Why are real-time electricity retail rates no longer important in California?

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has been looking at whether and how to apply real-time electricity prices in several utility rate applications. “Real time pricing” involves directly linking the bulk wholesale market price from an exchange such as the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) to the hourly retail price paid by customers. Other charges such as for distribution and public purpose programs are added to this cost to reach the full retail rate. In Texas, many retail customers have their rates tied directly or indirectly to the ERCOT system market that operates in a manner similar to CAISO’s. A number of economists have been pushing for this change as a key solution to managing California’s reliability issues. Unfortunately, the moment may have passed where this can have a meaningful impact.

In California, the bulk power market costs are less than 20% of the total residential rate. Even if we throw in the average capacity prices, it only reaches 25%. In addition, California has a few needle peaks a year compared to the much flatter, longer, more frequent near peak loads in the East due to the differences in humidity. The CAISO market can go years without real price deviations that are consequential on bills. For example, PG&E’s system average rate is almost 24 cents per kilowatt-hour (and residential is even higher). Yet, the average price in the CAISO market has remained at 3 to 4 cents per kilowatt-hour since 2001, and the cost of capacity has actually fallen to about 2 cents. Even a sustained period of high prices such as occurred last August will increase the average price by less than a penny–that’s less than 5% of the total rate. The story in 2005 was different, when this concept was first offered with an average rate of 13 cents per kilowatt-hour (and that was after the 4 cent adder from the energy crisis). In other words, the “variable” component just isn’t important enough to make a real difference.

Ahmad Faruqui who has been a long time advocate for dynamic retail pricing wrote in a LinkedIn comment:

“Airlines, hotels, car rentals, movie theaters, sporting events — all use time-varying rates. Even the simple parking meter has a TOU rate embedded in it.”

It’s true that these prices vary with time, and electricity prices are headed that way if not there already. Yet these industries don’t have prices that change instantly with changes in demand and resource availability–the prices are often set months ahead based on expectations of supply and demand, much as traditional electricity TOU rates are set already. Additionally, in all of these industries , the price variations are substantially less than 100%. But for electricity, when the dynamic price changes are important, they can be up to 1,000%. I doubt any of these industries would use pricing variations that large for practical reasons.

Rather than pointing out that this tool is available and some types of these being used elsewhere, we should be asking why the tool isn’t being used? What’s so different about electricity and are we making the right comparisons?

Instead, we might look at a different package to incorporate customer resources and load dynamism based on what has worked so far.

  • First is to have TOU pricing with predictable patterns. California largely already has this in place, and many customer groups have shown how they respond to this signal. In the Statewide Pilot on critical peak period price, the bulk of the load shifting occurred due to the implementation of a base TOU rate, and the CPP effect was relatively smaller.
  • Second, to enable more distributed energy resources (DER) is to have fixed price contracts akin to generation PPAs. Everyone understands the terms of the contracts then instead of the implicit arrangement of net energy metering (NEM) that is very unsatisfactory for everyone now. It also means that we have to get away from the mistaken belief that short-run prices or marginal costs represent “market value” for electricity assets.
  • Third for managing load we should have robust demand management/response programs that target the truly manageable loads, and we should compensate customers based on the full avoided costs created.

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