Report questions California energy surcharges

February 3, 2011 12:00:00 AM PST
Most of Californians do not even notice the extra surcharges on their electricity bill. They help fund, among other things, the Public Interest Energy Research Program to pay for energy efficiency research. But a new report is calling into question where some of those surcharges are going.

Since 2001, California ratepayers have been kicking in roughly 2 percent of their electricity bill to fund PIER, one of the programs under public purpose. $700 million later, the Legislative Analyst Office says about 10 percent of the money collected by the state Energy Commission was spent on questionable research.

"The Energy Commission, in our opinion, has failed to demonstrate that this state has received substantial benefit from that investment," spokesperson Tiffany Roberts said.

The report calls out grants for things like salmon habitat restoration, deforestation and climate change on bird distribution, questioning how they relate to energy.

The California Energy Commission declined to be interviewed, but will have to justify that spending at a legislative hearing later this month, chaired by state Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima.

"The LAO raises some red flags, the Energy Commission is going to have to answer to the LAO and to the Legislature," Padilla said.

Surcharge supporters say the PIER program has done some good, like move California to CFL light bulbs and spur the development of more energy efficient commercial fryers.

Meanwhile, the electricity surcharge expires in January, and the Legislature will decide whether to keep it going, a tough sell after the report.

"We have to show we've made wise use of the first $700 million," Padilla said.

Californians are skeptical about coughing more money after seeing the LAO report that found no ratepayer benefit.

"No, not if it's not doing anything, it's not accomplishing anything, I don't think it should be continued to be paid," utility customer Teresa Solis said.

"That's one reason we should shut it off because it's like throwing money down a rat hole," utility customer Stan Skov said.

The Legislative Analyst Office recommends either keeping the surcharge going but narrowing what it can be used for or eliminating it altogether.

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