Tag Archives: municipal utilities

Public takeover of PG&E isn’t going to solve every problem

This article in the Los Angeles Times about what a public takeover of PG&E appears to take on uses the premise that such a step would lead to lower costs, more efficiencies and reduced wildfire risks. These expectations have never been realistic, and shouldn’t be the motivation for such an action. Instead, a public takeover would offer these benefits and opportunities:

  • While the direct costs of constructing and repairing the grid would likely be about the same (and PG&E has some of the highest labor costs around), the cost to borrow and invest the needed funds would be as much as 30% less. That’s because PG&E weighted average cost of capital (debt and shareholder equity) is around 8% per annum while muncipal debt is 5% or less.
  • Ratepayers are already repaying shareholders and creditors for their investments in the utility system. Buying PG&E’s system would simply be replacing those payments with payments to creditors that hold public bonds. Similar to the cost of fixing the grid, this purchase should reduce the annual cost to repay that debt by 30%.
  • And along these lines, utility shareholders have borne little of the costs from these types of risks. Shareholders supposedly get a premium on their investment returns for these “risks” but when asked for examples of large scale disallowances, none of the utilities could provide significant examples. If ratepayers are already bearing all of those risks, then they should get all of the investment benefits as well.
  • Direct public oversight will eliminate a layer of regulation that PG&E has used to impede effective oversight and deflect responsibility. To some extent regulation by the California Public Utilities Commission has been like pushing on a string, with PG&E doing what it wants by “interpreting” CPUC decisions. The result has been a series of missteps by the utility over many decades.
  • A new utility structure may provide an opportunity to renegotiate a number of overly lucrative renewable power purchase agreements that PG&E signed between 2010 and 2015. PG&E failed to properly manage the risk profile of its portfolio because under state law it could pass through all costs of those PPAs once approved by the CPUC. PG&E’s shareholders bore no risk, so why consider that risk? There are several possible options to addressing this issue, but PG&E has little incentive to act.
  • A publicly-owned utility can work more closely with local governments to facilitate the evolution of the energy system to meet climate change challenges. As a private entity with restrictions on how it can participate in customer-side energy management, PG&E cannot work hand-in-glove with cities and counties on building and transportation transformation. PG&E right now has strong incentives to prevent further defections away from its grid; public utilities are more likely to accept these defections with the possibility that the stranded asset costs will be socialized.

The risks of wildfire damages and liabilities are unlikely to change substantially (except if the last point accelerates distributed energy resource investment). But the other benefits and opportunities are likely to make these costs lower.

Davis Should Set Its Utility Reserve Targets with a Transparent and Rigorous Method

The City of Davis Utilities Commission is considering on February 19 whether to disregard the preliminary recommendations of the Commission’s Enterprise Fund Reserve Policies subcommittee to establish a transparent, relatively rigorous and consistent method for setting City reserves. The Staff Report, written by the now-departed finance director, ignored the stated objectives of both the Utilities and Finance and Budget Commissions to develop a consistent set of policies that did not rely on the undocumented and opaque practices of other communities. Those practices had no linkage whatsoever to risk assessment, and the American Water Works Association’s report that the Staff relied on again to reject the Commission’s recommendation again fails to provide any documentation on how the proposed targets reflect risk mitigation—they are simply drawn from past practices.[1]

The City’s Finance & Budget Committee raised the question of whether the City held too much in reserves over five years ago, and the Utilities Commission agreed in 2017 to evaluate the status of the reserves for the four City enterprise funds—water, sanitation/waste disposal, sewer/wastewater, and stormwater. A Utilities Commission subcommittee reviewed the current reserve policies and what is being done by other cities. (I was on that subcommittee.) First, the subcommittee found that the City was using different methods for each fund, and that other cities had not conducted risk analyses to set their targets either. The subcommittee conducted a statistical analysis that allows the City to adjust its reserve targets for changing conditions rather than just relying on the heuristic values provided by consultants.

The subcommittee’s proposal adopted initially by the Utilities Commission achieved three objectives that had been missing from the previous informal reserves policy. Two of these would still be missing under the Staff’s proposal:

  1. Clearly defining and documenting the reserves held for debt coverage. While these amounts were shown in previous rate studies, the documented source of those amounts generally not included and the subcommittee’s requests brought those to the fore. The Staff method appears to accept continuance of that practice. The Staff proposes to keep those separate, which differs from past practice which rolled all reserves together.
  2. Reserve targets are first set based on the historic volatility of enterprise net income. In other words, the reserves would be determined transparently with a rigorous method on the basis of the need for those reserves. The method uses a target that is statistically beyond the 99th percentile in the probability distribution. And this target can be readily updated for new information each year. The Staff report rejects this method to adopt a target that refers to the practice of other communities, and none of those practices appear to be based on analytic methods from research done by the subcommittee.
  3. Reserve targets are then adjusted to cover the largest single year capital improvement/replacement investment made historically to ensure enough cash for non-debt expenditures. Because the net income volatility is a joint function of revenues, operating expenditures and non-debt capital expenditures, the latter category is not separated out of the analysis. However, an added margin can be incorporated. That said, the data set for the fiscal years of 2008/2009 to 2016/2017 used by the subcommittee found that setting the target based on the volatility has been sufficient to date. The Staff report appears to call for a separate, unnecessary reserve fund for this purpose based on annual depreciation that has no relationship to risk exposure, and implicitly duplicates the debt payments already being made on these utility systems. This would be a wasteful duplication that sets the reserves too high.

The Finance and Budget raised at least two important issues in its review:

  1. Water and sewer usage and revenues may be correlated so that the reserves may be shared between the two funds. However, further review shows that the funds have a slight negative correlation, indicating that the reserves should be held separately.
  2. The water fund already has an implicit reserve source when a drought emergency is declared because a surcharge of 25% is added to water utility charges. I agree that this should be accounted for in the historic volatility analysis. This reduces the volatility in fiscal years 2014/2015 and 2015/2016, and reduces the water fund volatility reserve from 26% to 21%.
  3. Working cash reserves are unnecessary because the utility funds are already well established (not needing a start up reserve), and that the volatility reserves already cover any significant lags in the revenues that may occur. This observation is valid, and I agree that the working cash reserves are duplicative of the other reserve requirements. The working cash reserves should be eliminated from the reserve targets for this reason.

Finally, the Staff proposal raises an issue about the appropriate basis for determining the sanitation/waste removal reserve target. The Staff proposes to base it solely on direct City expenses. However, the enterprise fund balance shows a deficit that includes the revenues and expenses incurred by the contractor, first Davis Waste Removal and then Recology. We need more specificity on which party is bearing the risk of these shortfalls before determining the appropriate reserve target. Given the current City accounting stance that incorporates those shortfalls, I propose using the Utility Commission’s proposed method for now.

Based the analysis done by Utilities Commission subcommittee and the recommendations of the Finance & Budget Committee, the chart above shows the target % reserves for each fund without the debt coverage target. It also shows the % reserve targets implied by the Staff’s proposed method.[2] The chart also shows corresponding dollar amount for the proposed total target reserves, including the debt reserves, and the cash assets held for those funds in fiscal year 2016/2017. Importantly, this new reserve target shows that the City held about $30 million of excess reserves in 2016/2017.

[1] It appears the Staff may have misread the Utilities Commission’s recommendation memorandum and confused the proposed targets policies with the inferred existing policies. This makes it uncertain as to whether the Staff fully considered what had been proposed by the Utilities Commission.

[2] The amounts shown in the October 16, 2019 Staff Report on Item 6B do not appear to be consistent with the methodology shown in Table 1 of that report.

Non-Profit Utilities Could Cure What Ails California Electricity


Severin Borenstein at the Energy Institute at Haas, asks “Would Non-Profit Utilities Cure What Ails California Electricity?” I am posting my response here as that I find his post overlooks several important points and distinctions.

I’ll start by saying I wrote an op-ed in the Sacramento Bee in the early 2000s noting that creating a new municipal utility was not going to deliver the same low rates as existing munis and I’m still aware that such a transfer is unlikely to reduce rates much. But it does change the governance structure in a way that is likely to be more accountable and less influenced by the private interests of utility shareholders. Communities are joining together to push for acquisition of PG&E by a cooperative, which would have a similar governance structure to a municipal utility.

First, the complaint about government is largely about agencies that I will call “ministerial” or “administrative”. These agencies issue permits and licenses or provide social services. In contrast, the government agencies that deliver utility services, which are “enterprises” largely deliver service with few complaints. About 80% of water utilities and almost all wastewater utilities are publicly owned. I work in the water arena as well, and the only utility that I hear complaints about from customers is LADWP (both water and power sides). (The SDCWA-MWD fight is between agencies’ managements, not from customers). On the other hand, all three or California’s electric IOUs are the target of customers’ ire. And the IOU staffs (which I have frequent contact with) are no better than government employees in their responsiveness or competence. One advantage the enterprise agencies have over the ministerial/administrative ones is that they generally pay a higher salary so employees are motivated in much the same way as those in the private sector. Moving from oversight by a ministerial/administrative agency (CPUC) to management by an enterprise utility should overcome the problem of recruiting competent motivated staff.

Second, shareholders shoulder very little risk now, particularly in California. I testified in the IOUs’ rate of return case and we asked for the amount of disallowances that shareholders had to bear over the last two decades. Other than SDG&E’s 2007 wildfire costs due to negligence on the utility’s part, they came pack with amounts that were in the tens of millions, which amounts to less than a 0.1% of their revenues collected over that period. Utilities’ generation investment is now so protected that the CPUC reversed itself last year and removed the 10 year recovery cap from exit fees for generation that the utilities built knowing the cap existed. They are now getting bonus dollars! (Same thing happened with Diablo Canyon in 1996.) Yet the utilities are claiming in that rate case that the return on equity should be increased even further! I have a blog post about how the current return is already too high. (Part 2 is the next day.)  Public ownership in contrast can reduce the return on capital from close to 10% (before tax) to 5% or less, which can cut rates substantially.

We can see how PG&E in particular has been incompetently managed for decades. I posted about its many foibles since the 1960s as well. The supposed incentives and efficiencies of the private sector have failed to materialize for California utilities, and meanwhile we pay higher costs for capital with no real risk mitigation. (Ratepayers still had to pay for PG&E’s debts after the 2000-01 energy crisis, and it looks like the same may happen again.)

Finally, the question arises as to whether municipalizing piecemeal would create inequities. The premise of the statement is that the current economic distribution is equitable. But the fact is that rural residential customers in the wildland/urban interface (WUI) have not been paying their full share of their costs and have been heavily subsidized by urban customers. Those customers in the WUI tend to be better off than average (poor rural customers are more likely to live in agricultural communities that are not subject to the same fire risks and for whom service costs are lower), so we already have an adverse wealth transfer in place. And those subsidies have facilitated expansion of housing into those high risk areas that also encourage longer commutes with more GHG emissions.

The better question is how can the rural service areas be better served in the future without relying on the traditional utility structure? Moving toward microgrids and other DER solutions to improve reliability while reducing fire risk is one solution. Spending a $100 billion on undergrounding lines to be paid for by everyone else is NOT a good solution.