Equity issues in TOU rate design

I attended the Center for Research into Regulated Industries (CRRI) Western Conference last week, which includes many of the economists working on various energy regulatory issues in California. A persistent theme was the interrelationship of time-varying rates (TVR) and development of distributed generation like rooftop solar. One session was even entitled “optimal rates.” We presented a paper on developing the proper perspectives and criteria in valuing distributed solar resources in another session. (More on that in another post.)

With the pending CPUC decision in the residential ratemaking rulemaking, due July 3, time of use rates (TOU) rates were at the top of everyone’s mind. (With PG&E violations of the ex parte rules, the utilities were cautious about who they were presenting with at least one Commission advisor attending. At least one presentation was scotched for that reason.) Various results were presented, and the need for different design elements urged on efficiency grounds. In the end though I was struck most by two equity issues that seem to have been overlooked.

First, various studies have shown that TOU rates deliver larger savings for customers who have various types of automated response equipment such as smart thermostats (e.g., NEST) or smart appliances. Those customers will see bigger bill savings and may find that doing so is more convenient and comfortable. An underlying premise in these studies is that the customer is the decision maker. But for 45% of California’s residents–renters–that is not the case. As a result tenants, who tend to have lower incomes, are likely to be subsidizing home owners who are better equipped to benefit from TOU rates.

Tenants must rely on landlords to make those necessary investments. Landlords don’t pay the bills or realize the direct savings in what is called the “split incentive” problem. And landlords may be concerned that future tenants might not like the commitments that come with the new smart devices. For example, signing up for PG&E’s SmartAC program can face this barrier.

So in considering residential customer impacts, the CPUC should address the likely differential in opportunities and benefits between owner-customers and tenant-customers. Solutions might include rate design differences, or moving toward a model where energy service providers (ESP or ESCo) take over appliance ownership in multifamily buildings. This split incentive is endemic across many programs such as the solar initiative and energy efficiency.

Second, a fixed charge have been proposed to address the anticipated impact of solar net energy metering. The majority of costs to be covered are for the “customer services” that run from the flnal line transformer to the meter. (I’ve been focused on this segment while representing the Western Manufactured Housing Communities Association (WMA) on master-metering issues.) However, the investments in customer services are not uniform across residences. For older homes, the services or “line extensions” may have already been paid off (e.g., most homes built before 1975), and with inflation, the costs for newer homes can be substantially higher.

The fixed charge would be based on one of two methods. In current rate cases, the new or “marginal” cost for a line extension is the starting point of the calculation, and usually the cost is scaled up from that. However, given the depreciation and inflation, the utilities will receive much more revenue than what they are entitled to under regulated returns. In the second method, the average cost for all services will be applied to all customers. This solves the problem of excess revenues for the utility, but it does not address the subsidies that flow from customers in older homes to those in newer ones. Because the residents of older homes tend to be tenants and have lower incomes, this again is a regressive distribution of costs. Solutions might include no fixed charge at all, differences in rates by house vintage, or discounts in the fixed charge as SMUD has instituted.

Regardless, these types of subsidies flow the wrong direction.

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One thought on “Equity issues in TOU rate design

  1. Mark

    Interesting way to look at cost allocations for distribution assets (based on how long the infrastructure has been in place). From a cost accounting perspective it makes sense as the assets were fully depreciated years, or decades, ago.

    Thanks for the reference to how SMUD addressed fixed charges and equity issues! We have some friends in SMUD’s service area that obtain their potable water from a well that might be able to take advantage the program- “For customers with wells, the cap is increased to $61 per month.”(vs a cap of $49/m).”

    Like

    Reply

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