Community Voices

Wednesday, Mar 12 2014 11:02 PM

LIZ KEOGH: Customers deserve equitable energy rates

Kudos to reporter John Cox for his article about the proposed restructuring of PG&E's electricity rates ("Changes to rate system could zap local energy customers," Feb. 23).

Back in the summer of 2009, local PG&E customers made national news with outcries about electric bills that suddenly exceeded, in some cases, their home mortgage payments. Many (including me) blamed the installation of SmartMeters for the unexpected sticker shock. As it turned out, the meters themselves were less to blame than were two other factors: a rate increase, effective March 1, 2009 -- for all but frugal electricity users -- combined with unusually high summer and early fall temperatures. The increase was all but ignored by most of us -- whose air-conditioners or swamp coolers were going full-blast in March compared to July and August?

Amid the din of complaints, PG&E's position that their hands were tied by state law and that they had to adjust rates in the higher-consumption tiers fell, understandably, on deaf ears. An overflow crowd packed the Kern County Board of Supervisors chambers for a hearing conducted by then-state Sen. Dean Florez in October 2009. Folks were mad as hell and weren't going to take it anymore.

Compounding the problem five years ago was the fact that when customers called PG&E to complain about their bills, some were either ignored entirely (the customer service rep unceremoniously hung up on them) or they were given idiotic advice like "move to the coast if you don't like it."

Then, to show who was "boss," PG&E put a measure on the June 2010 ballot that would have prohibited communities from forming local municipal utility districts that generally provide electricity at cheaper rates than does PG&E. By a slim margin, the measure lost statewide, even in conservative Kern County.

Part of the reason the ballot measure lost here was that KernTax, a usual ally for business interests in our community, backed the opposition to the ballot measure and got hundreds of people to authorize KernTax to intervene for us before the California Public Utilities Commission. What was clear to the broadest spectrum of local political ideologies was that PG&E aimed to the make the Central Valley, one of the poorest areas in the country, subsidize the relatively measly energy needs of the rich and famous living in more temperate climates. Kern County said: Not happenin'.

PG&E -- and perhaps more importantly, the Legislature -- got the message. As Cox notes in his article, AB 327, signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown last October, authorizes PG&E and other investor-owned utilities to change their rate structures over the coming years to provide more equitable pricing for electricity users at both the high and low ends of the consumption scale.

To its credit, PG&E jumped at this opportunity and submitted a proposal in December 2013 to the CPUC that will gradually increase rates for low-consumption users -- like me -- and gradually lower rates for everyone else. While the proposal needs some tweeking, its intent makes sense to me. If it does (or not) to you, you can let the CPUC know your thoughts: You can send comments to public.advisor@cpuc.ca.gov (in the subject line, reference Proceeding # R. 12-06-013, Phase 2). You can also send comments via snail mail to the Public Advisor's Office, located at 505 Van Ness Ave., Room 2103, San Francisco, 94102. All you have to say is that you do or do not support PG&E's filing for Summer 2014 Residential Electric Rate Reform.

The CPUC's calendar on this matter shows that this month, it will issue a "proposed decision" on PG&E's filing. Given the amount of noise that we made five years ago in criticizing PG&E, residents need to make the same, if not more, noise to show support for a reasonable proposal by PG&E to provide a rate structure that we all can live with. Please make your voice heard.

Liz Keogh of Bakersfield is a retired Kern County Child Protective Services social worker and welfare fraud investigator. She is active in local animal welfare issues and partisan (Democratic) politics.

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