PG&E accused of leaving customers powerless

December 16, 2009 5:27:59 PM PST
Pacific Gas & Electric customers being left in the dark is a growing problem that forced an emergency meeting Wednesday.

Carlos Martinez lives in a fourplex in Oakland. The power is back on now, but for Martinez and 15 other people who live in the building, it was dark and cold for eight days after PG&E shut off the service. Four families in all live there, including eight children.

"We're adults, but,out in the back,there's two couples with children and that was the biggest problem because they have children," Martinez told ABC7.

In this case, the service was cut because a landlord did not pay the bill, but consumer groups claim that this year PG&E shutoffs are becoming all too common, especially for low-income consumers.

"The number of utility shutoffs, where they cut off your power for being too behind on your bills, has spiked tremendously since last year," says Stephanie Chen with the Greenlining Institute. "We're seeing a 20 percent increase in some areas. We're seeing, in PG&E's service territory, a 75 percent increase in shutoffs for low-income homes over last year."

PG&E claims shutoffs have gone up because of the bad economy, but not nearly as much as the consumer groups claim.

"This is a tough economy and these are difficult financial times, and we want to help customers," says PG&E spokesperson Nicole Liebelt. "We know that across our service area, those customers eligible for disconnect of service has gone up 18 percent."

PG&E denies claims that the new "SmartMeters" make it easier to disconnect service because it can be done by wireless remote, without sending out a technician. The Public Utilities Commission held a special meeting in San Francisco Wednesday to address the issue.

"I'm very concerned about the higher rate of utility disconnections," Timothy Allen said during the meeting.

Several PUC commissioners called for quick action to reduce the number of shutoffs.

"I am hoping to hear proposals for correcting this problem," said PUC Commissioner Dian Grueneich.

Wednesday's hearing was informational. At this point, the PUC is going to give PG&E and the other big utility companies in California time to work with consumer groups to come up with solutions to help people avoid shutoffs. If that does not work, the PUC may take some action in the future.

If you're struggling with your economic situation, call 211. It's a free service offered by United Way of the Bay Area to link you to services.


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