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SCE Will Tell Consumers Their Rotating Outage Block Number And Post Block Numbers Online That May Be Next In Line For Rolling Blackouts; Caveats Below

PUC orders it; SCE says it was already working on it


(April 30, 2001) -- In a move that will give LB consumers access to information about whether their home or business is part of an area likely in line for a rolling blackout, the PUC (in a decision posted verbatim below by LBReport.com) has ordered that Southern California Edison (SCE) put a "rotating outage block number" on each customer's bill and post information on its web site indicating which outage blocks may be next in line for rolling blackouts.

An Edison spokeswoman told LBReport.com the utility had already been working on its own to provide the information to consumers by June.

The pertinent part of the April 26 order states:

Southern California Edison Company (SCE) and San Diego Gas & Electric Company (SDG&E) shall each place the customer's rotating outage block number on each customer's bill beginning with bills issued no later than June 1, 2001...SCE and SDG&E shall each use its utility website, and mass media, to inform customers about rotating outages and rotating outage blocks.

This means that subject to caveats described below, LB consumers should be able to use outage block numbers on SCE bills, in conjunction with outage block numbers posted on SCE's web site, to get a general idea (but not absolute guarantee) of whether their area is coming up in sequence for a possible rolling blackout.

Pacific Gas and Electric in northern California has posted such information on its web site for months. San Diego Gas and Electric Co. has provided outage block information but only by telephone. The information gives consumers some idea of whether their home or business might be blacked out, allowing one to shut down computers, avoid elevators and the like.

Edison's Director of Consumer Affairs, Suzanne Middelburg, told LBReport.com SCE had been working to provide this information on its own. She said it took a long time to merge an outage-management system that fits with the company's distribution circuits and billing system.

She stressed that outage block information was subject to important caveats. Due to uncertainties of system operating conditions during emergencies, SCE is allowed to switch circuits at any time, including within a 30 day billing period and even on the day of any outage, meaning a customer's outage block number might be changed and the printed outage block number is not an absolute.

However, Ms. Middelburg said SCE will provide a telephone number letting customers (upon providing specific information to a "voice response unit") to obtain the latest updated information on what their outage block number is and what block numbers are being affected if an outage situation is occurring.

She said SCE's web site will show what blocks have previously been rotated, what groups are then being blacked out, and what groups remain to be blacked out. Due to conditions, SCE might skip over one group and go directly to another.

The PUC decision indicated "SCE estimates it will cost $1,110,000 to implement putting this information on bills, including infrastructure support (e.g., ability to automatically retrieve information from SCE's Outage Management System, ability to automatically update group-level rotating outage status on SCE's Customer Communications Center workstations and SCE's Voice Response Unit, implementation of enhancements to SCE's website, costs incurred for customer communication and education materials."

(The decision notes SDG&E, which already provides outage block information by phone. estimates it will cost about $85,000 to implement the statement of outage block information on its customer bills and fund customer education, including information on its website and in the mass media.)

Presiding Officer Carl Wood, who issued the decision, said "[e]ach utility has the burden of proof to demonstrate that these costs should be recovered from ratepayers."

LBReport.com posts the verbatim text of the PUC's order below:

BEFORE THE PUBLIC UTILITIES COMMISSION OF THE STATE OF CALIFORNIA

Order Instituting Rulemaking into the operation of interruptible load programs offered by Pacific Gas and Electric Company, San Diego Gas & Electric Company, and Southern California Edison Company and the effect of these programs on energy prices, other demand responsiveness programs, and the reliability of the electric system.
Rulemaking 00-10-002 (Filed October 5, 2000)

PRESIDING OFFICER AND ASSIGNED COMMISSIONER'S RULING ON IMPLEMENTATION OF ROTATING OUTAGE BLOCK INFORMATION ON CUSTOMER BILLS

1. Summary

Southern California Edison Company (SCE) and San Diego Gas & Electric Company (SDG&E) shall include a customer's rotating outage block number on each customer's bill, shall include rotating outage information on its utility website, and shall use mass media to inform customers about rotating outages.

2. Background

Ordering Paragraph 11 in Decision (D.) 01-04-006 states:

"SCE and SDG&E shall, and other parties may, address in Phase 2 the need, desirability and reasonableness of SCE and SDG&E including a rotating outage block number on each customer bill, with a notice that the block may change without notice based on operational conditions. Parties shall include this issue in any Phase 2 pleadings regarding a list of issues for consideration, along with their recommendations on how and when this issue should be considered." (Mimeo., pages 101-2; also see D.01-04-009 regarding Ordering Paragraph numbers.)

Comments on the March 16, 2001 Draft Decision leading to D.01-04-006, however, stated that outages are upon us, and that this matter cannot wait for Phase 2.1 Rather, CLECA asked that the Commission order SCE and SDG&E to indicate the rotating outage block on customer bills for Summer 2001. Further, CLECA asked that each company provide the outage block to any customer upon request, and that each utility make available through its website and to the public media the next outage blocks to be curtailed.

To allow the Commission to consider this matter without delay, I issued a Presiding Officer and Assigned Commissioner Ruling on April 9, 2001. The Ruling directed SCE and SDG&E to provide information on placing rotating outage block numbers on customer bills and on each utility's website, plus using mass media to inform customers about rotating outage blocks. On April 16, 2001, SCE and SDG&E filed and served their responses. Both SCE and SDG&E generally state that these initiatives are feasible.

On April 19, 2001, the University of California (UC), the California State University (CSU), and the Farm Bureau filed and served comments. Parties generally support including this information on customer bills and the utility's website, plus the use of mass media, but make additional suggestions. On April 23, 2001, SDG&E filed and served a reply.

3. Discussion

While some concerns remain regarding implementation, there is no opposition to placing rotating outage block information on bills of SCE and SDG&E customers.2 As a result, each utility should implement this change as soon as possible. SCE states that this may be accomplished by June 1, barring other modifications currently under consideration by the Commission. SDG&E indicates it can be effective with bills mailed on June 1, 2001. Further, each utility should reasonably use its utility website, and mass media, to inform customers about rotating outages and rotating outage blocks.

SDG&E estimates it will cost about $85,000 to implement the statement of outage block information on customer bills, and fund customer education, including information on its website and in the mass media. SCE estimates that it will cost $1,110,000 to implement putting this information on bills. SCE's estimate includes infrastructure support (e.g., ability to automatically retrieve information from SCE's Outage Management System, ability to automatically update group-level rotating outage status on SCE's Customer Communications Center workstations and SCE's Voice Response Unit, implementation of enhancements to SCE's website, costs incurred for customer communication and education materials). SCE asks that either an adequate source of current funds be identified, or that SCE be authorized to record in the memorandum account authorized in D.01-04-006 the incremental costs of programs implemented as a result of this proceeding.

SDG&E and SCE should each record in the memorandum account authorized by D.01-04-006 the incremental costs of implementing rotating outage block information on customer bills, including necessary infrastructure support. Each utility, however, bears the burden of proof for its eventual recovery. The Farm Bureau is correct that utilities will incur costs informing customers about outages in Summer 2001 whether or not rotating outage information is placed on customer bills. Any utility showing in support of cost recovery must address recovery of only the estimated incremental costs incurred for rotating outage information on bills, and infrastructure support, beyond costs the utility would otherwise incur informing customers about outages in Summer 2001. It is entirely possible, for example, that rotating outage information on bills will result in a net overall reduction in costs-or at least no increase in costs-compared to the costs of customer calls, media communications, and infrastructure support needed to inform customers about outages even in the absence of rotating block information on customer bills, utility website and through mass media.

UC/CSU ask that transmission level customers be assigned a rotating outage block number. SDG&E says it agrees as a general matter, but that none of its transmission level customers are subject to rotating outages. SDG&E asserts that the UC/CSU recommendation does not apply to SDG&E. SCE provides no comment.

SDG&E should be excused from including a rotating outage block number on transmission level customer bills because none of its transmission level customers are currently in a rotating outage block. SDG&E should include the outage block information on a transmission level customer's bill, however, if and when the transmission level customer becomes eligible for rotating outage, and is placed in an outage block.

There is no reason that SCE should not include rotating outage block information on SCE transmission level customer bills. Thus, SCE should include rotating outage block information on all customer bills, including transmission level customers, as soon as possible.

Finally, UC/CSU ask that each utility be required to make a special note on the customer's bill, or engage in some special communication, when the utility makes a change in the customer's rotating outage block. UC/CSU state that this special notice is required because facility managers do not work in the accounting office, and do not see the utility bill. UC/CSU assert that a special note, or special communication, will help ensure that facility managers are fully informed.

A special note or communication will not be required. There is no assurance that a special note or communication will result in the accounting office informing facility managers. This is an internal communications issue that must be addressed by all customers, including UC and CSU, with or without any special notice on customer bills, or special communication.

Moreover, SDG&E compellingly asserts that its billing system was not designed to provide the information requested by UC/CSU. Rather, the rotating outage block may change without notice, or change between customer bills, and the change may be temporary or permanent.

Further, UC/CSU do not make a specific proposal regarding special notice or communication. I decline to develop specifics here.

Nonetheless, utilities should make reasonable efforts to keep customers informed about the customer's current rotating outage block, including changes when they occur. This may or may not include special notices on bills, or special communications, as a utility determines to be reasonable. Similarly, customers should make a reasonable effort to remain informed, and seek up-to-date information from their serving utility, as necessary or desirable. On balance, however, the arguments presented here are not sufficiently compelling to order a specific special notice on customer bills, or a special communication, when there are rotating outage block changes.

IT IS RULED that:

1. Southern California Edison Company (SCE) and San Diego Gas & Electric Company (SDG&E) shall each place the customer's rotating outage block number on each customer's bill beginning with bills issued no later than June 1, 2001. SDG&E shall include the rotating outage block number on a transmission level customer's bill as soon as the transmission level customer is placed in a rotating outage block. SCE and SDG&E shall each use its utility website, and mass media, to inform customers about rotating outages and rotating outage blocks.

2. SCE and SDG&E may record the incremental costs of implementing rotating block numbers on customer bills, including infrastructure support, in the memorandum accounts authorized in Decision 01-04-006. Each utility has the burden of proof to demonstrate that these costs should be recovered from ratepayers. The showing in support shall contain the costs incurred for placing rotating outage information on customer bills, including necessary infrastructure support, for Summer 2001 compared to the costs for customer calls, media communications, and infrastructure support that would be needed to inform customers about outages in Summer 2001 even in the absence of rotating block information on customer bills, utility website and through mass media.

3. SCE and SDG&E shall make reasonable efforts to keep each customer informed when the customer's rotating outage block number changes, but the bill may note that the rotating outage block number may change at any time without notice based on operational conditions.

Dated April 26, 2001, at San Francisco, California.

/s/ CARL WOOD

Presiding Officer
Assigned Commissioner

Dated April 26, 2001, at San Francisco, California.

Footnpotes:

1 March 26, 2001 Comments of the California Large Energy Consumers Association (CLECA) at page 5. Also see March 23, 2001 Comments of the California Farm Bureau Federation (Farm Bureau).

2 Pacific Gas and Electric Company already includes the rotating block number on customer bills.


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