Pacific Gas & Electric shuts off the power to about 15,000 customers in San Francisco for nonpayment annually, disproportionately impacting neighborhoods where more people of color live, new data shows.
The disconnects are particularly concerning for a city that has prioritized equity under Mayor London Breed, such as through The City’s budget process.
The data was presented Friday to the Local Agency Formation Commission, which includes members of the Board of Supervisors, by a graduate student who conducted an equity report related to CleanPowerSF, The City’s renewable energy program.
“Every year there are roughly 15,000 accounts that are disconnected,” said Winston Parsons, a graduate student in the University of San Francisco’s Urban and Public Affairs program. “More people are impacted than that because many accounts have more than one person in a household.”
The data, which was provided by PG&E upon request for the years 2016 through 2018, shows the rates for power shut-offs by zip code. The highest rates for shutting off the power for nonpayment occur in parts of San Francisco with larger populations of people of color.
In the Bayview, the shutoff rate was the highest at 9.4 percent with 982 customer disconnections out of a total of 10,483 accounts.
“The disconnection rate in 94124 (Bayview-Hunters Point) from 2016-2018 was roughly two times that in 94121 (Outer Richmond) and three-and-a-half times as high as in 94127 (West Portal/St. Francis Woods),” said Parsons’ report titled “Advancing Equity and Community Investment in CleanPowerSF.”
The report also looked at the disparities that exist for low-income customers receiving discounted rates of up to 35 percent through the California Alternate Rates for Energy program. To qualify for the CARE program a household of two couldn’t earn more than $33,820 and a household of four no more than $51,500.
“Nearly half of disconnections in 94124 – the Bayview-Hunters Point – are among CARE customers, a far higher proportion than any other district, followed only by 94134 – Visitacion Valley/Portola, 94112 – Crocker-Amazon/Sunnyside, and several ZIP codes in the SOMA area,” the report said. “These ZIP codes also have some of the highest percentages each of low-income, rent-burdened, single-parent, and African American and Hispanic households in San Francisco.”
“There are very real negative impacts from a power disconnection. A household without power will likely go without heating, lighting, refrigeration,” Parsons said. “And they might turn to solutions that increase the risk of fires.”
LAFCO chair Supervisor Sandra Fewer, who recently helped establish a new Office of Racial Equity, said that she hadn’t thought of power shut-offs as an equity issue before but that “these are the nuances that we actually don’t think about.”
“This is very concerning,” Fewer said.
Parsons said that “as far as we can tell, it is the first time this data specific to San Francisco has been made publicly available.”
He said that they have received additional requested data from PG&E that they have yet to analyze that will show how long it took these accounts to have their power turned back on.
“Many of these accounts have their power turned back on after 24 hours and we wanted to see if there were disparities in how long people were able to turn their power back on,” Parsons said. “I am willing to bet that we will see a similar trend.”
The report recommends The City set goals to reduce power shut-offs.
Under state law for community choice aggregations, PG&E is responsible for the billing and shut-offs for the more than 400,000 customers enrolled in The City’s CleanPowerSF program, which provides electricity from more renewable sources than PG&E while using PG&E’s infrastructure.
The City could do more to outreach to customers or assist them using their CleanPowerSF program, such as with rebates or debt forgiveness, the report suggests.
The report also recommends advocating the California Public Utilities Commission expand prohibitions for shutting off the power to include households with children under 12 months of age.
Another issue identified is the need to simplify customer noticing when a bill goes unpaid. The notification process, the report said, is “quite convoluted and confusing for staff and customers alike, with customers getting a variety of different notices from CleanPowerSF and PG&E separately at different points.”
The report also said that the subsidized rate programs like CARE have qualifying income levels that don’t reflect the high cost-of-living in San Francisco and that the CPUC should set a different level for San Francisco.
“A basic energy equity question we have to grapple with is: Can people reasonably afford their energy?” Parsons said.