State power regulators vague on details of record rate hike
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – Three days before Californians learn how much their electric bills will jump, power regulators remain vague about the details of how they plan to implement the largest rate hike in state history.
Two proposals are on the table. Each would make businesses and farms pay the most, while shielding most residential customers. But even the authors of the rate hike can’t agree on exactly how much more each class of customer will pay.
The Public Utilities Commission is scheduled to vote on a final rate plan Monday. The PUC took comments from all affected groups through Thursday night, and was to hear oral arguments on the rate proposals Friday.
Higher electric bills will begin appearing June 1 as the PUC struggles to collect enough money to keep the lights on, return the state’s largest utilities to solvency and reimburse state coffers for the $5.2 billion-and-counting it has spent buying power directly from energy companies.
The PUC, which voted unanimously March 27 to raise the rates, has spent almost six weeks deciding exactly what each class of customer should pay, and where the money should go.
Sharon Hertlein, a walnut farmer from Oakdale, testified at a PUC hearing in Sacramento on Thursday that she cannot conserve enough energy to lower her electric bill and that she cannot pass on costs because walnut prices are regulated.
”I’m concerned that you will be voting on something Monday that we know nothing about,” she said. ”Gentlemen, I cannot do it and I am not alone. I foresee the demise of the Golden State.”
Farmers, residents and business owners already are reeling from the prospect of increases that, under one of the proposals, could boost bills by as much as 61 percent for the heaviest electricity users in Southern California Edison’s territory.
State law requires that residential customers be shielded from rate hikes up to a set amount of electricity used. But industrial, commercial and agricultural customers say it’s unfair that they could be charged more on every single kilowatt.
”The disproportional rate increases proposed by the (Public Utilities Commission) will devastate the state and potentially the nation’s economy,” said Carl Guardino, president and CEO of the Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group.
But consumer watchdogs maintain that residents should not have to share the pain in the state plan.
”It’s like paying ransom to a kidnapper,” said Mindy Spatt, spokeswoman for The Utility Reform Network. ”We’re not paying an increase that reflects a change in the cost of service. We’re paying an increase that reflects the change in profits on the part of the generators.”
Even the PUC itself has seemed harried and confused as it tries to patch together rates high enough to force consumers across California to conserve more energy. PUC officials said they’ve only had six weeks to do a job that typically takes more than a year.
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