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Northern California customers fume as PG&E bills soar

PG&E power lines and transformers at the company’s Metcalf power facility in Santa Clara County
PG&E power lines and transformers at the company’s Metcalf power facility in Santa Clara County AP

Customers of Pacific Gas and Electric Company are fuming after a double-digit rate hike produced dramatically higher winter heating bills.

The 13 percent increase in natural gas rates took effect in August, but consumers didn’t feel the pinch until December, when residents turned up their thermostats in the face of a particularly cold and wet season. Electricity rates were raised three times in the past year. Combined, electricity and gas rates for PG&E customers are an average of 21 percent higher than they were a year ago, said utility spokesman Donald Cutler.

“My bill has never, ever been this high,” said Citrus Heights resident Linda Klein-Andrade, 61, of her natural gas charges from PG&E.

Klein-Andrade received a bill of $466 for December, compared with under $200 for previous winter months. Klein-Andrade, who is on disability, said the hike caught her off guard. By comparison, she paid PG&E $72 in November.

Cutler said the rate hikes were properly vetted and approved by the California Public Utilities Commission, which oversees investor-owned utilities. The extra money will be used to fund gas-safety initiatives and low-income programs.

“We understand that higher-than-expected bills is frustrating,” Cutler said. “We live here. It’s our community, too.”

With this rate hike, as of Jan 1, the average monthly residential natural gas bill was $54.33 for the average 34 therms of use. The number may seem artificially low for winter, since it is averaged with summertime, when consumers tend to use less gas.

Cutler emphasized that PG&E’s rates are still lower than the nationwide average for residential usage of $59.17, according to the 2014 average from the U.S. Department of Energy. Still, the rate increase from the California utility is the second consecutive hike in about a year.

Sacramento also was colder in December 2016 compared with the same period in 2015. On average, temperatures were 1.3 degrees colder, according to the National Weather Service. December 2015 saw eight days with temperatures that were under 35 degrees, compared with 12 in December 2016.

“We had some really cold stretches,” said Craig Shoemaker, a forecaster with the weather service.

Cutler offered this advice for consumers looking to shave money off their bill: Turn down the thermostat. He advised that the thermostat be set at 68 degrees or lower when the house is occupied. Each degree above 68 uses 3 to 5 percent more energy, Cutler said.

Most people in Sacramento and its inner suburbs get natural gas from PG&E and electricity from the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, while customers in Placer, El Dorado and Yolo counties get both electricity and gas from PG&E.

The Bee’s Dale Kasler contributed to this report.

Richard Chang: 916-321-1018, @RichardYChang

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