Environment & Science

SoCal Gas accused of using energy-saving funds to thwart conservation

FILE: Residents arrive at the SoCal Gas Community Resource Center in Porter Ranch on Jan. 8, 2016.
FILE: Residents arrive at the SoCal Gas Community Resource Center in Porter Ranch on Jan. 8, 2016.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

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Southern California Gas Co. used energy efficiency funds paid by its customers to delay or thwart the state's efforts to improve the efficiency of appliances and buildings, according to a report from the Office of the Ratepayer Advocates.

Customers of investor-owned utilities pay more than $1 billion a year via their gas and power bills into utility-managed funds designed to promote energy efficiency in California. The ratepayer advocates report, filed Monday with the Public Utilities Commission, said SoCal Gas had been working at cross-purposes to the state's energy saving goals for at least three years.

"They have used ratepayer money to oppose improvements in energy efficiency standards at both the state and federal level," said Elizabeth Echols, director of the Office of Ratepayer Advocates.

For example, SoCal Gas used the money to oppose new conservation standards for home furnaces on the grounds that improved efficiency would encourage customers to switch away from natural gas, according to emails obtained by the ratepayer advocates office. SoCal Gas even tried thwart the energy efficiency work of other big utilities, the report says.

SoCal Gas rejected the office's findings.

“Although we are still in the preliminary stages of review, SoCalGas expects to present facts demonstrating that the Office of Ratepayer Advocates’ allegations have no merit and should be rejected," said SoGal Gas spokeswoman Melissa Bailey in an email statement.

The company has the "right and responsibility to study and share its perspectives on rules and regulations that impact our (21 million) customers, including gas energy efficiency," she said. The company's 80 energy efficiency programs have saved Southern California homes and businesses more than $672 million in energy savings since 1990, she said.

The Office of Ratepayer Advocates is an independent agency within the California Public Utilities Commission whose mission is to seek the lowest rates for service consistent with safety, reliability, and the state's environmental goals. The office also advocates for ratepayers before the California Legislature.

The ratepayer advocates office wants the Public Utilities Commission to bar SoCal Gas from taking on a statewide leadership role promoting energy efficiency or contributing to stricter energy savings standards.

"One of the remedies here, is that the gas company should not be allowed to do advocacy around building standards going forward," said Evan Gillespie of the Sierra Club.

"What the Office of Rate Advocates found was that they were taking their customer dollars intended to help their customers save money and advocating against energy efficiency programs and policies intended to do exactly that," Gillespie said. "So they're taking money for one purpose and using it to do exactly the opposite."