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Wednesday, Jul 24, 2024

ELECTRIC RATES—Energy Solutions Proposed at State, Federal Levels

Solutions are like opinions. Everybody’s got one. As families and small businesses are socked with high electricity rates, politicians and industry leaders are rushing to the rescue with a slew of potential solutions to the problem of high electricity rates.This comes as the cost of energy increased fivefold over the last four months, from 3.25 cents per kilowatt hour in April to 17.63 cents this week. What’s more, there is no guarantee prices will ever return to the level of 3.25 cents per kilowatt hour , even after the summer heat wave ends, said Jennifer Andrews, spokeswoman for San Diego Gas & Electric Co. In San Diego, prices for electricity are being determined by market forces, something over which the local utility says it has no control. SDG & E; will not speculate on where prices will settle once the summer crisis is over, she said. State Sen. Dede Alpert, D-Coronado, is proposing bailout legislation in the form of a bill mandating an immediate rollback to the rates in place in July 1999, said Nora Lynn, spokeswoman for Alpert. The difference would come out of a “balancing account,” similar to one which is now in place. That balancing account is providing SDG & E; customers with a $390 million rebate, and another rebate on a separate issue, Lynn said. As of press time, the bill is not yet in its final form, and Lynn had no further details. She said the legislation has conditional support from Senate Democrats, most of the San Diego delegation and a few Republicans as well.

Governor’s Plan

Gov. Gray Davis, meanwhile, has called on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to look into San Diego’s high prices. The commission responded July 16 by ordering a probe into the causes of San Diego’s problems, with a report due Nov. 1, said Barbara A. Connors, the commission’s spokeswoman. Davis also called on the California Public Utilities Commission last week to establish a two-year plan that would cut electricity rates by nearly half for residential and business customers.

Residential utility rates would fall from their levels of about $120 a month to roughly $60, while business customers will see similar savings. If wholesale electricity rates fall, customers would see even greater savings, said Steven Maviglio, press secretary for the governor. SDG & E; would be able to recover the costs it pays to a wholesale power generator under the governor’s plan, Maviglio said. In addition, the governor reached an agreement with the California Grocers Association in which 2,000 of the organization’s member stores have announced steps to reduce their power use.

The voluntary reduction of 10 percent of the supermarkets’ power load will free up enough electricity to power between 50,000 and 60,000 homes during hours of peak demand, Maviglio said. Stores throughout California will reduce their power use whenever a Stage One emergency is in effect. San Diego area stores will begin 10 percent reductions immediately, Maviglio said. Member stores, including Albertsons, Food 4 Less, Raley’s, Stater Brothers, and Von’s have volunteered to participate. As many as 6,000 stores may eventually come on line, said Dave Heylen, director of communications for the California Grocers Association. Stores will reduce lighting and air conditioning, as well as other actions. None of the measures will have a negative effect on food safety or quality, Heylen said. Congressional Proposals

At the federal level, Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-San Diego, is proposing federal legislation that would provide San Diego access to cheap electricity from federal power generation facilities , access it does not yet have.

HR-5005, the Fairness in Electricity Supply Act of 2000, would amend the Flood Control Act of 1994 and allow private and investor-owned utilities, including SDG & E;, to purchase power from government-subsidized hydroelectric facilities at the same low rates public agencies get. Currently, government-owned public power agencies and municipalities get what Bilbray calls “preferential treatment” in purchasing electricity. Some Anaheim residents pay half as much as San Diego does for the same electricity, he noted.HR-5005 is supported by San Diego representatives Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon; Ron Packard, R-Oceanside; and Randy Cunningham, R-Escondido. It also is supported by the county Board of Supervisors. Rep. Bob Filner, D-San Diego, meanwhile, has announced his support for local control of electricity as a long-term solution to the current energy crisis. He’s called upon the city and the county to begin discussions on municipal ownership of the utility.

Market Manipulation

“These guys are playing games with us,” he said of for-profit utilities. “This is not an issue of supply and demand; this is manipulation of the market. And we need control of our own. So whether we come together as a community to buy electricity or we own our own power, we ought to be discussing that right now,” he said.

Filner said his position was not in conflict with Bilbray’s bill, even though Bilbray is seeking to remove one of the advantages public entities have over private utilities. “Hydroelectric power is not really an issue; I think all power has to be fed into the same grid and charged at the same price. I don’t think public power can charge us less than private,” he said.

Filner also supports short-term measures, such as calling on President Bill Clinton and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to provide San Diegans immediate relief from skyrocketing rates, he said. Meanwhile, consumer advocacy groups are in open revolt. Dianne Jacob, chairwoman of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, has joined the Utility Consumers’ Action Network in urging customers to withhold full payment of their SDG & E; bills. Michael Shames, executive director of UCAN, added SDG & E; is barred from shutting off customers for non-payment through the month of October. By that time, consumers may see some real relief.

The Utility Reform Network, meanwhile, is pushing for a repeal of the 1996 law that created deregulation in the first place.

Calling deregulation “a failed experiment,” TURN is urging the Legislature and the governor to reinstate price controls, returning control over electricity to the public. SDG & E;, meanwhile, has a number of programs to assist low-income and fixed-income residents, such as the Summer Utility Relief Fund and California Alternate Rates for Energy, Andrew said. The summer relief fund is a one-time, $100 credit for summer relief, administered in conjunction with the United Way and Catholic Charities, while California Alternate Rates for Energy is an ongoing internal program. To sign up for either program, call (800) 411-SDGE.

SDG & E; has also urged customers to sign up for its Level Pay Plan, which would flatline the cost of electricity at a lower rate through 2001, Andrews said. SDG & E; has also requested $16 million from the California Public Utilities Commission to fund energy efficiency programs that will reduce electricity use, she said.


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