In the midst of some of the highest temperatures the Coachella Valley has seen all year, Palm Springs resident Colin Sowa wasn’t worried when he heard his air conditioner switch off sometime around 6 p.m. last Friday.
In fact, he had come to expect it.
All summer long, Southern California Edison (SCE) controls Sowa’s air conditioner as a part of its summer discount program. As of 2021, about 180,000 SCE customers are enrolled in the program, according to an analysis prepared for SCE.
The voluntary program allows the energy company to periodically cycle the air conditioner on for 15 minutes, and off for 15 minutes, for up to six hours to conserve energy. When customers sign up for the program, SCE installs a remote-controlled device on or near their air conditioners at no cost.
Participating customers are eligible for up to $180 in bill credits from June 1 to Oct. 1. Customers in certain tiers of the program are able to have more control, with the ability to override SCE’s shutoffs.
Unfortunately, Sowa was not in one of those tiers.
While part of the program for about 18 years, and generally pleased with the money he saved — and not bothered by the slightly higher temperatures in his house — Sowa said he started to get worried when he and his partner returned from dinner and realized the air conditioner had never turned back on. When they woke up the next day, the unit was still not functioning.
Sowa is not the only customer to have the issue. Several accounts of customers reporting similar issues can be found on SCE’s website and elsewhere online.
It also wouldn’t be the first time Palm Springs residents have had trouble with SCE. Two years ago, hundreds of residents united to form a watchdog group to look out for problems higher than average bills. In recent years, summer blackouts and maintenance scheduled during the hottest months of the year have also been common complaints.
To respond to those complaints, experts from SCE will be at Palm Springs City Hall at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 1 for a discussion with residents about the grid, outages, energy costs as well as time for questions from residents. More information about the event is here, and it will also be broadcast live on the city’s YouTube channel.
Sowa couldn’t wait a week to get answers.
“By Saturday morning, it was already 90 degrees,” he explained, adding that he and his partner jumped into action to try to find out what was happening. They looked for an SCE number online that would connect them directly to the department that deals with the summer discount program, but had no luck.
They also tried calling the main customer service line, but because they weren’t experiencing a power outage or an emergency, they couldn’t get help. Throughout the day, they also filled out help forms on SCE’s website.
“I posted on all of the Edison social media accounts I could find,” Sowa added.
The two had been calling and navigating the website for hours, when a customer service representative finally gave them the correct number to speak directly to someone responsible for the summer discount program. By then, it was about 3:30 in the afternoon, and the temperature was climbing. Once they reported their issue and still hadn’t heard back after a few hours, they called back.
“It’s 5:30 p.m. The house is 100 degrees by that point,” Sowa said, adding that they were met with the department’s voicemail. The staff, the department said, wouldn’t be back until Monday morning.
On Tuesday of this week, four days after first discovering the issue, an SCE technician was finally able to remove the device.
Sowa said his biggest frustration was the “unacceptable” lack of customer service. He said he doesn’t fault any of the individuals he spoke with, who were all cordial and apologetic.
“My problem is with the layers of customer service in these corporate systems,” he said. “You really can’t talk to a person or get a human to answer your questions.”
Sowa and he and his partner were able to make do and had places they could’ve stayed if their situation became dangerous, but he wondered what someone without his resources would do.
“I just picture this 80-year-old sitting in a house that’s over 100 degrees with no hope in sight,” he said. SCE, he added, can’t expect elderly people to navigate exactly where they need to go on the website or know how to select the options on a phone tree that will get them to a real person.
Jeff Monford, the senior advisor of corporate communications for SCE, said this week that SCE is looking into Sowa’s problems with his device and the difficulty he had with customer service.
“We are so sorry for the difficulty [Sowa] had. We know that it’s enormously burdensome to have no AC during the summer, especially in the desert,” Monford said Thursday. “We are working to determine the root cause and what opportunities we have to avoid a similar situation in the future.”
Sowa said he considers himself to be conscientious when it comes to energy use. He always waits until sundown before running energy-intensive appliances, like dishwashers or washing machines.
But he also hopes that his problems with the summer discount program don’t dissuade others from taking advantage of it.
“I hope that by talking about it, Edison will learn that this is an issue and get it fixed,” he said.
More information: A community meeting with Southern California Edison representatives is planned for Tuesday, Aug. 1, at 6:30 p.m. at Palm Springs City Hall. The event will also be broadcast on the city’s YouTube Channel. For more information, and to reserve a spot, turn here.