Tag Archives: Energy Institute at Haas

What is driving California’s high electricity prices?

This report by Next10 and the University of California Energy Institute was prepared for the CPUC’s en banc hearing February 24. The report compares average electricity rates against other states, and against an estimate of “marginal costs”. (The latter estimate is too low but appears to rely mostly on the E3 Avoided Cost Calculator.) It shows those rates to be multiples of the marginal costs. (PG&E’s General Rate Case workpapers calculates that its rates are about double the marginal costs estimated in that proceeding.) The study attempts to list the reasons why the authors think these rates are too high, but it misses the real drivers on these rate increases. It also uses an incorrect method for calculating the market value of acquisitions and deferred investments, using the current market value instead of the value at the time that the decisions were made.

We can explore the reasons why PG&E’s rates are so high, much of which is applicable to the other two utilities as well. Starting with generation costs, PG&E’s portfolio mismanagement is not explained away with a simple assertion that the utility bought when prices were higher. In fact, PG&E failed in several ways.

First, PG&E knew about the risk of customer exit as early as 2010 as revealed during the PCIA rulemaking hearings in 2018. PG&E continued to procure as though it would be serving its entire service area instead of planning for the rise of CCAs. Further PG&E also was told as early as 2010 (in my GRC testimony) that it was consistently forecasting too high, but it didn’t bother to correct thee error. Instead, service area load is basically at the save level that it was a decade ago.

Second, PG&E could have procured in stages rather than in two large rounds of request for offers (RFOs) which it finished by 2013. By 2011 PG&E should have realized that solar costs were dropping quickly (if they had read the CEC Cost of Generation Report that I managed) and that it should have rolled out the RFOs in a manner to take advantage of that improvement. Further, they could have signed PPAs for the minimum period under state law of 10 years rather than the industry standard 30 years. PG&E was managing its portfolio in the standard practice manner which was foolish in the face of what was occurring.

Third, PG&E failed to offer part of its portfolio for sale to CCAs as they departed until 2018. Instead, PG&E could have unloaded its expensive portfolio in stages starting in 2010. The ease of the recent RPS sales illustrates that PG&E’s claims about creditworthiness and other problems had no foundation.

I calculated the what the cost of PG&E’s mismanagement has been here. While SCE and SDG&E have not faced the same degree of exit by CCAs, the same basic problems exist in their portfolios.

Another factor for PG&E is the fact that ratepayers have paid twice for Diablo Canyon. I explain here how PG&E fully recovered its initial investment costs by 1998, but as part of restructuring got to roll most of its costs back into rates. Fortunately these units retire by 2025 and rates will go down substantially as a result.

In distribution costs, both PG&E and SCE requested over $2 billion for “new growth” in each of its GRCs since 2009, despite my testimony showing that growth was not going to materialize, and did not materialize. If the growth was arising from the addition of new developments, the developers and new customers should have been paying for those additions through the line extension rules that assign that cost responsibility. The utilities’ distribution planning process is opaque. When asked for the workpapers underlying the planning process, both PG&E and SCE responded that the entirety were contained in the Word tables in each of their testimonies. The growth projections had not been reconciled with the system load forecasts until this latest GRC, so the totals of the individual planning units exceeded the projected total system growth (which was too high as well when compared to both other internal growth projections and realized growth). The result is a gross overinvestment in distribution infrastructure with substantial overcapacity in many places.

For transmission, the true incremental cost has not been fully reported which means that other cost-effective solutions, including smaller and closer renewables, have been ignored. Transmission rates have more than doubled over the last decade as a result.

The Next10 report does not appear to reflect the full value of public purpose program spending on energy efficiency, in large part because it uses a short-run estimate of marginal costs. The report similarly underestimates the value of behind-the-meter solar rooftops as well. The correct method for both is to use the market value of deferred resources–generation, transmission and distribution–when those resources were added. So for example, a solar rooftop installed in 2013 was displacing utility scale renewables that cost more than $100 per megawatt-hour. These should not be compared to the current market value of less than $60 per megawatt-hour because that investment was not made on a speculative basis–it was a contract based on embedded utility costs.

Drawing too many conclusions about electric vehicles from an obsolete data set

The Energy Institute at Haas at the University of California published a study allegedly showing that electric vehicles are driven about only one-third of the average standard car in California. I responded with a response on the blog.

Catherine Wolfram writes, “But, we do not see any detectable changes in our results from 2014 to 2017, and some of the same factors were at play over this time period. This makes us think that newer data might not be dramatically different, but we don’t know.“

A recent study likely is delivering a biased estimate of future EV use. The timing of this study reminds me of trying to analyze cell phone use in the mid-2000s. Now household land lines are largely obsolete, and we use phones even more than we did then. The period used for the analysis was during a dramatically changing period more akin to solar panel evolution just before and after 2010, before panels were ubiquitous. We can see this evolution here for example. Comparing the Nissan Leaf, we can see that the range has increased 50% between the 2018 and 2021 models.

The primary reason why this data set is seeing such low mileage is because is almost certain that the vast majority of the households in the survey also have a standard ICE vehicle that they use for their extended trips. There were few or no remote fast charge stations during that time and even Tesla’s had limited range in comparison. In addition, it’s almost certain that EV households were concentrated in urban households that have a comparatively low VMT. (Otherwise, why do studies show that these same neighborhoods have low GHG emissions on average?) Only about one-third of VMT is associated with commuting, another third with errands and tasks and a third with travel. There were few if any SUV EVs that would be more likely to be used for errands, and EVs have been smaller vehicles until recently.

As for copurchased solar panel installation, these earlier studies found that 40% or more of EV owners have solar panels, and solar rooftop penetration has grown faster than EV adoption since these were done.

I’m also not sure that the paper has captured fully workplace and parking structure charging. The logistical challenges of gaining LCFS credits could be substantial enough for employers and municipalities to not bother. This assumption requires a closer analysis of which entities are actually claiming these credits.

A necessary refinement is to compare this data to the typical VMT for these types of households, and to compare the mileage for model types. Smaller commuter models average less annual VMT according to the California Energy Commission’s vehicle VMT data set derived from the DMV registration file and the Air Resources Board’s EMFAC model. The Energy Institute analysis arrives at the same findings that EV studies in the mid 1990s found with less robust technology. That should be a flag that something is amiss in the results.

Reaction to Is “Community Choice” Electric Supply a Solution or a Problem?

Severin Borenstein at the Energy Institute @ Haas wrote a good summary of the issues around community choice aggregation.

Source: Is “Community Choice” Electric Supply a Solution or a Problem?

I am on the City of Davis’ Community Choice Energy Advisory Committee and have been looking at these issues closely for a year. I had my own reactions to this post:

First, in California the existing and proposed CCEs (there are probably a dozen in process at the moment to add to the 3 existing ones) universally offer a higher “green” % product than the incumbent IOU, most often a 50% RPS product. And although MCE and SCP started out relying on RECs of various types to start out, they all are phasing out most of those by 2017. I think most will offer a 100% product as well.

The reason that these CCE’s are able to offer lower rates than the IOUs at a lower RPS is that the IOUs prematurely contracted long for renewables in anticipation of the 2020 goal. In fact, the penalty for failing to meet the RPS in any given year is so low, that the prudent strategy by an IOU would have been to risk being short in each year and contract for the year ahead instead of locking in too many 20+ year PPAs. At least one reason why this happened is that the IOUs require confidentiality by any reviewers and no connections to any competing procurement decisions. As a result the outside reviewers couldn’t be up to speed on the rapidly falling PPA prices. The CPUC has made a huge mistake on this point (and the CEC has rightfully harassed the CPUC over this policy.)

CCE’s also offer the ability to craft a broader range of rate offerings to customers–even flat 20 year rates that can compete with solar roofs on the main issue that customers really care about: price guarantees. In addition, CCE’s are more likely to be to nimbly adjust a rapidly changing utility landscape. CCE’s are much less likely to care about falling loads because their earnings aren’t dependent on continued service.

It’s also to recognize the difference between local government general services (e.g., safety and public protection, social services, regulation, etc.) and enterprise services (e.g., utilities of all sorts). In general, the latter are as efficient as IOUs (except LADWP which illustrates the INefficiency created by overlarge organizations). So one can’t make a broad generalization about local government problems and how they might apply in this situation. The fact is that almost all of the existing and new CCEs are or will be JPAs, which are often even leaner. (Lancaster is the exception.)

Finally, Severin made this statement:

“Whatever regulatory mandates, managerial mistakes, or incompetence occurred in the past, customers switching to a CCA should not be allowed to shift their share of costs from past decisions onto other ratepayers.”

I have to disagree to a certain exent with this statement. Am I forced to pay for the past incompetencies of GM or GE or any other corporation? Yes, utilities have a higher assurance of return on their investments, but no where is it written that it is “ironclad.” Those utilities had an assurance first as the sole legal provider and then as the provider of last resort, but that’s eroding. In California, the CTC was a political deal to get the IOUs out of the way. The fact is in California that the CPUC abrogated its responsibility to oversee these decisions on behalf of ratepayers with the encouragement of the IOUs. If the IOUs want to retain their customers, then they should be forced to compete with the CCEs (and DA LSEs.) It’s time to reopen this matter.

And to add a bit more:

The logic of this statement is that ANY customer who leaves the system, including moving to another area, state or nation, should have to continue to pay these stranded costs. Why should we draw the line arbitrarily at whether they happen to still get distribution services even though the generation services have been completely severed? Particularly if someone moves from say, San Francisco to Palo Alto, that customer still relies on PG&E’s transmission system and its hydro system for ancillary services. Why not charge that Palo Alto customer a non-by-passable charge? And why shouldn’t it be reciprocal? Relying on “political practicality” is not an answer. Either ALL customers are tethered forever, or no customers are required to meet this obligation.

 

A brief reply to “Real” Electricity Still Comes from the Grid

Source: “Real” Electricity Still Comes from the Grid

Catherine Wolfram at UC Berkeley posted about their paper looking at costs of distributed energy systems in Kenya and concluding that these were too expensive for households compared to connecting to the grid. However, the paper came under immediate criticism.

Here’s my thoughts based on her representation of the paper’s findings, some of which are mirrored by other commentators:

First, the paper talks about costs on one side, but doesn’t put them in perspective to the alternatives. The post lists the cost of the individual systems, but not the expected connection costs to the grid.

Further the paper takes a static look at current costs and doesn’t account for the differential trends in the sets of costs for an home-based system versus connecting to the grid. The latter costs can be expected to be steady or even rising, while it’s well known that both solar and storage costs have fallen rapidly.

Different scales of “grid” also are important. For example, solar projects show scale economies up to about 3 MW but then modular construction flattens the per kW cost. A village microgrid separate from a national central grid may be quite cost competitive.

Finally, the paper appears to lump large hydro in with other utility-scale renewables. The environmental (and economic development) record for large-scale hydro projects in the developing world is dubious at best. There is evidence of significant methane emissions from tropical reservoirs. Habitat is destroyed and poorly designed projects don’t deliver expected benefits. Hydro is by far the largest energy supplier on these grids, and they may be little better than coal from an overall environmental perspective.

Reblog: If you like your time-invariant electricity price, you can keep it

Severin Borenstein at the Energy Institute at Haas makes the case for giving customers the choice of TOU or fixed price rates. I’ve commented several times on the Energy Institute blog about this approach, and blogged myself about the need for this option.

Source: If you like your time-invariant electricity price, you can keep it

Reblog: Leaking Coal to Asia

Maximillian Auffhammer at UC’s Energy Institute @ Haas focuses on the issue of exporting coal from the Port of Oakland, but he turns to the issue I highlighted recently–the path to accomplishing environmental objectives should travel through compensating those who are worse off from such policies.

Source: Leaking Coal to Asia

Energy Institute @ Haas takes on DOE weatherization study

Are the Benefits to the Weatherization Assistance Program’s Energy Efficiency Investments Four Times the Costs?

The authors of a study questioning the net benefits of the Weatherization Assistance Program critique the use of non-energy benefits to swing the program assessment to a net positive results. (The authors have responded to some critiques here.) Given the recent revelation that asthma is more likely to be caused by early childhood care decisions, that particular benefit may be quite vulnerable. The biased representation of other benefits undermines the DOE study as well.

I’ve posted some of my own comments on the Energy Institute blog.

Retrospective on restructuring and what it means for our future

Jim Bushnell of UCD and the Energy Institute at Haas has posted about a paper he is coauthoring with Severin Borenstein looking back 20 years at restructuring. It has some interesting insights, but I take issue with a couple points about the original motivation for restructuring, and whether we will be left with legitimate stranded costs with the current transformation.

My comment on the post:

The rationale behind restructuring (as reflected by my agricultural and industrial clients at that time) of “never again”–the utilities had demonstrated an inability to contain costs in constructing Diablo Canyon, SONGS and Helms, and FERC had gutted the ability for third parties to build turnkey plants in the BRPU decision. The utilities were very slow to adopt the low-cost combined cycle technology, so the only solution looked to be to walk away. Restructuring did establish the merchant industry which has been the leaders in developing renewable technologies and even rooftop solar. Again, we could have expected the utilities to drag their feet, so we have gotten institutional innovation that otherwise would not have happened. (Institutional innovation, not technological, is what got us reduced SOx emissions under the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990.)

Going forward, leaving the utility system only “strands” network infrastructure if we take the static view that the network will continue in its current state. Shareholders are still recovering their investment, and if they’ve been paying attention since 2007, they should know that overall demand has been falling. They will only be stuck with infrastructure costs if either they have had little foresight or if a sudden technological change accelerates customer exit. In the latter situation, this will only occur if distributed resource costs fall dramatically in which case the exit will probably be socially beneficial. Why should consumers be locked into a large scale network to protect shareholders?

Restructuring was marked by a sudden, dramatic change–opening the market on a single day, divesting generation assets within a few months. The current transformation is more gradual because it is house by house, business by business. Utilities can change their investment plans, and depreciation recovery allows them to recoup their past costs. We may be foregoing the benefits of a paid-up network, but we have almost never regretted such technological change in the past. (Maybe the sale of the “red cars” rail system in LA as the most salient exception.) Do we regret that we’ve left behind land lines for our cell phones? Given the benefits of carrying around microcomputers for daily activities, I think not.