San Diego, CA-based Sempra Energy’s two utilities are the first in California to react to the increasingly sour economy in its headquarters state and nationwide, urging its retail utility customers Wednesday to seek various assistance programs offered by the utilities — Southern California Gas Co. (SoCalGas) and San Diego Gas and Electric Co. (SDG&E).

The utilities suggested that needy customers enroll on-line at one of the utility websites (either under “Bill Assistance Programs” or under “Bill Assistance Programs”).

Programs at SoCalGas include 20% rate discounts on monthly bills for eligible households. Customers may automatically be eligible for the discounts, SoCalGas said, because they currently receive benefits for various social services (Women, Infants and Children; Healthy Families; Medi-Cal; food stamps; temporary assistance for needy families; or the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

Similarly, SDG&E has programs for customers that qualify for the California Alternate Rate for Energy (CARE) program, including a 20% discount on monthly electric and natural gas bills. In addition to CARE, SDG&E said it offers other assistance: free energy-saving home improvement programs; medical baselines for qualifying customers with chronic medical conditions; and a “neighbor-to-neighbor” fund, offering qualified customers up to $200 off their bills.

“We strongly encourage customers to call us, especially if they’re having trouble paying their bill by the payment deadline,” said Michelle Mueller, Sempra utilities’ vice president of customer operations.

The utilities offered examples of people who have been helped by the SoCalGas or SDG&E assistance programs, such as a customer who qualified for the CARE program who enjoys a 20% discount on her SoCalGas monthly bill. Saying she was “excited” to find the CARE program, Reola Robinson, a SoCalGas customer, said the assistance now allows her to operate within her monthly budget.

“I recently went through some tough times financially and thanks to SDG&E and the CARE program, they were able to give me some relief on my monthly bills,” said Lisette Pasillas, an SDG&E customer. “I hope other families can benefit form this program that has helped me get by.”

SDG&E and SoCalGas also stressed that they can offer customers hundreds of dollars in rebates for the purchase of energy-efficient appliances and can provide customers with free energy- and water-saving kits.

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