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'How am I going to be able to do this?' San Diegans wrestle with soaring nat gas prices

San Diego Union Tribune logo San Diego Union Tribune 1/21/2023 Roxana Popescu
Soo Hom places a car shield in his window for insulation at night to keep the cold air out. (Sandy Huffaker/For The San Diego Union-Tribune) © Provided by San Diego Union Tribune Soo Hom places a car shield in his window for insulation at night to keep the cold air out. (Sandy Huffaker/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Soo Hom's gas bill last month: $24.

"I've done pretty much everything I could" to keep that number low, said Hom, 56, who works as a Linux system administrator for UC San Diego. He hangs his clothes to dry and never uses the gas heater in his 930-square-foot University City townhouse. He's invested in efficiency upgrades over the years, including new dual-pane windows.

Even with his low bill, getting a notice from San Diego Gas & Electric that natural gas prices are increasing sharply in January was "an unpleasant surprise."

The utility recently warned its 905,000 customers equipped with gas appliances that their January bills are estimated to double, from $2.55 per therm in December to $5.11 in January, due to a spike in wholesale prices in California.

January is typically the most expensive month for natural gas because of increased demand as temperatures drop. A typical SDG&E residential customer uses an average of 44 therms of gas in January — usually the coldest month of the year. And then consumption declines to 39 therms in February, 35 in March and 26 in April.

"If history continues to repeat itself and weather gets warmer, usage will go down and then those prices will go down," said Dana Golan, SDG&E's vice president of customer service, though she said it's hard to confidently forecast future prices given the market's recent volatility.

She added: "We understand that customers are worried and frustrated to some degree. Those are natural feelings and reactions to have, particularly as customers are facing higher costs for many other goods and services like medical, food, gasoline, and really across the spectrum.

"When it comes to their energy bill specifically, what we want customers to know: that they don't have to feel alone. ... We're here to help. We're going to work with any customer that needs support."

As San Diegans grapple with record-high natural gas prices, they're doing whatever they can to keep their energy use down. They're not just changing behaviors. They're consumed by consumption: stressing about high pricing during peak hours, strategizing about appliances, hunting for energy leaks and researching insulation. In a few weeks, they'll find out if their efforts paid off.

Some, like Hom, have been living this way all along. Others, who are retired and on fixed incomes, wonder where they'll find the money — or they're behind on bills and scared to owe even more after this month. Others can afford to pay more with some sacrifices.

One thread that ran through interviews with people across the city is a sense of exhaustion. After pandemic hardships, months of inflation, a snarled supply chain and various critical shortages (from baby formula to cars), this natural gas rate hike may be temporary, but it's one more twist on the economic rollercoaster struggling San Diegans can't seem to hop off.

"It's keeping me down. It's keeping me broke," said George Reyes, who talked with a reporter in his Mountain View home about having to pay a bigger utility bill as other costs also rise.

Energy minimalists, by choice or not

Hom has always been frugal.

“My parents came from a poor village in China, so when they arrived here they did their best not to spend money on pretty much anything,” he said. They passed their values to him.

Last summer he bought sunshields, the kind that go on car or RV windshields, to cool down his home without running the air conditioner.

“I probably bought 25 or 30 of them from Amazon,” Hom said. Now, a few of those shields cover his windows on cold nights. His townhouse feels warmer as a result, he said. He'll also replace a kitchen window, after upgrading glass doors and a window more than 10 years ago. The new ones are dual pane and use Low-E glass, which is coated to improve its thermal efficiency.

To save energy, Soo Hom prepares to place car shields on his front door. (Sandy Huffaker/For The San Diego Union-Tribune) © (Sandy Huffaker/For The San Diego Union-Tribune) To save energy, Soo Hom prepares to place car shields on his front door. (Sandy Huffaker/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Between the windows and shields, he has likely paid more than $7,000 for better insulation.

Why go that route instead of a monthly bill? Hom has health and environmental concerns about natural gas, but he's also taking a principled stance toward SDG&E.

"They are one of the most expensive utilities in the United States. I'd rather pay a window contractor or Amazon than give my money to SDG&E," he said.

Amy Koss is another extreme energy saver. About 18 months ago, she stopped using gas. Completely. She rents a studio in Loma Portal that is around 450 square feet.

"I had my maintenance guy come in and turn it off, and make sure that he verified my furnace was turned off," she said. "I go, I don't want any gas coming into my apartment until I tell you I want gas coming into my apartment." (She still pays a connection fee, she said. "They're still getting me for like 46 cents or a dollar, or something like that," she said.)

When San Diego had rolling blackouts, she got serious about cutting back on electricity, too.

"I was unplugging my microwave so that the time of day wasn't taking up energy," she said. "Even if I wanted to cook, I would wait until it was later. Just because I don't like surprise bills, you know what I mean?"

She did turn on a space heater for some kittens she was caring for back in September, and now she uses it in short bursts when wool socks, sweatpants and a quilt aren't enough. The studio is not well insulated, she said.

About a week ago, her projected bill for January was $36.

Morals and budget drive Koss's quest.

On the first: "I am vegan, right? So it's just like, do less harm. It's all about making as small an imprint as possible."

On the second: She doesn't want to grow old in San Diego. She's "pushing 60" and a few weeks ago, she saw a woman working at Chipotle who looked to be in her 70s. It was a wake-up call.

"I don't want to be the lady in Chipotle," she said.

Koss plans to move to Detroit. Yes, those winters will make January in San Diego feel like a tropical fever dream. But life is cheaper. At one co-op she's looking into, $60,000 buys a unit and $600 a month covers rent and utilities combined.

For Reyes, who earns $17 an hour working in Walmart's produce department, not using the heater isn't a choice. For one, a bigger utility bill would be "a big burden." He has recently paid $80 to $100 a month for gas and electricity.

He didn't believe his mother when she first told him the rate was doubling. "I go, what do you mean? Why double?" he said. Then, as he thought about where he'll find the money, he got stressed.

"Everything's going up," he said. "How am I going to be able to do this?"

He rattled off other increases: Uber, which he takes to work, costs $1 to $2 more per ride. (He may switch to the bus, he said, but has let himself have that creature comfort.) Eggs went from $8 a crate to $30.

The other reason: the home's heater is broken.

"It blew out," Reyes said. To stay warm in the two-bedroom house, he put a space heater in the bathroom and one in the front room. Everywhere else: "Jackets."

To keep costs down, he keeps lights off and nags his 24-year-old son, who lives with him, to do the same. His son contributes financially, but there's also this: "When I come home from work ... if he's not working, all the lights are on in the house. Come on, you know?" He grimaced.

Reyes saw his take-home pay fall a year ago. He got a raise of about $1 an hour, but the company canceled profit sharing for workers at his income tier, he said.

"Every quarter, they would give us a little something," he said, between $300 and $500. "Since they gave us that boost, they cut (the profit sharing) off. ... We're back to like minimum wage again."

Between losing the perk and higher prices for food, transportation, now SDG&E, Reyes feels like every gain he makes is wiped out. He was saving up for a car, but he's stopped.

"I finally think I'm getting somewhere and guess what, no I'm not," he said.

Kyra Greene, with the Center on Policy Initiatives, said even one month of higher rates can be significant, because essential needs — like cooking, cleaning, paying bills or checking bank balances online — "all are dependent on your access to energy."

"For most San Diegans," she added, "the expenses of housing and the attached costs — energy costs and utilities — that's the biggest chunk of their money."

Greene added that an unexpected bill increase is a financial emergency for people who don't have extra funds. Given that inflation has eaten into many people’s savings, it's especially hard for some households to absorb even a temporary increase right now.

Adaptations: Clotheslines, 3 a.m. dishes

Faced with higher energy bills, San Diegans are adapting to different degrees.

Greene said that for families with no wiggle room in their budgets, a ballooning utility bill can have ripple effects that are hard to measure or see.

Take hanging laundry to avoid using a gas dryer: that's fine when it's sunny. "But what happened this week, if you can't afford to dry your clothes and you need to send your kids to school and it rained every day?" A parent can either run up a bill he can't afford and perhaps fall into debt or wait for the weather to improve. "Those are the kind of impossible choices."

One such dilemma for Jinny Rinaldi: pay for gas or water.

"I'm behind one month in the water. I kind of let it go, because of the holidays. And they're OK, because they're not forcing people to pay the bill right now," said Rinaldi, 72, a retired registered nurse whose relatives live with her and pitch in to an extent (one is a student, one has a partial disability).

She's also behind around $1,000 on her SDG&E account. She listed a stream of numbers: December's total bill ($364.79), the amount she didn't pay ($200), how much she owes in January so far ($416), how many days left in the billing cycle (seven), this month's projected bill ($560 to $620).

"I'm just overwhelmed with it," Rinaldi said.

Still, she has been heating her home.

"I stay comfortable," she said. "I guess I could just turn it off, which I may have to do. I may have to make some changes."

She added: "I just don't know how they can do this. Say, 'Hey, we're sorry, we have things we have to pay for, so we're going put the cost onto the consumer.' How they can just do that. They're just the monopoly and they can just do whatever they want."

People who "have past due balances and maybe are struggling to keep up" should contact the utility online or on the phone, SDG&E's Golan said.

"We have solutions for them. Our focus has been and really continues to be on supporting those customers, particularly who have fallen behind in paying their energy bills," Golan said. "And we have not disconnected any residential customer since March of 2020."

For Louise Beatson, higher energy costs have led to major changes in how, when and what she does in her home. She runs the dishwasher at 3 a.m. and has been using her air fryer instead of the oven. She has stopped flicking on the gas fireplace for cozy evenings.

“Now I think, nope, I'll just throw a blankie over me and put some socks on or something,” she said.

A few weeks ago, when she first got the rate increase notice, she talked with a neighbor about how they could use less natural gas. Both realized they had missed one essential thing: their clothes dryers.

“He's got a balcony, I've got a patio,” she said. They traded ideas: hang up jeans, but not bulky things. Use a retractable line or a drying rack.

These efforts have left Beatson, a retiree on a fixed income, feeling drained — and skeptical about SDG&E's explanation for the rate hike.

"What, am I going to live in a cave now and only come out at a certain time?" Beaston said, expressing a frustration that others couched in harsher language. “It's just absolutely scandalous that we have been hit by that. You just can't fathom the why. In California we pay so much more for so many other things and here's just another thing."

When asked about the concerns of Beatson and other ratepayers, Golan said SDG&E does not profit on commodity price increases.

SDG&E is regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission, which "approves not only our rates, but they also approve an authorized rate of return for us. So when customers think we have these outlandish profits or how we're making money, it really is structured and set at the California Public Utilities Commission through proceedings," Golan said.

However, SDG&E posted year-end earnings of $819 million in 2021, according to filings by the utility's parent company, Sempra, a Fortune 500 energy company based in San Diego.

Torn between medical and energy bills

Barbara Wesser's SDG&E bill was $436 last month. A few days ago it was $291, halfway into her billing cycle. That's after doing everything she could think of to keep her energy usage down, from rebuilding her three-bedroom Scripps Ranch house after the 2003 Cedar Fire "with energy savings in mind," to twice asking SDG&E for an energy audit, to buying a clothesline a few weeks ago, to rarely using the heater.

Feeling cold on mornings — when the temperature in Scripps Ranch drops to the high 30s — is hard for Wesser, who is 82. She sets the heat to 70 for a bit when she wakes up, to take the edge off.

Barbara Wesser wears a sweater because she has the heat turned down. (Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune) © (Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune) Barbara Wesser wears a sweater because she has the heat turned down. (Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

"I've been really reluctant to use our heater. (I'm) trying to get used to lower temperatures and put a sweater on," she said. "I mean, I'd like to be able to be comfortable in my own house. But unfortunately, that's just not going to happen."

Golan, with SDG&E, said the utility does not want people to go without heat.

"We don't want to discourage customers from using essential appliances or heating their home to make sure that they're comfortable," Golan said. "We want to make sure that customers don't have angst about that and can use the gas and electricity that they need."

A retired career counselor from UC San Diego, Wesser is far from San Diego's most vulnerable consumer. She has Social Security income and a pension. She said she can afford this month's rate increase, with sacrifices.

Barbara Wesser displays her energy bill at her home. (Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune) © (Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune) Barbara Wesser displays her energy bill at her home. (Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Households with more resources have more choices about where to cut back.

But, Greene, of the Center on Policy Initiatives, said that while some people can afford to shift money from Starbucks or zoo passes toward a higher bill, missing out on experiences and pleasures "can still be painful. I don't want to dismiss the pain of that."

And Wesser has her own serious financial worries: a sick husband and mounting medical bills.

"My husband has advanced Alzheimer’s disease and we are facing ever-escalating costs related to his care," she said. "We are not well off financially and will probably suffer financial ruin over those costs if he lives many more years. We are desperate to find a way to reduce our energy costs."

Months before this natural gas price spike, Wesser noticed that her energy bills were double her neighbors', but their appliances and usage appeared to be similar. Twice last year, she asked the utility for an energy assessment but was told it's only for businesses.

Told about Wesser's requests for help, Golan confirmed company does energy assessments for residential customers and said she will connect Wesser with that program. (In the meantime, Wesser told the Union-Tribune she was able to independently make an appointment.)

Golan added that the utility is committed to helping people who are saddled with energy bills they can't afford. She listed several resources and programs, including payment plans, financial assistance, debt forgiveness and bill discounts.

"I don't want customers to worry," she added. "I want them to reach out to us, so we can work with them."

Staff writer Rob Nikolewski contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.


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