Are PG&E’s customers about to walk?

In the 1990s, California’s industrial customers threatened to build their own self-generation plants and leave the utilities entirely. Escalating generation costs due to nuclear plant cost overruns and too-generous qualifying facilities (QF) contracts had driven up rates, and the technology that made QFs possible also allowed large customers to consider self generating. In response California “restructured” its utility sector to introduce competition in the generation segment and to get the utilities out of that part of the business. Unfortunately the initiative failed, in a big way, and we were left with a hybrid system which some blame for rising rates today.

Those rising rates may be introducing another threat to the utilities’ business model, but it may be more existential this time. A previous blog post described how Pacific Gas & Electric’s 2022 Wildfire Mitigation Plan Update combined with the 2023 General Rate Application could lead to a 50% rate increase from 2020 to 2026. For standard rate residential customers, the average rate could by 41.9 cents per kilowatt-hour.

For an average customer that translates to $2,200 per year per kilowatt of peak demand. Using PG&E’s cost of capital, that implies that an independent self-sufficient microgrid costing $15,250 per kilowatt could be funded from avoiding paying PG&E bills.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) study referenced in this blog estimates that a stand alone residential microgrid with 7 kilowatts of solar paired with a 5 kilowatt / 20 kilowatt-hour battery would cost between $35,000 and $40,000. The savings from avoiding PG&E rates could justify spending $75,000 to $105,000 on such a system, so a residential customer could save up to $70,000 by defecting from the grid. Even if NREL has underpriced and undersized this example system, that is a substantial margin.

This time it’s not just a few large customers with choice thermal demands and electricity needs—this would be a large swath of PG&E’s residential customer class. It would be the customers who are most affluent and most able to pay PG&E’s extraordinary costs. If many of these customers view this opportunity to exit favorably, the utility could truly face a death spiral that encourages even more customers to leave. Those who are left behind will demand more relief in some fashion, but those customers who already defected will not be willing to bail out the company.

In this scenario, what is PG&E’s (or Southern California Edison’s and San Diego Gas & Electric’s) exit strategy? Trying to squeeze current NEM customers likely will only accelerate exit, not stifle it. The recent two-day workshop on affordability at the CPUC avoided discussing how utility investors should share in solving this problem, treating their cost streams as inviolable. The more likely solution requires substantial restructuring of PG&E to lower its revenue requirements, including by reducing income to shareholders.

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