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Sunday, Sep 23 2012 11:00 PM

MANUEL FUDERANAN: Is it time for local government to address PG&E concerns?

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    Manuel Fuderanan

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There seems to be some inequity on the tiered system of rates that Pacific Gas and Electric has seemingly adopted in calculating monthly charges to its customers. Already, it has been alleged that the electric and gas rates in the Bay Area and its environs are less than what Kern County residents pay. In effect, we may have been subsidizing Bay Area residents for their energy consumption. Bakersfield is a baker's oven in the summer when triple-digit temperatures elevate most households' electric bills to record levels. When the price of one's energy requirement in a month's time is a quarter or more of his or her monthly income, then something is not quite right.

I have learned that some variables influence the assignment of different rates to different households. I don't begrudge PG&E for being philanthropic to some residents with fixed, marginal incomes. Some of them, certainly, deserve some break in their lives. But other reasons for discounted rates defy logic and challenge one's thought process. For one, being a certified asthmatic could be a blessing in disguise. This I have learned recently. It qualifies one for a slashed rate that cushions the impact of his energy needs. The cold air presumably alleviates one's breathing and should be subsidized -- hence, the discount.

I have a friend who claims to be asthmatic. She has a very comfortable income and from all indications doesn't need the subsidy. Because of her "mah-jongg sessions" (a Chinese card game), her house is lighted like a merchant ship and her air conditioner is always at full blast. Yet her monthly PG&E bill approximates mine because of the "asthmatic discount." Meanwhile, it is only me and my wife and my house is as dark as midnight with only a solitary light for the outside of the house. This is how I try to conserve energy. But my electric bill compared to my friend's is a form of "injustice" that I have to bear every month. Thousands of other uninformed residents are unknowingly subsidizing other people's energy usage.

The introduction of SmartMeters has not helped. They only exacerbated the situation and created numerous problems and inconveniences for the users. I remember visiting the local PG&E office to seek clarification on my "jacked-up" electric bill after the SmartMeter was introduced. What the lady at the counter did was typical of a bureaucracy. She just handed me a form to fill out if I wanted to apply for a discount.

I don't know if location has something to do with my PG&E bill. I used to live in a "below-average" neighborhood until some months ago. Because the neighborhood was not so good, I kept three outside lights on the whole night to ward off the denizens of the dark. I also kept my master bedroom TV on all night just to create a semblance of activity. I turned on the air conditioner when needed. My monthly electric bill then was way below what I am paying now in my new house in an "above-average" neighborhood, where I burn only a solitary electric bulb at night.

In other countries, vital utility companies like power and water are partially or fully controlled or regulated by local governments or some national agency. At best, they are quasi-government corporations. They still operate for a minimal profit, if they are run by a private enterprise, but they are regulated. Their expenses for capital improvements are not automatically passed on to consumers. Rate or fee increases are monitored by a government agency -- and there is a uniform schedule of fees, no "forced charity" on consumers. Nobody subsidizes anybody. It is an irony considering that socialism or redistribution of wealth is expected in such a political and social environment.

Bakersfield's citizens, in contrast, are in the grip of utility companies like PG&E. People in government or the private sector who might have the clout or wherewithal seem timid against these utility companies. It's time local government authorities revisit the idea of assuming partial or full control of utility companies' operations. It could be vital to our community's health and growth.

Manuel D. Fuderanan is an engineer with the city of Bakersfield. Community Voices is an expanded commentary of 650 to 700 words.

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