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PG&E Utility Crews Battle Storm Outages; Power, Gas Rates Zoom Jan. 1

The New Year ushered in double trouble for Pacific Gas and Electric Co. customers with substantial increases in retail natural gas and electric rates taking effect Jan. 1 and a series of Pacific storms that swept through the state over the weekend, knocking out power to more than 300,000 customers at times. The combination utility was still digging out Tuesday from heavy rains and high winds in the northern half of California that caused widespread flooding and mudslides.

"We're still cleaning up; there are still some areas where crews cannot get in to make the necessary repairs," said a PG&E utility spokesperson, who noted that the utility has relied on contract crews and an additional 35 crews from other utilities in California and from out of state.

At times over the weekend, PG&E utility crews were limited in their access to make repairs because of the flooding and road closures in some remote areas. California's wine-growing area in Napa and Sonoma Counties and the Interstate 80 highway link to the Sierra Nevada foothill and mountain areas were hit hardest.

As of early Tuesday morning, the utility counted 360 electric poles that had been toppled and 240 miles of distribution electricity wires that were downed by the one-two punch of the storms hitting over the three-day New Year's holiday weekend. No dollar estimate on the extent of the damage was available as of yet, the PG&E utility spokesperson said.

Utility customer pocketbooks also received a onslaught of another kind as residential electricity rates jumped 11% to 14.3 cents/kWh from 12.9 cents/kWh, and natural gas retail charges increased by 18% as of the start of the New Year. While the electricity charges will be felt only by about one-third of the residential customers who use larger monthly volumes than the baseline amounts, natural gas charges overall this month will be 43% higher than they were a year ago after a series of steady increases in wholesale gas prices during last year.

The Utility Reform Network (TURN), a statewide utility consumer group, is gearing up for a "very hard winter, particularly in Northern California where most people heat with natural gas," according to a TURN spokesperson. PG&E's utility attributed both the power and gas rate hikes to global wholesale price increases and the added factor of the Gulf of Mexico hurricane damage that still has a sizable amount of energy production shut in.

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