SDG&E’s Prepaid Plan Preys On Vulnerable

SDG&E Plan would split San Diegans between the haves and the have-nots.

SAN DIEGO—series of public hearings kicked off Tuesday allowing San Diego Gas & Electric customers to weigh in on the utility’s plan to offer customers prepaid electric service.

Many have come out against the plan, saying it preys on the most vulnerable.

“If it sounds too good to be true, it is,” said Mark Toney, executive director of The Utility Reform Network (TURN).

Critics say prepaid electricity targets lower-income customers who might be enticed by the “no credit check, no deposit” features.

“When your money runs out, you have no shut-off protections,” said Toney.

Critics say not having shut-off protections is the biggest problem with the prepaid plan. Instead of the usual 14 days notice, prepaid customers would get four days. Smart meter technology would make it easy to disconnect power immediately if the balance hits minus-20.SDG&E officials said it is a trade-off. The two-month deposit allows traditional customers a longer grace period, but the company said prepaid customers would have no penalty or reconnection fee.

“We would be more than happy to sit down with some of the parties who are concerned about potential impact and talk about what might work,” said SDG&E spokeswoman Stephanie Donovan.

SDG&E officials said customers could choose at what dollar amount they receive an email, text or phone call alert for low balances. However, critics say that’s little comfort when the power can be shut off so quickly.

“When your power goes off, it’s deemed a voluntary termination on your part, you have no protection, it’s ‘you did it yourself, sorry,'” said Bob Prath with AARP.

Prepaid service would not be offered to people who need electricity for medical issues or who are over 62 years old, according to SDG&E.

“They put these things in there that seem to address some of the issues, but there’s no consumer protections and there’s no appeal rights,” Prath said.

Critics did applaud SDG&E’s regular shut-off policy, calling it a model for the state. It is the same reason why critics believe the prepaid plan without those protections should not be allowed.

“We don’t want to split San Diegans into the haves and have-nots when it comes to something as essential as utility service,” said Toney.

SDG&E officials said it is responding to a survey that showed about 16 percent of its customers would like a prepay option.

Right now, there are no prepaid electric service programs in California.

A series of public hearings on the matter will be held this week:

San Diego (June 27, 2:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m.)
Al Bahr Shriners Center
5440 Kearny Mesa Road

Escondido (June 28, 2:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m.)
California Center for the Arts
Conference Center
340 North Escondido Blvd.