At least in theory, government officials are supposed to monitor electric utilities and ensure they do not abuse their monopoly power. For more than a century, these independent regulators have protected customers from unfair, above-market prices and provided a check on giant corporations.
That social contract is being tested in Ohio.
In an unprecedented move, the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) today allowed FirstEnergy to seek a new power plant bailout – a full day before opponents were to offer their objections. So, without listening to the arguments against the deal, the PUCO rubberstamped the utility’s request for a rehearing.
Unfortunately, this is not the PUCO’s first rubber-stamping. FirstEnergy’s original proposal would have forced customers to pay $4 billion to subsidize the utility’s old and dirty power plants, which could no longer compete in the market. That proposal was almost laughable since the power plants were not needed, and certainly not at such a high price – other companies proposed to offer the same amount of electricity at significantly lower prices. Read More
You have to give some credit to FirstEnergy. It does hire creative lawyers.
After the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) effectively killed the utility giant’s $4-billion bailout request to keep its uneconomic power plants online, those expensive attorneys figured they could redefine a few words and restore the subsidies. In an attempt to thwart FERC’s decision, the utility is asking the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) to consider “modifications” to its bailout plan. However, these changes will still result in increased customer bills at the rate of $4 billion.
For almost two years, FirstEnergy argued it needed to prop up its uneconomic generators with “power purchase agreements” (PPA) between the utility and its affiliate companies. After federal regulators declared such transactions were illegal because they distorted competitive markets, FirstEnergy lawyers are now saying, “Just kidding!” Instead of using the term “PPAs,” the utility now prefers “surcharges,” skirting FERC’s ruling and hoping it won’t notice there’s been no real change. Read More
America got a rare unanimous decision from the Supreme Court this week in a case that has widespread implications for our electric grid, as well as the markets and regulations that govern and move it.
The case was Hughes v. Talen Energy Marketing (docket no. 14-614). The Court decided it 8-to-0, with Justice Ginsburg writing the opinion.
It centered on a Maryland decision to guarantee fixed revenues for an electric generator. Typically, generators are paid through wholesale markets, regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). These wholesale markets keep prices down and costs competitive by only paying for the lowest-cost resources necessary to keep the system running. By guaranteeing money for a generator, no matter how competitive it was in the market, Maryland effectively muted the price signal and ensured that electricity from this particular resource would be paid – regardless of how costly it might be for consumers. Read More
Wait – Ohio utility regulators did what?
The $6-billion bailout of uneconomical coal and nuclear plants is bad enough. But the decision by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio to let two power companies saddle ratepayers with their bad debt also sets a dangerous precedent that could have ramifications for consumers in other states.
This is more than a local rate case. It’s about traditional utilities going on the offense against new and cleaner power providers that offer cheaper rates in a competitive energy market – a drama playing out nationwide.
All eyes are now on the federal agency overseeing wholesale electricity markets to see if the Ohio deal will stand or fall. Read More
Localized power grids that have the ability to disconnect from the main, centralized grid – known as microgrids – have become one of the electricity industry’s latest darlings. Particularly after Hurricane Sandy knocked out electric generators and wires along the Northeast coast in 2012, urban and utility planners have been devising localized grids that can operate autonomously, strengthen the overall power system’s reliability and resilience, and protect critical infrastructure like hospitals, water treatment facilities, and police stations in the event of a grid-wide outage.
There are environmental benefits to microgrids as well. Clean energy advocates tend to rave about the ability to integrate growing amounts of distributed energy resources, including solar, wind, energy storage, and demand response, which rewards customers for conserving energy. And by avoiding the long-distance transmission of electricity, microgrids and their distributed generators can also reduce energy losses and increase efficiencies. These outcomes all have the potential to curb pollution, while cutting costs for utilities and their customers.
More importantly, as microgrids expand, they prompt us to imagine broader opportunities – and recent developments in Illinois are exploring new frontiers. Read More
Imagine a utility receives $57 million from the Department of Energy and a matching amount from its customers, then uses that money to demonstrate how new technologies could save millions more. Sounds like a pretty sweet deal, right? Not if you’re FirstEnergy, whose business model doesn’t call for saving money.
FirstEnergy – serving several states in the Mid-Atlantic region, including Ohio where the power company is currently requesting a $4 billion bailout of its uneconomical power plants – recently filed a long-term infrastructure-improvement plan in Pennsylvania, setting out its strategy for modernizing the grid. And despite having seen the benefits firsthand, the utility didn’t include voltage optimization – or using technology to “right-size” the amount of voltage customers receive – in its plan.
Since utilities likely won’t modernize the grid on their own, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) often intervenes before state public utility commissions. And in this case, EDF recommends the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission (PUC) should not approve FirstEnergy’s grid modernization plan unless it includes voltage optimization. Read More