With bills of natural gas customers spiking in January, San Diego Gas & Electric announced Tuesday the company will make $1 million available to customers struggling to pay their power bills.
Up to $300 in one-time grants is available through the Neighbor-to-Neighbor ) program to customers who are not otherwise eligible for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Plan.
Up to $400 is available to qualifying customers already enrolled in the Medical Baseline program, which helps households with family members who rely on electric-powered medical devices to keep them healthy.
To qualify for the $300 to $400 grants, SDG&E customers do not have to be considered low-income but they must be at least three months past due on their bills and demonstrate they are unable to pay.
The program is open to all SDG&E customers, not just those who have natural gas hookups in their homes.
The $1 million will come from SDG&E shareholder funds, not through ratepayer dollars.
To apply, customers should call 2-1-1 San Diego or 2-1-1 Orange County, which will direct them to community-based organizations in the respective counties that are working with SDG&E on the N2N program.
The financial assistance comes one week after SDG&E officials warned of skyrocketing bills for its natural gas customers.
The rate SDG&E charges customers for natural gas has doubled compared to last month, with the price per therm (a unit of natural gas) jumping from $2.55 in December to $5.11 in January.
A household gas bill that came to about $105 in January 2022 is estimated to leap to about $225 this month. That’s an increase of 114 percent. A typical SDG&E residential customer uses an average of 44 therms of gas in January — usually the coldest month of the year — and drops to 39 therms in February, 35 in March and 26 in April.
The spike, the company says, is due almost entirely to a dramatic increase in the wholesale cost of gas in California and the West Coast, where wet weather and below-normal temperatures have increased consumption of natural gas, which provides heating and powers gas stoves.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration also points to constraints in gas deliveries heading to California from places including West Texas, inventories on the West Coast that are well below the five-year average and reduced pipeline capacity.
“While SDG&E doesn’t control the natural gas market, we feel it’s very important for us as a company to dedicate shareholder dollars to help our customers who are struggling to absorb significant increases in winter energy bills due to extreme commodity market conditions in the West,” SDG&E chief executive officer Caroline Winn said in a statement.
Mark Toney, executive director of The Utility Reform Network (TURN), a ratepayer advocacy group, is unimpressed.
“A million dollars is a drop in the bucket,” Toney said, pointing out that about 905,000 SDG&E’s customers have gas meters. “When you do that math, we’re talking about $1 per meter when the increases are (estimated to be) over a hundred bucks … Yeah, they’re going to do it in $300 chunks but I would think that’s going to run out really quickly.”
Southern California Gas announced a similar program a few days, providing $1 million in assistance to customers in the Los Angeles area.
SoCalGas, the nation’s largest natural gas distribution utility, purchases natural gas for SDG&E. Both companies are subsidiaries of San Diego-based Fortune 500 energy company Sempra.
The price for what’s called “core procurement” that goes to residential and small commercial customers is set at the start of each month. The price soared from $1.05 in December to almost $3.45 on Jan. 1.
Wholesale procurement prices change month-to-month. A new price will be posted Feb. 1 and while there is hope that next month’s price will be lower, the forecast for the next 10 days calls for continued wet weather and colder-than-usual temperatures.
About 90 percent of California’s natural gas comes from outside the state.
SoCalGas officials say they buy most of their supplies from Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, West Texas and parts of Canada under contracts that go out as long as one year. The contracts are purchased at an index price that is set each month and can fluctuate, given market conditions.