Reversing their traditional adversarial roles, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and The Utility Reform Network (TURN) utility watchdog group announced Thursday they are cooperating on a winter bill mitigation program in the face of skyrocketing wholesale natural gas prices in the aftermath of the recent violent hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico. The utility announced two major new initiatives it has developed in conjunction with TURN.

A two-part Winter Gas Savings Program includes a conservation incentive program, offering 20% monthly bill discounts for reducing gas usage by at least 10%. The second part is a customer cost-deferral program in which the postponement to spring and summer of up to 9% of a monthly bill can be obtained by customers this winter.

A PG&E spokesperson said the deferral of a portion of winter bills and the incentive for reducing usage should “provide significant reductions in winter bills for PG&E’s natural gas customers.”

PG&E CEO Peter Darbee said the current high wholesale gas prices force utilities to be “creative and resourceful” in helping their retail customers. “We are answering that call with the Winter Gas Savings Programs, and by becoming the first utility in the country to launch this kind of program, we’re letting customers know they can count on PG&E for help.”

PG&E’s utility said that with TURN’s help it will submit a new request to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), asking for permission to offer the two-part program to customers this winter. With the crunch of winter bills fast approaching, the utility said it hopes the CPUC will be able to act on the request at its Nov. 18 meeting, allowing the program to kick off next month.

The incentive discount would be possible on bills covering Jan. 1 through March 31, the utility said. The program could results in a customer realizing $40 in conservation savings and $70 in bill rebates during the three-month period.

The winter bill deferral would apply to bills in December through February for both residential and small commercial customers, and it could collectively delay the utility’s recovery of up to $250 million in gas revenues during the three months of the program. “The proposed winter cost deferral program is expected to reduce the average residential customer’s bill by about $50 during the winter months,” a PG&E utility spokesperson said.

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