Light Bulbs

Millions of light bulbs shipped to stores as part of an investor-owned utility energy-efficiency program are unaccounted for.

Fifteen million light bulbs have gone missing in California, costing electricity customers about $55 million, according to a ruling by the California Public Utilities Commission.

San Diego Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison lost track of millions of light bulbs, shipping potentially hundreds of thousands to stores that did not sell light bulbs in the first place, according to a report prepared by consulting group DNG-VL and cited by the CPUC in its ruling.

The investor-owned utilities shipped the discounted bulbs to more than 170 different stores, with a few stores receiving more than 150,000, as part of the IOUs' 2017 energy-efficiency lighting program. The total number of bulbs shipped exceeded the total number of bulbs sold in the state by three times in 2017, the CPUC said in its ruling.

"Ratepayers have been harmed by paying for energy efficiency services when in fact they received nothing," The Utility Reform Network said in a filing on Feb. 14. "This scandal takes the cake."

TURN said it could not recall an instance in which a reporting discrepancy was this large and attributable to such stark lapses in utility program oversight. More than a decade ago, TURN said it was alarmed to find compact fluorescent lamps subsidized by Pacific Gas & Electric ratepayers on the shelf of a small corner market in Reno, Nevada, where they would not produce energy savings in PG&E's service territory.

The bulbs shipped in SCE's and SDG&E's case were a mixture of CFLs and light-emitting diode bulbs, 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, according to DNG-VL's study. 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.

Evaluators with DNG-VL also called 83 retail stores that received light bulbs from SDG&E and SCE, but 20 of the stores said they had not sold light bulbs at all for the past three years. Meanwhile, SCE and SDG&E programs claimed savings for bulbs shipped to these stores, the CPUC's ruling said.

SDG&E might pursue legal remedies against entities with which it contracted for its upstream lighting program, the IOU told the CPUC in a response filing. SDG&E disagreed with TURN's recommendation to refund ratepayers for the missing bulbs and asked the commission for more time to evaluate DNV-GL's report. The utility also started its own investigation in order to provide "additional, important information that will inform the commission's decision" and expects to complete its report by April 30.

SCE also disagreed with TURN's recommendation that ratepayers be refunded because the recommendation is "premature and predetermines the outcome of the investigation," the IOU said in a response filing.

Staff Writer

David Krause is an energy reporter covering the California Energy Commission and Air Resources Board. He writes about transportation, climate change, utilities, and wildfires. He has an MFA in Writing, an MA in English, and a BS in Civil Engineering.