Imagine Marsha Walker''s surprise when she opened her utility bill this month and saw that it was $465--about three times the normal amount.

"I mean, we''re doing some remodeling, but it doesn''t seem like that much," said the Pacific Grove resident, who buys her power from Green Mountain Energy. After closer examination, Walker found that her bill actually contained a feature that it does every month--just in unusual proportions. The Walkers'' bill contains a $283.83 credit from PG&E, leaving their actual bill more like $180, a reasonable figure given the added usage from power tools.

The Walkers and others must pay their bills to Green Mountain in full (a four-month payment plan can help), but that''s not the end of the story. Theoretically, the Walkers should be able to request a check from PG&E for the credit amount. But with PG&E in crisis, things are getting dicey for Green Mountain.

"We''re struggling to stay afloat in the perfect storm," says Rick Counihan, a spokesman from Green Mountain''s San Francisco office. "We face the same high wholesale prices as PG&E does. The difference is our prices to customers are in- dexed to the price PG&E pays for power. So as the price PG&E pays goes up, so does the price we charge customers."

That''s the legacy from an agreement that was set up at the beginning of deregulation. That agreement also stipulates that Green Mountain customers get separate bills from Green Mountain (for providing the energy) and PG&E (for transmitting energy and providing gas). PG&E charges Green Mountain customers as if they were still buying their power from PG&E, instead of just buying the service of transmitting it. In a sense, it''s like having UPS charge you not just to deliver the package but for the contents of the package, too. Then PG&E credits customers--or repays them--for the energy charged in the first place.

Until now, repayment hasn''t been an issue. The credits have accumulated so slowly that they were just used to offset the price of future transmissions. Not anymore. Stacy Homrig, a spokeswoman for PG&E, says, "We''ve had so many requested checks that we''ve had a difficult time handling them."

Homrig explains that customers can continue to carry credit and apply it to future PG&E bills, "or they can request us to issue a check and we will, but it will take some time."

When the Weekly caught up with Rick Counihan last week, he had just secured word from PG&E that they would indeed pay back the credits on request. But that only slows the flow of blood, Counihan says. Eventually there will be fallout.

"Eventually it''s going to squeeze them or us," he says. "We already have customers going back to the utilities because they''re still getting charged 13 cents a kilowatt hour. We''ve had situations where a customer owes us $700 and PG&E owes the customer $700. A lot of people can''t come up with that."

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