Moratorium to help PG&E struggling customers ends

January 7, 2010 5:29:57 PM PST
A last ditch effort to extend a moratorium on disconnecting power to PG&E customers fell. The non-action will have an immediate impact on low-income customers struggling with the economy.

The voluntary moratorium imposed by all Four major California utilities expired on Jan. 4. And already in the first day alone, PG&E says it has disconnected power to 200 customers.

Representatives from PG&E and California's three other utilities met on Tuesday with state regulators and consumer advocates.

California Public Utilities Commissioner Dian Grueneich challenged all the utilities to follow Southern California Edison's lead and extend the moratorium on power shutoffs.

"I have left the group today with a task. At the end of the day I come back I'd like them to present an agreement to me on how they're going to have concrete steps to reduce disconnections in the state," he said.

A report by the C-PUC's Division of Ratepayer Advocates found disconnections among low-income residents up 19 percent statewide over the year.

The report lists PG&E as having the worst disconnection rate in California -- up 75 percent. PG&E disputes those numbers, but acknowledges things are not good.

"20,000 customers are eligible for disconnections; compared to last year we saw an increase of about 10,000 customers," PG&E Vice President Al Torres said.

Still, there's hope that most of those people can be helped before they are disconnected.

Carol Brown is chief of staff for commission president Michael Peevey.

"A very interesting thing about disconnections is a very high percentage in the 70-plus range are reconnected within 48 hours," she said.

The goal was to reach these people with payment plans or financial assistance before their power was shut off.

"PG&E needs to negotiate affordable payment arrangements for people. Affordable payment arrangements that give people the opportunity to pay their back bill over time," TURN Executive Director Mark Toney said.

PG&E says it reached out to 200,000 customers offering financial assistance. But it spoke out against efforts to get utilities to put struggling rate payers on minimum three-month payment plans.

"My theory is, and my belief is, based on my working with customers the last 15 years that that actually will increase the number of disconnections," Dan Cooley from PG&E said.

Commissioner Gruenich returned to the meeting hoping to hear about an agreement. But there was none, including no extension of the moratorium.

"I am disappointed in that and I think my fellow commissioners will be as well. And we'll have to see where that goes," Grueneich said.

Grueneich says it's possible the commission could propose a new moratorium at its next meeting on Jan. 21, but she refused to commit to the proposal. Meantime, PG&E says customers should call them immediately when they are in danger of not paying their bills because numerous financial assistance programs are available.


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