PG&E Customers Seeing Red Over High Bills

Julie Reynolds looks through some of the utility usage statements she has requested from PG&E to figure out her utility expenses at her apartment in Oakland, Calif. on Wednesday, March 8, 2017. (Kristopher Skinner/Bay Area News Group)

Right before Thanksgiving, Andrea Sinclair got laid off from her job as an office assistant. In January and February, the San Jose resident said she got PG&E bills of $687.04 and $681.67, respectively, more than double what she’d ever paid.

“It just doesn’t make sense, Sinclair said. “We’re barely making it and now I don’t know how we’re going to survive.”

Sinclair is one of many PG&E customers throughout the Bay Area and the state outraged over unusually high winter bills. The utility raised consumer electric prices twice earlier this year on the heels of a 12 percent hike for gas that went into effect in August.

That’s on top of high housing costs, rising food prices and gasoline once again creeping upward.

Julie Reynolds’ January PG&E bill was $584 for her 1,000-square-foot Oakland apartment — about one-third what she pays for rent. February it was $489. Her highest bill had been $300.

“It’s really killing my budget,” said Reynolds, who works as a representative renewing online memberships. “I used to be able to save a couple of hundred dollars a month, but now I’m not saving anything for a rainy day. I have to get my car smog checked and I’m afraid of some bad situation where I’ll have to get something fixed.”

A 21 percent increase in gas charges from December 2015 to December 2016 was a major cause for higher bills, according to Brandi Merlo, a PG&E spokeswoman. She said that, combined with damp and colder days this winter, fueled high heating bills.

“We know that higher than expected bills are frustrating and no one likes surprises when it comes to their bills,” Merlo said.

She advised customers to go online to their PG&E account to monitor energy usage, and review whether they are using the best rate plan for their household. While there they can learn about energy saving tips and find out whether they qualify for a low income discount program.

 Sinclair got a low-income discount in January and February that reduced her bill $77 each month. She still owes nearly $1,400. She signed up for a $120 per month payment plan for 12 months to avoid getting her utilities shut off. Sinclair and her partner live with their combined four children and her daughter’s boyfriend. Her son wasn’t living with them last year, but she said one more person doesn’t explain the hefty increase.

She said PG&E blamed the huge bill on the family’s use of space heaters.

“So now we’re wearing sweats, sweatshirts and socks and my daughter is wearing gloves to bed,” Sinclair said. “We’re also taking the laundry to the laundromat to cut costs.”

Union City resident Linda Landavazo got a $616 PG&E bill in January, more than double last year’s.

“I was just trying not to let my heart pound too much,” says Landavazo, who works as a sorter for Amazon and a part time driver for her aunt. “I don’t have the money for it to be honest.”

TURN, a statewide utility consumer advocacy organization, says it has received a flood of complaints and is trying to organize PG&E customers to attend the March 23 meeting of the Public Utilities Commission.

“It’s really important for customers to speak out,” said TURN spokesperson Mindy Spatt. “We can’t fight the rates if the commission doesn’t know people are suffering.”

Sandra McKee got right on the phone to PG&E when she got a $700 shocker in January. A rep told her the utility had underestimated her usage for October, November and December. McKee said she couldn’t verify the readings because PG&E had switched out her meter. Furious, she went on Nextdoor, the social media sharing app for neighborhoods.

“I told people to be ready for a shock when they got their gas bills,” McKee said. “Other people started responding but no one had anything as drastic as mine.”

Because of so many customer complaints, State Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, directed his staff to research utility rates, usage, weather data and other information, using PG&E bills that customers provided.

“What we saw was that the charges were correct, but we did notice that the system itself was failing us,” Hill said.

PG&E uses a tier system to determine how much a customer pays. Each account gets a certain energy allocation under Tier one, the cheapest rate. Use more, you land in the pricier Tier two, which costs some 40 percent more. So Hill has recommended, among other things, that PG&E and the PUC raise the cap for the lowest-priced tier in December and January to help reduce cost spikes. He also said the utility should have a better system of notifying customers when their usage is high before the bill comes out.

“This will not solve the problem but it will make a modest improvement,” Hill said.

The PUC said in a statement that its staff was reviewing the factors contributing to the recent increases in gas bills. “…Some of their recommendations mirror Sen. Hill’s report on how to reduce the likelihood of large spikes in the future and how to better educate utility customers on how to manage their bills,” the PUC said in a prepared release.

Yet some customers said they’re already as frugal as they can be with their energy usage and their bills are still going up.

Debra Gooch’s bill went from $60 to $103 for her 600-square-foot Oakland apartment.

She has a chronic medical condition, and as a housekeeper was already having a hard time financially. To cut down on her energy usage, she’s been going to bed early, bundled up in a down jacket, ski pants, army socks and a hat with ear flaps. She said she even bought a kitty heating pad for her 19-year-old arthritic cat, Chita.

“In the morning, I wait to get up about 45 minutes before I have to go to work to escape having to turn on the frigging heat,” she said.

Corinne Allen had a 20 percent increase to $138 last month, with a low-income discount.

“The thing that drives me crazy is it’s not like we can go shopping around for another company,” said the Oakland petsitter.

Margaretta Mitchell was stunned by her $700 bill, compared to $500 at the most last year. Like many frustrated customers, Mitchell, a self-employed photographer in Berkeley, suspects PG&E is hiking rates to pay the fines it incurred after the deadly 2010 San Bruno explosion. PG&E has denied that, saying the fines came out of shareholder money.

“We didn’t have any warning at all, it just happened,” Mitchell said. “It’s not fair.”