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Sonoma City Council addresses PG&E ‘bill shock’


The Sonoma City Council is hoping to jolt PG&E into a fairer winter-rate structure.

At least as much of a jolt as a letter to Sacramento can deliver.

The City Council on Monday unanimously approved a proposal to send a letter on behalf of the City of Sonoma to state Sen. Jerry Hill in support of a bill he’s authored which would attempt to smooth wild fluctuations in energy bills and require public utilities to provide more transparency in how they calculate their bills.

Extreme utility bill spikes first came to the Council’s attention at its April 3 meeting, when Councilmember Amy Harrington called for action in the wake of many Sonoma residents complaining of “bill shock” when their winter gas utility fees skyrocketed by as much as 40 percent over the prior month.

Pacific Gas and Electric charges for gas using a structure of two tiers. Tier 1, a lower rate called the “baseline allocation,” is charged for the first 70 percent of the average customer use during the winter. Gas charged above that 70 percent is at the Tier 2 rate, which is 40 percent higher.

But with this past winter’s particularly cold December and January, many utility customers found themselves heating their way to the baseline far earlier in the month and paying nearly half their gas bills at the 40-percent-higher Tier 2 rate. Also raising eyebrows among utility watchdogs is the fact that PG&E factors the mild months of November and March into its “winter” baseline of average use. Including those low-energy months in the mix brings down the overall average monthly use among customers – lowering the baseline and ushering shivering residents into the pricey Tier 2 level much faster.

State Sen. Hill’s SB 711 would require that 70 percent of the bill for the average customer would be covered by the lower-priced Tier 1 rate and compel utilities to include the expected cost of the next month’s bill so customers can adjust their usage or budget in advance. Additionally, it would require the California Public Utilities Commission to approve the methods that utilities use to estimate bills and post those methods on their websites.

In its report to the Council on rising utility bills, city staff also made note of a series of PG&E rate hikes in 2014 and 2016, the latter of which resulted in a 14 percent increase on the average gas bill. In 2015, the CPUC approved PG&E’s request for a $2.37 billion rate hike levied on customers over three years.

Critics of such steep PG&E rate hikes say the utility regularly posts profits nearing $1 billion a year and contend that it’s trying to pass off the price tag for the pipeline repairs it failed to conduct which led to a 2016 criminal conviction in a federal court for safety violations and obstruction of justice related to the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion that killed eight people and destroyed dozens of homes.

According to bizjournals.com, PG&E officials said a number of CPUC-approved rate hikes between December 2015 and December 2016 have resulted in residential rates increasing by 21 percent.

PG&E spokesperson Brian Bottari was in attendance at the May 15 Council meeting and expressed his sympathy for beleaguered rate payers.

“We fully understand how frustrating it can be when bills are higher than normal, or expected,” said Bottari, of Santa Rosa. “Winter gas bills, December and January, were quite high for some folks.”

In its letter to state Sen. Hill, the City Council describes itself as “pleased” to support bringing “more transparency and fairness to energy bills” via SB 711.

“The recent rate increases have been difficult for many households to adjust to, but for our most vulnerable residents they have created undue hardship,” says the letter. It concludes by saying the bill “takes affirmative steps to ensure that rates are fair and give customers necessary tools to lower energy use where possible.”

In addition to sending the letter, the Council also agreed to send Councilmember Harrington to Sacramento to speak before the state legislature on behalf of SB 711.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.