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Sign outside San Diego Gas & Electric building
A sign outside a San Diego Gas & Electric building. Courtesy of the company

 Following recent news of natural gas prices skyrocketing and local utility bills going up, San Diego Gas & Electric announced Tuesday it is making $1 million in customer assistance funding available for those experiencing financial hardship.

The assistance will be disbursed through the Neighbor-to-Neighbor program, which provides up to $300 in one-time grants to help offset past-due bills for SDG&E customers who need help paying bills and aren’t eligible for the federally funded Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

N2N is entirely funded by shareholder dollars, not ratepayer dollars, according to the utility.

“While SDG&E doesn’t control the natural gas market, we feel it’s very important for us as a company to dedicate shareholder dollars to help our customers who are struggling to absorb significant increases in winter energy bills due to extreme commodity market conditions in the West,” SDG&E CEO Caroline Winn said in a statement. “We are committed to make every effort to help our customers prepare and take action to manage their energy use and provide access to programs and services.

“Additionally, as a company, we want to contribute financially to those in need in the communities we serve,” she said.

SDG&E customers who reside in the company’s service territory in San Diego and southern Orange counties can apply for N2N if they do not qualify for LIHEAP funding, and if they certify they are experiencing serious illness, temporary unemployment, disability or unusual hardship.

To apply, customers should call 2-1-1 San Diego or 2-1-1 Orange County, which will direct them to community-based organizations collaborating with SDG&E on the N2N program. SDG&E validates customer eligibility and applies N2N funds as credits to customers’ accounts to offset overdue bills.

The Neighbor-to-Neighbor program is intended to provide up to $300 per household in assistance for qualifying customers, and up to $400 for qualifying customers enrolled in the Medical Baseline program.

New gas and electric rates went into effect Jan. 1. According to SDG&E, the cost per unit of natural gas — known as a therm — more than doubled over the past year, increasing from $2.36 per therm in January 2022 to $5.11 per therm in January 2023.

The increase means residents who had a peak winter gas bill of about $105 last January can expect the January 2023 bill to be around $225. Customers who are enrolled in the CARE bill discount program could see their January gas bills increase from around $60 to $130.

Natural gas is not just used for heating and cooking, it’s also used to generate 40% of the country’s electricity. A typical SDG&E residential customer who receives both electric delivery and electric generation as a bundled service from SDG&E may see their average monthly electric bill increase by around $25 from $160 to $185 starting this month, according to the utility.

The reasons for the spike in natural gas prices are varied, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, including widespread, below- normal temperatures; high natural gas consumption; reduced natural gas flows; pipeline constraints, including maintenance in West Texas; and low natural gas storage levels in the Pacific region.

According to the utility, more than 90% of the increase in the overall gas rate is driven by the market price for gas — the amount SDG&E pays suppliers to buy the gas on behalf of its customers.

SDG&E leaders said they do not charge any markup for natural gas — if the utility pays $1 for natural gas in the commodity market, that’s what customers pay. SDG&E began alerting customers about rising gas prices and anticipated rate changes in October so they could be better prepared.

The utility offered some suggestions for relief and how to save money these winter months, including a variety of assistance programs, including bill discounts, debt relief, payment plans and energy efficiency programs.

Some tips to reduce costs include:

— Using caulk and weather-strip around drafty doors and windows, using a door sweep, door sock or towel at the bottom of doors with a gap;

— Checking furnace filters once a month and replace them regularly. A dirty air filter can increase your energy costs and cause problems with your equipment;

— Using warm water instead of hot water to cut a washing machine’s energy use in half; using cold water will save even more; and

— Lowering the thermostat water heaters to 120 degrees, if possible.

Customers can visit sdge.com/MyEnergy for bill-saving and energy management resources.

–City News Service

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Ellen Bullock