SAMEEA KAMAL • MARCH 1, 2023
Many Californians are still grappling with the hit to their wallets from the costs of, well, everything. That includes shockingly high natural gas bills, which have spiked to double the usual or more due to a cascade of issues: increased demand brought on by cold weather, tightened supply, pipeline and storage problems.
Gov. Gavin Newsom has called on federal regulators to investigate, while Senate Republicans have been hammering Newsom and Democrats on the issue. The California Public Utilities Commission voted to expedite climate credit payments to consumers. Still, lawmakers say they’ve been inundated with calls for help from their constituents — residents and businesses alike. And some gas companies, including Southern California Gas, are seeking to increase their rates next year.
It gets worse for consumers: The cost of natural gas is likely to lead to increased electricity bills this summer because some utilities use natural gas in their power plants.
So Tuesday, during the second part of their annual hearing with the California Public Utilities Commission, members of the Senate’s Committee on Energy, Utilities and Communications committee focused on the increased cost of electricity and how the state can avoid future price spikes.
- Sen. Steven Bradford, a Democrat from San Pedro and committee chairperson: “We can no longer count on mild weather and energy efficiency alone to limit the impact of utility bills … While I’m encouraged the PUC has advanced the climate credit and the governor has called on the federal government to investigate, I don’t yet have the confidence that our residents won’t be in this situation again.”
Keeping electricity affordable is crucial as the state tries to transition off fossil fuels to cleaner energy.
Among the key factors identified by state regulators and utility company representatives: the cost of transmission and distribution, such as upgrading aging infrastructure, and higher demand driven by economic activity. Another factor: measures to prevent wildfires, some mandated by state laws, with costs passed on to consumers.
Consumer advocates pushed back, though, noting that PG&E, for example, may have overestimated some of those mitigation costs in its rate increase request because they are based on “historical costs incurred from the worst fire safety failures in PG&E’s history.”
- Linda Serizawa, deputy director for energy with the utilities commission’s public advocate office: “The forecasted costs are far higher than they should be going forward, given that PG&E presumably has learned from its past and ongoing wildfire mitigation efforts.”
Severin Borenstein, faculty director of the Energy Institute at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, told CalMatters that the state should end “inverse condemnation,” which forces public utilities to pay for wildfires even when they’re not at fault, and promote more competitive bidding on infrastructure projects.
- Borenstein added: “If we’re going to recognize a climate emergency in California, let’s pay for it through the state budget, not through raising rates. That both hurts poor people and undermines the goal of decarbonization.”
Lawmakers and advocates also called for a look into solar tax incentives and whether they only subsidize electricity for the wealthy.
Utilities commission officials said one method they are pursuing to lower costs for some families is an income-based fixed rate program. They also agreed to look into making sure assistance programs reach senior citizens and non-English speakers.
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