Steven Ansley was upstairs when he heard his wife, Susan, scream.
She wasn’t hurt — at least not physically — and she was in no imminent danger.
The source of her shock, it turned out, was the $503 Pacific Gas and Electric Co. bill she had just opened, the highest the Oakland couple had ever been charged.
“We’ve been here over 30 years,” Steven Ansley said. “It was the biggest bill I’ve ever seen.”
The Ansleys weren’t alone. PG&E customers have been decrying their outsize energy bills over the last two months. In some cases, customers opened their December and January bills to see charges double or triple what they were a year earlier.
And as February draws to a close, many are bracing for another big hit.
The recent spikes in PG&E bills are largely due to increases in natural gas prices, according to Donald Cutler, a spokesman for the utility provider. The utility sells gas to its customers at cost and charges additional fees for transporting it. The most recent hike — a 13 percent increase — was implemented in August.
“That was the biggest driver of what was impacting those bills,” Cutler said. Residential gas rates for PG&E customers rose 21 percent between December 2015 and December 2016. “Those are big numbers, and we know that that can be really frustrating for customers, so we want them to know that we’re here to help them.”
Cutler encouraged customers to go online to take advantage of the tools the utility provider offers to help customers better understand and manage their electricity and gas usage. He also dismissed the notion raised by some frustrated customers that the rate hikes were being used to pay for the fines and penalties levied against PG&E in the wake of the deadly San Bruno pipeline explosion.
“Unequivocally, no rates are going to pay for any of the fines or penalties,” Cutler said. “All of that came out of shareholder money, and that’s it. There is no rate increase related to that at all.”
Cutler added that the money raised from the rate increases would be put toward investments in safety and monitoring efforts for PG&E’s sprawling gas transmission and pipeline system.
Following the San Bruno disaster, PG&E was required to pay $2.7 billion to upgrade its gas transmission system in addition to a $1.6 billion fine from the California Public Utilities Commission. Earlier this year, a federal judge slapped the utility with a more modest $3 million fine in a criminal case related to the blast.
Several years of comparably mild winters in the Bay Area and across California, when people tend to use less gas to heat their homes, have masked the effects of the utility’s gas rate increases. Thermostats got cranked up in recent months, Cutler said, to combat the cold, damp weather this winter, raising the bills of PG&E customers along with them.
Around $396 of the Ansleys’ $503 bill came from natural gas usage, Steven Ansley said. The couple have taken to wearing fleece around the house and turning on their gas heat as little as possible. They’re using no heat at all at night.
Mark Toney, the executive director of The Utility Reform Network, a consumer advocacy group and frequent critic of PG&E, said that his organization has been inundated with calls and emails in recent weeks from the utility’s customers stunned by their January bills.
“Most are on very tight budgets, so when they get a surprise like this, it really hits them hard,” Toney said.
Laura Estetter of Oakland said her PG&E bill jumped from $120 to $230 in January, despite what she described as only a moderate increase in gas usage this winter.
Paying her bill will be a financial strain for her, but she said her hardship seems trivial compared with the vulnerable families she works with in her role as a director at the Family Resource Center for the Arcata (Humboldt County) School District.
She said parents are telling her “that they can’t afford to heat their homes or pay their bills,” Estetter said. “Some of them have had to access some utility assistance programs because they haven’t been able to meet the high costs.”
The PUC saw a sharp uptick in the number of PG&E customers who contacted the regulator about high bills or rates last month, 124 in total, compared with 74 in December, according to data sent by the agency. The PUC regulates the state’s private utilities and must approve all of PG&E’s requests to raise rates.
Toney called for consumers to “hold the PUC responsible for setting the rates in the past and setting the rates in the future. What we encourage people to do is get involved when their rate increases are being proposed” by the PUC.
“We can’t control the weather, but what we can control is what the PUC awards in rates,” Toney said.