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New PG&E rate plan takes effect in April

Set thermostat to 68 degrees or lower.

Set water heater thermostat at 120 degrees or lower.

Unplug small appliances and electronics when not in use.

Open blinds and windows to warm and light your home during daylight hours.

Reverse your ceiling fan in winter to create a gentle updraft, forcing warm air near the ceiling down.

Take shorter showers.

Only run full loads and use cold water for laundry.

Use a small lamp to spotlight your workspace instead of overhead bulbs.

Turn down brightness and set automatic eco- and energy-saving features in TVs and consoles.

Stream media on smaller screens, like tablets, when possible.

Use computer sleep and hibernate modes.

Plug all personal electronics into a power strip, and turn it off when not in use.

Following a rate increase in early January, Pacific Gas and Electric now plans to transition 2.5 million residential customers to a new “time-of-use” rate plan in April. The new plan is expected to affect most households in Sonoma County, and it aims to decrease usage during the most expensive hours, from 4 to 9 p.m. on weekdays.

According to the utility, the shift is part of a multi-year, statewide energy policy to create a cleaner energy future for California. The move was approved by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) in 2015.

Targeting PG&E customers living in the northern and central parts of the state, the time-of-use plan does not profit the company, officials said. Customers who object can choose alternate plans, including the former “tiered” rate plan, at any time. PG&E acknowledges that some customers may prefer to opt out.

“We understand every household is unique, and so is the way they use energy. PG&E is committed to helping customers choose the electric rate plan that best meets their needs,” senior vice president Laurie Giammona said in a press release announcing the plan.

Customers can try the time-of-use plan risk-free for the first 12 months, PG&E spokesperson Deanna Contreras added. If bills are higher than they were on the previous plan, PG&E will automatically credit the difference. “This is not a rate increase,” Contreras said.

“We want our customers to be on the plan that works best for them and recognize that time-of-use may not be right for every customer,” she said. To access a personalized rate comparison, customers should go to pge.com/TOUchoice, or call 866-743-7945.

Gas and electric rates are set by state and federal regulators and must cover the costs of mandated programs designed to encourage energy efficiency and renewable energy, as well as programs to assist low-income customers. PG&E customers enrolled in the medical baseline program and low-income customers living in hot climate zones will not be automatically transitioned to the time-of-use plan.

Despite PG&E’s assurances that its new billing structure will not increase customer costs, suspicions about utility bills run deep. In recent online community discussions many Sonoma Valley residents have lamented rising utility bills. “My bill jumped all the way up to $249 last month. It averages $91 to $110 usually,” said Margaret, 75, who asked that the Index-Tribune withhold her last name for privacy reasons.

Margaret tracks her energy consumption every single day at PGE.com, and she’s made a serious effort to limit her use. “I unplug everything, only wash in cold water, and stopped using my dishwasher completely. I got a big lantern, like we had during the outages, and I use that when I go into the garage or the bathroom.”

But Margaret’s hearing loss requires use of a caption machine for the telephone, and disabling it at the end of each day is a hardship. “It’s a lot of trouble if you pull that plug out of the wall every day. The machine has to reset,” she said.

Like many people, Margaret spends her evenings at home, watching TV and completing household tasks. She fears the time-of-use billing plan will raise costs. “I tried washing clothes at 10 o’clock, but who wants to be folding clothes at 2 in the morning? I’m a single woman living in a 1,000-square-foot condo who doesn’t cook. But what about a family in a house with two or three kids?” Margaret said.

Amy Olmsted and her family know a bit about that. Their finances have been strained by recent PG&E bills. In January, Olmsted was stunned to receive a $2,300 utility bill for her three-bedroom home. In February, it came in at $1,450. "I called PG&E because something had to be wrong,“ Olmsted said. ”They came out and checked everything and said, ’nope, it wasn’t them.’“

Olmsted has since taken her family’s utility use to Dickensian extremes, keeping heaters turned off and going outside to warm up. “Our next bill is projected to be closer to $400,” Olmsted said. “But it’s kind of a crazy, extreme way to live.”

In acknowledgment of economic fallout caused by the pandemic, PG&E is extending existing COVID-19 customer protections through June 2021. Originally set to expire April 16, the protections prohibit disconnection of services for nonpayment, and allow flexible payment plans to address temporary financial strain. “We are here to help so please reach out if you need support,” Giammona said.

Last year, the utility began proactively calling customers to ensure they were aware of its programs for financial assistance. To date, PG&E says its Customer Advocacy Success Team has connected with 42,000 households, enrolling 51 percent of them in programs that saved more than $5 million by changing their rate. In all, PG&E says it has reached out to more than 200,000 customers to help them manage their bills. Find savings tips at pge.com/winter.

Contact Kate Williams at kate.williams@sonomanews.com

Set thermostat to 68 degrees or lower.

Set water heater thermostat at 120 degrees or lower.

Unplug small appliances and electronics when not in use.

Open blinds and windows to warm and light your home during daylight hours.

Reverse your ceiling fan in winter to create a gentle updraft, forcing warm air near the ceiling down.

Take shorter showers.

Only run full loads and use cold water for laundry.

Use a small lamp to spotlight your workspace instead of overhead bulbs.

Turn down brightness and set automatic eco- and energy-saving features in TVs and consoles.

Stream media on smaller screens, like tablets, when possible.

Use computer sleep and hibernate modes.

Plug all personal electronics into a power strip, and turn it off when not in use.

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