The California Public Utilities Commission’s (CPUC) independent consumer unit, the Division of Ratepayer Advocates (DRA), took a few punches Friday at the state’s major private-sector utilities, saying they aren’t doing enough to curb the rising numbers of customer shutoffs for nonpayment. The action followed a six-hour, CPUC-hosted workshop last Tuesday in San Francisco.

DRA called for the “immediate review” by the five-member CPUC of energy utility shutoff policies.

The state regulators called the workshop to address concerns surrounding the spike in customer disconnections, for which the major investor-owned utilities (IOUs) before the holidays declared a moratorium, but only one IOU, Southern California Edison Co., extended the grace period deeper into the new year (through Jan. 21).

DRA contends that the utilities are refusing to provide “real assistance to customers facing disconnection as a result of unpaid utility bills.” To the chagrin of DRA, the utilities reported at the workshop that “more disconnections are on the horizon,” said DRA Director Dana Appling.

At the workshop DRA proposed the electric/natural gas IOUs offer customers a “minimum term of three months” to pay off debts and waive collection of deposits when a customer falls behind on a utility bill or is disconnected for nonpayment.

Following the workshop, Sempra’s two utilities, San Diego Gas and Electric Co. (SDG&E) and Southern California Gas Co. (SoCalGas), on Wednesday offered post-holiday help for customers having trouble paying their bills, outlining a list of potential assistance programs and urging customers to call the utility for help before they get a shutoff notice.

“We are trying to help our customers in need, including those who are unemployed and those having difficulty paying their bills,” said Hal Snyder, Sempra vice president for customers solutions.

In emphasizing its disappointment in the utilities, DRA cited Pacific Gas and Electric Co. as reporting that more customers are now “on the brink of disconnection” than there were in January last year. SDG&E and SoCalGas both reported that their numbers of unpaid bills were increased from what they were last year at this time.

“DRA believes the glimmers of help that utilities have put forward, such as waiving credit deposits for those who sign up for automatic payment of their bills, are beneficial in the short-term but not enough to turn the tide of rising disconnections, which should be the CPUC’s ultimate goal,” Appling said.

In scheduling Tuesday’s meeting in public among the utilities and various stakeholders, the CPUC said it wanted to determine more ways to “improve customer notification and education” so the number of households being shutoff will begin going down.

Triggered by reports from utility consumer organizations and a CPUC en banc hearing in mid-December, the state’s IOUs on Dec. 17 agreed to stop any customer service shutoffs at least through the holidays (see Daily GPI, Dec. 21, 2009).

However, a DRA spokesperson said the consumer unit believes disconnection moratoriums will be “counter-productive” without new policies to promote bill management by the utilities. “At this point, the utilities have shown little desire to remedy this situation on a voluntary basis,” the spokesperson said.

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