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San Diego County residents angry, confused over high utility bills

REGION — San Diego County residents are angry, worried and confused over higher-than-normal utility bills.

Some residents have seen their monthly bills skyrocket from double to triple the average cost, with some even higher as $300 or more. A Rancho Bernardo man recently filed a lawsuit in small claims court against San Diego Gas & Electric over exorbitant energy bills, which he said have increased 117% over the past five years.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, San Diego residents paid 36.5 cents per kilowatt-hour in November and December 2021, higher than any other city in the country.

However, newly-approved rate increases are just one of several reasons for the higher than average bills.

Anthony Wagner, an SDG&E spokesman, told The Coast News that natural gas rate increases, supply chain issues and geopolitical events between Russia, Ukraine and the United States have also created uncertainty that has rippled across the global wholesale market.

“The real bill shock that people saw was the confluence of a couple of things,” Wagner said. “The rate for a price per therm (a unit of heat equivalent to 100,000 British thermal units) on Jan. 1, 2021, was $1.91. Fast forward to the cost per therm for January 2022, it’s $2.22. It’s a 25% increase and that’s a residential-class average.”

SDG&E said in several website posts other factors for higher bills include commodity fuel prices, price of carbon credits and legislative mandates. Others include an increase in the growth of public programs for the California Alternate Rates for Energy, or CARE, generation costs, wildfire mitigation and safety upgrades.

Another factor, Wagner said, is a stretch of colder weather in the region. December set a record for the longest stretch of cold temperatures in five years with the average low at 49 degrees and the average high at 62.

“People are heating their homes and using more energy,” Wagner said. “The average therm use is 23 therms per month. If you look at December, it’s 31 therms. If you look at January, it’s 45 therms. They are using more energy and using more energy than they will use all year long (in a month).”

The wholesale market for national natural gas increased by 38%, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Most customers use natural gas for their water heaters, appliances and to heat their homes.

Wagner said electricity costs have also increased due to the renewable energy mix, which is only reliable under specific conditions for each, which means natural gas is the source for baseline power. Natural gas is also used in power plants to generate electricity, so when gas prices rise, electricity tends to go up as well.

The residential average for electricity saw a 7.8% increase for 2022. According to Wagner, the cost breakdown per dollar is $0.43 to electrical generation passed to customers, $0.32 for distribution, $0.16 for transmission and $0.09 for public programs.

The distribution and transmission are where SDG&E earns its profit, Wagner said.

Carlsbad resident David Baum has spent time online attempting to help other residents break down their bills and explain the costs. Baum said the higher bill always occurs in December and January because people are using more energy or heat.

However, Baum said SDG&E has not done a good job of explaining or relaying the information to ratepayers.

“I just want to help my neighbors and not turn it into the usual political pissing match,” Baum said of his efforts. “Usage and rate, that’s it.”