Although San Diego Gas & Electric's electric rates have fallen from a 1982 peak, the utility's corporate image has been battered by the public's perception that its rates are still on the rise, according to a customer survey conducted in December.
And about half of SDG&E's 940,752 customers "do not fully believe that the company has their best interest at heart," the survey found.
The survey of 800 customers linked public resentment to "broken promises" during the late 1970s and early 1980s, when oil prices pushed SDG&E's electric rates to new heights. According to the survey, many SDG&E customers believe that SDG&E "defaulted on its responsibility to provide cheap and reliable power."
Relatively stable prices during the past two years have helped to "repair the tattered image of 1982 . . . (but the utility) . . . may never regain the high level of support" it once enjoyed unless rates drop appreciably, according to the survey.
Half those surveyed gave the utility a "favorable" rating, about equal to the results of a 1985 survey. However, SDG&E interpreted the lack of improvement as a healthy sign because the utility continues to fare "considerably better" than it did in a 1984 survey.
The latest survey suggested that although many customers "tolerate SDG&E, there is a good deal of resentment . . . (that could) work against the corporate image any time customers' energy and economic security is publicly threatened."
Annual surveys conducted since 1976 indicate that the utility's corporate image is governed by a "strong, predictable and inverse relationship" in which the rating suffers as electric rates rise.
Just 33% of the customers with bills higher than $85 a month gave SDG&E a favorable rating. However, SDG&E drew a favorable rating from 63% of its customers with bills less than $48.
SDG&E's profits were described as reasonable by 41% of the respondents, but that figure fell to just 23% among customers who gave it an unfavorable rating.
The December study suggests that the utility could improve its customer relations by remaining silent when rates go up and aggressively promoting itself when rates go down.
That strategy evidently is aimed at educating those customers who "are almost entirely blind to the fact that rates have declined" since hitting a high in 1982.
Furthermore, SDG&E's residential customers are "wary that SDG&E may be more concerned about the interests of shareholders and business customers."
That finding could haunt the utility during the years ahead as it moves closer to a "cost-based rate" structure in which industrial and commercial customers will no longer be forced to subsidize lower residential electric rates.
In recent months, SDG&E has pressed the state Public Utility Commission to pass along the bulk of rate decreases to large industrial customers that increasingly have been dropping off SDG&E's electric grid to generate their own power.