Saving energy is one thing. Saving money on your PG&E bill is another. To that end, the utility offers programs for low-income customers to help them save money. Other programs help customers manage their monthly bills regardless of their income.

Diana Guido saves money on her PG&E bills under the CARE program, which provides low-income customers with a discount on residential gas and electricity bills. She also signed up for Energy Partners, which provided a no-cost energy audit that resulted in free weatherization improvements that made her home more energy efficient.

"It's a big difference. I've seen a dramatic change in the amount of the bill," said Guido, who lives in Martinez with her husband and their two adult children. The family signed up for the program last year.

Enrollment in CARE has increased in the past year as the California economy struggles with a hard-hit housing market and rising unemployment. CARE is the most popular of the utility's ratepayer-funded financial assistance programs, but the tough economy has made it even more popular. During the first eight months of the year, CARE added 284,861 new residential customers, compared with 238,055 new enrollees last year during the same period.

"We have seen a significant increase. The numbers speak for themselves. We have stepped up our outreach efforts because this is a difficult time for people," said PG&E spokeswoman Tamar Sarkissian.

Although more than 1.2 million residential customers have enrolled in CARE, the utility estimates another 316,000 are financially eligible for the program. A family of four with an annual income of up to $43,200 would qualify for CARE.

Another program known as FERA provides a discount, but only for the electricity portion of energy bills. Both CARE and FERA have income caps for enrollment but the caps for FERA are higher. The higher limits for FERA are meant to reach more customers who need help with their electricity bills but cannot qualify for CARE. A family of four with an annual income of between $43,201 and $54,000 could enroll in FERA. Customers cannot enroll in both programs.

"Depending on which program you qualify for, that's the program you apply for," said Sarkissian.

New enrollment numbers for FERA have also increased. In the first eight months of 2009, the program enrolled 8,239 new participants, compared to 6,470 who signed up during the same period in 2008.

While the ratepayer-funded CARE and FERA program provides a discount on monthly bills for qualified customers, a program known as REACH, which is funded by shareholder contributions, provides one-time assistance for low-income customers facing an unexpected financial hardship.

Other programs, such as the balanced payment plan, have no income restrictions.

Those who sign up for the balanced payment plan end up with a set payment amount based on the average monthly bill for previous usage over the past 12 months.

PG&E keeps tabs on energy usage and if necessary makes adjustments to the set amount but no more than once every four months.

Judith Verrips of Danville likes the program a lot because she knows what to expect when her PG&E bill arrives each month.

"It works wonderfully. It balances out," said Verrips, who signed up for the balanced payment plan a couple years ago. "If you did not use as much gas and electricity in the last (four months), it goes down a little bit the (next four months). If you used more gas and electricity in the (last four months), it goes up a little."

For customers with certain medical conditions, the utility offers a medical baseline allowance program that provides lower rates for electricity usage that are above a household's baseline allowance (the lowest tier charged for electricity).

A baseline allowance is meant to provide between 50 and 60 percent of an average household's year-round electricity usage in a climate-based area.

Oakley resident Michael Nuccio signed up for the program in 2005.

"It helps out quite a bit," said Nuccio, who sleeps with a breathing machine to help with his chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. "I need oxygen treatments and it's on day and night."

Another program is also open to all residential customers.

Under the third-party notification process, PG&E will inform a designated third party when a customer receives a late-payment notice from the utility.

The designated person is not responsible for paying the bill.

PG&E PROGRAMS FOR LOW-INCOME CUSTOMERS
1. CARE (California Alternate Rates for Energy) provides a monthly discount of 20 percent for natural gas. Electricity discount depends on customer usage but typically works out to about 50 percent off total rate. Call 1-866-743-2273 or visit www.pge.com/care.
2. Energy Partners offers homeowners and renters with an energy audit that may result in free energy efficient appliances and weatherization measures such as caulking, weather-stripping and compact fluorescent lamps to reduce usage. Energy efficient appliances may include refrigerators (if made before 1993) and air conditioners. Call 1-800-989-9744 or visit www.pge.com/energypartners.
3. REACH (Relief Assistance Through Community Help) a one-time energy-assistance program administered through the Salvation Army for customers with an unexpected financial hardship. Provides a credit of up to $200 based on a bill's past due amount. Available once within an 18-month period, but exceptions can be made for seniors, the physically challenged and the terminally ill. Call Salvation Army at 1-800-933-9677.
The following income restrictions apply to CARE, Energy Partners and REACH:
Number of Persons in Household Annual income before taxes
1 or 2 $30,500
3 $35,800
4 $43,200
For each additional person, add $7,400
4. FERA (Family Electric Rate Assistance) provides a monthly discount on electric bills only. FERA customers pay Tier 2 (101% - 130% of baseline) rates for Tier 3 (131% - 200% of baseline) electric usage.
Number of person in Household Annual income before taxes
1 or 2 Not Eligible
3 $35,801 - $44,800
4 $43,201 - $54,000
For each additional person, add $7,400 - $9,200

When customers sign up for CARE or FERA, they state their income and should be prepared for the possibility that PG&E will verify their income. Customers signing up for Energy Partners or REACH are required to show proof of income prior to enrollment.

Open to all residential customers
1. Balanced payment plan. PG&E averages a residential customer's energy costs over a 12-month period to arrive at a "balanced payment amount." Once enrolled, PG&E monitors the account and changes the BPP amount when appropriate, but no more than once every four months.
2. Medical baseline program
Customers receiving a medical baseline allowance pay for all usage in excess of the baseline allowance at Tier 3 (131-200% of baseline) rates. To qualify, a California-licensed physician must certify that a full-time resident in your home has one of these medical conditions:
Dependent on life-support equipment while at home.
A paraplegic, hemiplegic, quadriplegic or multiple sclerosis patient with special heating and/or cooling needs
A scleroderma patient with special heating needs
A life-threatening illness or compromised immune system with special heating and/or cooling requirements to sustain the patient's life or prevent deterioration of the patient's medical condition
3. Third-party notification. Available to all residential customers with consent of both parties. Under this program, PG&E will notify a third-party when a relative, friend or client receives a late notice due to an unpaid PG&E bill.
Source: PG&E (1-800-743-5000 or visit www.pge.com.).


bY THE NUMBERS
PG&E has about 5.29 million residential customers.
1,245,640 are currently enrolled in CARE.
317,610 in balanced payment plan.
104,730 in medical baseline program