PG&E Gas-Bill Spikes Are Targeted By Proposed Legislation

A PG&E employee stops by his truck while checking on houses on Discovery Bay Boulevard in Discovery Bay, Calif., on Monday, Dec. 28, 2015. An estimasted 6,000 customers have been without gas service since Sunday morning. PG&E crews are going house-to-house restoring gas services to their customers. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)

Customers of PG&E and other big utilities would gain relief from wild gyrations in natural gas bills during winter under proposed legislation, state Sen. Jerry Hill, the bill’s author, said Monday.

Customers for San Francisco-based PG&E complained during the winter of gas bills that were hundreds of dollars higher — even more, in some cases — than their typical natural gas costs.

Many PG&E customers were forced out of the low-cost Tier 1 rate levels and shoved into more expensive billing tiers during the chilly months of December and January.

“SB 711 makes sure that the average customer has 70 percent of their bill covered by lower priced, Tier 1 rates in all winter months, dropping bills in the coldest, most expensive months,” according to a summary of the legislation.

The bill summary said the percentage of an average gas bill charged at the inexpensive Tier 1 rate was 88.5 percent in November, 57.2 percent in December, 58.6 percent in January, 70.5 percent in February and 92.4 percent in March. That means PG&E customers were most exposed to rates in the higher-cost tiers during the coldest months of greatest usage: December and January.

“In some cases, customers were paying two or three times what they usually paid,” Hill said.

Customers complained of receiving bills that totaled $500 to $600, or even more. Ratepayers were jolted by soaring bills even though their usage was comparable to that of the same period the year before.

“In the short run, Sen. Hill’s legislation will go a long way to even out people’s utility bills, let them know what to expect and not be shocked by their gas costs,” said Mark Toney, executive director of The Utility Reform Network, a consumer group.

Ultimately, the state Public Utilities Commission — PG&E’s principal regulator — must lead in ensuring that gas and electricity bills cover the necessary costs for utilities to operate safe, efficient power systems, without unfairly burdening customers, TURN maintained.

“In the long run, the PUC has to think twice before approving enormous increases in utility bills,” Toney said. “Shifting things around can only go so far if the bills keep skyrocketing.”

PG&E’s aging web of gas pipelines has faced heightened scrutiny in the wake of a fatal explosion in San Bruno that killed eight people in 2010. Last August, a federal grand jury convicted PG&E on six felony charges for illegal actions before and after the lethal blast.

“Perhaps the largest factor contributing to bill shock is that thermostats and other temperature-control devices operate without customer intervention, and so customers often don’t know that they’ll get a high bill until it is too late,” according to a March 1 staff report submitted to Hill. “This is not the case with other energy sources, such as gasoline.”

PG&E says it’s reviewing the legislation.

“We understand that higher-than-expected bills are challenging, and want our customers to know that we are here to help them manage their energy costs,” said John Kaufman, a PG&E spokesman. “PG&E has a wide range of programs and tools that can help our customers make the right choices for themselves and their families.”