The real threat to electrification are the rapidly escalating costs in the distribution system, not some anomaly in rate design related to net energy metering. As I have written here several times, rooftop solar if anything has saved ratepayers money so far, just as energy efficiency has done so. PG&E’s 2023 GRC is asking for a 66% increase in distribution rates by 2026 and average rates will approach 40 cents/kWh. We need to be asking why are these increases happening and what can we do to make electricity affordable for everyone.
Perhaps most importantly, the premise that there’s a “least cost” choice put forward by economists at the Energy Institute at Haas among others implies that there’s some centralized social welfare function. This is a mythological construct created for the convenience of economists (of which I’m one) to point to an “efficient” solution. Other societal objectives beyond economic efficiency include equitably allocating cost responsibility based on economic means, managing and sharing risks under uncertainty, and limiting political power that comes from economic assets. Efficiency itself is limited in what it tells us due to the multitude of market imperfections. The “theory of the second best” states that in an economic sector with uncorrected market failures, actions to correct market failures in another related sector with the intent of increasing economic efficiency may actually decrease overall economic efficiency. In the utility world for example, shareholders are protected from financial losses so revenue shortfalls are allocated to customers even as their demands fall. This blunts the risk incentive that is central to economic efficiency. Claiming that adding a fixed charge will “improve” efficiency has little basis without a complete, fundamental assessment of the sector’s market functionality.
The real actors here are individual customers who are making individual decisions in our current economic resource allocation system, and not a central entity dictating choices to each of us. Different customers have different preferences in what they value and what they fear. Rooftop installations have been driven to a large extent by a dread of utility mismanagement that makes expectations about future rates much more uncertain.
The single most important trait of a market economy is the discipline imposed by appropriately assigning risk burden to the decision make and not pricing design. The latter is the tail wagging the dog. Market distortions are universally caused by separating consequences from decisions. And right now the only ability customers have to exercise control over their electricity bills is to somehow exit the system. If we take away that means of discipline we will never be able to control electricity rates in a way that will lead to effective electrification.
Robert Borlick published this article in Utility Dive asserting that “California’s utilities are not out to kill rooftop solar.” Unfortunately Borlick does not have a good understanding of either the decade long effort by those utilities to discourage rooftop solar, nor of the actual alternative proposals offered by NEM proponents to reform the tariff. A closer examination of the utilities’ proposal reveals that it would make rooftop solar uneconomic for most residential customers, which would mean effectively killing the industry. The CPUC’s recognition of this problem led to pulling the proposed decision for reconsideration as a yet to be determined date.