Bakersfield resident Carol Bender didn't pull any punches when she laid out her concerns about how power rates are calculated during a "listening session" held by the Public Utilities Commission Monday afternoon in the Bakersfield City Council chambers.
The PUC had two hearings scheduled in Bakersfield Monday to take public input on how a recent rate hike should be divvied up among Pacific Gas & Electric Co. customers.
About 25 people showed up for the 2 p.m. session in front of PUC Administrative Law Judge Michelle Cooke. A second hearing was set for 6 p.m.
"For heaven's sake, there has to be a more realistic way to determine baseline allotments," Bender told Cooke.
The concept of "baseline" energy was created about a decade ago when the California Legislature directed the PUC to create tiered rates as a means to encourage energy conservation.
Tiered rates mean that the more you use, the higher the cost per kilowatt hour (kWh).
Baseline energy is supposed to be 50 percent to 60 percent of average use per PG&E region. And it's supposed to provide for basic household needs.
In Kern County, PG&E customers are allotted about 520 kWh per month of baseline energy charged at about 20 cents per kWh in summer time.
Most people quickly go through those hours, however, and end up in tier two, which is charged at close to 30 cents per kWh.
Baseline allotments in regions with harsh summers such as the Central Valley should be increased, Bender said.
That could be done a number of ways including creating three seasons instead of just two, taking solar homes out of the calculation and averaging power use among similar sized homes.
"There's a terrible disconnect between PG&E and data that could be used to calculate baseline," Bender said. "And when you ask PG&E about that, you get dumbed down answers."
Other charges on PG&E bills need to be shared equally throughout the state, she added.
On her last bill, she said, there was a $27 charge for "public purpose programs," which drops to $10 in lower usage months.
"The Legislature enacted these programs to benefit all Californians, so the costs should be shared by all power users, not borne by just those in high-use areas."
Other speakers shared their tales of outrageous bills even as they spent thousands to retrofit their homes to conserve energy.
Sandra Millard told Cooke she received a $900 bill last month and one for nearly $1,700 this month.
"We own a three-bedroom, regular home in central Bakersfield that we keep at 78 degrees, not cold like how it is in here," she said referencing the chilly room.
Two years ago, she and her husband had an energy audit and spent $7,000 on new insulation, duct work and more.
But the rates changed again and their bills "shot through the roof," she said.
Cooke urged her to speak to PG&E representatives on hand.
The later meeting held at 6 p.m. drew a smaller group, with no more than 15 people attending. Bender and two other people spoke for a little more than three minutes each.
"The vast majority of improvements should be borne by the people who receive the profits," said Mary Helen Barro, an insurance agent in Bakersfield.
She said she would prefer utility companies be nonprofits so they can't make as much of a profit.
But in the meantime, she asked Cooke to find a "more equitable solution for people that have no choice but to live in an area that overcharges them."
The other speaker was Edwin Camp, a farmer, who said that California's energy rates are already 50 percent more than the national average.
He asked how farmers are expected to compete with other parts of the country that pay less for electricity.
He added that the expense of electricity causes farmers to turn to fossil fuels, which don't help air quality.
"As rates continue to skyrocket, what signals are being given to farmers about air quality?" he asked Cooke.
Meanwhile, Camp's main concern was changing the peak use hours from noon to 6 p.m., to 5 to 10 p.m.
"It's actually not about lowering the cost," Camp said, "but helping operation."
A large amount of electricity is used to pump water from wells to use for irrigation, he said.
Moving that operation to function when it's dark out makes it harder to check water lines, Camp said, adding that it is difficult to recruit workers for the night shift.
"It can be done," Camp said about working around the new peak hours. "It's just difficult to operate that way."
He said he would like to see PG&E do either of the following for the agricultural industry: a trial period, let the farmers choose a period or have a flat rate.
Californian reporter Dorothy Mills-Gregg contributed to this report.