California Utility Answers Ethnic Media on Green Energy, Smart Meters and Costs

California Utility Answers Ethnic Media on Green Energy, Smart Meters and Costs

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Photo: Russell Worden, director of the General Rate Case, and Rutely Conde, Special Projects for Southern California Edison, addressed ethnic media in San Bernardino.

SAN BERNADINO, Calif.--The summer months typically bring higher utility bills, as consumers crank up their air conditioning to escape the heat. But, those higher energy costs could be sticking around for much longer.

Southern California Edison (SCE) representatives met with ethnic media in the Inland Empire area in early June to discuss future trends in which energy costs will likely rise and consumers will be expected to better track their energy usage. The convening was organized by New America Media, and held at the offices of Black Voice News in San Bernardino, Calif.



Every three years SCE must present its operation plans and justifications for customer rate increases to state regulators. The utility recently disclosed to the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) that infrastructure upgrades – including creating an energy grid that is more efficient – will result in higher costs to ratepayers of between $3 to $9 monthly beginning in January 2012, with additional increases in 2013 and 2014.

Green Energy Investment

A bigger investment in green energy is partly to blame for bulging bills, SCE representatives said.

Russell Worden, the director of Southern California Edison’s General Rate Case, said California is now “under the gun” to comply with a new state law aimed at boosting the amount of energy coming from renewable sources, such as sunlight and wind.

The California Renewable Energy Resources Act, recently signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, requires electricity providers in the state to generate at least a third of all energy from renewable sources by 2020.

SCE is already the largest purchaser of renewable power in the country, according to the utility. Green energy technology is more expensive, said Worden. He added that renewables, such as solar panels, require a lot of land. That will mean new demand for spacious remote areas where energy providers could build new infrastructure.

The utility estimates that if state regulators approve its proposal, the plan would create 10,000 jobs.

Getting those jobs to the people unemployed in the Inland Valley was a key concern for ethnic media at the news briefing.

Black Voice News copublisher Cheryl Brown asked SCE’s Worden, “What is SCE doing to include low-income populations?” Worden replied that the company is “in a hiring mode,” with opportunities to apprentice with field crews. He added that the jobs created are “tough jobs, physical jobs, but still one of the good middle-class jobs.”

Reporters also raised concerns about the impact of the rate increases on low-income communities.

Low-Income Seniors

Liz Dowdy, a reporter for the Precinct Reporter, said her readers are “seniors with no cost of living raise.” Some, she added are already on SCE’s California Alternate Rates for Energy (CARE) program, which gives income qualified customers a 20 percent discount or more on their monthly bill. “What would you say to them,” she asked?

“I know there are folks like your readers who are struggling,” said Worden. “In addition to the CARE program we have to make sure they are not using more electricity than they need to,” he added.

Worden said that investing in new infrastructure and upgrades now would be less expensive than responding to emergencies, such as power outages. A smarter energy grid, he said, would enable SCE to monitor all parts of the system remotely and even anticipate possible problems.

“The people who you will get the push back from are the people who don’t have the information you just shared,” said Tommy Morrow, publisher of the Inland Valley News.

Other reporters there echoed that the information presented should be given to the community in an easy to understand way, because everyone needs energy, said Lita Pezant, editor of Westside Story News.

SCE representatives touted several programs for both homes and businesses to help save money on monthly utility bills.

SCE’s representative said its rebate programs help customers invest in Energy Star qualified appliances. The program offers $50 to customers, who allow SCE to pick up and recycle old, inefficient refrigerators and freezers.

Customers can also qualify for incentives of up to $4,000 to complete qualifying energy saving home upgrade projects.

For income-qualified customers, SCE also offers information about energy efficiency tips to help lower energy costs. They include unplugging electronics when not in use, washing full loads of laundry and dishes at night, and using energy-efficient lighting and appliances.

The utility said reliance on the new wireless smart meters is another change to help consumers track their household energy use. “This will change the customers’ relationship with energy,” said Rutely Conde, senior manager of corporate communications with SCE. “People are not used to thinking about their energy consumption. When they know how much they are using it will allow them to change their behavior and take action.”

Smart Meter Controversy

However, consumer advocacy groups, such as The Utility Reform Network, have raised concerns ranging from possible higher charges resulting from the smart meters to health concerns raised by a recent World Health Organization study of wireless technology, such as cell phones and smart meters. More than 40 California communities, such as San Luis Obispo County and Grover Beach, have put the brakes on smart meter installations.

Regarding potential health risks, SCE spokesman Gill Alexander said in an e-mail, SCE’s Edison SmartConnect metering devices emit “a fraction of the power limits identified in the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) guidelines for safe RF [radio frequency] energy exposure.”

Addressing costs, Alexander said, "Depending on your usage and the programs you're enrolled in, you may still see an increase, but we definitely want to partner with customers to help them manage energy costs."

Noting that the meters were carefully vetted by California’s PUC before it approved them, Alexander said, they “will produce a number of benefits for customers including a net savings” for customers, such as by decreasing the cost of meter readers. “That savings will be passed on to customers,” he stated.

Furthermore, Alexander said, smart meters allow for “real-time energy pricing,” which will replace the current usage estimates that result in most consumer complaints. He said that consumers would be able to save money and reduce the energy impact on the environment by using information from the meters to shift high-energy activities, such as using washers and dryers, to times that put less demand on power plants. “Again, such utility cost savings will be passed through to customers,” he said.