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The knowledge barrier

An informal consumer survey found that only one in three workers at the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) was confident they could make a wise choice about their electricity supply in a free market, tentatively to launch on March 31. Furthermore, the survey suggests that a $73 million consumer awareness campaign has not made much of a dent in informing people about deregulation.

Even workers at the California state regulator's office are confused about what deregulation of the electricity market means for them. An informal consumer survey found that only one in three workers at the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) was confident they could make a wise choice about their electricity supply in a free market, tentatively to launch on March 31.

Furthermore, the survey, by consumer organisation Greenlining Institute, suggests that a $73 million consumer awareness campaign has not made much of a dent in informing people about deregulation. The survey, released in late January, was small, of just 60 people. But it appears to contain bad news for those selling green electricity. Despite the fact that opinion polls consistently show that a proportion of consumers will pay more for renewable energy, a lack of knowledge seems to be hampering the popularity of such programmes.

"I was very surprised by the results," says Itzel Berrio, who carried out the survey for Greenlining. The job of educating the public about restructuring was passed on by the PUC to the state's three utilities, San Diego Gas & Electric, Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison. They hired advertising companies in Los Angeles to spread the word.

But the dissemination of consumer information has often been slow and confusing. One residential consumer requested a package of "Knowledge is Power" on deregulation, which took took at least six weeks to arrive.

The PUC will only pay the three utilities $73 million for the campaign if the public "awareness level" of electricity deregulation is 60% by this summer. For every percentage point below 60%, the utilities will have to give back 3% of the education funding, or about $2.2 million per percentage point.

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