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Sempra Energy Wins Coming and Going

February 23, 1999|NANCY RIVERA BROOKS, energy reporter

The new electricity marketplace will be full of opportunities, and here's a particularly interesting one: Sempra Energy Corp. has found a way to make money not only on the customers it wins, but also on the customers it loses.

Sempra's Los Angeles-based natural gas utility, Southern California Gas Co., has expanded its gas-purchasing Web site (http://www.energymarketplace.com) to include electricity, showcasing products from some of California's new electricity marketers with the professed aim of stimulating competition in the recently opened electricity market.

There's one catch: The new electricity-marketing sister companies of the sponsoring utilities can't join this e-commerce party, thanks to California Public Utilities Commission rules that forbid fraternization between utilities and unregulated affiliates.

Utilities and their unregulated affiliates, which have been allowed to sell electricity since the market was deregulated March 31, cannot share such things as advertising and customer information.

A special ruling was required recently from the PUC just to allow employees to dine in the same cafeteria.

That means that Sempra Energy Services, the unregulated affiliate of San Diego Gas & Electric, both subsidiaries of Sempra Energy Corp., can't peddle its products on the Web site. (Neither can Edison Source, the unregulated affiliate of Southern California Edison, and PG&E Energy Services, the unregulated affiliate of Pacific Gas & Electric, two of the utility sponsors of the site.)

But don't fret for shareholders of San Diego-based Sempra Energy Corp. SoCal Gas gets between $10 and $25 from electricity marketers for each deal brokered by the site, which allows residential and small-business customers to compare prices and lets bigger customers post a "request for proposal" on which various providers can bid. Deals are sealed offline.

"We think it's a powerful statement to say to customers, 'You have choice and we're giving you tools to exercise that choice,' " said Ron Kent, project manager for the Internet site.

SoCal Gas hopes to add more electricity marketers and expand to other states that are deregulating, he said.

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