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Hefty boost urged in California power rates

LOS ANGELES — California's chief power regulator proposed large increases in retail electric rates Monday in an effort to help finance the state's spiraling energy costs and encourage conservation that could help avoid more blackouts in the hot summer months.

The official, Loretta Lynch, said she would propose an average increase of 3 cents a kilowatt hour for residential customers, a 40 percent increase from the current rate of 7.5 cents a kilowatt hour for electricity costs alone.

The total rate, including the costs of transmission, transportation and conservation programs, is now about 12.5 cents a kilowatt hour, and it would rise to 15.5 cents, for an overall increase of about 24 percent. The effect on ratepayers' monthly bills would vary greatly, depending on how much power they used; customers who conserved the most might see no increase at all.

The new rates could go into effect as early as Tuesday, when the commission was scheduled to meet. Lynch, who is president of the state Public Utilities Commission, and two other members of the five-member board were appointed by Gov. Gray Davis, who has vowed to try to avoid new rate increases.

The proposed increase would come on top of a 9 percent increase approved in January and a 10 percent increase expected to take effect next year when a previously imposed cap on rates is lifted. The proposed increase would apply to customers of the state's two largest investor-owned utilities, Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas and Electric.

Consumer advocates promptly denounced the proposed increase as a surrender to the utilities and the private power generators and again threatened to advance ballot initiatives that could remove authority for solving the crisis from the governor's hands.

Nettie Hoge, executive director of one consumer group, the Utility Reform Network, said the rate increase was "no solution to anything except the utilities' whining."

But Lynch said the increases were needed "to keep utilities solvent and ensure that the treasurer of the state can issue bonds."

The governor's press secretary, Steve Maviglio, said Davis believed that a tiered pricing structure like the one Lynch proposed could promote conservation.