More than 1,000 people gathered in Nashville, TN this week for the summer meeting of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC). The meeting is one of three yearly where thought leaders gather to socialize the knottiest issues of the day in regulated utility industries, including telecommunications, electricity, natural gas, and water. Two electricity debates dominated the stage and the halls during this summer’s meeting: nuclear power and rate design.
NARUC meeting participants represent state public utility commissioners and their staffs, federal energy agencies, regulated industries, and special interest groups. The meetings are a place to define issues, float solutions, and begin to understand and narrow disagreements.
Nuclear power and rate design were hot topics at this summer’s meeting because of cracks in the present electricity system created by new technologies and environmental regulation.
By: Beia Spiller and Kristina Mohlin
The price of most goods we purchase is generally based on the costs associated with the goods' production, including the raw materials used to generate them, the labor associated with their manufacturing, and so on. However, when it comes to pricing residential electricity, many regulators choose to use a flat price per unit of electricity (kilowatt-hours, or kWh) that unfortunately fails to adequately reflect the underlying costs of generating and delivering energy to our homes.
This creates incorrect incentives for conservation and investments in distributed energy resources (like rooftop solar, energy storage, and demand response). Getting these incentives right can go a long way in creating more opportunity for efficiency and clean energy resources.
Pricing electricity generation
The cost of generating electricity from large-scale power plants varies significantly over the course of a day. When demand is low, electricity providers call upon the most efficient and inexpensive power plants to produce electricity. As demand increases, they must also utilize more inefficient and expensive power plants. So, for the price of generation to accurately reflect these costs, it too must vary with the time of day. Time-variant pricing charges customers more for using electricity during periods of high demand (such as during hot afternoons) and less when demand is not as great. This pricing system is an accurate reflection of generation costs.
In contrast, flat rates that don’t vary over time incentivize customers to consume more electricity when it’s most valuable to them, even though consuming during times of high demand places a larger cost on the system. Thus, the current, static pricing system creates incorrect incentives for conservation and electricity use. Read More
As a former state utility regulator, I know the difficulty of balancing competing interests in making decisions and communicating those decisions to constituents. Solutions deemed “fair” by some parties may have harsh or unintended consequences for others.
This challenge of balancing competing interests is playing out with the current debate on electricity rate design as the system struggles to deal with the impact of new, distributed forms of energy like rooftop solar. From Nevada and Arizona, to Kansas and New Hampshire, we’ve seen these debates leave the hearing rooms of public service commissions and enter the public arena. Increases to fixed charges, changes to net metering, demand charges, time-of-use rates, minimum bills, or a combination of these options, are just some of the policies that states have either implemented in response to this debate, or are currently considering.
But many questions remain about the best path forward: What design will adequately compensate utilities for their investments, support the need to upgrade the electric grid, and encourage new technologies and innovation, while being perceived and accepted as fair? To answer these and related questions, a “good” rate design process needs to be put in place – one built on transparency, fairness, accessibility, and accountability. Read More
Late last month, New York took a major step toward rethinking utility economics when it issued the “Order Adopting a Ratemaking and Utility Revenue Model Policy Framework” (also known as Track 2 Order). This action aims to better align New York’s electricity system with Reforming the Energy Vision (REV), the state’s initiative to transform the electric grid into a cleaner, more efficient, and affordable system.
But buried in this 180-plus page document is another important development for New York’s clean energy future: Nearly 10 pages are dedicated to re-examining the state’s controversial standby tariff.
Frequently cited as a major obstacle to distributed power generation (e.g. combined heat and power (CHP) systems, rooftop solar panels, energy efficiency, and storage), the standby tariff is a special electricity rate charged to large commercial and industrial customers who produce some of their own electricity but remain connected to the grid. While utilities say they need standby tariffs to recover the costs of maintaining a reliable electric grid, many potential and existing large electricity customers producing their own power see standby tariffs as perversely designed to undermine the business case for distributed generation.
Unless the standby tariff is fixed in a manner that clears the way for investment in customer-owned and sited distributed generation, it will be hard to make REV’s revolutionary vision for a decentralized, competitive electricity market a reality. Read More
By Jayant Kairam and Timothy O’Connor.
Adding insult to injury, Californians learned this spring that the disastrous four-month methane leak at the sprawling Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility could result in a new problem: outages.
The failure at Southern California Gas Company’s massive storage site exposed a critical weakness in the state’s energy system. Densely populated Southern California is over-dependent on natural gas from a single provider.
As a result, a vast area stretching from San Diego in the south to Los Angeles and San Bernardino County in the east may face power and gas shortages during the hot summer and cold winter months, a recent report by a group of state regulatory agencies warned. Read More
We know we need massive decreases in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 if 177 countries are to meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement.
But before emissions go on a steep decline, we need to turn the corner. At Environmental Defense Fund, we have analyzed what it would take to turn the corner by 2020, and zeroed in on a few key actions that will halt the rise in global emissions and make them start to go down. For good.
Christiana Figueres, the United Nations official who led the Paris climate talks, rightly talks about technology, finance and policy – technologies to store and distribute energy, financing to scale the technology we have, and policies to reward innovators who deliver results. Read More