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Electric Car Owners Miffed As SDG&E Revokes Low Rates

Photo caption:

Photo by We Like Cars, Flickr

The plug-in electric vehicle Nissan Leaf parked in a lot on September 20, 2012.

SDG&E promised a group of electric-car owners a reduced rate through the end of 2014 to be part of a study, then doubled their rates without warning.

San Diego Gas & Electric promised a group of electric-car owners a reduced rate through the end of 2014 to charge their cars, then doubled those rates last month without warning.

As part of an SDG&E study, 430 drivers were given special rates for charging their plug-in electric vehicles, or PEVs. The study ended in 2013. But Poway resident David Kern, who was part of the study, received a letter in October 2013 from SDG&E telling him the rates would be extended through Dec. 31, 2014.

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SDG&E Letter Promising PEV Rate

SDG&E Letter Promising PEV Rate

A letter from SDG&E promising some electric vehicle drivers a certain price rate through December 31, 2014.

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So he was surprised when he opened his latest bill and saw it had doubled. While he had previously paid about $45 a month for charging his electric car — a price calculated from three different rates depending on when he charged his car — he was now billed $91. He quickly saw that the reason was each of his three rates had almost doubled.

Kern said he called SDG&E and was told his lower rate schedule had ended. He said he reached an employee who worked on the study who told him it was a case of one department not knowing what another department had promised.

He knew the lower rates would eventually end, Kern said, but "I was expecting to have some time to react by knowing what the rates were going to be. That was the deal they had made with us."

Kern said he talked to an attorney but because the number of affected drivers is so small he was told it wouldn't be worth pursuing litigation.

"It's a state monopoly, and unfortunately they can take advantage of the little guy because there's nothing really you can do," he said. "As a consumer, I'm just stuck with whatever they say."

SDG&E spokeswoman Erin Coller acknowledged the rates were raised with little warning. Coller initially said a letter warning of the increase was sent, "but not as early as it should have been." She added that some customers might have received the letters around the same time as their increased bills.

Kern said he never received the letter. And Coller later corrected herself, saying the letter sent to Kern and his fellow electric-car owners was only being mailed Thursday, and she gave KPBS a copy of it.

She said the October 2013 letter Kern received promising, "that you have the opportunity to continue on your current pricing plan through the end of next year, Dec. 31, 2014, or switch to another one that could save you money," was a mistake.

"That's what we thought the case was, but there was a mistake," Coller said. "We should have communicated about this earlier, and we do apologize for that."

She said while SDG&E customers are usually required to stay on one rate plan for 12 months, the utility will make an exception for these affected customers and allow them to switch to another plan. She also stressed that only some customers in the study, not all SDG&E customers with electric vehicles, would see their rates increased to the degree that Kern's increased.

The SDG&E study was part of a two-year California Public Utilities Commission pilot project funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. Its aim was to find out whether a fee schedule that cut the price to charge an electric car during off-peak hours would encourage PEV owners to charge their cars in the evenings or at night. The drivers were organized into three groups with the ratio between charging during the day and at night set at either 2-to-1, 4-to-1, or 6-to-1.

The idea was to find out whether customers would avoid peak hours — when the utility grid is most taxed — if they were offered cheaper rates. It found they would.

While Kern enjoyed the opportunity to be in the study, he said he now feels mistreated by SDG&E.

"It's not that the new rates are unfair, but committing to a rate schedule and then not honoring it is unfair," he said. "They never said anything in advance, they didn't give us a 60-day notice, they just changed it and didn't say anything."

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