California energy consumers are facing proposed rate hikes totaling more than $5 billion this year, and the state utility consumer unit is using its $28 million operations to play its part as the state-sanctioned consumer watchdog. In its 2010 annual accounting to the state legislature, the Division of Ratepayer Advocates (DRA) claimed to save energy ratepayers more than $5 billion, or $190 for every dollar allocated for its operations.

A legally independent part of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), with a separate governor-appointed director, the DRA said its work contributed to a three-year $2 billion reduction in Pacific Gas and Electric Co.'s (PG&E) general rate increase request for this year, and the division's 142 technical, policy and financial analysts indicated in the report it will take direct aim at three utility general rate cases this year from Southern California Edison Co. (SCE) and Sempra Energy's Southern California Gas Co. and San Diego Gas and Electric Co.

SCE has requested a $4.12 billion general rate hike, according to DRA, with the Sempra utilities asking for a combined increase of $911 million. Each is outlined as a three-year rate hike.

In the state's current recession-ravaged budget situation, with mounting deficits far above $20 billion, DRA emphasized in its report to lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown that its $28.5 million operation represents "one-tenth-of-one-percent" of the state private-sector utilities' combined $50 billion in annual revenues.

Acting DRA Director Joe Como called the consumer unit "a very cost-effective organization," noting that the consumer savings the governmental unit has achieved have manifested themselves in many different ways. The DRA contributes to the CPUC's evidentiary process in cases, it lobbies CPUC decision-makers, keeps lawmakers informed and helps educate consumers.

"[In 2010] DRA was successful in convincing the commission to postpone implementation of its dynamic pricing program, peak-day pricing for small consumers," the unit's annual report said. "DRA was concerned that the implementation of the programs during the hottest months of the year, with little advance education, would cause small business utility bills to skyrocket instead."

Last year the DRA also criticized the five-member CPUC of approving in December PG&E's $1.5 billion Oakley Power Plant, calling it an indication of "over procurement" by both the utilities and the CPUC regulators.

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