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PAYING THE ENERGY BILL

Crying Foul Over Energy Baselines

July 08, 2001|NANCY RIVERA BROOKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Down by the sea in Santa Monica, a month of electricity can cost a mere $2.32 with a bit of determination, a tiny home and energy-efficient appliances.

In landlocked Compton, a somewhat bigger house with a pool also generates an electricity bill with triple digits--but without the decimal point.

The two homes could not be more different, except in the eyes of state utility regulators, who are applying the same power-use yardstick to determine how much their electricity bills will rise this summer because of the largest rate hike in state history.

Despite their different climates, housing quality and income levels, Santa Monica and Compton share the same "baseline" allotment, the amount of electricity that supposedly meets the minimum needs of an average household in a particular region.

Before California's energy crisis, consumers had little reason to care about their baseline allowance. But now, under terms of the rate hike, the further above baseline a customer gets, the more that customer will pay.

Although residential customers of Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric Co. won't get a full taste of the new rates until this month's bills, which will reflect an entire month of the increase, some are already complaining that the conservation-inducing setup of the new rate structure is unfair.

The critics say the baseline regions are too large, creating such improbable electricity twins as Santa Monica and Compton, and Newport Beach and Orange. And because baselines are based on simple averages of consumption within a region, the system takes no account of a home's size or number of occupants.

The baseline allowance "does not address the real needs of consumers," said Douglas Heller, consumer advocate with the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, a Santa Monica-based activist group. "We've said, somewhat tongue in cheek, that this baseline plan is a subsidy of single guys by families."

State regulators and legislators are considering overhauling the baseline allowances, but the changes wouldn't come in time for this summer.

When they rip open their latest power bills, nearly 8 million California customers will find themselves sorted into a new caste system of consumption tied to their baseline, set by the state Public Utilities Commission, that is meant to represent 50% to 60% of an average household's electricity use in a region.

The PUC boosted electricity rates by a record 3 cents a kilowatt-hour on March 27, and decreed that residential customers will absorb their share of rate shock according to how much electricity they use. The aim is to raise more cash to cover stubbornly high wholesale electricity prices while encouraging customers to use less power.

Residents of Los Angeles and other cities served by municipal utilities are not affected by the rate increase.

Half of Customers Deemed 'Higher Use'

Under the previous, two-tier system of figuring bills, customers paid less for electricity used up to baseline levels and more for electricity use above baseline. That was replaced by a five-step system in which residential customers pay the old rates in two tiers up to 130% of baseline but fork over progressively more across three tiers of usage above 130% of baseline.

Those higher-use customers, pegged at 50% of households by the PUC, will see their monthly bills jump depending on how much electricity they consume over their baseline allowance.

Average residential bills will go up between $4 and $85 a month. Low-income customers and those with special medical equipment will see no rate increase. Business customers, whose rates also are rising, are not billed by baseline use.

The PUC established the baseline allotments in 1982, using average residential consumption as a way to encompass differences in home size and numbers of residents per household.

Critics of the baseline system say the allotments are determined across regions that are too large and don't accurately account for differences in climate, household size and income. The baselines were last adjusted in the early 1990s and have not kept pace with the electricity use of modern homes, they say.

Edison's 50,000-square-mile territory is divided into six baseline zones. PG&E has 10 for its 70,000 square miles. San Diego Gas & Electric, which has not increased rates, has three zones.

Santa Monica and Compton share a baseline zone that skims across such coastal communities as Malibu, Long Beach and Newport Beach but also stretches inland to Norwalk, Cerritos, Santa Ana and Orange. For them, known at Edison as Baseline Zone 10, the cheapest power is meted out at a pace of 9.1 kilowatt-hours a day in summer or 276 kilowatt-hours over 30 days.

Although staying close to baseline is somewhat easier near the coast, Miamon Miller and Martha Adams are an extreme example of power parsimony. The Santa Monica couple needs only a little pocket change to pay their latest monthly Edison bill of $2.32.

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