Severin Borenstein at the Energy Institute at Haas makes the case for giving customers the choice of TOU or fixed price rates. I’ve commented several times on the Energy Institute blog about this approach, and blogged myself about the need for this option.
I attended the Center for Research into Regulated Industries (CRRI) Western Conference last week, which includes many of the economists working on various energy regulatory issues in California. A persistent theme was the interrelationship of time-varying rates (TVR) and development of distributed generation like rooftop solar. One session was even entitled “optimal rates.” We presented a paper on developing the proper perspectives and criteria in valuing distributed solar resources in another session. (More on that in another post.)
With the pending CPUC decision in the residential ratemaking rulemaking, due July 3, time of use rates (TOU) rates were at the top of everyone’s mind. (With PG&E violations of the ex parte rules, the utilities were cautious about who they were presenting with at least one Commission advisor attending. At least one presentation was scotched for that reason.) Various results were presented, and the need for different design elements urged on efficiency grounds. In the end though I was struck most by two equity issues that seem to have been overlooked.
First, various studies have shown that TOU rates deliver larger savings for customers who have various types of automated response equipment such as smart thermostats (e.g., NEST) or smart appliances. Those customers will see bigger bill savings and may find that doing so is more convenient and comfortable. An underlying premise in these studies is that the customer is the decision maker. But for 45% of California’s residents–renters–that is not the case. As a result tenants, who tend to have lower incomes, are likely to be subsidizing home owners who are better equipped to benefit from TOU rates.
Tenants must rely on landlords to make those necessary investments. Landlords don’t pay the bills or realize the direct savings in what is called the “split incentive” problem. And landlords may be concerned that future tenants might not like the commitments that come with the new smart devices. For example, signing up for PG&E’s SmartAC program can face this barrier.
So in considering residential customer impacts, the CPUC should address the likely differential in opportunities and benefits between owner-customers and tenant-customers. Solutions might include rate design differences, or moving toward a model where energy service providers (ESP or ESCo) take over appliance ownership in multifamily buildings. This split incentive is endemic across many programs such as the solar initiative and energy efficiency.
Second, a fixed charge have been proposed to address the anticipated impact of solar net energy metering. The majority of costs to be covered are for the “customer services” that run from the flnal line transformer to the meter. (I’ve been focused on this segment while representing the Western Manufactured Housing Communities Association (WMA) on master-metering issues.) However, the investments in customer services are not uniform across residences. For older homes, the services or “line extensions” may have already been paid off (e.g., most homes built before 1975), and with inflation, the costs for newer homes can be substantially higher.
The fixed charge would be based on one of two methods. In current rate cases, the new or “marginal” cost for a line extension is the starting point of the calculation, and usually the cost is scaled up from that. However, given the depreciation and inflation, the utilities will receive much more revenue than what they are entitled to under regulated returns. In the second method, the average cost for all services will be applied to all customers. This solves the problem of excess revenues for the utility, but it does not address the subsidies that flow from customers in older homes to those in newer ones. Because the residents of older homes tend to be tenants and have lower incomes, this again is a regressive distribution of costs. Solutions might include no fixed charge at all, differences in rates by house vintage, or discounts in the fixed charge as SMUD has instituted.
Regardless, these types of subsidies flow the wrong direction.
I just got back from an annual conference put on by the Center for Research in Regulated Industries. It brings together many of the applied economists and policy analysts working in California’s electricity industry. I presented a paper on reconsidering rate design.
Customers are often left out of the conversation about how to move forward into the new energy future, as they were at the recent CAISO Symposium where not a single customer representative was included in the “Town Hall Meeting.” Current retail rate tariffs seem to be designed with little thought about how customers would prefer to pay for their energy, and what might best encourage consumer energy management. And when customers are asked to take on more risk or cost to address energy needs, their revenue responsibility is often unchanged.
How should utilities align their rates and tariffs to fit customers’ preferences? Utilities both face a rapidly evolving energy marketplace and have available to them a larger portfolio of technologies to provide more services and to measure usage across different dimensions. One important step that utilities could take is to offer customers the same variety of contracts as the utilities make with their suppliers, so that rates mirror the power market.
Customers have a range of preferences, and some prefer to be more innovative or risk takers than others. To better match the market, should utilities offer a range of tariffs, and even allow customers to construct a portfolio of rates that allow a mix of hedging strategies? How should the costs be allocated equitably to customers to reflect the varying risks in those portfolios? How should the benefits of lower costs be allocated between the active and passive customers? The new metering infrastructure also provides opportunities for different billing strategies.
How should time varying rate (TVR) periods be structured to adapt to the potential shift over time when peak meter loads occur? Should the periods be defined by utility-side resources or the combination with customer-side resources? Is the meter an arbitrary division for setting the price? What is the balance between rate stability to encourage customer investment versus matching changing system costs? Should the utilities offer different TVR periods depending on the desired incentives for customer response?
In developing costs, how should utilities and commissions consider how resources are added, and in what capacity? Renewables are now part of the incremental resources for “new” load, and we can no longer rely on the assumption that fossil fuels are the marginal resource 100% of the time.
The “super off-peak” rate offered by Southern California Edison (SCE) to agricultural customers is one example of how a rate can be constructed to encourage customer participation in autonomous ongoing energy management. Are the incentives appropriate for that rate? Over what term should these rates be set given customer investment?
If you’re interested in this paper, drop me a line and I’ll send it along.