Tag Archives: M.Cubed

The real lessons from California’s 2000-01 electricity crisis and what they mean for today’s markets

The recent reliability crises for the electricity markets in California and Texas ask us to reconsider the supposed lessons from the most significant extended market crisis to date– the 2000-01 California electricity crisis. I wrote a paper two decades ago, The Perfect Mess, that described the circumstances leading up to the event. There have been two other common threads about supposed lessons, but I do not accept either as being true solutions and are instead really about risk sharing once this type of crisis ensues rather than being useful for preventing similar market misfunctions. Instead, the real lesson is that load serving entities (LSEs) must be able to sign long-term agreements that are unaffected and unfettered directly or indirectly by variations in daily and hourly markets so as to eliminate incentives to manipulate those markets.

The first and most popular explanation among many economists is that consumers did not see the swings in the wholesale generation prices in the California Power Exchange (PX) and California Independent System Operator (CAISO) markets. In this rationale, if consumers had seen the large increases in costs, as much as 10-fold over the pre-crisis average, they would have reduced their usage enough to limit the gains from manipulating prices. Consumers should have shouldered the risks in the markets in this view and their cumulative creditworthiness could have ridden out the extended event.

This view is not valid for several reasons. The first and most important is that the compensation to utilities for stranded assets investment was predicated on calculating the difference between a fixed retail rate and the utilities cost of service for transmission and distribution plus the wholesale cost of power in the PX and CAISO markets. Until May 2000, that difference was always positive and the utilities were well on the way to collecting their Competition Transition Charge (CTC) in full before the end of the transition period March 31, 2002. The deal was if the utilities were going to collect their stranded investments, then consumers rates would be protected for that period. The risk of stranded asset recovery was entirely the utilities’ and both the California Public Utilities Commission in its string of decisions and the State Legislature in Assembly Bill 1890 were very clear about this assignment.

The utilities had chosen to support this approach linking asset value to ongoing short term market valuation over an upfront separation payment proposed by Commissioner Jesse Knight. The upfront payment would have enabled linking power cost variations to retail rates at the outset, but the utilities would have to accept the risk of uncertain forecasts about true market values. Instead, the utilities wanted to transfer the valuation risk to ratepayers, and in return ratepayers capped their risk at the current retail rates as of 1996. Retail customers were to be protected from undue wholesale market risk and the utilities took on that responsibility. The utilities walked into this deal willingly and as fully informed as any party.

As the transition period progressed, the utilities transferred their collected CTC revenues to their respective holding companies to be disbursed to shareholders instead of prudently them as reserves until the end of the transition period. When the crisis erupted, the utilities quickly drained what cash they had left and had to go to the credit markets. In fact, if they had retained the CTC cash, they would not have had to go the credit markets until January 2001 based on the accounts that I was tracking at the time and PG&E would not have had a basis for declaring bankruptcy.

The CTC left the market wide open to manipulation and it is unlikely that any simple changes in the PX or CAISO markets could have prevented this. I conducted an analysis for the CPUC in May 2000 as part of its review of Pacific Gas & Electric’s proposed divestiture of its hydro system based on a method developed by Catherine Wolfram in 1997. The finding was that a firm owning as little as 1,500 MW (which included most merchant generators at the time) could profitably gain from price manipulation for at least 2,700 hours in a year. The only market-based solution was for LSEs including the utilities to sign longer-term power purchase agreements (PPAs) for a significant portion (but not 100%) of the generators’ portfolios. (Jim Sweeney briefly alludes to this solution before launching to his preferred linkage of retail rates and generation costs.)

Unfortunately, State Senator Steve Peace introduced a budget trailer bill in June 2000 (as Public Utilities Code Section 355.1, since repealed) that forced the utilities to sign PPAs only through the PX which the utilities viewed as too limited and no PPAs were consummated. The utilities remained fully exposed until the California Department of Water Resources took over procurement in January 2001.

The second problem was a combination of unavailable technology and billing systems. Customers did not yet have smart meters and paper bills could lag as much as two months after initial usage. There was no real way for customers to respond in near real time to high generation market prices (even assuming that they would have been paying attention to such an obscure market). And as we saw in the Texas during Storm Uri in 2021, the only available consumer response for too many was to freeze to death.

This proposed solution is really about shifting risk from utility shareholders to ratepayers, not a realistic market solution. But as discussed above, at the core of the restructuring deal was a sharing of risk between customers and shareholders–a deal that shareholders failed to keep when they transferred all of the cash out of their utility subsidiaries. If ratepayers are going to take on the entire risk (as keeps coming up) then either authorized return should be set at the corporate bond debt rate or the utilities should just be publicly owned.

The second explanation of why the market imploded was that the decentralization created a lack of coordination in providing enough resources. In this view, the CDWR rescue in 2001 righted the ship, but the exodus of the community choice aggregators (CCAs) again threatens system integrity again. The preferred solution for the CPUC is now to reconcentrate power procurement and management with the IOUs, thus killing the remnants of restructuring and markets.

The problem is that the current construct of the PCIA exit fee similarly leaves the market open to potential manipulation. And we’ve seen how virtually unfettered procurement between 2001 and the emergence of the CCAs resulted in substantial excess costs.

The real lessons from the California energy crisis are two fold:

  • Any stranded asset recovery must be done as a single or fixed payment based on the market value of the assets at the moment of market formation. Any other method leaves market participants open to price manipulation. This lesson should be applied in the case of the exit fees paid by CCAs and customers using distributed energy resources. It is the only way to fairly allocate risks between customers and shareholders.
  • LSEs must be able unencumbered in signing longer term PPAs, but they also should be limited ahead of time in the ability to recover stranded costs so that they have significant incentives to prudently procure resources. California’s utilities still lack this incentive.

Close Diablo Canyon? More distributed solar instead

More calls for keeping Diablo Canyon have coming out in the last month, along with a proposal to match the project with a desalination project that would deliver water to somewhere. (And there has been pushback from opponents.) There are better solutions, as I have written about previously. Unfortunately, those who are now raising this issue missed the details and nuances of the debate in 2016 when the decision was made, and they are not well informed about Diablo’s situation.

One important fact is that it is not clear whether continued operation of Diablo is safe. Unit No. 1 has one of the most embrittled containment vessels in the U.S. that is at risk during a sudden shutdown event.

Another is that the decision would require overriding a State Water Resources Control Board decision that required ending the use of once-through cooling with ocean water. That cost was what led to the closure decision, which was 10 cents per kilowatt-hour at current operational levels and in excess of 12 cents in more likely operations.

So what could the state do fairly quickly for 12 cents per kWh instead? Install distributed energy resources focused on commercial and community-scale solar. These projects cost between 6 and 9 cents per kWh and avoid transmission costs of about 4 cents per kWh. They also can be paired with electric vehicles to store electricity and fuel the replacement of gasoline cars. Microgrids can mitigate wildfire risk more cost effectively than undergrounding, so we can save another $40 billion there too. Most importantly they can be built in a matter of months, much more quickly than grid-scale projects.

As for the proposal to build a desalination plant, pairing one with Diablo would both be overkill and a logistical puzzle. The Carlsbad plant produces 56,000 acre-feet annually for San Diego County Water Agency. The Central Coast where Diablo is located has a State Water Project allocation of 45,000 acre-feet which is not even used fully now. That plant uses 35 MW or 1.6% of Diablo’s output. A plant built to use all of Diablo’s output could produce 3.5 million acre-feet, but the State Water Project would need to be significantly modified to move the water either back to the Central Valley or beyond Santa Barbara to Ventura. All of that adds up to a large cost on top of what is already a costly source of water of $2,500 to $2,800 per acre-foot.

What rooftop solar owners understand isn’t mythological

Severin Borenstein wrote another blog attacking rooftop solar (a pet peeve of his at least a decade because these weren’t being installed in “optimal” locations in the state) entitled “Myths that Solar Owners Tell Themselves.” Unfortunately he set up a number of “strawman” arguments that really have little to do with the actual issues being debated right now at the CPUC. Here’s responses to each his “myths”:

Myth #1 – Customers are paid only 4 cents per kWh for exports: He’s right in part, but then he ignores the fact that almost all of the power sent out from rooftop panels are used by their neighbors and never gets to the main part of the grid. The utility is redirecting the power down the block.

Myth #2 – The utility sells the power purchased at retail back to other customers at retail so the net so it’s a wash: Borenstein’s claim ignores the fact that when the NEM program began the utilities were buying power that cost more than the retail rate at the time. During NEM 1.0 the IOUs were paying in excess of 10c/kwh for renewable power (RPS) power purchase agreements (PPAs). Add the 4c/kWh for transmission and that’s more than the average rate of 13c/kWh that prevailed during that time. NEM 2.0 added a correction for TOU pricing (that PG&E muffled by including only the marginal generation cost difference by TOU rather than scaling) and that adjusted the price some. But those NEM customers signed up not knowing what the future retail price would be. That’s the downside of failing to provide a fixed price contract tariff option for solar customers back then. So now the IOUs are bearing the consequences of yet another bad management decision because they were in denial about what was coming.

Myth #3 – Rooftop solar is about disrupting the industry: Here Borenstein appears to be unaware of the Market Street Railway case that states that utilities are not protected from technological change. Protecting companies from the consequences of market forces is corporate socialism. If we’re going to protect shareholders from risk (and its even 100% protection), then the grid should be publicly owned instead. Sam Insull set up the regulatory scam a century ago arguing that income assurance was needed for grid investment, and when the whole scheme collapsed in the Depression, the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935 (PUHCA)was passed. Shareholders need to pick their poison—either be exposed to risk or transfer their assets public ownership, but wealthy shareholders should not be protected.

Myth #3A – Utilities made bad investments and should bear the risks: Borenstein is arguing since the utilities have run the con for the last decade and gotten approval from the CPUC, they should be protected. Yet I submitted testimony repeatedly starting in 2010 both PG&E’s and SCE’s GRCs that warned that they had overforecasted load growth. I was correct—statewide retail sales are about the same today as they were in 2006. Grid investment would have been much different if those companies had listened and corrected their forecasts. Further the IOUs know how to manipulate their regulatory filings to ensure that they still get their internally targeted income. Decoupling that ensures that the utility receives its guaranteed income regardless of sales further shields them. From 1994 to 2017, PG&E hit its average allowed rate of return within 0.1%. (More on this later.) A UCB economics graduate student found that the return on equity is up to 4% too high (consistent with analysis I’ve done).

Myth #3B – Time to take away the utility’s monopoly: No, we no longer need to have monopoly electric service. The same was said about telecommunications three decades ago. Now we have multiple entities vying for our dollars. The CPUC conducted a study in 1999 that was included in PG&E’s GRC proposed decision (thanks to the late Richard Bilas) that showed that economies of scale disappeared after several hundred thousand customers (and that threshold is likely lower now.) And microgrids are becoming cost effective, especially as PG&E’s rates look like they will surpass 30 cents per kWh by 2026.

Myth #4 – There aren’t barriers to the poor putting panels on their roofs: First, the barriers are largely regulatory, not financial. The CPUC has erected them to prevent aggregation of low-income customers to be able to buy into larger projects that serve these communities.

Second, there are many market mechanisms today where those with lower income are offered products or services at a higher long term price in return for low or no upfront costs. Are we also going to heavily tax car purchases because car leasing is effectively more expensive? What about house ownership vs. rentals? There are issues to address with equity, but to zero in on one small example while ignoring the much wider prevalence sets  up another strawman argument.

Further, there are better ways to address the inequity in rooftop solar distribution. That inequity isn’t occurring duo to affordability but rather because of split incentives between landlords and tenants.

A much easier and more direct fix would be to modify Public Utilities Code Sections 218 to allow local sales among customers or by landlords or homeowner associations to tenants and 739.5 to allow more flexibility in pricing those sales. But allowing those changes will require that the utilities give up iron-fisted control of electricity production.

Myth #5 – Rooftop solar is the only thing that makes it cost-effective to electrify: Borenstein focuses on the what source of high rates. Rooftop solar might be raising rates, but it probably delivered as much in offsetting savings. At most those customers increased rates by 10%, but utility rates are 70-100% above the direct marginal costs of service. The sources of that difference are manifest. PG&E has filed in its 2023 GRC a projected increase in the average standard residential rate to 38 cents per kWh by 2026, and perhaps over 40 cents once undergrounding to mitigate wildfire is included. The NREL studies on microgrids show that individual home microgrids cost about 34 cents per kWh now and battery storage prices are still dropping. Exiting the grid starts to look a lot more attractive.

Maybe if we look only at the status quo as unchanging and accept all of the utilities’ claims about their “necessary” management decisions and the return required to attract investors, then these arguments might hold water. But none of these factors are true based on the empirical work presented in many forums including at the CPUC over the last decade. These beliefs are not so mythological.

Finally, Borenstein finishes with “(a)nd we all need to be open to changing our minds as a result of changing technology and new data.” Yet he has been particularly unyielding on this issue for years, and has not reexamined his own work on electricity markets from two decades ago. The meeting of open minds requires a two-way street.

Guidelines For Better Net Metering; Protecting All Electricity Customers And The Climate

Authors Ahmad Faruqui, Richard McCann and Fereidoon Sioshansi[1] respond to Professor Severin Borenstein’s much-debated proposal to reform California’s net energy metering, which was first published as a blog and later in a Los Angeles Times op-ed.

Proposing a Clean Financing Decarbonization Incentive Rate

by Steven J. Moss and Richard J. McCann, M.Cubed

A potentially key barrier to decarbonizing California’s economy is escalating electricity costs.[1] To address this challenge, the Local Government Sustainable Energy Coalition, in collaboration with Santa Barbara Clean Energy, proposes to create a decarbonization incentive rate, which would enable customers who switch heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) or other appliances from natural gas, fossil methane, or propane to electricity to pay a discounted rate on the incremental electricity consumed.[2] The rate could also be offered to customers purchasing electric vehicles (EVs).

California has adopted electricity rate discounts previously to incentivize beneficial choices, such as retaining and expanding businesses in-state,[3] and converting agricultural pump engines from diesel to electricity to improve Central Valley air quality.[4]

  • Economic development rates (EDR) offer a reduction to enterprises that are considering leaving, moving to or expanding in the state.  The rate floor is calculated as the marginal cost of service for distribution and generation plus non-bypassable charges (NBC). For Southern California Edison, the current standard EDR discount is 12%; 30% in designated enhanced zones.[5]
  • AG-ICE tariff, offered from 2006 to 2014, provided a discounted line extension cost and limited the associated rate escalation to 1.5% a year for 10 years to match forecasted diesel fuel prices.[6] The program led to the conversion of 2,000 pump engines in 2006-2007 with commensurate improvements in regional air quality and greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reductions.[7]

The decarbonization incentive rate (DIR) would use the same principles as the EDR tariff. Most importantly, load created by converting from fossil fuels is new load that has only been recently—if at all–included in electricity resource and grid planning. None of this load should incur legacy costs for past generation investments or procurement nor for past distribution costs. Most significantly, this principle means that these new loads would be exempt from the power cost indifference adjustment (PCIA) stranded asset charge to recover legacy generation costs.

The California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) also ruled in 2007 that NBCs such as for public purpose programs, CARE discount funding, Department of Water Resources Bonds, and nuclear decommissioning, must be recovered in full in discounted tariffs such as the EDR rate. This proposal follows that direction and include these charges, except the PCIA as discussed above.

Costs for incremental service are best represented by the marginal costs developed by the utilities and other parties either in their General Rate Case (GRC) Phase II cases or in the CPUC’s Avoided Cost Calculator. Since the EDR is developed using analysis from the GRC, the proposed DIR is illustrated here using SCE’s 2021 GRC Phase II information as a preliminary estimate of what such a rate might look like. A more detailed analysis likely will arrive at a somewhat different set of rates, but the relationships should be similar.

For SCE, the current average delivery rate that includes distribution, transmission and NBCs is 9.03 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh). The average for residential customers is 12.58 cents. The system-wide marginal cost for distribution is 4.57 cents per kilowatt-hour;[8] 6.82 cents per kWh for residential customers. Including transmission and NBCs, the system average rate component would be 7.02 cents per kWh, or 22% less. The residential component would be 8.41 cents or 33% less.[9]

The generation component similarly would be discounted. SCE’s average bundled generation rate is 8.59 cents per kWh and 9.87 cents for residential customers. The rates derived using marginal costs is 5.93 cents for the system average and 6.81 cent for residential, or 31% less. For CCA customers, the PCIA would be waived on the incremental portion of the load. Each CCA would calculate its marginal generation cost as it sees fit.

For bundled customers, the average rate would go from 17.62 cents per kWh to 12.95 cents, or 26.5% less. Residential rates would decrease from 22.44 cents to 15.22 cents, or 32.2% less.

Incremental loads eligible for the discounted decarb rate would be calculated based on projected energy use for the appropriate application.  For appliances and HVAC systems, Southern California Gas offers line extension allowances for installing gas services based on appliance-specific estimated consumption (e.g., water heating, cooking, space conditioning).[10] Data employed for those calculations could be converted to equivalent electricity use, with an incremental use credit on a ratepayer’s bill. An alternative approach to determine incremental electricity use would be to rely on the California Energy Commission’s Title 24 building efficiency and Title 20 appliance standard assumptions, adjusted by climate zone.[11]

For EVs, the credit would be based on the average annual vehicle miles traveled in a designated region (e.g., county, city or zip code) as calculated by the California Air Resources Board for use in its EMFAC air quality model or from the Bureau of Automotive Repair (BAR) Smog Check odometer records, and the average fleet fuel consumption converted to electricity. For a car traveling 12,000 miles per year that would equate to 4,150 kWh or 345 kWh per month.


[1] CPUC, “Affordability Phase 3 En Banc,” https://www.cpuc.ca.gov/industries-and-topics/electrical-energy/affordability, February 28-March 1, 2022.

[2] Remaining electricity use after accounting for incremental consumption would be charged at the current otherwise applicable tariff (OAT).

[3] California Public Utilities Commission, Decision 96-08-025. Subsequent decisions have renewed and modified the economic development rate (EDR) for the utilities individually and collectively.

[4] D.05-06-016, creating the AG-ICE tariff for Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison.

[5] SCE, Schedules EDR-E, EDR-A and EDR-R.

[6] PG&E, Schedule AG-ICE—Agricultural Internal Combustion Engine Conversion Incentive Rate.

[7] EDR and AG-ICE were approved by the Commission in separate utility applications. The mobile home park utility system conversion program was first initiated by a Western Mobile Home Association petition by and then converted into a rulemaking, with significant revenue requirement implications. 

[8] Excluding transmission and NBCs.

[9] Tiered rates pose a significant barrier to electrification and would cause the effective discount to be greater than estimated herein.  The estimates above were based on measuring against the average electricity rate but added demand would be charged at the much higher Tier 2 rate. The decarb allowance could be introduced at a new Tier 0 below the current Tier 1.

[10] SCG, Rule No. 20 Gas Main Extensions, https://tariff.socalgas.com/regulatory/tariffs/tm2/pdf/20.pdf, retrieved March 2022.

[11] See https://www.energy.ca.gov/programs-and-topics/programs/building-energy-efficiency-standards;
https://www.energy.ca.gov/rules-and-regulations/building-energy-efficiency/manufacturer-certification-building-equipment;https://www.energy.ca.gov/rules-and-regulations/appliance-efficiency-regulations-title-20

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.

A cheaper wildfire mitigation solution: using microgrids instead of undergrounding

PG&E released its 2022 Wildfire Mitigation Plan Update (2022 WMPU) That plan calls for $6 billion of capital investment to move 3,600 miles of underground by 2026. This is just over a third of the initial proposed target of 10,000 miles. Based on PG&E’s proposed ramping up, the utility would reach its target by 2030.

One alternative that could better control costs would be to install community and individual microgrids. Microgrids are likely more cost effective and faster means of reducing wildfire risk and saving lives. I wrote about how to evaluate this choice for relative cost effectiveness based on density of load and customers per mile of line.

Microgrids can mitigate wildfire risk by the utility turning off overhead wire service for extended periods, perhaps weeks at a time, during the highest fire risk periods. The advantage of a periodically-islanded microgrid is 1) that the highest fire risk coincides with the most solar generation so providing enough energy is not a problem and 2) the microgrids also can be used during winter storms to better support the local grid and to ride out shorter outages. Customers’ reliability may degrade because they would not have the grid support, but such systems generally have been quite reliable. In fact, reliability may increase because distribution grid outages are about 15 times more likely than system or regional outages.

The important question is whether microgrids can be built much more quickly than undergrounding lines and in particular whether PG&E has the capacity to manage such a buildout at a faster rate? PG&E has the Community Microgrid Enablement Program. The utility was recently authorized to build several isolated microgrids as an alternative to rebuilding fire-damaged distribution lines to isolated communities. Turning to local governments to manage many different construction projects likely would improve this schedule, like how Caltrans delegates road construction to counties and cities.

Controlling the costs of wildfire mitigation

Based on the current cost of capital this initial undergrounding phase will add $1.6 billion to annual revenue requirements or an additional 8% above today’s level. This would be on top of PG&E request in its 2023 General Rate Case for a 48% increase in distribution rates by 2023 and 78% increase by 2026, and a 31% increase in overall bundled rates by 2023 and 43% by 2026. The 2022 WMPU would take the increase to over 50% by 2026 (and that doesn’t’ include the higher maintenance costs). That means that residential rates would increase from 28.7 cents per kilowatt-hour today (already 21% higher than December 2020) to 36.4 cents in 2026. Building out the full 10,000 miles could lead to another 15% increase on top of all of this.

Turning to the comparison of undergrounding costs to microgrids, these two charts illustrate how to evaluate the opportunities for microgrids to lower these costs. PG&E states the initial cost per mile for undergrounding is $3.75 million, dropping to $2.5 million, or an average of $2.9 million. The first figure looks at community scale microgrids, using National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) estimates. It shows how the cost effectiveness of installing microgrids changes with density of peak loads on a circuit on the vertical axis, cost per kilowatt for a microgrid on the horizontal axis, and each line showing the division where undergrounding is less expensive (above) or microgrids are less expensive (below) based on the cost of undergrounding. As a benchmark, the dotted line shows the average load density in the PG&E system, combined rural and urban. So in average conditions, community microgrids are cheaper regardless of the costs of microgrids or undergrounding.

The second figure looks at individual residential scale microgrids, again using NREL estimates. It shows how the cost effectiveness of installing microgrids changes with customer density on a circuit on the vertical axis, cost per kilowatt for a microgrid on the horizontal axis, and each line showing the division where undergrounding is less expensive (above) or microgrids are less expensive (below). As a benchmark, the dotted line shows the average customer density in the PG&E system, combined rural and urban. Again, residential microgrids are less expensive in most situations, especially as density falls below 75 customers per mile.

A movement towards energy self-sufficiency is growing in California due to a confluence of factors. PG&E’s WMPU should reflect these new choices in manner that can reduce rates for all customers.

(Here’s my testimony on this topic filed by the California Farm Bureau in PG&E’s 2023 General Rate Case on its Wildfire Management Plan Update.)

Why utility prices cannot be set using short-run marginal costs

One commentator on the Energy Institute at Haas’ blog entitled “Everyone Should Pay a ‘Solar Tax’” points out that one version of economic theory holds that short run marginal cost is the appropriate metric for composing efficient prices. And he points out that short-run (SRMC) and long-run marginal costs (LRMC) should converge in equilibrium. So he implicitly says that long run marginal costs are the appropriate metric if as a stable long-run measure is based, as he states, on forecasts.

Even so, he misses an important aspect–using the SRMC for pricing relies on important conditions such as (1) relatively free entry and exit, (2) producers bear full risk for their investments, and (3) no requirements exist for minimum supply (i.e., no reserve margins). He points out that utilities overbuild their transmission and distribution (and I’ll point out their generation) systems. I would assert that is because of the market failures related to the fact that the conditions I listed above are missing–entry is restricted or prohibited, customers bear almost all of the risk, and reserve margins largely eliminates any potential for scarcity rents. In fact, California explicitly chose its reserve margin and resource adequacy procurement standards to eliminate the potential for pricing in the scarcity rents necessary for SRMC and LRMC to converge.

He correctly points out that apparent short run MC are quite low (not quite as close to zero as he asserts though)–a statement that implies that he expects that SRMC in a correctly functioning market would be much higher. In fact, as he states, the SRMC should converge to the LRMC. The fact is that SRMC has not risen to the LRMC on an annual average basis in decades in California (briefly in 2006, 2001 and 2000 (when generators exerted market power) and then back to the early 1980s). So why continue to insist that we should be using the current, incorrect SRMC as the benchmark when we know that it is wrong and we specifically know why its wrong? That we have these market failures to maintain system reliability and address the problems of network and monopolistic externalities is why we have regulation.

The solution is not to try to throw out our current regulatory scheme and then let the market price run free in the current institutional structure with a single dominant player. Avoiding market dominance is the raison d’etre for economic regulation. If that is the goal, the necessary first step is introducing and sustaining enough new entrants to be able to discipline the behavior of the dominant firm. Pricing reform must follow that change, not precede it. Competitive firms will not just spontaneously appear due to pricing reform.

It’s not clear that utilities “must” recover their “fixed” investments costs. Another of the needed fixes to the current regulatory scheme to improve efficiency is having utilities bear the risks of making incorrect investment decisions. Having warned (correctly) the IOUs about overforecasting demand growth for more than a dozen years now, they will not listen such analyses unless they have a financial incentive to do so.

Contrary to claims by this and other commentators, It is not efficient to charge customers a fixed charge beyond the service connection cost (which is about $10/month for residential customers for California IOUs). If the utility charges a fixed cost for the some portion of the rest of the grid, the efficient solution must then allow customers to sell their share of that grid to other customers to achieve Pareto optimal allocations among the customers. We could set up a cumbersome, high transaction cost auction or bulletin board to facilitate these trades, but there is at least another market mechanism that is nearly as efficient with much lower transaction costs–the dealer. (The NYSE uses a dealer market structure with market makers acting as dealers.) In the case of the utility grid, the utility that operates the grid also can act as the dealer. The most likely transaction unit would bein kilowatt-hours. So we’re left back where we started with volumetric rates. The problem with this model is not that it isn’t providing sufficient revenue certainty–that’s not an efficiency criterion. The problem is that the producer isn’t bearing enough of the risk of insufficient revenue recovery.

An alternative solution may be to set the distribution volumetric rate at the LRMC with no assurance of revenue requirement on that portion, and then recover the difference between average cost and LRMC in a fixed charge. This is the classic “lump sum” solution to setting monopoly pricing. The issue has been how to allocate those lump sum payments. However, the true distribution LRMC appears to be higher than average costs now based on how average rates have been rising.

Has rooftop solar cost California ratepayers more than the alternatives?

The Energy Institute’s blog has an important premise–that solar rooftop customers have imposed costs on other ratepayers with few benefits. This premise runs counter to the empirical evidence.

First, these customers have deferred an enormous amount of utility-scale generation. In 2005 the CEC forecasted the 2020 CAISO peak load would 58,662 MW. The highest peak after 2006 has been 50,116 MW (in 2017–3,000 MW higher than in August 2020). That’s a savings of 8,546 MW. (Note that residential installations are two-thirds of the distributed solar installations.) The correlation of added distributed solar capacity with that peak reduction is 0.938. Even in 2020, the incremental solar DER was 72% of the peak reduction trend. We can calculate the avoided peak capacity investment from 2006 to today using the CEC’s 2011 Cost of Generation model inputs. Combustion turbines cost $1,366/kW (based on a survey of the 20 installed plants–I managed that survey) and the annual fixed charge rate was 15.3% for a cost of $209/kW-year. The total annual savings is $1.8 billion. The total revenue requirements for the three IOUs plus implied generation costs for DA and CCA LSEs in 2021 was $37 billion. So the annual savings that have accrued to ALL customers is 4.9%. Given that NEM customers are about 4% of the customer base, if those customers paid nothing, everyone else’s bill would only go up by 4% or less than what rooftop solar has saved so far.

In addition, the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) calculated in 2018 that at least $2.6 billion in transmission projects had been deferred through installed distributed solar. Using the amount installed in 2017 of 6,785 MW, the avoided costs are $383/kW or $59/kW-year. This translates to an additional $400 million per year or about 1.1% of utility revenues.

The total savings to customers is over $2.2 billion or about 6% of revenue requirements.

Second, rooftop solar isn’t the most expensive power source. My rooftop system installed in 2017 costs 12.6 cents/kWh (financed separately from our mortgage). In comparison, PG&E’s RPS portfolio cost over 12 cents/kWh in 2019 according to the CPUC’s 2020 Padilla Report, plus there’s an increments transmission cost approaching 4 cents/kWh, so we’re looking at a total delivered cost of 16 cents/kwh for existing renewables. (Note that the system costs to integrate solar are largely the same whether they are utility scale or distributed).

Comparing to the average IOU RPS portfolio cost to that of rooftop solar is appropriate from the perspective of a customer. Utility customers see average, not marginal, costs and average cost pricing is widely prevalent in our economy. To achieve 100% renewable power a reasonable customer will look at average utility costs for the same type of power. We use the same principle by posting on energy efficient appliances the expect bill savings based on utility rates–-not on the marginal resource acquisition costs for the utilities.

And customers who would choose to respond to the marginal cost of new utility power instead will never really see those economic savings because the supposed savings created by that decision will be diffused across all customers. In other words, other customers will extract all of the positive rents created by that choice. We could allow for bypass pricing (which industrial customers get if they threaten to leave the service area) but currently we force other customers to bear the costs of this type of pricing, not shareholders as would occur in other industries. Individual customers are currently the decision making point of view for most energy use purposes and they base those on average cost pricing, so why should we have a single carve out for a special case that is quite similar to energy efficiency?

I wrote more about whether a fixed connection cost is appropriate for NEM customers and the complexity of calculating that charge earlier this week.

Are fixed charges the solution to the solar rooftop dilemma?

A recent post at the Energy Institute at Haas proposed that all residential ratepayers should pay the “solar tax” in the recently withdrawn proposed decision from the California Public Utilities Commission through a connection fee. I agree that charging residential a connection charge is a reasonable solution. (All commercial and agricultural customers in California already pay such a charge.) The more important question though is what that connection fee should be?

Much less of the distribution costs are “fixed” than many proponents understand–we can see an example of the ability to avoid large undergrounding costs by installing microgrids as an example. Southern California Edison has repeatedly asked for a largely fixed “grid charge” for the last dozen years and the intervening ratepayer groups have shown that SCE’s estimate is much too high. A service connection costs about $10-$15/month, not more than $50 per month. So what might be the other elements of a fixed monthly charge rather than collecting these revenues through a volumetric rate as is done today?

A strong economic argument can be made that if the utility is collecting a fixed charge for upstream T&D capacity, then a customer should be able to trade that capacity that they have paid for with other customers. In the face of transaction costs, that market would devolve down to the per kWh price managed by the utility acting as a dealer–just what we have today.

Other candidates abound. How to recover stranded costs really requires a conversation about how much of those costs shareholders should shoulder. Income distributional public purpose costs should be collected from taxes, not rates. Energy efficiency is a resource that should be charged in the generation component, not distribution, and should be treated like other generation resources in cost recovery. The problem is that decoupling which was used to encourage energy efficiency investment has become a backdoor way to recover stranded costs without any conversation about whether that is appropriate–rates go up as demand decreases with little reduction in revenue requirements. So what the connection charge should be becomes quite complex.