Grist columnist and distributed energy expert David Roberts attempts to explain the viewpoints of the solar and the conventional utility industries over utility regulations as they pertain to solar power generation. He calls the issue “unavoidably wonky” but “a pivotal issue” that is “long overdue” for public understanding. The problem between the two has two components: short-term and long-term. The short-term argument between the two camps involves how electricity rates are structured and how utilities compensate, or do not compensate, customers who generate some of their own power with rooftop solar PV panels. The long-term issue revolves around the creation of “an entirely new business model for utilities, one that aligns their financial interests with the spread of distributed energy.” Battling over the short-term issues delays resolution of the long-term issue, Roberts writes.
Utilities' Perspective - About 70 percent of Americans are served by investor-owned utilities (IOUs), the traditional, for-profit, regulated-monopoly utilities that have what Roberts calls “a captive customer base and profits guaranteed by law.” IOUs are leading the pushback against distributed solar energy. IOUs make their profits by:
estimating how much power their customers will need;
estimating the investments they will need to make in power plants, fuel, transmission lines, and so forth in order to meet that demand;
estimating how much they need to charge customers to cover their investments and offer a reasonable rate of return to their investors;
convincing their state’s public utility commission (PUC) that their rates are warranted and fair; and
charging that rate until they can convince the PUC to let them raise their rates.
Residential customers pay the PUC-approved “retail rate” for their electricity. (Roberts 5/15/2013)
Net Metering - NC State’s Database for State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (DSIRE) defines net metering as “a popular and administratively simple policy option [that] allows electric customers who generate their own electricity using solar or other forms of renewable energy to bank excess electricity on the grid, usually in the form of kilowatt-hour (kWh) credits.… In effect, the customer uses excess generation credits to offset electricity that the customer otherwise would have to purchase at the utility’s retail rate. Traditionally, net metering has been accomplished through the use of a single, conventional, bi-directional meter.” In its most simple terms, customers who participate in net metering programs get rebates or subsidies from their IOUs based on how much solar energy they generate for themselves: if they generate 10 hours of solar power a week, they receive 10 kilowatt-hours (at the retail rate) of credit on their electric bills. The policies are in force in some 40 states, though the details of their implementation vary widely from state to state. The utilities say that net metering is inherently unfair, since a consumer who lowers or even zeroes out their utility bill through solar power generation does not pay enough for fixed costs such as power plant construction, transmission line installation and maintenance, etc., even though these consumers still make use of these services. The utilities argue that the complexity of managing these distributed energy producing consumers increases their costs; net metering, they say, makes customers who cannot afford solar arrays subsidize those who can. (This argument has been strongly challenged—see April 5, 2013.) Utilities in many states are trying to end or dramatically cut back on net metering rebates (see April 9-12, 2013). As noted in a January 2013 report that predicted utilities will be forced into near-bankruptcy by increasing use of solar-generated power (see January 2013), many IOUs are attempting to add “customer service charges” to subsidize their fixed costs, and to lower the subsidies paid to rooftop solar producers. David Rubin of Pacific Gas and Electric has said, “We need to set the stage for continued growth in solar in what we believe will be a sustainable way which is to not have solar customers that are being subsidized by the rest of our customers and producing unsustainable rates for those customers.” (DSIRE Solar 2013; Roberts 5/15/2013)
Solar Perspective - The solar community is not convinced, Roberts writes, and is actively, and sometimes angrily, pushing back against the utilities’ stance. Recently, some of the nation’s largest solar installers formed an organization called the Alliance for Solar Choice (see Shortly Before May 10, 2013). Their argument boils down to the contention that utilities raise their rates regardless of who produces solar or wind power for themselves. In fact, they charge, utilities raise their rates far more than is warranted to cover what they argue are higher costs due to solar generation. Because of their monopolistic structure, they are able to make extraordinarily high profits even while bemoaning their costs. PUCs guarantee them hefty profit margins (rates of return on their investments) regardless of whether the investments were necessary. They essentially have a captive customer base, Roberts writes, and are used to charging heavily padded retail rates on the power they sell their customers. Utilities have no interest in innovation or competition, he writes, and as a result their customers “are getting shafted all over the country. Utilities overestimate demand, underestimate efficiency, and contract for gigantic central-generation power plants that customers pay for whether or not they need the power.” Roberts cites the examples of Southern California Edison customers, who are paying $68 million a month to subsidize a nuclear plant in San Onofre that has not produced a watt of energy in over a year. Mississippi customers are paying huge amounts to subsidize a coal-fired plant in Kemper County. We Energies in Wisconsin is trying to force its customers to pay for its Oak Creek coal plant, a hugely expensive facility that has been plagued with outages and breakdowns. Roberts says that utilities are not worried about increasing customers’ rates, but do not like the loss in revenue due to solar consumption. “It’s competition they don’t like,” he writes, “the potential loss of their captive customers.” Homes that are essentially “unplugged” from the grid do not impose costs on the utility, and actually save the utility money on transmission and distribution costs and in other areas. Utilities rely on consumers to pay exorbitant rates for their poorly envisioned and constructed power plants, transmission facilities, and the like, Roberts argues, instead of absorbing the losses themselves. (Content 6/27/2012; Roberts 5/15/2013)
Conclusion - While the solar advocates have a stronger case, Roberts says, some of them have become a bit extreme in their view that all utilities are automatically the enemy. “Some utilities, at least, seem to be grappling with this issue in good faith,” he says. But even these utilities, he says, “are struggling with the question of how to appropriately compensate for distributed solar. The fact is, as long as utilities operate under their current business model, rooftop solar really does hurt them.” Roberts says the best solution is to revamp the business model, particularly the IOU. (Roberts 5/15/2013) The regulatory contract that most IOUs operate under—existing as corporations legally protected from competition, charging rates as approved by state governments, and receiving guaranteed returns—is almost completely the opposite of the free market concept. “It is the most Soviet of economic sectors,” Roberts writes. Moreover, utilities make most of their profits not from selling electricity, but from making investments and receiving returns on them. The more power lines and plants they build, the more money they earn. In the ideal free market, companies profit by competing, cutting costs, and innovating. None of this applies to the typical American utility. As long as they can make their local PUC happy, utilities are free to generate revenue merely by building more facilities, whether those facilities are needed or even useful. Now, though, the paradigm is not as profitable. Utilities’ profits have peaked, and in coming years they will continue to drop, in large part because of the increase in the usage of renewable energy in place of utility-generated energy. Meanwhile, utilities are locked into paying for facilities and improvements for the next 20 years or so, and want to charge customers as much as possible to help them pay off the debts they have incurred and keep their profit margins in place. Roberts says that while society as a whole needs distributed, renewable energy platforms, the utilities do not want them: “As a society, we need energy efficiency and demand response. We need distributed renewable energy. We need to cancel out future power plants and transmission lines. All those things are to the good, economically and ecologically. Yet utilities have every incentive to oppose them, as they are direct threats to their familiar, comfortable business model, which has survived nearly a century unchanged.… We need a ground-up rethink of how utilities work, how they are structured, and how they can be reformed in a way that enables and accelerates long-overdue innovation in the electricity space.” (Roberts 5/21/2013)
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