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Owing $1.15B, Californians get extended pause on utility shutoffs

With millions of Californians unable to pay their utility bills amid the ongoing economic hardship caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the California Public Utilities Commission on Feb. 11 extended a moratorium on service disconnections through June 30, 2021, and opened a proceeding to provide relief for their mounting debt.

Customers of the state's four major investor-owned electric and gas utilities amassed $1.15 billion in unpaid bills in 2020, Edward Randolph, the CPUC's deputy executive director for energy and climate policy, said during a presentation to commissioners ahead of their unanimous vote.

More than 1 million customers of PG&E Corp. utility subsidiary Pacific Gas and Electric Co. account for nearly half of the debt. Customers of Edison International's Southern California Edison Co. are $331.5 million behind on their bills, while customers of Sempra Energy utility affiliates San Diego Gas & Electric Co. and Southern California Gas Co. owe about $291 million combined.

More than $500 million has been past due for at least 180 days, indicating "how much families are struggling due to the pandemic," Randolph said.

"Those numbers are extraordinarily frightening, the extent of the debt owed and the amount are really, really jarring," Commissioner Clifford Rechtschaffen added.

California's move to extend its shutoff moratorium comes as regulators across the country face decisions on whether to extend temporary assistance as such measures have already expired across much of the country.

Searching for relief

As of January 2021, California unemployment was at 8.8%, but the jobless rate for low-income households earning less than $30,000 per year was approximately three times that level, the CPUC said in its decision.

While regulators' resolution to extend their emergency hiatus on shutoffs, originally adopted in April 2020, helps millions of customers in the short term, the PUC is searching for answers on how to handle the growing debt through the new proceeding.

"The rulemaking provides us with a venue to brainstorm, develop and implement measures that will help ensure that, once the moratorium on customer disconnections and nonpayment ends, we can provide relief to the customers," CPUC President Marybel Batjer said at the meeting.

The CPUC in 2020 set caps for electric and gas service disconnections through 2024 and also created penalties for utilities that cut off services.