New power rates: Desert may suffer most from plan

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New power rates: Desert may suffer most from plan

By Lukas Velush

The Desert Sun

May 16th, 2001

Coachella Valley residents look to be among those hardest hit by an electricity rate hike approved by the California Public Utilities Commission on Tuesday.

The commission adopted a rate increase plan that punishes ratepayers who donít conserve, a move that will be hard to swallow in a desert environment where conserving can become a serious health concern.

The actual rate hike was approved in March, but the commission didnít decide how it was going to divvy up the increase until Tuesday.

Residential bills will increase 19 percent on average. Those who use the most power will pay 71 percent more than they do now.

Joanne Deatrick, a retired resident of Palm Desert, plans to reduce her power use this summer because she canít afford to pay the increased bills.

"Iím worried about my health," she said. "I have a heart condition."

Deatrick said her doctor doesnít want her in the valley during the summer months, much less cutting back on her air conditioning. "Iíve already started cutting back," she said. "I think (the rate hike) is very unfair to people who live in deserts all around the state."

Though the plan the PUC presented Tuesday was said not to affect low-income electricity consumers, many were still worried about how those users will pay their power bills.

The rate increases will hurt all the valleyís low-income residents, said Steve Brummel president of La Liga Nacional de Consumidores, an Indio-based group that educates and advises the valleyís low- and moderate- income consumers. It focuses on Hispanics.

"They arenít going to be able to use their power."

Brummel said the valleyís heat could kill residents who canít afford air conditioning. He compared the valleyís upcoming summer to places like Chicago and New Orleans, where hundreds of people die during heat waves.

"There the temperatures were only 105, 110," he said. "Our temperatures get as high as 115, 120."

Local leaders must educate valley residents on all the different ways they can reduce their power use, and to get financial incentives to help pay for power, said Buford Crites, a Palm Desert city councilman who is also chair of the Coachella Valley Association of Governmentís Energy and Environment Committee.

"CVAG needs to make sure every person in this valley interested in those programs are signed up," he said.

The Public Utilities Commissionís rate hike also affects commercial, industrial and agriculture users.

Small and medium businesses will see their rates go up 36 percent, industrial users face a 49 percent hike and agriculture users face up to a 20 percent hike.

In the Coachella Valley, those rate hikes will be felt by everyone.

"There are businesses talking about closing this summer that havenít closed for years," Brummel said.

Farming -- the largest industry in the Coachella Valley -- also will be hurt, said Mike Bozick, president of Richard Bagdisarian Inc. of Mecca.

"We use a lot of power to cool our fruit," Bozick said.

Table grapes are the most expensive because the temperature of the pulp must be dropped from 100 degrees to 33 degrees in a very short time.

"Itís not unusual for (our power bill) to be $35,000 in a peak month," Bozick said.

The farmers wonít be able to pass the increased cost on to customers because theyíre already locked into a price war with Mexico.

"Weíre the ones who are going to have to bear the burden."

-- PHO (owennos@bigfoot.com), May 16, 2001

Answers

PUC may consider blackout exemption for Coachella Valley

By Jake Henshaw

Desert Sun Sacramento Bureau

May 16th, 2001

SACRAMENTO --

As temperatures begin to soar in the Coachella Valley, the Public Utilities Commission appears ready to at least consider a proposal to exempt areas of extreme temperatures from rolling blackouts.

In a recent legislative hearing, a key PUC commissioner said he was open to reviewing a proposal by Sen. Jim Battin, R-La Quinta, to exempt areas where temperatures exceed 105 degree Fahrenheit.

"I think itís feasible, on the face of it, to compare the possible health and safety consequences of blackouts in the Palm Springs area or Indio or other very hot areas with the consequences of a blackout for, say, a skilled nursing facility and balance those and create a priority," said PUC Commissioner Carl Wood, who is overseeing a commission review of blackout exemptions.

The PUC represents another front in the campaign by the valleyís legislators to get special state help for residents of one of the stateís hottest regions where temperatures regularly climb into triple digits for five or more months a year.

Battin also has asked the governor to address the needs of the desert area in his efforts to solve the stateís energy problems.

Battin had hoped the bill would get its first hearing Tuesday before the Senate energy committee, but that was postponed because of procedural changes in the way energy legislation is being handled.

Sen. Debra Bowen, D-Marina del Rey, who chairs the Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee, said Battinís bill would get a hearing and acknowledged that it addresses a legitimate issue.

"We are struggling to deal with the real health and safety concerns and those are concerns in extreme climates," Bowen said.

But she said half the state already is exempt, largely because so many people are on circuits that serve high-priority electricity customers like emergency service agencies.

Battin has argued that more action is needed because in the desert the issue "literally is a matter of life or death."

Assemblyman David Kelley, R-Idyllwild, has also introduced bills to make allowances for the high temperatures of the desert.

Assembly Bill 5XX by Kelley would require the PUC to double the amount of power that is subject to the lowest electricity rates under the stateís baseline system of pricing power on the basis of climate and geography.

During the designated summer months of June, July, August and September, Southern California Edison customers in Zone 15, which includes the Coachella Valley, pay the minimum 13 cents per kilowatt hour for about 1,300 kilowatts of electricity per month, according to the PUC.

Then for the next 390 kilowatts, or an additional 30 percent of the baseline amount, Zone 15 residents pay 15.2 cents per kwh.

The rate increases approved Tuesday by the PUC wouldnít change the rates for customer using up to 130 percent of the baseline amount of power.

AB 5XX wouldnít make any changes in the existing baseline system. Instead it would just double the amount of kilowatt hours covered by the two cheapest categories of power usage in Zone 15, that is, 2,600 kwh would be sold at 13 cents per kwh and 780 kwh would go for 15.2 cents per kwh.

"The electricity needed for air conditioning in this portion of California is a simple matter of survival in a region where summer temperatures regularly range over 110 degrees," Kelley said, "and the residents here should not be penalized for that."

Asked about the prospect for enacting his bill, Kelley said it depends on a host of factors in the Capitol and by regulatory bodies.

"I would put the odds at 50-50," he said.

AB 5XX has yet to be scheduled for a hearing.

Despite the lack of concrete action yet on the needs of the Coachella Valley, Battin said the campaign is worthwhile.

"We are just trying to educate people," he said. "I donít think people appreciate what the summer is going to be like."

There was some evidence of progress at the legislative hearing where Wood appeared, at least based on the comments of one legislator.

Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, D-Los Angeles, characterized the dilemma that energy regulators may face on hot days as one between Los Angeles residents with the choice of numerous television channels and an 80-year old woman in the desert without air conditioning.

"Iíd rather her have the air conditioning and me only have one choice (of TV channels) at that particular moment in history," Goldberg said.

-- PHO (owennos@bigfoot.com), May 16, 2001.


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