Several years ago, California utility regulators created a special charge for “super users” who consume a lot more electricity than average.
Last year, it was super hot across much of San Diego County.
Guess what happened. A lot of people got super high bills.
According to SDG&E, nearly 100,000 customers were hit with the “super user” penalty last summer.
The high bills prompted predictable backlash. Just when people needed energy the most, they were penalized for using it.
“I live in Santee and it’s hot!” Sen. Brian Jones said in a recent installment of his “Are You Kidding Me?” video series.
Jones is among the lawmakers concerned that the penalty, meant to promote energy conservation, is instead hurting customers who are just trying to survive hotter summers.
He represents Ramona, which had an all-time record high temperature of 117 degrees last year.
Late last year, SDG&E asked regulators to change or eliminate the super user penalty, which had since been renamed the “high usage charge,” also known as the “HUC,” pronounced like the Huck in “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
In May, the CPUC rejected SDG&E’s request. The regulators concluded that most high bills were the result of using more power, not the penalty itself. It analyzed a typical bill and found scarce savings for typical customers if the penalty were eliminated.
The Utility Reform Network, a ratepayer advocacy group, also broke down SDG&E’s data and argued, yes, the penalty was increasing bills, but so were a bunch of other things. According to the group, the penalty amounted to $22 of the $322 average increase for many households and only $8 of the $191 average increase for low-income customers who received discounted rates.
SDG&E countered that using such averages masked how much the penalty hurt some customers. The company pulled out 13 customer bills that showed just how dramatic the penalty could be. The company compared the customers’ June 2018 bills, before things got too hot, when their July or August bills, when last summer’s heat wave really kicked in. One customer used 500 percent more power but had a 1,100 percent higher bill, which meant a June bill of $68 was followed by a $783 bill a month or two later as the customer tried to cope with the heat.
Now, SDG&E is pursuing some other options to help lower bills, according to a letter the company is disturbing to lawmakers along with information showing how their constituents are affected by the penalty. (Disclosure: The letter was written by Mitch Mitchell, SDG&E’s vice president for government affairs, who sits on Voice of San Diego’s board of directors.)
Some of the problem may go away automatically, as SDG&E moves customers into another billing plan that doesn’t charge people for high use in the same way and instead charges people depending on what time of day they use power. But these so-called “time of use” plans aren’t for everyone – indeed ratepayer advocates have also criticized these plans – and roughly a third of the company’s residential customers are still using billing plans subject to super user penalty.
It’s Super Hot, and Super Energy Users Are Super Angry, by Sara Libby and Ry Rivard, Voice of San Diego, July 26, 2019.