The scale economy myth of electric utilities

Vibrant Clean Energy released a study showing that inclusion of large amounts of distributed energy resources (DERs) can lower the costs of achieving 100% renewable energy. Commentors here have criticized the study for several reasons, some with reference to the supposed economies of scale of the grid.

While economies of scale might hold for individual customers in the short run, the data I’ve been evaluating for the PG&E and SCE general rate cases aren’t necessarily consistent with that notion. I’ve already discussed here the analysis I conducted in both the CAISO and PJM systems that show marginal transmission costs that are twice the current transmission rates. The rapid rise in those rates over the last decade are consistent with this finding. If economies of scale did hold for the transmission network, those rates should be stable or falling.

On the distribution side, the added investment reported in those two utilities’ FERC Form 1 are not consistent with the marginal costs used in the GRC filings. For example the added investment reported in Form 1 for final service lines (transmission, services, meters or TSM) appears to be almost 10 times larger than what is implied by the marginal costs and new customers in the GRC filings. And again the average cost of distribution is rising while energy and peak loads have been flat across the CAISO area since 2006. The utilities have repeatedly asked for $2 billion each GRC for “growth” in distribution, but given the fact that load has been flat (and even declining in 2019 and 2020), that means there’s likely a significant amount of stranded distribution infrastructure. If that incremental investment is for replacement (which is not consistent with either their depreciation schedules or their assertions about the true life of their facilties and the replacement costs within their marginal cost estimates), then they are grossly underestimating the future replacement cost for facilities which means they are underestimating the true marginal costs.

I can see a future replacement liability right outside my window. The electric poles were installed by PG&E 60+ years ago and the poles are likely reaching the end of their lives. I can see the next step moving to undergrounding the lines at a cost of $15,000 to $25,000 per house based on the ongoing mobilehome conversion program and the typical Rule 20 undergrounding project. Deferring that cost is a valid DER value. We will have to replace many services over the next several decades. And that doesn’t address the higher voltage parts of the system.

We have a counterexample of a supposed monopoly in the cable/internet system. I have at least two competing options where I live. The cell phone network also turned out not to be a natural monopoly. In an area where the PG&E and Merced ID service territories overlap, there are parallel distribution systems. The claim of a “natural monopoly” more likely is a legal fiction that protects the incumbent utility and is simpler for local officials to manage when awarding franchises.

If the claim of natural monopolies in electricity were true, then the distribution rate components for SCE and PG&E should be much lower than for smaller munis such as Palo Alto or Alameda. But that’s not the case. The cost advantages for SMUD and Roseville are larger than can be simply explained by differences in cost of capital. The Division/Office of Ratepayer Advocates commissioned a study by Christensen Associates for PG&E’s 1999 GRC that showed that the optimal utility size was about 500,000 customers. (PG&E’s witness who was a professor at UC Berkeley inadvertently confirmed the results and Commissioner Richard Bilas, a Ph.D. economist, noted this in his proposed decision which was never adopted because it was short circuited by restructuring.) Given that finding, that means that the true marginal cost of a customer and associated infrastructure is higher than the average cost. The likely counterbalancing cause is an organizational diseconomy of scale that overwhelms the technological benefits of size.

Finally, generation no longer shows the economies of scale that dominated the industry. The modularity of combined cycle plants and the efficiency improvement of CTs started the industry down the rode toward the efficiency of “smallness.” Solar plants are similarly modular. The reason why additional solar generation appears so low cost is because much of that is from adding another set of panels to an existing plant while avoiding additional transmission interconnection costs (which is the lion’s share of the costs that create what economies of scale do exist.)

The VCE analysis looks a holistic long term analysis. It relies on long run marginal costs, not the short run MCs that will never converge on the LRMC due to the attributes of the electricity system as it is regulated. The study should be evaluated in that context.

2 thoughts on “The scale economy myth of electric utilities

  1. Richard McCann Post author

    As a side note, I originally wrote a draft of this as a comment posted in response a comment on the Energy Institute blog post. The moderator never approved the comment, although a number of my other comments were approved.

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  2. Richard McCann Post author

    Three additional developments that undermine the myth of grid “scale”:
    – PG&E in its 2023 GRC is proposing to increase distribution rates 78% by 2026. This would seem to indicate that maintaining the current grid configuration is becoming increasingly expensive.
    – Doubling down, PG&E also proposed to underground 10,000 miles of rural lines at the cost of $15 to $20 billion. That would translate into an additional 45% increase in distribution costs. In contrast, installing targeted microgrids likely would be half or less of that cost.
    – TURN submitted testimony showing SCE’s marginal distribution costs for its B-bank system and circuits to be three times higher than SCE’s estimate. That closes the gap on what’s reported in SCE’s FERC Form 1.

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