Monterey Herald

Options needed to lower high utility bills

- — Santa Cruz Sentinel

As if it were not already expensive enough to live here, residents have been facing soaring utility bills this cold and rainy winter.

Much of the increase is in the price of natural gas, used by many in Monterey County for heating and hot water.

Prices more than doubled this winter, at a time when inflation plus the high cost of housing and new increases in the cost of gasoline make the soaring utility bills even more painful as wholesale natural gas prices tripled since late last year, which means for many PG&E customers bills more than doubled over the past two months.

These price shocks feel similar to the surge in gasoline prices, and make it even more urgent for California to hasten the move from fossil fuels that are heating up our planet and polluting our air. The next step, say climate activists, is to move to electric heating and appliances fueled by renewable energy.

Utilities, meanwhile, are urging customers to take steps such as lowering thermostat­s and turning down the temperatur­es of water heaters. That may work short term, but electricit­y prices are also up, since much of the state's power is supplied through gas-powered plants.

Natural gas suppliers say that the high prices are largely out of their control and that they are not profiting from the spikes, a contention also made during the runup in gasoline prices that led to Gov. Gavin Newsom proposing a windfall tax on the oil industry's profits. He has also been calling for a federal investigat­ion into higher natural gas prices.

The spike in natural gas prices has been mostly an isolated West Coast problem and is not tied to the increases in the price of gasoline, which is already high because of state taxes and climate regulation­s, and was exacerbate­d because refineries were off line just as the war in Ukraine set off a worldwide jump in energy prices. The increase in natural gas prices has been driven by infrastruc­ture repairs in Texas and high demand elsewhere that has resulted in fewer imports to California, which gets almost 90% of its natural gas from out of state.

The unavoidabl­e suspicion with gasoline prices is that even with the state's taxes and regulation­s, the oil industry reaped high profits from the increase in prices. Five refiners make most of the gasoline in the state and control much of the retail market. The industry blames state regulation­s, supply issues and boomand-bust cycles where refiners try to make up for losses in bad years with higher profits in good ones.

With natural gas, PG&E had told customers they could expect a 32% increase in their bills through this month, joining other utility companies throughout the state blaming the spike on high demand, low supplies and cold weather.

But on Feb. 27, the utility changed direction, telling customers in a statement released on the company's website that after three months of higherthan-normal natural gas market prices that drove up energy bills, they can expect on average, a 75% decrease in their March natural gas bills.

PG&E says that the decrease will come because the company is implementi­ng the state's annual April Climate Credit one month early, a move approved last month by the state's Public Utilities Commission, along with declining market prices the utility pays for natural gas. The company also anticipate­s a drop in how much natural gas customers are using as this long spell of colder temperatur­es moderates.

PG&E said it does not control the market prices for natural gas and electricit­y, and does not mark up the cost of gas and electricit­y it purchases on behalf of its customers. Still, the company has raised prices to cover wildfire losses and mitigation­s from past years. Infrastruc­ture repairs in Texas and high gasoline demand in Canada resulted in fewer imports to California, which gets almost 90% of its natural gas from out of state.

Depending on fossil fuels to heat our homes and water and cook our food has most of us wondering when the next spike is coming. This volatility in prices confirms the obvious: we need more options. Blaming the oil industry only goes so far; an increase in energy supply from renewables will pay off in the long run.

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