Tag Archives: net energy metering

Can Net Metering Reform Fix the Rooftop Solar Cost Shift?: A Response

A response to Severin Borenstein’s post at UC Energy Institute where he posits a large subsidy flowing to NEM customers and proposes an income-based fixed charge as the remedy. Borenstein made the same proposal at a later CPUC hearing.

The CPUC is now considering reforming the current net energy metering (NEM) tariffs in the NEM 3.0 proceeding. And the State Legislature is considering imposing a change by fiat in AB 1139.

First, to frame this discussion, economists are universally guilty of status quo bias in which we (since I’m one) too often assume that changing from the current physical and institutional arrangement is a “cost” in an implicit assumption that the current situation was somehow arrived at via a relatively benign economic process. (The debate over reparations for slavery revolve around this issue.) The same is true for those who claim that NEM customers are imposing exorbitant costs on other customers.

There are several issues to be considered in this analysis.

1) In looking at the history of the NEM rate, the emergence of a misalignment between retail rates that compensate solar customers and the true marginal costs of providing service (which are much more than the hourly wholesales price–more on that later) is a recent event. When NEM 1.0 was established residential rates were on the order of 15 c/kWh and renewable power contracts were being signed at 12 to 15 c/kWh. In addition, the transmission costs were adding 2 to 4 c/kWh. This was the case through 2015; NEM 1.0 expired in 2016. NEM 2.0 customers were put on TOU rates with evening peak loads, so their daytime output is being priced at off peak rates midday and they are paying higher on peak rates for usage. This despite the fact that the difference in “marginal costs” between peak and off wholesale costs are generally on the order of a penny per kWh. (PG&E NEM customers also pay a $10/month fixed charge that is close to the service connection cost.) Calculating the net financial flows is more complicated and deserve that complex look than what can be captured in a simple back of the envelope calculation.

2) If we’re going to dig into subsidies, the first place to start is with utility and power plant shareholders. If we use the current set of “market price benchmarks” (which are problematic as I’ll discuss), out of PG&E’s $5.2 billion annual generation costs, over $2 billion or 40% are “stranded costs” that are subsidies to shareholders for bad investments. In an efficient marketplace those shareholders would have to recover those costs through competitively set prices, as Jim Lazar of the Regulatory Assistance Project has pointed out. One might counter those long term contracts were signed on behalf of these customers who now must pay for them. Of course, overlooking whether those contracts were really properly evaluated, that’s also true for customers who have taken energy efficiency measures and Elon Musk as he moves to Texas–we aren’t discussing whether they also deserve a surcharge to cover these costs. But beyond this, on an equity basis, NEM 1.0 customers at least made investments based on an expectation, that the CPUC did not dissuade them of this belief (we have documentation of how at least one county government was mislead by PG&E on this issue in 2016). If IOUs are entitled to financial protection (and the CPUC has failed to enact the portfolio management incentive specified in AB57 in 2002) then so are those NEM customers. If on the other hand we can reopen cost recovery of those poor portfolio management decisions that have led to the incentive for retail customers to try to exit, THEN we can revisit those NEM investments. But until then, those NEM customers are no more subsidized than the shareholders.

3) What is the true “marginal cost”? First we have the problem of temporal consistency between generation vs. transmission and distribution grid (T&D) costs. Economists love looking at generation because there’s a hourly (or subhourly) “short run” price that coincides nicely with economic theory and calculus. On the other hand, those darn T&D costs are lumpy and discontinuous. The “hourly” cost for T&D is basically zero and the annual cost is not a whole lot better. The current methods debated in the General Rate Cases (GRC) relies on aggregating piecemeal investments without looking at changing costs as a whole. Probably the most appropriate metric for T&D is to calculate the incremental change in total costs by the number of new customers. Given how fast utility rates have been rising over the last decade I’m pretty sure that the “marginal cost” per customer is higher than the average cost–in fact by definition marginal costs must be higher. (And with static and falling loads, I’m not even sure how we calculated the marginal costs per kwh. We can derive the marginal cost this way FERC Form 1 data.) So how do we meld one marginal cost that might be on a 5-minute basis with one that is on a multi-year timeframe? This isn’t an easy answer and “rough justice” can cut either way on what’s the truly appropriate approximation.

4) Even if the generation cost is measured sub hourly, the current wholesale markets are poor reflections of those costs. Significant market distortions prevent fully reflecting those costs. Unit commitment costs are often subsidized through out of market payments; reliability regulation forces investment that pushes capacity costs out of the hourly market, added incremental resources–whether for added load such as electrification or to meet regulatory requirements–are largely zero-operating cost renewables of which none rely on hourly market revenues for financial solvency; in California generators face little or no bankruptcy risk which allows them to underprice their bids; on the flip side, capacity price adders such as ERCOT’s ORDC overprices the value of reliability to customers as a backdoor way to allow generators to recover investments through the hourly market. So what is the true marginal cost of generation? Pulling down CAISO prices doesn’t look like a good primary source of data.

We’re left with the question of what is the appropriate benchmark for measuring a “subsidy”? Should we also include the other subsidies that created the problem in the first place?

AB1139 would undermine California’s efforts on climate change

Assembly Bill 1139 is offered as a supposed solution to unaffordable electricity rates for Californians. Unfortunately, the bill would undermine the state’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by crippling several key initiatives that rely on wider deployment of rooftop solar and other distributed energy resources.

  • It will make complying with the Title 24 building code requiring solar panel on new houses prohibitively expensive. The new code pushes new houses to net zero electricity usage. AB 1139 would create a conflict with existing state laws and regulations.
  • The state’s initiative to increase housing and improve affordability will be dealt a blow if new homeowners have to pay for panels that won’t save them money.
  • It will make transportation electrification and the Governor’s executive order aiming for 100% new EVs by 2035 much more expensive because it will make it much less economic to use EVs for grid charging and will reduce the amount of direct solar panel charging.
  • Rooftop solar was installed as a long-term resource based on a contractual commitment by the utilities to maintain pricing terms for at least the life of the panels. Undermining that investment will undermine the incentive for consumers to participate in any state-directed conservation program to reduce energy or water use.

If the State Legislature wants to reduce ratepayer costs by revising contractual agreements, the more direct solution is to direct renegotiation of RPS PPAs. For PG&E, these contracts represent more than $1 billion a year in excess costs, which dwarfs any of the actual, if any, subsidies to NEM customers. The fact is that solar rooftops displaced the very expensive renewables that the IOUs signed, and probably led to a cancellation of auctions around 2015 that would have just further encumbered us.

The bill would force net energy metered (NEM) customers to pay twice for their power, once for the solar panels and again for the poor portfolio management decisions by the utilities. The utilities claim that $3 billion is being transferred from customers without solar to NEM customers. In SDG&E’s service territory, the claim is that the subsidy costs other ratepayers $230 per year, which translates to $1,438 per year for each NEM customer. But based on an average usage of 500 kWh per month, that implies each NEM customer is receiving a subsidy of $0.24/kWh compared to an average rate of $0.27 per kWh. In simple terms, SDG&E is claiming that rooftop solar saves almost nothing in avoided energy purchases and system investment. This contrasts with the presumption that energy efficiency improvements save utilities in avoided energy purchases and system investments. The math only works if one agrees with the utilities’ premise that they are entitled to sell power to serve an entire customer’s demand–in other words, solar rooftops shouldn’t exist.

Finally, this initiative would squash a key motivator that has driven enthusiasm in the public for growing environmental awareness. The message from the state would be that we can only rely on corporate America to solve our climate problems and that we can no longer take individual responsibility. That may be the biggest threat to achieving our climate management goals.

Making Community Solar Gardens Work

California has been quite successful at encouraging the development of (1) large utility-scale renewables through the renewables portfolio standard (RPS) and other measures and (2) small-scale, single structure solar generation through the California Solar Initiative (CSI) and measures such as net energy metering (NEM).  However, there have been numerous market and regulatory barriers to developing and deploying the “in-between” community-scale and neighborhood-scale renewables that hold substantial promise.

Community-scale and neighborhood-scale distributed generation (DG) includes some technologies that simply are not cost-effective at the small scale of a single house or business, but are not large enough to justify the transaction costs of participating in the larger wholesale electricity market.  These resources, such as “community solar gardens”, can meet the demands of many customers who cannot take advantage of adding renewables at their location and can also reduce investment in expensive new transmission projects. Examples of these types of projects are parking structure-scale solar photovoltaics, solar-thermal generation and space cooling, and biogas and biomass projects, some of which could provide district heating.  Technology costs are falling so rapidly that these mid-scale projects are becoming competitive with utility-scale resources when transmission cost savings are factored in. SB 43 (Wolk 2013) recognizes that the promise of mid-scale renewables has not been realized.

In response to SB 43, each of the large investor-owned utilities–PG&E, SCE and SDG&E–have filed proposed tariffs with names such as Enhanced Community Renewables Program or Share the Sun. I filed testimony in the PG&E and SCE cases on behalf of the Sierra Club addressing shortcomings in those programs that would inhibit development of community solar gardens. SDG&E’s proposal, while not perfect, better meets the law’s objectives. After the hearings, the CPUC postponed a proposed decision from the July 1 deadline to October.

SB 43’s requirement that the investor-owned utilities “provide support for enhanced community renewables programs” is a critical step forward for California’s distributed energy goals.  The CSI is the state’s premier distributed generation program.  In SB 43 the Legislature expressed its intent that the “green tariff shared renewables program seeks to build on the success of the California Solar Initiative by expanding access to all eligible renewable energy resources to all ratepayers who are currently unable to access the benefits of onsite generation.”  SB 43 advances the success of the CSI into the area of multifamily residential and multitenant commercial properties and introduces all types of renewable energy resources.  Customers who, for various reasons, cannot benefit from the current net metering programs, will be able to benefit through SB 43.

The Legislature clearly intends for this program to lead to a transformation in the energy market akin to the success for single customers of the CSI. This necessary market transformation extends to multifamily and commercial lease properties that are currently beyond the CSI and Self Generation Incentive Programs (SGIP). The Commission should ensure that utilities’ programs under SB 43 provides the market transformation that is necessary for this underserved segment.

State regulations calls for all new residential dwellings to consume zero-net energy (ZNE) by 2020, and all new commercial properties by 2030.  Fully implementing the market transformation identified in SB 43 is one of the obvious means to achieve this target.  The CSI option has already facilitated many examples of feasible ZNE single-family homes using renewables well ahead of the 2020 deadline.  There are several market barriers to integrating renewables in a similar manner on multifamily and commercial leased properties and on single-family that are not favorably located or that have other impediments.

A properly-designed community solar garden program should provide a critical work-around for the split-incentive problem that has plagued local renewable development in California.  The split-incentive problem arises from the fact that multi-tenant structures, both commercial and residential, may not be able to implement solar or other renewable resources due to the fact that lessees are not the owners of the shared space where renewables could be sited.  The problem of split-incentives between landlords and tenants has long been recognized, and has been the focus of energy efficiency programs.

As a corollary, the Commission should provide individual developers and property owners the opportunity to integrate energy efficiency and DG measures to achieve the best mix for meeting environmental and economic goals. Each project is unique so that a “one size fits all” approach that requires sale of all output into the wholesale market with buyback from customers who may have no connection with the project will only discourage enhanced development.

For distributed generation to expand in California there must be a cost-effective path for residential and commercial tenants, as well as not-well-situated buildings, to install solar and other renewables and share the costs among other customers. The focus to date has been on either utility-scale or single-building scale projects, but the most promise may be in mid-scale projects that can serve a community or a neighborhood cost-effectively through a combination of scale economies and avoided transmission and distribution investment.  But to achieve this objective requires changes from current utility practices.

An update: Here’s the link to the decision on this CPUC case issued in January. And here’s the link to scoping memo for the phase of this proceeding.