfth of a customer's balance to be forgiven for every on-time payment they make on their monthly bills.
The commission and the utilities have also stepped up efforts to get eligible customers to sign up for the California Alternate Rates for Energy, or CARE, and the Family Electric Rates Assistance, or FERA programs.
CARE is available to customers whose total household income is at or below specific income limits, such as $52,4000 for a family of four. It can reduce electric bills 30 to 35 percent. FERA is open to customers whose household incomes slightly exceed those eligible for CARE.
Since the pandemic, statewide enrollment in CARE has increased 13.6 percent and FERA enrollment has shot up 45 percent.
While one might think the number of customers behind on their bills would more likely to be enrolled in CARE or FERA, the CPUC's updated data show the numbers to be fairly similar between those in the discounted rate programs and those who are not.
"We definitely need to be working with (non-CARE and FERA customers) to make sure from the very beginning of their struggles that they are eligible for rate-savings programs," Randolph said.
The CPUC this month set the bureaucratic wheels in motion to explore what else can be done, including looking at what states are doing for customers under financial stress. The largest utility in Illinois, for example, offered one-time $500 payments on a first-come-first-serve basis last summer and quickly exhausted the program's $18 million budget.
Input on various ideas will begin March 3, with a proposed decision scheduled to be drafted in May and a vote by the commission slated for June.
SDG&E's website features a page detailing the various assistance programs available to its customers: https://www.sdge.com/residential/pay-bill/get-payment-bill-assistance
This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.
(c)2021 The San Diego Union-Tribune
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