Tag Archives: utility rates

Non-Profit Utilities Could Cure What Ails California Electricity

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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.

A transparent municipal utility’s reserve target

Reserves chart

As one of my civic activities, I sat on the City of Davis Utility Rates Advisory Commission. In my final action with that commission, along with Elaine Roberts-Musser and Lorenzo Kristov, we prepared what might be a first-of-its kind enterprise fund reserve policy for the four utilities managed by the city. Up to this point, the URAC had been presented with rates development reports that appeared to use somewhat arbitrary, and inconsistent, methods of setting reserve targets. The city also appeared to be holding tens of millions of dollars in those funds that might be unneeded to meet expected reserve requirements.

With the City Council’s approval and support from the staff and the Finance and Budget Commission, we identified the elements that needed to be covered by reserves, including working capital, debt covenants, unanticipated capital replacements, and revenue-expense volatility. The first two elements were fairly straightforward to calculate, and unanticipated replacements didn’t appear to be significant. It was the analysis of the relationship of revenue and expense volatility where the report innovates. Previous studies had used some variation of a percentage of capital assets with no underlying explanation. Our solution was to derive an estimate of the outerbound of an annual revenue shortfall for a utility as buffer to allow rate or management adjustments.

In the end, the target reserves generally didn’t change much, but the City now has a transparent target that it can use to determine when it has excess funds that might be used in different fashions instead.

Commentary on CPUC Rate Design Workshop

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The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) held a two-day workshop on rate design principles for commercial and industrial customers. To the the extent possible, rates are designed in California to reflect the temporal changes in underlying costs–the “marginal costs” of power production and delivery.

Professor Severin Borenstein’s opening presentation doesn’t discuss a very important aspect of marginal costs that we have too long ignored in rate making. That’s the issue of “putty/clay” differences. This is an issue of temporal consistency in marginal cost calculation. The “putty” costs are those short term costs of operating the existing infrastructure. The “clay” costs are those of adding infrastructure which are longer term costs. Sometimes the operational costs can be substitutes for infrastructure. However we are now adding infrastructure (clay) in renewables have have negligible operating (putty) costs. The issue we now face is how to transition from focusing on putty to clay costs as the appropriate marginal cost signals.

Carl Linvill from the Regulatory Assistance Project (RAP) made a contrasting presentation that incorporated those differences in temporal perspectives for marginal costs.

Another issue raised by Doug Ledbetter of Opterra is that customers require certainty as well as expected returns to invest in energy-saving projects. We can have certainty for customers if the utilities vintage/grandfather rates and/or structures at the time they make the investment. Then rates / structures for other customers can vary and reflect the benefits that were created by those customers making investments.

Jamie Fine of EDF emphasized that rate design needs to focus on what is actionable by customers more so than on a best reflection of underlying costs. As an intervenor group representative, we are constantly having this discussion with utilities. Often when we make a suggestion about easing customer acceptance, they say “we didn’t think of that,” but then just move along with their original plan. The rise of DERs and CCAs are in part a response to that tone-deaf approach by the incumbent utilities.

Enlisting Davis’ Citizen-Analysts | Davis Vanguard

By Richard McCann

Why are we not using Davis’ wealth of human capital to our advantage? Why don’t we assign, and even hire or retain, these individuals to prepare these analyses for commission review?

Source: Enlisting Davis’ Citizen-Analysts | Davis Vanguard

Reaction to Is “Community Choice” Electric Supply a Solution or a Problem?

Severin Borenstein at the Energy Institute @ Haas wrote a good summary of the issues around community choice aggregation.

Source: Is “Community Choice” Electric Supply a Solution or a Problem?

I am on the City of Davis’ Community Choice Energy Advisory Committee and have been looking at these issues closely for a year. I had my own reactions to this post:

First, in California the existing and proposed CCEs (there are probably a dozen in process at the moment to add to the 3 existing ones) universally offer a higher “green” % product than the incumbent IOU, most often a 50% RPS product. And although MCE and SCP started out relying on RECs of various types to start out, they all are phasing out most of those by 2017. I think most will offer a 100% product as well.

The reason that these CCE’s are able to offer lower rates than the IOUs at a lower RPS is that the IOUs prematurely contracted long for renewables in anticipation of the 2020 goal. In fact, the penalty for failing to meet the RPS in any given year is so low, that the prudent strategy by an IOU would have been to risk being short in each year and contract for the year ahead instead of locking in too many 20+ year PPAs. At least one reason why this happened is that the IOUs require confidentiality by any reviewers and no connections to any competing procurement decisions. As a result the outside reviewers couldn’t be up to speed on the rapidly falling PPA prices. The CPUC has made a huge mistake on this point (and the CEC has rightfully harassed the CPUC over this policy.)

CCE’s also offer the ability to craft a broader range of rate offerings to customers–even flat 20 year rates that can compete with solar roofs on the main issue that customers really care about: price guarantees. In addition, CCE’s are more likely to be to nimbly adjust a rapidly changing utility landscape. CCE’s are much less likely to care about falling loads because their earnings aren’t dependent on continued service.

It’s also to recognize the difference between local government general services (e.g., safety and public protection, social services, regulation, etc.) and enterprise services (e.g., utilities of all sorts). In general, the latter are as efficient as IOUs (except LADWP which illustrates the INefficiency created by overlarge organizations). So one can’t make a broad generalization about local government problems and how they might apply in this situation. The fact is that almost all of the existing and new CCEs are or will be JPAs, which are often even leaner. (Lancaster is the exception.)

Finally, Severin made this statement:

“Whatever regulatory mandates, managerial mistakes, or incompetence occurred in the past, customers switching to a CCA should not be allowed to shift their share of costs from past decisions onto other ratepayers.”

I have to disagree to a certain exent with this statement. Am I forced to pay for the past incompetencies of GM or GE or any other corporation? Yes, utilities have a higher assurance of return on their investments, but no where is it written that it is “ironclad.” Those utilities had an assurance first as the sole legal provider and then as the provider of last resort, but that’s eroding. In California, the CTC was a political deal to get the IOUs out of the way. The fact is in California that the CPUC abrogated its responsibility to oversee these decisions on behalf of ratepayers with the encouragement of the IOUs. If the IOUs want to retain their customers, then they should be forced to compete with the CCEs (and DA LSEs.) It’s time to reopen this matter.

And to add a bit more:

The logic of this statement is that ANY customer who leaves the system, including moving to another area, state or nation, should have to continue to pay these stranded costs. Why should we draw the line arbitrarily at whether they happen to still get distribution services even though the generation services have been completely severed? Particularly if someone moves from say, San Francisco to Palo Alto, that customer still relies on PG&E’s transmission system and its hydro system for ancillary services. Why not charge that Palo Alto customer a non-by-passable charge? And why shouldn’t it be reciprocal? Relying on “political practicality” is not an answer. Either ALL customers are tethered forever, or no customers are required to meet this obligation.

 

Thinking outside the box on the CPUC’s future

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Assemblymember Mike Gato (D-LA) is proposing a constitutional amendment to dissolve the CPUC–blowing up the box! The CPUC currently regulates energy utilities, telcom, transportation and water. That’s a tall order to ask five people to competently understand all of those arenas. And on the flip side, many have recognized that the state has too many “cooks in the kitchen” regulating energy, and it’s only gotten worse with increased climate change regulation. The CPUC hasn’t done much to burnish its reputation with the scandal of Mike Peevey’s “rulings for sale” and the inadequate responses to the San Bruno and Porter Ranch disasters. Closing up shop and starting over may be the best solution.

Equity issues in TOU rate design

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.