How Many Companies Does It Take To Screw Up A Lightbulb?  Just One.  This One:

According to the California Energy Commission, there are six Investor-Owned Utilities (IOUs) in California.  The Big Three are, from north to south:

Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E):  5.2 million households in the northern two-thirds of California, from Bakersfield and northern Santa Barbara County, almost to the Oregon and Nevada state lines.

Southern California Edison (SCE):  5 million residential and business accounts…in a 50,000-square-mile service area within Central, Coastal and Southern California.

San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&):  3.6 million people in San Diego and southern Orange counties.

And according to this recent article, the Big Three charge us big time for electricity:

“PG&E customers pay about 80% more per kilowatt-hour than the national average, according to a study by the energy institute at UC Berkeley’s Haas Business School with the nonprofit think tank Next 10…Southern California Edison charged 45% more than the national average, while San Diego Gas & Electric charged double.”

Each of these three Investor-Owned Utilities also prompts headlines that range from tragic to outrageous: 

Since I live in San Diego County, my focus is on SDG&E.

And it has been for quite awhile.  I started lambasting SDG&E on this blog back in early 2018, and the company has given me plenty of fodder since then.

I’m sure this post won’t be my last.

But this time…this time…something is different.

Instead of SDG&E putting the screws to us customers, SDG&E is giving back some of our hard-earned money:

You’ll notice the mention of “bulb.”

They’re referring to lightbulbs.

Now, I know how to screw in a lightbulb, but how do you screw UP a lightbulb?

Here’s how SDG&E did it, starting back in 2017.

According to a recent article in the San Diego Union-Tribune,

“…SDG&E initiated an Upstream Lighting Program to encourage residential customers to buy energy-saving lightbulbs.  Under the project, SDG&E could earn a performance-based incentive.

“…the program aimed to reach customers who would not typically buy energy-efficient bulbs because of their expense, and prioritized stocking bulbs in small, independent grocery stores, drug stores and in lower-income markets.”

For my own education – research time.

I learned that there are three main types of energy-efficient bulbs:  halogen, compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), and light-emitting diodes (LEDs).  

They come in a variety of shapes and sizes – here are some examples, along with an old incandescent lightbulb (far left), similar to what we’ve been using since Thomas Edison started selling them in 1880:

In general, halogens, CFLs and LEDs are cheaper to use and more energy-efficient than incandescent lightbulbs.

But they’re also more expensive.

So SDG&E came up with the idea of buying lots – millions – of energy-efficient lightbulbs at a discount, shipping them to smaller stores and to stores in low-income markets.  Many people would buy the lightbulbs, and voila!

Energy is saved, and SDG&E is a hero.

SEC – Southern California Edison – also started a similar program, also in 2017, so you’ll be hearing more about them, as well.

So perhaps my blog headline was incorrect:

It took two companies to screw up the lightbulbs.

This discovery came about thanks to two organizations. 

You know – those pesky consumer watchdog groups that look after the interests of the consumer:

The Public Advocates Office, an independent organization within the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC):

And TURN, The Utility Reform Network:

On September 9 CPUC approved an agreement that SDG&E reached nearly a year ago with these two consumer advocate organizations.

CPUC hasn’t yet issued a decision regarding Southern California Edison’s program.

Here are some highlights from the investigative report commissioned by CPUC:

  • SDG&E and SCE lost track of millions of light bulbs, shipping potentially hundreds of thousands to stores that did not sell light bulbs in the first place.
  • SDG&E and SCE shipped the discounted bulbs to more than 170 different stores, with a few stores receiving more than 150,000.
  • The total number of bulbs shipped exceeded the total number of bulbs sold in California by three times in 2017.
  • The bulbs shipped in SCE’s and SDG&E’s case were a mixture of CFLs and LEDs, with about a $1 discount per bulb for CFLs and a $3 to $4 discount for LEDs.  About 80 percent of SCE’s program bulbs and 95 percent of SDG&E’s program bulbs might not have been sold to customers and were likely overstocked or missing entirely.  These discrepancies made up about 60 percent of SCE’s and 80 percent of SDG&E’s total Upstream Lighting Program bulbs, according to the report.
  • Investigators called 83 retail stores that received lightbulbs from SDG&E and SCE, but 20 of the stores said they had not sold lightbulbs at all for the past three years.  Meanwhile, SCE and SDG&E programs claimed savings for bulbs shipped to these stores.

And, specific to SDG&E:

  • At least one manufacturer falsified invoices to SDG&E and the utility paid for bulbs that were never delivered or simply dumped at some locales.
  • Members of the SDG&E team did not follow correct procedures nor conduct inspections to make sure manufacturers and retailers were not overstocking bulbs.
  • The SDG&E Customer Programs team was aware of the violations by manufacturers but did nothing to correct them.
  • Some SDG&E employees raised concerns, but four people at the manager/director levels still filed reports with the CPUC without noting those concerns.

How many missing lightbulbs are we talking about?

Around 15 million.

Let’s pause and put that number in perspective.

Let’s say a lightbulb is six inches long.

Laid end-to-end, 15 million lightbulbs would stretch for 1,420 miles – the distance from San Diego to Stillwater, OK:

That’s a whole lot of missing lightbulbs.

And how about the cost to us SDG&E customers?

About $55 million.

That’s a whole lot of money.

There are a whole lot of people who could have put that money to much better use.

CPUC determined that the refund SDG&E owned to customers is $51.6 million.

According to the San Diego Union-Tribune article:

“The package comprises $45.44 million for the money the utility spent on the lightbulb program from 2017 to 2019 and $6.12 million the company will return from incentives it earned from the program.”

This $51.6 million will be paid by shareholders to us customers, and not us customers footing the bill.

But wait – there’s more:  A very fine fine:

“The $5.5 million fine is assessed for filing a false statement to the CPUC.  The fine will be paid by shareholders of Sempra, the parent company of SDG&E.  The money from the fine will go to California’s general fund.”

Don’t for a minute think that SDG&E was willing to do this.  Though a company spokesperson said this after the settlement was announced:

“SDG&E took ownership of what went wrong and worked diligently with consumer advocates to develop the appropriate remedies and reach a fair settlement.”

Back in March 2020 SDG&E was saying something very different, according to this article:

“SDG&E disagreed with TURN’s recommendation to refund ratepayers for the missing bulbs and asked the CPUC for more time to evaluate the investigator’s report.”

The article noted that “SCE also disagreed with TURN’s recommendation that ratepayers be refunded.”

SDG&E discontinued the Upstream Lighting Program in January 2020.

But – how much longer would this have gone on, if not for the Public Advocates Office and TURN?

How many more lightbulbs lost?

How much more would we SDG&E customers have been forced to pay?

So I take a great deal of satisfaction in that this time – on this oh-so-rare occasion – we SDG&E customers aren’t getting screwed.

But I take no satisfaction in this:

“SDG&E will provide whistleblower training at shareholder expense for all employees and conduct classes on ‘timely reporting.’”

Or this:

“‘…several employees had already left the company’ and others had been let go.  Those still at SDG&E ‘received significant and appropriate discipline’ based on their roles.”

And what will my refund be from SDG&E?

Whatever it is, I’ll take it and do a few rounds of the…

And then a few months down the road, SDG&E will ask CPUC for a rate increase, and CPUC will agree, and whatever money I got back will go right back to SDG&E.

That’s the way it works.

That’s how we in San Diego County and California pay – and pay – to keep the lights on.

Finally – you know and I know that the people in decision-making positions at SDG&E knew what was going on. 

They knew, and did nothing.

They were found out, but they probably were not the ones who “left the company” or “had been let go.”

We know that SDG&E begrudges every penny that’s coming back to us customers.

We also know that SDG&E isn’t the least bit sorry for what they did.

They’re just sorry as hell that…

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