Power regulators approve rate hikes of up to 46 percent


Wednesday, March 28th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6



SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ Deli owner Sam Sahouria fears further leaps in electricity rates will run him out of business. Belinda Lazzerini says the laundry she uses has already doubled the price per load.

``It's very simple _ we cannot afford any rate increases,'' Sahouria said Tuesday as the Public Utilities Commission, meeting a few blocks away, debated allowing the state's largest two utilities to raise rates as much as 46 percent.

Amid the jeers of protesters waving signs and chanting: ``Hell, no, we won't pay,'' the five-member commission approved the increases unanimously, saying they were necessary to head off more blackouts and to keep the cash-starved utilities from going under.

The rate hikes approved for Pacific Gas and Electric and Southern California Edison, effective immediately, are the largest in California history. The hikes come on top of a 9 percent to 15 percent increase the PUC approved in January and an additional 10 percent scheduled for next year.

Protesters have labeled them a ``rip-off'' that could hit as many as 10 million homes and businesses fighting to stay cool amid rolling blackouts and spiraling energy costs. The rate hikes could effect as many as 25 million Californians.

``Our bills have gone from $26 to $70 for a stinking studio apartment, and we don't have a heater,'' Lazzerini said. ``The laundromat has gone up from $1.50 to $3, so now we will have to clean our clothes by hand and dry them in the basement. It's crazy.''

Before Tuesday's increases, California residents already paid some of the highest prices in the nation for electricity. Federal statistics from October show residential customers in California paid an average of 10.7 cents per kilowatt hour, or 26 percent more than the nationwide average of 8.5 cents. Only customers in New England, New York, Alaska and Hawaii paid more.

Rates were expected to climb 42 percent for Edison customers and 46 percent for PG&E customers. The average monthly residential bill before Tuesday's increases was $69.87 for Edison customers and $58 for PG&E customers.

The PUC said a tiered rate system would be implemented to protect low-income customers and penalize customers who use the most electricity.

Both utilities, however, said it would be impossible to calculate the size of the average customer's new bill because it is not yet clear how the tiered system will work.

The PUC also Tuesday ordered the two utilities, both nearly bankrupt, to pay for billions of dollars of electricity the state has bought on behalf of their customers.

``The PUC has done all it can,'' commission president Loretta Lynch said.

Doug Heller of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights in Santa Monica disagreed.

``We don't need increases in our bills, we need increases in law enforcement so our governor can protect us from these modern-day robber barons,'' he said.