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High San Diego utility bills could not come at a worse time

Michelle Bales has lived just east of downtown San Diego in the same South Park apartment for nearly 20 years.

“It’s cozy. It’s warm,” Bales said. “I really like it. It’s close to work as well, which is a huge plus.”

But her 650 square foot home has been anything but warm recently as Bales braces for a big San Diego Gas and Electric bill.

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SDG&E customers are opening surprisingly high utility bills this month. Natural gas rates are more than doubled in January over what they were a year ago and electricity costs are up too.

Bales is already changing her daily routines.

“I try not to use the gas heater,” Bales said. “Obviously, I have to cook. I try not to turn on all the lights. Sometimes I’ll sit here at night with candles and just the TV. Just to not rack up the fees.”

Bales spent half of the past month house-sitting elsewhere, and her January bill still topped $100. She only paid about $60 dollars in November.

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Bales is able to make on-time payments, but many SDG&E customers are not.

“We have about 3.7 million customers,” said Anthony Wagner, an SDG&E spokesman. “Of that, approximately 341,000, or 25%, are at some level, behind on their bill.”

Delinquencies are counted as people who are at least 30 days late in paying their bills.

Most of those delinquencies are more than 60 days late, a surprisingly large number.

“Five years ago the numbers were more like 10%-15% were behind,” said Mark Wolfe, the director of the National Energy Assistance Directors Association. “25% clearly suggests that the cost of home energy is becoming unaffordable for many families. And the programs that are in place are not sufficient to help them pay these bills.”

In fact, about a third of SDG&E’s customers are already enrolled in a rate assistance program.

The two biggest programs are the California Alternate Rates for Energy (CARE) and the Family Electric Rate Assistance program (FERA). There are also lower rates for people with medical conditions. The programs offer rate reductions based on need and income.

But the utility still has about $200 million dollars in delinquent customer debt and Wolfe notes, having power shut off is not an option for many.

“You lose access to the internet. Lose access to air conditioning, your heating, and so that places a very significant burden on families,” Wolfe said. “Where, as prices go up for food, you can substitute one item for another. You can stretch your food budget out. There are things you can do. You have more control over it.”

Power shut offs have not happened in SDG&E’s service area since March of 2020.

But the statewide COVID-19 prohibition on disconnections expired in 2021.

San Diego’s investor-owned utility has not cut off power for overdue bills since 2020 but is expected to resume that this year.

Company officials say the utility needs to start collecting the $200 million dollars from customers with past due bills. And Wagner is quick to say customers who are struggling still have options.

“As long as you’re in communication with us and you have a strategy with the utility on how to pay off your arrearage, you’re not going to get yourself disconnected. But you have to be in communication with us,” Wagner said.

The astronomically high gas rates should begin falling next month, when temperatures climb, demand fades and the rates are reset.

That is welcome news for customers who do not have a lot of budgetary flexibility.

“I’m an old person and I’m on a fixed income,” said Krasna Svoboda, a senior living in an Oceanside apartment. “So there isn’t going to be any more money than there is. And I need to budget it every month. Things that vary from month to month significantly impact me more perhaps than people who are still in the earnings years.”

Even customers who are not struggling financially may end up feeling the fiscal pain.

If SDG&E cannot collect the outstanding debt, the utility will roll that debt into electricity and natural gas rates.

That raises utility prices for everyone, keeping pressure on customers who are already struggling.