Tag Archives: SCE

A new agricultural electricity use forecast method holds promise for water use management

Agricultural electricity demand is highly sensitive to water availability. Under “normal” conditions, the State Water Project (SWP) and Central Valley Project (CVP), as well as other surface water supplies, are key sources of irrigation water for many California farmers. Under dry conditions, these water sources can be sharply curtailed, even eliminated, at the same time irrigation requirements are heightened. Farmers then must rely more heavily on groundwater, which requires greater energy to pump than surface water, since groundwater must be lifted from deeper depths.

Over extended droughts, like between 2012 to 2016, groundwater levels decline, and must be pumped from ever deeper depths, requiring even more energy to meet crops’ water needs. As a result, even as land is fallowed in response to water scarcity, significantly more energy is required to water remaining crops and livestock. Much less pumping is necessary in years with ample surface water supply, as rivers rise, soils become saturated, and aquifers recharge, raising groundwater levels.

The surface-groundwater dynamic results in significant variations in year-to-year agricultural electricity sales. Yet, PG&E has assigned the agricultural customer class a revenue responsibility based on the assumption that “normal” water conditions will prevail every year, without accounting for how inevitable variations from these circumstances will affect rates and revenues for agricultural and other customers.

This assumption results in an imbalance in revenue collection from the agricultural class that does not correct itself even over long time periods, harming agricultural customers most in drought years, when they can least afford it. Analysis presented presented by M.Cubed on behalf of the Agricultural Energy Consumers Association (AECA) in the 2017 PG&E General Rate Case (GRC) demonstrated that overcollections can be expected to exceed $170 million over two years of typical drought conditions, with the expected overcollection $34 million in a two year period. This collection imbalance also increases rate instability for other customer classes.

Figure-1 compares the difference between forecasted loads for agriculture and system-wide used to set rates in the annual ERRA Forecast proceedings (and in GRC Phase 2 every three years) and the actual recorded sales for 1995 to 2019. Notably, the single largest forecasting error for system-wide load was a sales overestimate of 4.5% in 2000 and a shortfall in 2019 of 3.7%, while agricultural mis-forecasts range from an under-forecast of 39.2% in the midst of an extended drought in 2013 to an over-forecast of 18.2% in one of the wettest years on record in 1998. Load volatility in the agricultural sector is extreme in comparison to other customer classes.

Figure-2 shows the cumulative error caused by inadequate treatment of agricultural load volatility over the last 25 years. An unbiased forecasting approach would reflect a cumulative error of zero over time. The error in PG&E’s system-wide forecast has largely balanced out, even though the utility’s load pattern has shifted from significant growth over the first 10 years to stagnation and even decline. PG&E apparently has been able to adapt its forecasting methods for other classes relatively well over time.

The accumulated error for agricultural sales forecasting tells a different story. Over a quarter century the cumulative error reached 182%, nearly twice the annual sales for the Agricultural class. This cumulative error has consequences for the relative share of revenue collected from agricultural customers compared to other customers, with growers significantly overpaying during the period.

Agricultural load forecasting can be revised to better address how variations in water supply availability drive agricultural load. Most importantly, the final forecast should be constructed from a weighted average of forecasted loads under normal, wet and dry conditions. The forecast of agricultural accounts also must be revamped to include these elements. In addition, the load forecast should include the influence of rates and a publicly available data source on agricultural income such as that provided by the USDA’s Economic Research Service.

The Forecast Model Can Use An Additional Drought Indicator and Forecasted Agricultural Rates to Improve Its Forecast Accuracy

The more direct relationship to determine agricultural class energy needs is between the allocation of surface water via state and federal water projects and the need to pump groundwater when adequate surface water is not available from the SWP and federal CVP. The SWP and CVP are critical to California agriculture because little precipitation falls during the state’s Mediterranean-climate summer and snow-melt runoff must be stored and delivered via aqueducts and canals. Surface water availability, therefore, is the primary determinant of agricultural energy use, while precipitation and related factors, such as drought, are secondary causes in that they are only partially responsible for surface water availability. Other factors such as state and federal fishery protections substantially restrict water availability and project pumping operations greatly limiting surface water deliveries to San Joaquin Valley farms.

We found that the Palmer Drought Stress Index (PDSI) is highly correlated with contract allocations for deliveries through the SWP and CVP, reaching 0.78 for both of them, as shown in Figure AECA-3. (Note that the correlation between the current and lagged PDSI is only 0.34, which indicates that both variables can be included in the regression model.) Of even greater interest and relevance to PG&E’s forecasting approach, the correlation with the previous year’s PDSI and project water deliveries is almost as strong, 0.56 for the SWP and 0.53 for the CVP. This relationship can be seen also in Figure-3, as the PDSI line appears to lead changes in the project water deliveries. This strong relationship with this lagged indicator is not surprising, as both the California Department of Water Resources and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation account for remaining storage and streamflow that is a function of soil moisture and aquifers in the Sierras.

Further, comparing the inverse of water delivery allocations, (i.e., the undelivered contract shares), to the annual agricultural sales, we can see how agricultural load has risen since 1995 as the contract allocations delivered have fallen (i.e., the undelivered amount has risen) as shown in Figure-4. The decline in the contract allocations is only partially related to the amount of precipitation and runoff available. In 2017, which was among the wettest years on record, SWP Contractors only received 85% of their allocations, while the SWP provided 100% every year from 1996 to 1999. The CVP has reached a 100% allocation only once since 2006, while it regularly delivered above 90% prior to 2000. Changes in contract allocations dictated by regulatory actions are clearly a strong driver in the growth of agricultural pumping loads but an ongoing drought appears to be key here. The combination of the forecasted PDSI and the lagged PDSI of the just concluded water year can be used to capture this relationship.

Finally, a “normal” water year rarely occurs, occurring in only 20% of the last 40 years. Over time, the best representation of both surface water availability and the electrical load dependent on it is a weighted average across the probabilities of different water year conditions.

Proposed Revised Agricultural Forecast

We prepared a new agricultural load forecast for 2021 implementing the changes recommended herein. In addition, the forecasted average agricultural rate was added, which was revealed to be statistically valid. The account forecast was developed using most of the same variables as for the sales forecast to reflect similarities in drivers of both sales and accounts.

Figure-5 compares the performance of AECA’s proposed model to PG&E’s model filed in its 2021 General Rate Case. The backcasted values from the AECA model have a correlation coefficient of 0.973 with recorded values,[1] while PG&E’s sales forecast methodology only has a correlation of 0.742.[2] Unlike PG&E’s model almost all of the parameter estimates are statistically valid at the 99% confidence interval, with only summer and fall rainfall being insignificant.[3]

AECA’s accounts forecast model reflects similar performance, with a correlation of 0.976. The backcast and recorded data are compared in Figure-6. For water managers, this chart shows how new groundwater wells are driven by a combination of factors such as water conditions and electricity prices.




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.

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.

How to increase renewables? Change the PCIA

California is pushing for an increase in renewable generation to power its electrification of buildings and the transportation sector. Yet the state maintains a policy that will impede reaching that goal–the power cost indifference adjustment (PCIA) rate discourages the rapidly growing community choice aggregators (CCAs) from investing directly in new renewable generation.

As I wrote recently, California’s PCIA rate charged as an exit fee on departed customers is distorting the electricity markets in a way that increases the risk of another energy crisis similar to the debacle in 2000 to 2001. An analysis of the California Independent System Operator markets shows that market manipulations similar to those that created that crisis likely led to the rolling blackouts last August. Unfortunately, the state’s energy agencies have chosen to look elsewhere for causes.

The even bigger problem of reaching clean energy goals is created by the current structure of the PCIA. The PCIA varies inversely with the market prices in the market–as market prices rise, the PCIA charged to CCAs and direct access (DA) customers decreases. For these customers, their overall retail rate is largely hedged against variation and risk through this inverse relationship.

The portfolios of the incumbent utilities, i.e., Pacific Gas and Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas and Electric, are dominated by long-term contracts with renewables and capital-intensive utility-owned generation. For example, PG&E is paying a risk premium of nearly 2 cents per kilowatt-hour for its investment in these resources. These portfolios are largely impervious to market price swings now, but at a significant cost. The PCIA passes along this hedge through the PCIA to CCAs and DA customers which discourages those latter customers from making their own long term investments. (I wrote earlier about how this mechanism discouraged investment in new capacity for reliability purposes to provide resource adequacy.)

The legacy utilities are not in a position to acquire new renewables–they are forecasting falling loads and decreasing customers as CCAs grow. So the state cannot look to those utilities to meet California’s ambitious goals–it must incentivize CCAs with that task. The CCAs are already game, with many of them offering much more aggressive “green power” options to their customers than PG&E, SCE or SDG&E.

But CCAs place themselves at greater financial risk under the current rules if they sign more long-term contracts. If market prices fall, they must bear the risk of overpaying for both the legacy utility’s portfolio and their own.

The best solution is to offer CCAs the opportunity to make a fixed or lump sum exit fee payment based on the market value of the legacy utility’s portfolio at the moment of departure. This would untie the PCIA from variations in the future market prices and CCAs would then be constructing a portfolio that hedges their own risks rather than relying on the implicit hedge embedded in the legacy utility’s portfolio. The legacy utilities also would have to manage their bundled customers’ portfolio without relying on the cross subsidy from departed customers to mitigate that risk.

Vegetation maintenance the new “CFL” for wildfire management

PG&E has been aggressively cutting down trees as part of its attempt to mitigate wildfire risk, but those efforts may be creating their own risks. Previously, PG&E has been accused of just focusing numeric targets over effective vegetation management. This situation is reminiscent of how the utilities pursued energy efficiency prior to 2013 with a seemingly single-minded focus on compact fluorescent lights (CFLs). And that focus did not end well, including leading to both environmental degradation and unearned incentives for utilities.

CFLs represented about 20% of the residential energy efficiency program spending in 2009. CFLs were easy for the utilities–they just delivered steeply discounted, or even free, CFLs to stores and they got to count each bulb as an “energy savings.” By 2013, the CPUC ordered the utilities to ramp down spending on CFLs as a new cost-effective technology emerged (LEDs) and the problem of disposing of mercury in the ballasts of CFLs became apparent. But more importantly, it turned out that CFLs were just sitting in closets, creating much fewer savings than estimated. (It didn’t help that CFLs turned out to have a much shorter life than initially estimated as well.) Even so, the utilities were able claim incentives from the California Public Utilities Commission. Ultimately, it became apparent that CFLs were largely a mistake in the state’s energy efficiency portfolio.

Vegetation management seems to be the same “easy number counting” solution that the utilities, particularly PG&E, have adopted. The adverse consequences will be significant and it won’t solve the problem in the long. Its one advantage is that it allows the utilities to maintain their status quo position at the center of the utility network.

Other alternatives include system hardening such as undergrounding or building microgrids in rural communities to allow utilities to deenergize the grid while maintaining local power. The latter option appears to be the most cost effective solution, but it is also the most threatening to the current position of the incumbent utility by giving customers more independence.

Profound proposals in SCE’s rate case

A catastrophic crisis calls for radical solutions that are considered out of the box. This includes asking utility shareholders to share in the the same pain as their customers.

M.Cubed is testifying on Southern California Edison’s 2021 General Rate Case (GRC) on behalf of the Small Business Utility Advocates. Small businesses represent nearly half of California’s economy. A recent survey shows that more than 40% of such firms are closed or will close in the near future. While these businesses struggle, the utilities currently assured a steady income, and SCE is asking for a 20% revenue requirement increase on top already high rates.

In this context, SBUA filed M.Cubed’s testimony on May 5 recommending that the California Public Utilities Commission take the following actions in response to SCE’s application related to commercial customers:

  • Order SCE to withdraw its present application and refile it with updated forecasts (that were filed last August) and assumptions that better fit the changed circumstances caused by the ongoing Covid-19 crisis.
  • Request that California issue a Rate Revenue Reduction bond that can be used to reduce SCE’s rates by 10%. The state did this in 1996 in anticipation of restructuring, and again in 2001 after the energy crisis.
  • Freeze all but essential utility investment. Much of SCE’s proposed increase is for “load growth” that has not materialized in the past, and even less likely now.
  • Require shareholders, rather than ratepayers, to bear the risks of underutilized or cost-ineffective investments.
  • Reduce Edison’s authorized rate-of-return by an amount proportionate to its lower sales until load levels and characteristics return to 2019 levels or demonstrably reach local demand levels at the circuit or substation that justify requested investment as “used and useful.”
  • Enact Covid-19 Commercial Class Economic Develop (ED) and Supply Chain Repatriation rates. These rates should be at least partially funded in part by SCE shareholders.
  • Order Edison to prioritize deployment of beneficial, flexible, distributed energy resources (DER) in-lieu of fixed distribution investments within its grid modernization program. SCE should not be throwing up barriers to this transformation.
  • Order Edison to reconcile its load forecasts for its local “adjustments” with its overall system forecast to avoid systemic over-forecasting, which leads to investment in excess distribution capacity.
  • Order SCE to revise and refile its distribution investment plan to align its load growth planning with the CPUC-adopted load forecasts for resource planning and to shift more funds to the grid modernization functions that focus on facilitating DER deployment specified in SCE’s application.
  • Order an audit of SCE’s spending in other categories to determine if the activities are justified and appropriate cost controls are in place.  A comparison of authorized and actual 2019 capital expenditures found divergences as large as 65% from forecasted spending. The pattern shows that SCE appears to just spend up to its total authorized amount and then justify its spending after the fact.

M.Cubed goes into greater depth on the rationale for each of these recommendations. The CPUC does not offer many forums for these types of proposals, so SBUA has taken the opportunity offered by SCE’s overall revenue requirement request to plunge in.

(image: Steve Cicala, U. of Chicago)

Victory for mobilehome park residents and owners

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) authorized the continuance for the next 10 years of the program that converts ownership of privately-held utility systems in mobilehome parks to that of investor-owned energy utilities, including Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison, San Diego Gas and Electric and Southern California Gas. Of the 400,000 mobilehome spaces in California, over 300,000 are currently served by “master metered” systems that are owned and maintained by the park owner.

Most of these systems were built more than 40 years ago, although many have been replaced periodically. This program aims to transfer all of these systems to standard utility service. Due to the age of these systems, some engineered to only last a dozen years initially because these parks were intended as “transitional” land uses, concerns about safety have been paramount. This program will bring these systems up to the standards of other California ratepayers.

Along with improved safety, residents will gain greater access to energy efficiency and other energy management programs that they already fund at the utilities, and smoother billing. Residents also will have access to time of use rates that has been precluded by the intervening master meter. Park owners will avoid the increasing complexity of billing, system maintenance and safety inspections and filings, and future costs of system replacement. In addition, park owners have been inadequately compensated through utility rates for maintaining those systems, and have resistance in recovering related costs through rents.

I have been working with one of my clients, Western Manufactured Housing Communities Association (WMA) since 1997 to achieve this goal. The momentum finally shifted in 2014 when we convinced the utilities that making these investments could be profitable. First athree-year pilot program was authorized, and this recent decision builds on that.

 

Utilities’ returns are too high (Part 2)

IOU ROE premiums

My previous post, Part 1, showed how California’s utilities’ share prices have risen well above the average across utilities despite claims that investors are risk averse to the California utilities. That valuation premium reflects an excessively high authorized return on equity (ROE) from the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC).

The utilities’ market values can then be linked to the utilities’ book values and authorized returns on equity to calculate the implied market returns on equity. The authorized income per share is the authorized ROE multiplied by the book value per share. That income is divided by the market share price to arrive at the implied market return on equity for that company. Both Sempra (SRE) and Edison International (EIX) significantly outperform the Dow Jones Utility average and PG&E Corporation (PGC) maintained the same trend until market had significant concerns about the company’s role in the 2017 wildfires.

The figure above tracks the difference or premium value of the authorized ROE over the market valuation of that ROE. A premium value of zero means that the market valuation is on par with the authorized ROE. A higher or positive premium value means that investors see the utility’s equity shares as attractive investments with lower risks than the assessments of the commissions that set the authorized ROEs. In other words, a commission is providing an overly generous incentive to investors if the premium value is positive.  The figure above compares the market implied ROE for the three California holding companies to a market basket of 10 U.S. holding companies that own 17 electric and gas utilities, and do not own significant non-utility subsidiaries. 

At the time of the 2012 cost of capital decision, the authorized ROEs for the California utilities and the basket of U.S. utilities were close to the implied market ROEs. Except for Sempra, which was an outlier as evidenced by its share price growth relative to the other utilities, the authorized ROE was within 100 basis points of the implied market ROE at the end of 2012.  For both Edison International and PG&E Corporation, the authorized ROE and the implied market ROE on December 31, 2012 were exactly on par—10.5% for Edison and 10.4% for PG&E. Only Sempra showed a positive premium of 300 basis points as a result of a rapid increase in market value over 2012.

Over the period from 2012 to late 2017, the implied market ROEprogressed steadily downward–that is, the market value premium increased–for both the California utilities and the other U.S. utilities. Sempra’s premium leveled off in late 2014 and has drifted downward since without any significant corrections. SCE’s diverged upward some from the U.S. utilities mid-2016, but again there are not sharp changes in direction, even with the Thomas Fire in late 2017. PG&E followed the same pattern as SCE until the Wine Country fires in late 2017, and took another sharp turn with the Camp Fire and, understandably, the subsequent voluntary bankruptcy filing.

We can see at the end of September 2017, just after the last Commission decision on cost of capital, the market premium for the 10 utilities had grown to 470 basis points. The premiums for PG&E, Edison and Sempra all lied in a narrow band between 410 basis points for Edison and 470 basis points for PG&E. In other words, 1) California utility investors were receiving overly generous returns on their investments as evidenced in the share prices, and 2) California utility investors have not been demanding a significant discount for perceived increased risk compared to other U.S. utilities, contrary to the assertions by the utilities’ witnesses in this proceeding.

 

Utilities’ returns are too high (Part 1)

IOU share prices

An analysis of equity market activity indicates that investors have not priced a risk discount into California utility shares, and instead, until the recent wildfires, utility investors have placed a premium value on California utility stocks. This premium value indicates that investors have viewed California as either less risky than other states’ utilities or that California has provided a more lucrative return on investment than other states.

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) should set the authorized return on equity to shareholders (ROE) to deliver an after-tax net income amount as a percentage of the capital invested by the utility or the “book value.” As Alfred Kahn wrote, “the sharp appreciation in the prices of public utility stocks, to one and half and then two times their book values during this period [the 1960s] reflected also a growing recognition that the companies in question were in fact being permitted to earn considerably more than their cost of capital.” (see footnote 69)

The book value is fairly stable and tends to grow over time as higher cost capital is invested to meet growth and to replace older, lower cost equipment. Investors use this forecasted income to determine their valuation of the company’s common stock in market transactions. Generally the accepted valuation is the net present value of the income stream using a discount rate equal to the expected return on that investment. That expected return represents the market-based return on equity or the implied market return.

Alfred Kahn wrote that a commission should generally target the ROE so that the book and market values of the utility company are roughly comparable. In that way, when the utility adds capital, that capital receives a return that closely matches the return investors expect in the market place. If the regulated ROE is low relative to the market ROE, the company will have difficulty raising sufficient capital from the market for needed investments. If the regulated ROE is high relative to the market ROE, ratepayers will pay too much for capital invested and excess economic resources will be diverted into the utility’s costs. On this premise, we compared each of the utilities’ market valuation and implied market ROE against market baskets of U.S. utilities and the current authorized ROEs.

The figure above shows how the stock price for each of the three California utility holding companies (PG&E Corporation (ticker symbol PCG), Edison International (EIX) and Sempra (SRE)) that own the four large California energy utilities. The figure compares these stock prices to the Dow Jones Utility index average from June 1998 to July 2019 starting from a common base index value of 100 on January 1, 2000. The chart also includes (a) important Commission decisions and state laws that have been enacted and are identified by several of the utility witnesses as increasing the legal and regulatory risk environment in the state, and (b) catastrophic events at particular utilities that could affect how investors perceive the risk and management of that utility.

Table 1 summarizes the annual average growth in share prices for the Dow Jones Utility average and the three holding companies up to the 2012 cost of capital decision, the 2017 cost of capital modification decision, and to July 2019. Also of particular note, the chart includes the Commission’s decision on incorporating a risk-based framework into each utility’s General Rate Case process in D.14-12-025. The significance of this decision is that the utility’s consideration of safety risk was directed to be “baked in” to future requests for new capital investment. The updated risk framework also has the impact of making new these new investments more secure from an investment perspective, since there is closer financial monitoring and tracking.

As you can see in both Table 1 and in the figure, the Dow Jones Utility average annual growth was 5.5% through July 13, 2017 and 5.8% through July 18, 2019, California utility prices exceeded this average in all but one case, with Edison’s shares rising 9.4% per annum through the first date and 8.4% through this July, and Sempra growing 15.2% to the first date and even more at 15.3% to the latest. Even PG&E grew at almost twice the index rate at 10.4% in 2017, and then took an expected sharp decline with its bankruptcy.

Table 1

Cumulative Average Growth from January 2000 12/12/2012 7/13/2017 7/18/2019
Dow Jones Utilities 3.9% 5.5% 5.8%
Edison International 7.2% 9.4% 8.4%
PG&E Corp. 8.6% 10.4% 2.4%
Sempra 15.8% 15.2% 15.3%

The chart and table support three important findings:

  • California utility shares have significantly outpaced industry average returns since January 2000 and since March 2009;
  • California share prices only decreased significantly after the wildfire events that have been tied to specific market-perceived negligence on the part of the electric utilities in 2017 and 2018; and
  • Other events and state policy actions do not appear to have a measurable sustained impact on utilities’ valuations.

In Part 2, I show how utilities’ premiums on their authorized ROE have grown over the last decade.