Power-hungry Californians hit by electric shock

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The Times (London)

CALIFORNIANS, who have enjoyed almost unlimited cheap electricity for decades to power their air-conditioning, catering-size fridges and outdoor pools, are to be charged up to a third more for usage in an effort to solve the state’s dire power scarcity.

Utility companies were given the right yesterday to increase the average monthly bill of West Coast families. The sharp rate increases have been designed to halt over-consumption that has brought the state to a standstill since the beginning of the year. The bills will land on their doorsteps in June, but could be backdated to March.

Some California residents have even begun looking to the Amish, the simple-living religious sect, for tips on how to reduce their electricity usage. The Orange County Register recently distilled some Amish wisdom for its readers, suggesting that they buy wind-up alarm clocks.

Elsewhere advice columns have begun suggesting the unthinkable -that it is possible to enjoy breakfast without the aid of a juicer, toaster, electric kettle, ice-maker and dishwasher.

Residential ratepayers in the top tier of one utility company, Pacific Gas & Electric, will see their rates rise from 14.3c to 25.8c per kilowatt-hour, translating as an average monthly increase in bills of $ 85 (Pounds 60) -from $ 232 to $ 317.

In better economic times, the financial burden might have fallen on businesses, but amid fears of a recession the main burden has been dumped on domestic users.

On Tuesday, the state’s chief utility shifted some of the $ 5.7billion rate increase from agricultural and industrial customers to residents.

The California Public Utilities Commission was divided, voting three to two to approve the plan. “Every consumer in California is justified in feeling outrage at the rates we approve today and the bills they will have to pay tomorrow,” the commission said. “We share the sense of outrage.”

News of the increases came soon after it was disclosed that the state will face 260 hours of rolling blackouts over the summer, not 200 as was previously predicted.

Residents will suffer most in hot weather, when they will be hit by the twin blows of blackouts and high bills. As summer temperatures soar and they turn on air-conditioners, the drain on the state’s electricity supplies will lead to blackouts. The increase in usage will also send bills soaring.

Under the new rate plan, which affects nine million people, domestic users will be assigned a baseline for electricity usage, deemed to be the amount necessary to meet the needs of a typical household. As usage rises above that line, so the rate will rise.

The baseline in Palm Springs, where air-conditioners are a necessity, will be considerably higher than in Santa Monica, where residents will be expected to grasp the concept of through-drafts and to open doors and windows.

Customers of Southern California Edison who use more than 130 per cent of their baseline will see the rate rise by 47 per cent.
Customers of Pacific Gas & Electric Co will experience a 55 per cent increase for the same overuse.

Residents who live with the danger of earthquakes and mudslides are livid because the energy shortage is a man-made disaster. In 1996 a deregulation law allowed wholesalers to increase the price of electricity, but capped the amount that the electricity companies could charge consumers. Pacific Gas & Electric Co has already filed for bankruptcy.

Some consumer groups claim that businesses that lobbied for the deregulation have now also lobbied their way out of bearing the full burden of the rate increases.

The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights estimates that the average monthly household electricity bill will increase by $ 36 in Edison territory and $ 39 in PG&E territory. “Once again, residential and small-business ratepayers, the innocent victims of deregulation, are being forced to pay the price for the deregulation debacle, while the special interests that foisted deregulation upon us get off easy,” Doug Heller, consumer advocate for the Santa Monica-based group, said.

Consumer Watchdog
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