Coronavirus fallout: PG&E bills might jump for some work-from-home customers

A helicopter hovers above large electrical towers while inspecting the lines in Orinda, Calif., on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019. Business continue to be closed due to the recent PG&E shutdown. PG&E began restoring power to Bay Area residents Thursday, taking the first steps in what could be a days-long process to end an outage that left more than 700,000 homes and businesses in the dark. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)

Coronavirus-linked government orders have produced layoffs, furloughs, business shutdowns, and forced people to work from home — and now the mandates may result in higher PG&E electric bills for some customers.

Notices have gone out to some PG&E customers that warn of possible hefty increases in electric bills, a forbidding prospect that has prompted one group to demand that regulators remedy the potential hit to the pocketbooks of low- and middle-income ratepayers.

“You might incur the state-mandated surcharge for high usage” is a key phrase — and a warning — in an email notice that an unknown number of customers have received lately, according to an email from PG&E that was provided to this news organization.

PG&E electric bills are calculated primarily on whether a customer’s usage puts them into one of three tiers, Tier 1, Tier 2, and High Usage. The more electricity that’s consumed, the  more likely a customer ends up in a higher tier.

Under normal circumstances, the odds would be decent that a customer could easily avoid the dreaded third tier of high usage and the accompanying surcharge. Prior to the business shutdowns ordered by state and local government agencies, people were frequently working and consuming electricity away from the house.

But in the current shelter-in-place and work-from-home economy in the Bay Area, the odds have risen that people might be consuming a lot more electricity than usual at home.

The squeeze on consumer pocketbooks might be intensified if a ratepayer also now is providing a remote high-tech classroom because teachers and students are being kept away from their schools. More computers might be operating in the house during the day, and those all need power.

Plus, amid a brutal heatwave during August, air conditioners in many residences have operated at full blast for several hours every day, potentially raising the odds that a ratepayer could incur the high-usage surcharge.

“If we are going to protect low- and middle-income ratepayers, we need more pricing tiers, not fewer,” said Mark Toney, executive director of The Utility Reform Network, or TURN.

Alarmed by the prospect of higher bills due to increased power consumption at home, the state Public Utilities Commission on May 7 approved a plan to temporarily ease the pain.

The PUC instituted a program to accelerate the distribution of a California Climate Credit on electric bills so that the credit would have more of an effect in the summer months. Of course, that means that the credit program will expire more quickly. The October credit was moved up and split between the bills for May and June.

“The high-usage surcharge was imposed to encourage conservation by those who are high users of electricity,” said Katie Allen, a PG&E spokesperson. “It was introduced in 2017 to encourage energy conservation.”

TURN said that it’s difficult to precisely gauge what might be the impact on a specific customer.

However, a 2018 analysis circulated by Placerville-based Gilmore Heating Air Solar did sketch out a possible scenario for an average customer.

In years past, four tiers existed, which allowed customers to experience a very gradual increase in bills as their usage went higher. But In 2017, the new two-tier system — along with the high-use surcharge — was introduced, and that allowed bills to jump drastically once they moved up from one tier to the next higher tier.

In 2014, the Gilmore Heating analysis determined, a customer who typically used 1,000 kilowatt-hours during a month and then suddenly began using 1,500 kilowatt-hours a month would pay an average of $247 for electricity after landing in Tier 4.

But then after the two-tier plus the high-use surcharge system was introduced, that bill would jump to $338 a month. That would be an increase of $91 a month, or 37 percent, including the high-use surcharge.

The PUC and PG&E have attempted to ease the sting for customers. On June 1, the high-usage surcharge was reduced from 54 cents per kilowatt-hour to 38 cents per kilowatt-hour for the five months from June 1 through Oct. 31.

“We used to have five tiers in the PG&E service territory,” Toney said. “We would like the PUC to revisit this and create more tiers. The PUC should look at adjustments that help ratepayers and help customers who are using more electricity because they are involuntarily at home.”