As another example of the negative economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of San Diego Gas & Electric customers who were more than four months behind on their utility bills has increased sharply since February.
According to the latest figures from SDG&E, 158,803 residential customers were technically classified as 121 days or more overdue with their payments as of September. In February – the last month before the state put in place widespread pandemic restrictions and protocols – the number was 129,588. That is an increase of 22.5 percent.
The word “technical” is used as a caveat, since according to SDG & E around a third of this number includes customers with solar energy systems or Net Energy Metering (NEM).
NEM customers generate their own energy and receive a financial credit on their electricity bill for excess energy that they feed back to SDG&E. Those who opt for an annual “true-up” are counted among those whose bills are overdue, even though the vast majority are not in arrears with their payments.
However, since the percentage of NEM customers is believed to have remained relatively constant throughout the pandemic, the jump between February and September is remarkable.
“The data are not surprising,” said Scott Crider, Chief Customer Officer at SDG&E. “The downsizing in San Diego has been quite extensive. Whether rent or ancillary costs, many of our customers understandably have trouble paying their bills. ”
Jason Zeller, Senior Attorney at Utility Consumers’ Action Network, a San Diego-based consumer advocacy group, said the only other recent event that hit utility consumers so hard was the Great Recession in 2009.
“But the difference to this situation is how quickly and dramatically it developed,” said Zeller. “The other thing is that the bills are higher now because the prices have gone up (since 2009). Another thing that probably contributes to this is that we had really hot weather this summer and people’s air conditioner usage had skyrocketed. As a result, some people, especially those who live inland, are likely to have really big bills to contend with. ”
However, the statistics have improved over the past few months.
The number of customers who are more than four months behind with their invoices is falling. After peaking at 174,197 in July, numbers declined in August and September.
“I think you saw the peak this late spring and it was slowly improving,” said Crider. “Now that we are starting to look at the COVID resurgence across the country, we are genuinely aware that we still have a long way to go.”
One possible explanation for fewer installment payers falling behind in August and September could be in part due to a $ 32.3 “climate loan” that all SDG&E customers received in each of those months.
Distributed that every year California climate loan The program is open to utility customers across the state and is funded by monies raised through the cap-and-trade program, which requires power plants, natural gas suppliers, and other large greenhouse gas-emitting industries to purchase carbon credits.
Somewhat surprisingly, the number of SDG&E customers who are one month, two months and three months behind was lower in September than before the pandemic restrictions were introduced.
In February, 82,560 customers were 31 to 60 days behind with their bills. In September, however, the number fell to 60,505, a decrease of 26.7 percent.
Customers who are 61 to 90 days and 91 to 120 days behind with their invoices were also moved down during this period, by 12.3 percent and 12.8 percent, respectively.
A total of 273,689 SDG&E private customers – including NEM customers – are at least 30 days overdue with the payment of their bills. That is around 19.5 percent of SDG & E’s 1.4 million private customers.
The increase in SDG&E customers by more than four months by 22.5 percent is striking, but is well below that of California’s largest utility Pacific Gas & Electric. When compared from February to September, PG&E told the Union-Tribune that it had seen a 51.7 percent increase (201,267 residential customers in February; 305,238 in September).
The percentage was much higher for the second largest investor-owned utility, Southern California Edison. It recorded a 112.2 percent increase in the number of private customers in September, with more than four months behind on their bills compared to February (179,883 to 84,756).
Regardless of the duration, the electricity has not been switched off for customers with arrears.
Shortly after Governor Gavin Newsom introduced the first home stay orders in March, SDG&E announced It suspended all service interruptions due to non-payment, waived late payment fees for business customers, and offered flexible payments to customers who were struggling to pay their monthly bills.
A month later, the California Public Utilities Commission decided a moratorium on disconnections ordered for residential customers and small businesses across the country. The order is valid until April 16 of next year.
So did the Commission in June created an “Arrearage Management Payment” program which comes into force after April 16. It enables eligible customers that overdue bills of $ 500 or more to reduce their debts through on-time payments for 12 months after that date.
SDG & E has also suspended late notifications.
“We understand customers are having problems right now,” said Crider. “We always encourage our customers to call us if they are behind with their invoices and we will work with them.”
Zeller said SDG&E and the Utilities Commission had “done a good job” so far.
“As far as I know, the moratorium on disconnections is unprecedented,” said Zeller. “It was done nationwide, but SDG&E rolled out the measure pretty quickly. They also did a pretty good job of letting people know about the different types of support programs that are available to customers. “
Enrolling in programs that offer discounts on utility bills is up.
SDG & E reports the number of its customers who sign up for the California Alternative Rates for Energy or CARE program and the Family Electric Rate Assistance Program or FERAThe programs have grown 11 percent since the beginning of this year.
CARE is available to customers whose total household income is at or below certain income limits, e.g. B. $ 52,400 for a family of four, and can cut utility bills by up to 30 percent. FERA is available to customers whose household income ratios slightly exceed those eligible for CARE.
The federal government also has an aid program called Energy aid program for low-income households, LIHEAP, which offers services such as free energy efficiency upgrades and helps households pay electricity bills in times of crisis. According to SDG&E, LIHEAP saw a 40 percent increase in payments from January to September this year compared to 2019.
By and large, the pandemic has become one Decline in electricity consumption among commercial customers, mainly due to the economic slowdown and millions of employees working from home. Vice versa, Housing consumption is increasingwhich leads to higher bills for some households.
Zeller thinks if the pandemic continues well into next year, the California Public Utilities Commission might consider extending the moratorium on disconnections. He also suggested that the Commission consider its latest decision to Conversion of customers – including those with SDG & E – to “time-of-use” tariffs.
Under usage time, customers pay less during hours when there are many energy sources feeding California’s power grid. However, when there is high network demand, customers pay a higher tariff, for example from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Friday.
“When it’s 95 degrees outside, you want the air conditioning on, even if you have to pay a lot of money,” said Zeller. “I think we need to study how this rate affects people.”