Using More Power at Home Means Higher Bills. Here Are Financial Programs That Can Help

Towers holding power lines are seen in San Francisco, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

For coming up on two months, Northern Californians have been at home working on computers, watching TV, charging devices and doing all manner of things that require electricity.

In March and April, residential electricity usage skyrocketed between 15% and 20% compared to the same period last year, according to the California Public Utilities Commission.

Energy bills on all that power come due in May, and for many Californians, it may not be pretty, especially compared to April’s bill.

Last month, across Northern California, PG&E and other utility customers received a break on their statements. For many, it was one of the smallest bills of the year, the result of warmer weather and the state's issuing of an approximately $35 climate credit to most ratepayers.

Even though the bills have been smaller, power providers say people are falling behind on their payments, and the impact of a constricting economy combined with the anticipated higher electricity costs could make things worse.

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Nick Chaset, CEO of East Bay Community Energy, a community choice aggregator based in Oakland that's an alternative to PG&E,  says customers are already falling behind on payments.

“It's because of those compounding effects that we're seeing customers delay or be unable to pay their bill,” he said. “We are just at the beginning. There are some customers who are never going to be able to catch up.”

Will Reisman, press secretary for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which manages CleanPowerSF, another aggregator, says it has also seen customers falling behind.

“It is still a little early, but on average we've seen a 6% increase in balances more than 30 days overdue as compared to the pre-COVID average,” he said in an email.

Deanna Contreras, a spokesperson for PG&E, wouldn’t confirm that people have been late in paying their bills.  But she said in an email, “We understand many of our customers are facing severe economic challenges because of the crisis,”

Options for Relief

During a normal year, many Northern California customers would receive a second California Climate Credit in October.

Recognizing the hardship Californians are facing, the CPUC directed the state’s big utilities to distribute the credit early — most people in Northern California will receive a credit of $17.87 in May and $17.86 in June.

The credit represents ratepayers' share of payments from California's cap-and-trade auction, which earns revenue for the state by requiring power plants and other industrial groups that emit greenhouse gases to buy carbon pollution permits.

Save On Your Power Bill Right Now

Here are some programs available to help people who are having trouble paying their power bill:

    • People who have recently lost their job, or those that are receiving unemployment benefits, can reduce their power and gas bills by 20% by enrolling in the California Alternate Rates for Energy (CARE) Program here.
    • Families of three or more people who are facing similar economic hardship can apply for a monthly discount on their power bill of 18% through the Family Electric Rate Assistance (FERA) Program here.
    •  People who make within 200% above the federal poverty guideline can apply for a $300 energy credit with the Relief for Energy Assistance through Community Help (REACH) program (a family of four would qualify if its annual income is less than $51,500 — look at the CARE chart here for a full breakdown and check these guidelines to see if you might qualify).
    • If you or someone in your home uses respirators or other life support equipment, you can get additional electricity and gas for no extra cost by signing up for the Medical Baseline Program here. PG&E will also send an extra notice to people enrolled in this program before a power shutoff to prevent lines from touching off a wildfire, what it calls a Public Safety Power Shutoff.

What Kind of Relief are Some Bay Area Power Providers Offering?

PG&E: The utility says it has suspended service disconnections for people who can’t pay their bills and is offering flexible payment plans. Read more on that program here.

CleanPowerSF: Customers won’t be unenrolled from the program if they cannot make payments, and CleanPowerSF is offering flexible payment plans — you can find more information on their services here.

Marin Clean Energy: The North Bay choice aggregator has indefinitely suspended collections for people who can’t pay their bill and pulled together cost-saving resources here.

East Bay Community Energy: EBCE suspended collections, and customers won’t be dropped from the program for nonpayment. Details on their COVID-19 Response here.

Monterey Bay Community Power: MBCP is deferring 50% of electricity charges for May and June. More on what they are doing here.

Redwood Coast Energy Authority: RCEA compiled a checklist of energy efficiency measures, which you can find here.

Silicon Valley Clean Energy: SVCE announced a commitment of $10 million in direct financial support for its lower-income customers and to pay for job training for electricians, plumbers and mechanical workers who have been impacted by the shutdown orders.

Valley Clean Energy: VCE released a COVID-19 statement, which you can find here.