If a committee of legislators or U.S. Senators whose most influential members were under criminal investigation ever considered raising taxes on Californians by significant amounts, protests would be non-stop and cacophonous.
But with the seriously sullied state Public Utilities Commission about to raise electric rates for the bulk of this state’s residents, the silence from the public and from consumer advocates is deafening.
Make no mistake, electric and natural gas rates are a lot like taxes, even if they’re not called that. As with taxes, don’t pay and dire consequences will follow.
Maybe the fact that power prices seem more complex than taxes makes electricity customers – all of us – yawn when rate hikes are considered. Maybe it’s because the commissioners regulating large utilities like Southern California Edison, Pacific Gas & Electric and San Diego Gas & Electric never have to go before the voters.
But the reality is that even as at least one current PUC member and the ex-president of the commission are under state and federal investigation, as early as this month the PUC may change the entire way electricity rates are levied.
The seemingly arcane question about to be decided 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.
The idea has been to encourage energy conservation, just as tiered water prices – now under legal challenge – are one tactic to discourage excessive water use in a drought.
A typical Edison bill this spring showed up to 618 kilowatt hours costing 14 cents each, for a total of $86.52, while the top tier of the same bill was priced at 31 cents per kilowatt hour, more than twice as much.
Now the commission is about to consider a plan by PG&E – yes, the same company indicted for the 2010 gas pipeline explosion that killed eight persons and destroyed dozens of homes in 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 persons and companies that have cut power use to conserve energy and fight climate change pay more for using less. Meanwhile, energy hogs will pay less for using more, and climate change be damned. If PG&E wins the new formula it seeks, the same kind of plan will soon come to Edison and SDG&E electric customers. Edison already proposes a similar pricing change.
This is part of an effort started by Democratic Assemblyman Henry Perea of Fresno to help the big utilities “simplify” their billing. It’s as if Perea and friends believe most Californians are not mentally competent to read an electricity bill.
Another Perea measure, passed last year and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, will soon impose a flat fee (note it is not called a tax, although it acts just like one) of $5 per month or $60 per year on every electric customer. This new charge will supposedly compensate big power companies for continuing to maintain the state’s electric grid while more and more consumers install rooftop solar panels and at least partially go off the grid.
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 for big users. Is this really what Brown and other advocates of renewable energy want?
It all may be the result of direct lobbying during a 2012 legislative conference on the Hawaiian island of Maui, where some lawmakers saw expenses paid by corporations and/or labor unions. Rate restructure was discussed there.
If that conference had even the slightest influence on the coming changes, the plane tickets and hotel rooms paid for by businesses and their union workers will turn into choice investments.
For these changes would mean billions of new dollars for the big utilities, lower bills for big energy hogs and higher prices for most consumers.
Sadly, all that stands between consumers and that more expensive new reality is the thoroughly compromised PUC.