- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 27, 2001

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) California's top power regulator proposed a nearly 50 percent increase in electricity rates yesterday for some 10 million homes and businesses, hoping to stave off blackouts this summer by encouraging conservation.

Loretta Lynch, president of the Public Utilities Commission, said the increase would affect customers of Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric, the state's biggest utilities.

Under the proposal which follows two earlier increases rates would go up an average of 3 cents per kilowatt hour and then a tiered system would apply, charging heavy power users more than those who conserve.

"Electricity hogs will have to pay more for the electricity they use, especially over the summer," Miss Lynch said.

The proposal could go into effect as early as Tuesday, when the commission meets. Miss Lynch and two other members of the five-member PUC were appointed by Gov. Gray Davis, and the proposal is expected to win approval.

Mr. Davis said he is not in favor of rate increases, but has no power over the PUC.

"I can't order or direct an independent body," he said. "I've not given any advice to them on the subject of a rate increase."

The PUC approved a 9 percent to 15 percent rate increase in January and an additional 10 percent increase is scheduled for next year.

The residential rate for electricity averages 7.2 cents per kilowatt hour for SoCal Edison and 6.5 cents for PG&E; customers, though other fees raise the rates to 12.5 cents for all Edison customers and 10.5 cents for PG&E.; Miss Lynch's proposal would amount to a 42 percent increase for SoCal Edison customers and a 46 percent boost for those of PG&E.;

The average SoCal Edison residential bill now is $70 a month and the average PG&E; residential bill is about $60. Spokesmen for both utilities said it was impossible to predict how much bills might go up because the impact of the proposed tiered system is not yet clear under the proposed rate increases.

"Never mind unfair, there is no justification for them," said Harvey Rosenfield, president of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights in Santa Monica.

"Basically, we are being held hostage by a handful of energy companies that, under deregulation, got control of our electricity supply," he said. "And until our elected officials start acting to protect us, we are going to be at their mercy at the mercy of this rip-off."

The two utilities have pushed for rate increases, saying soaring wholesale power costs and rate caps under California's 1996 deregulation law have left them more than $13 billion in debt and have pushed them to the brink of bankruptcy.

The power crisis led to rolling blackouts in January and earlier this month as electricity supplies dwindled to nearly nothing. Mr. Davis and state lawmakers have scrambled to find solutions.

"It's obvious to me that unless you rob a bank or win a lottery you are not going to be able to do this without raising rates," said state Senate President Pro Tem John Burton of San Francisco.

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