End the fiction of regulatory oversight of California’s generation

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M.Cubed is the only firm willing to sign the non-disclosure agreements (NDA) that allow us to review the investor-owned utilities’ (IOUs) generation portfolio data on behalf of outside intervenors, such as the community choice aggregators (CCAs). Even the direct access (DA) customers who constitute about a quarter of California’s industrial load are represented by a firm that is unwilling to sign the NDAs. This situation places departed load customers, and in fact all customers, at a distinct disadvantage when trying to regulate the actions of the IOUs. It is simply impossible for a single small firm to scrutinize all of the filings and data from the IOUs. (Not to mention that one, SDG&E, gets a complete free pass for now as that it has no CCAs.)

This situation has arisen because the NDAs require that the “reviewing representatives” not be in a position to advise market participants, such as CCAs or energy service providers (ESPs) that sell to DA customers, on procurement decisions. This is an outgrowth of AB 57 in 2002, a state law passed to bring IOUs back into the generation market after the collapse of restructuring in 2001. That law was intended to the balance of power to the IOUs away from generators for procurement purposes. Now it puts the IOUs at a competitive advantage against other load serving entities (LSEs) such as CCAs and ESPs, and even bundled customers.

This imbalance has arisen for several insurmountable reasons:

  • No firm can build its business on serving only to review IOU filings without offering other procurement consulting services to clients.
  • It is difficult to build expertise for reviewing IOU filings without participating in procurement services for other LSEs or resource providers. (I am uniquely situated by the consulting work I did for the CEC on assessing generation technology costs for over a decade.)
  • CPUC staff similarly lacks the expertise for many of the same reasons, and are relatively ineffective at these reviews. The CPUC is further limited by its ability to recruit sufficient qualified staff for a variety of reasons.

If California wants to rein in the misbehavior by IOUs (such as what I’ve documented on past procurement and shareholder returns earlier), then we have two options to address this problem going forward:

  1. Transform at least the power generation management side of the IOUs into publicly owned entities with more transparent management review.
  2. End the annual review and setting of PCIA and CTC rates by establishing one-time prepayment amounts. By prepaying or setting a fixed annual amount, the impact of accounting maneuvers are diminished substantially, and since IOUs can no longer shift portfolio management risks to departed load customers, the IOUs more directly face the competitive pressures that should make them more efficient managers.

Moving forward on Flood-MAR with pilots

The progress on implementing floodwater managed aquifer recharge programs (Flood-MAR) reminds me of the economist’s joke, “sure it works in practice, but does it work in theory?” A lot of focus seems to be on trying to refine the technical understanding of recharge, without going with what we already know about aquifer replenishment from decades of applications.

The Department of Water Resources Flood-MAR program recently held a public forum to discuss its research program. I presented a poster (shown above) on the findings of a series of studies we conducted for Sustainable Conservation on the economic and financial considerations for establishing these programs. (I posted about this last February.)

My conclusion from the presentations and the other publications we’ve followed is that the next step is to set up pilots using different institutional set ups and economic incentives. The scientists and engineers can further refine their findings, but we generally know where the soils are better for percolation versus others, and we know that crop productivity won’t fall too much where fields are flooded. The real issues fall into five categories, of which we’ve delved into four in our Floodwater Recharge Memos.

Benefits Diagrams_Page_5

The first is identifying the beneficiaries and the potential magnitude of those benefits. As can be seen in the flow chart above, there many more potential beneficiaries than just the local groundwater users. Some of these benefits require forecast informed reservoir operations (FIRO) to realize those gains through reduced flood control space, increased water supply storage and greater summertime hydropower output. Flood-MAR programs can provide the needed margin of error to lower the risk from FIRO.

FloodMAR Poster - Financing

The second is finding the funding mechanisms to compensate growers or to build dedicated recharge basins. We prepared a list of potential financing mechanisms linked to the potential beneficiaries. (This list grew out of another study that we prepared for the Delta Protection Commission on feasible options for beneficiary-pays financing.)

FloodMAR Poster Incentives

The third is determining what type of market incentive transactions mechanisms would work best at attracting the most preferred operations and acreage. I have explored the issues of establishing unusual new markets for a couple of decades, including for water rights transfer and air quality permit trading. It is not a simple case of “declaring markets exist” and then walking away. Managing institutions have important roles in setting up, running and funding any market, and most particularly for those that manage what were “public goods” that individuals and firms were able to use for free. The table above lists the most important considerations in establishing those markets.

The fourth assessing what type of infrastructure investment will produce the most cost-effective recharge. Construction costs (which we evaluated) is one aspect, and impacts on agricultural operations and financial feasibility are other considerations. The chart at the top summarizes the results from comparing several case studies. These will vary by situation, but remarkably, these options appear to cost substantially less than any surface storage projects currently being proposed.

The final institutional issue to be addressed, but not the least important, is determining the extent of rights over floodwaters and aquifers. California state law and regulations are just beginning to grapple with these issues. Certain areas are beginning to assert protection of their existing rights. This issue probably represents the single biggest impediment to these programs before attracting growers to participate.

All of these issues can be addressed in a range of pilot programs which use different variables to test which are likely to be more successful. Scientists and engineers can use these pilots to test for the impacts of different types of water diversion and application. Statistical regression analysis can provide us much of what we know without having to understand the hydrological dynamics. Legal rights can be assessed by providing temporary permits that might be modified as we learn more from the pilots.

Is it time to move forward with local pilot programs? Do we know enough that we can demonstrate the likely benefits? What other aspects should we explore before moving to widespread adoption and implementation?

Housing can’t escape economics

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One aspect of the debate over housing policies is whether increased housing supply or some type of demand management will mitigate create a more affordable housing market. Davis is one of the centers of this debate, where strict load growth controls has led to lower income households being closed out of the market. But contrary to assertions by those who want direct interventions, the housing market isn’t immune from economics.

One problem is that critics in Davis of relying on market mechanisms work from the false premise that the housing markets across the region were all in equivalent equilibriums in 2010, immediately after the Great Recession. The fact is that the Davis housing market, due to a combination of its restrictive housing policies and education value premium, had not declined as much in price as other communities in the region. The amount of surplus housing stock that was available in 2010 had a wide variation across many cities. So of course the towns which were hit the hardest in 2008 have typically had higher price appreciation since 2008, no matter what their housing policies have been.

Here’s a few studies that support the proposition that housing supply and demand drive prices:

Non-Profit Utilities Could Cure What Ails California Electricity

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Severin Borenstein at the Energy Institute at Haas, asks “Would Non-Profit Utilities Cure What Ails California Electricity?” I am posting my response here as that I find his post overlooks several important points and distinctions.

I’ll start by saying I wrote an op-ed in the Sacramento Bee in the early 2000s noting that creating a new municipal utility was not going to deliver the same low rates as existing munis and I’m still aware that such a transfer is unlikely to reduce rates much. But it does change the governance structure in a way that is likely to be more accountable and less influenced by the private interests of utility shareholders. Communities are joining together to push for acquisition of PG&E by a cooperative, which would have a similar governance structure to a municipal utility.

First, the complaint about government is largely about agencies that I will call “ministerial” or “administrative”. These agencies issue permits and licenses or provide social services. In contrast, the government agencies that deliver utility services, which are “enterprises” largely deliver service with few complaints. About 80% of water utilities and almost all wastewater utilities are publicly owned. I work in the water arena as well, and the only utility that I hear complaints about from customers is LADWP (both water and power sides). (The SDCWA-MWD fight is between agencies’ managements, not from customers). On the other hand, all three or California’s electric IOUs are the target of customers’ ire. And the IOU staffs (which I have frequent contact with) are no better than government employees in their responsiveness or competence. One advantage the enterprise agencies have over the ministerial/administrative ones is that they generally pay a higher salary so employees are motivated in much the same way as those in the private sector. Moving from oversight by a ministerial/administrative agency (CPUC) to management by an enterprise utility should overcome the problem of recruiting competent motivated staff.

Second, shareholders shoulder very little risk now, particularly in California. I testified in the IOUs’ rate of return case and we asked for the amount of disallowances that shareholders had to bear over the last two decades. Other than SDG&E’s 2007 wildfire costs due to negligence on the utility’s part, they came pack with amounts that were in the tens of millions, which amounts to less than a 0.1% of their revenues collected over that period. Utilities’ generation investment is now so protected that the CPUC reversed itself last year and removed the 10 year recovery cap from exit fees for generation that the utilities built knowing the cap existed. They are now getting bonus dollars! (Same thing happened with Diablo Canyon in 1996.) Yet the utilities are claiming in that rate case that the return on equity should be increased even further! I have a blog post about how the current return is already too high. (Part 2 is the next day.)  Public ownership in contrast can reduce the return on capital from close to 10% (before tax) to 5% or less, which can cut rates substantially.

We can see how PG&E in particular has been incompetently managed for decades. I posted about its many foibles since the 1960s as well. The supposed incentives and efficiencies of the private sector have failed to materialize for California utilities, and meanwhile we pay higher costs for capital with no real risk mitigation. (Ratepayers still had to pay for PG&E’s debts after the 2000-01 energy crisis, and it looks like the same may happen again.)

Finally, the question arises as to whether municipalizing piecemeal would create inequities. The premise of the statement is that the current economic distribution is equitable. But the fact is that rural residential customers in the wildland/urban interface (WUI) have not been paying their full share of their costs and have been heavily subsidized by urban customers. Those customers in the WUI tend to be better off than average (poor rural customers are more likely to live in agricultural communities that are not subject to the same fire risks and for whom service costs are lower), so we already have an adverse wealth transfer in place. And those subsidies have facilitated expansion of housing into those high risk areas that also encourage longer commutes with more GHG emissions.

The better question is how can the rural service areas be better served in the future without relying on the traditional utility structure? Moving toward microgrids and other DER solutions to improve reliability while reducing fire risk is one solution. Spending a $100 billion on undergrounding lines to be paid for by everyone else is NOT a good solution.

Utilities’ returns are too high (Part 2)

IOU ROE premiums

Yesterday’s post showed how California’s utilities’ share prices have risen well above the average across utilities despite claims that investors are risk averse to the California utilities. That valuation premium reflects an excessively high authorized return on equity (ROE) from the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC).

The utilities’ market values can then be linked to the utilities’ book values and authorized returns on equity to calculate the implied market returns on equity. The authorized income per share is the authorized ROE multiplied by the book value per share. That income is divided by the market share price to arrive at the implied market return on equity for that company. Both Sempra (SRE) and Edison International (EIX) significantly outperform the Dow Jones Utility average and PG&E Corporation (PGC) maintained the same trend until market had significant concerns about the company’s role in the 2017 wildfires.

The figure above tracks the difference or premium value of the authorized ROE over the market valuation of that ROE. A premium value of zero means that the market valuation is on par with the authorized ROE. A higher or positive premium value means that investors see the utility’s equity shares as attractive investments with lower risks than the assessments of the commissions that set the authorized ROEs. In other words, a commission is providing an overly generous incentive to investors if the premium value is positive.  The figure above compares the market implied ROE for the three California holding companies to a market basket of 10 U.S. holding companies that own 17 electric and gas utilities, and do not own significant non-utility subsidiaries. 

At the time of the 2012 cost of capital decision, the authorized ROEs for the California utilities and the basket of U.S. utilities were close to the implied market ROEs. Except for Sempra, which was an outlier as evidenced by its share price growth relative to the other utilities, the authorized ROE was within 100 basis points of the implied market ROE at the end of 2012.  For both Edison International and PG&E Corporation, the authorized ROE and the implied market ROE on December 31, 2012 were exactly on par—10.5% for Edison and 10.4% for PG&E. Only Sempra showed a positive premium of 300 basis points as a result of a rapid increase in market value over 2012.

Over the period from 2012 to late 2017, the implied market ROEprogressed steadily downward–that is, the market value premium increased–for both the California utilities and the other U.S. utilities. Sempra’s premium leveled off in late 2014 and has drifted downward since without any significant corrections. SCE’s diverged upward some from the U.S. utilities mid-2016, but again there are not sharp changes in direction, even with the Thomas Fire in late 2017. PG&E followed the same pattern as SCE until the Wine Country fires in late 2017, and took another sharp turn with the Camp Fire and, understandably, the subsequent voluntary bankruptcy filing.

We can see at the end of September 2017, just after the last Commission decision on cost of capital, the market premium for the 10 utilities had grown to 470 basis points. The premiums for PG&E, Edison and Sempra all lied in a narrow band between 410 basis points for Edison and 470 basis points for PG&E. In other words, 1) California utility investors were receiving overly generous returns on their investments as evidenced in the share prices, and 2) California utility investors have not been demanding a significant discount for perceived increased risk compared to other U.S. utilities, contrary to the assertions by the utilities’ witnesses in this proceeding.

 

Utilities’ returns are too high (Part 1)

IOU share prices

An analysis of equity market activity indicates that investors have not priced a risk discount into California utility shares, and instead, until the recent wildfires, utility investors have placed a premium value on California utility stocks. This premium value indicates that investors have viewed California as either less risky than other states’ utilities or that California has provided a more lucrative return on investment than other states.

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) should set the authorized return on equity to shareholders (ROE) to deliver an after-tax net income amount as a percentage of the capital invested by the utility or the “book value.” As Alfred Kahn wrote, “the sharp appreciation in the prices of public utility stocks, to one and half and then two times their book values during this period [the 1960s] reflected also a growing recognition that the companies in question were in fact being permitted to earn considerably more than their cost of capital.” (see footnote 69)

The book value is fairly stable and tends to grow over time as higher cost capital is invested to meet growth and to replace older, lower cost equipment. Investors use this forecasted income to determine their valuation of the company’s common stock in market transactions. Generally the accepted valuation is the net present value of the income stream using a discount rate equal to the expected return on that investment. That expected return represents the market-based return on equity or the implied market return.

The Commission should generally target the ROE so that the book and market values of the utility company are roughly comparable. In that way, when the utility adds capital, that capital receives a return that closely matches the return investors expect in the market place. If the regulated ROE is low relative to the market ROE, the company will have difficulty raising sufficient capital from the market for needed investments. If the regulated ROE is high relative to the market ROE, ratepayers will pay too much for capital invested and excess economic resources will be diverted into the utility’s costs. On this premise, we compared each of the utilities’ market valuation and implied market ROE against market baskets of U.S. utilities and the current authorized ROEs.

The figure above shows how the stock price for each of the three California utility holding companies (PG&E Corporation (ticker symbol PCG), Edison International (EIX) and Sempra (SRE)) that own the four large California energy utilities. The figure compares these stock prices to the Dow Jones Utility index average from June 1998 to July 2019 starting from a common base index value of 100 on January 1, 2000. The chart also includes (a) important Commission decisions and state laws that have been enacted and are identified by several of the utility witnesses as increasing the legal and regulatory risk environment in the state, and (b) catastrophic events at particular utilities that could affect how investors perceive the risk and management of that utility.

Table 1 summarizes the annual average growth in share prices for the Dow Jones Utility average and the three holding companies up to the 2012 cost of capital decision, the 2017 cost of capital modification decision, and to July 2019. Also of particular note, the chart includes the Commission’s decision on incorporating a risk-based framework into each utility’s General Rate Case process in D.14-12-025. The significance of this decision is that the utility’s consideration of safety risk was directed to be “baked in” to future requests for new capital investment. The updated risk framework also has the impact of making new these new investments more secure from an investment perspective, since there is closer financial monitoring and tracking.

As you can see in both Table 1 and in the figure, the Dow Jones Utility average annual growth was 5.5% through July 13, 2017 and 5.8% through July 18, 2019, California utility prices exceeded this average in all but one case, with Edison’s shares rising 9.4% per annum through the first date and 8.4% through this July, and Sempra growing 15.2% to the first date and even more at 15.3% to the latest. Even PG&E grew at almost twice the index rate at 10.4% in 2017, and then took an expected sharp decline with its bankruptcy.

Table 1

Cumulative Average Growth from January 2000 12/12/2012 7/13/2017 7/18/2019
Dow Jones Utilities 3.9% 5.5% 5.8%
Edison International 7.2% 9.4% 8.4%
PG&E Corp. 8.6% 10.4% 2.4%
Sempra 15.8% 15.2% 15.3%

The chart and table support three important findings:

  • California utility shares have significantly outpaced industry average returns since January 2000 and since March 2009;
  • California share prices only decreased significantly after the wildfire events that have been tied to specific market-perceived negligence on the part of the electric utilities in 2017 and 2018; and
  • Other events and state policy actions do not appear to have a measurable sustained impact on utilities’ valuations.

Exit fee market benchmarks threaten CCAs abilities to meet long term obligations

Capacity Net Revenue Adequacy 2001-2018CCAs may have to choose between complying with the long-term commitments specified in Senate Bill 350 and continuing to operate because they cannot acquire resources at the specified market price benchmarks that value the entire utility portfolio according to the CPUC.

The chart above compares the revenue shortfalls that need to be made up from other capacity sales products to finance resource additions. The CAISO has reported for every year since 2001 that its short-run market clearing prices that were adopted as the market price benchmark in the PCIA have been insufficient to support new conventional generation investment. The chart above shows the results of the CAISO Annual Report on Market Issues and Performance compiled from 2012 to 2018, separated by north (NP15 RRQ) and south (SP15 RRQ) revenue requirements for new resources. (The historic data shows that CAISO revenues have never been sufficient to finance a resource addition.) The CAISO signs capacity procurement (CPM) agreements to meet near-term reliability shortfalls which is one revenue source for a limited number of generators. The other short run price is the resource adequacy credits transacted by load serving entities (LSE) such as the utilities and CCAs. This revenue source is available to a broader set of resources. However, neither of revenues come close to closing the cost shortfall for new capacity.

The CPUC and the CAISO have deliberately suppressed these market prices to avoid the price spikes and reliability problems that occurred during the 2000-2001 energy crisis. By explicit state policy, these market prices are not to be used for assessing resource acquisition benchmarks. Yet, the CPUC adopted in its PCIA OIR decision (D.18-10-019) exactly this stance by asserting that the CCAs must be able to acquire new resources at less than these prices to beat the benchmarks used to calculate the PCIA. The CPUC used the CAISO energy prices plus the average RA prices as the base for the market value benchmark that represents the CCA threshold.

In a functioning market, the relevant market prices should indicate the relative supply-demand balance–if supply is short then prices should rise sufficiently to cover the cost of new entrants. Based on the relative price balance in the chart, no new capacity resources should be needed for some time.

Yet the CPUC recently issued a decision (D.19-04-040) that ordered procurement of 2,000 MW of capacity for resource adequacy. And now the CPUC proposes to up that target to 4,000 MW by 2021. All of this runs counter to the price signals that CPUC claims represent the “market value” of the assets held by the utilities.

If the CCAs purchase resources that cost more than the PCIA benchmarks then they will be losing money for their ratepayers (note that CCAs have no shareholders). Most often long-term power purchase agreements (PPA) have prices above the short-term prices because those short-term prices do not cover all of the values transacted in the market place. (More on that in the near future.) The CPUC should either align its market value benchmarks with its resource acquisition directives or acknowledge that their directives are incorrect.