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Utility Regrets (Small)

Ed Reid's picture
Vice President, Marketing (Retired) / Executive Director (Retired) / President (Retired), Columbia Gas Distribution Companies / American Gas Cooling Center / Fire to Ice, Inc.

Industry Participation: Natural Gas Industry Research, Development and Demonstration Initiative Chair, Cooling Committee (1996-1999)   American Gas Association Marketing Section...

  • Member since 2003
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  • Dec 13, 2022
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Originally posted here

Electric utilities find themselves positioned between the renewable generation industries (wind and solar) and electricity end users. Their relationships with these groups are controlled or influenced by legislation and regulation at the federal, state and local levels. Utilities are coming to regret some decisions they have made in this highly politically charged environment as the percentage of renewable energy generation increases.

Several electric utilities agreed to serve residential and small commercial customers with on-site solar generation capacity using simple net metering, in which the customers’ electric meters run backwards when customer generation exceeds on-site energy demand. This was viewed as a trivial issue when on-site solar installations were  less common, but has become a significant issue as on-site solar generation has proliferated.

Residential and small commercial electric rates typically consist of a fixed monthly service charge and a variable consumption charge. These charges are set in rate cases filed with state utility commissions. It is common for the fixed monthly service charge to recover only a fraction of the utilities’ fixed costs (25-50%). The remainder of the fixed costs are recovered in the variable portion of the rate, based on the quantity of electricity sold to each customer class during a “test year”.

Simple net metering allows the on-site generating customers to be compensated not only for the current wholesale cost of avoided incremental electricity generated or purchased by the utilities, but also for the portion of the utilities’ fixed costs included in the variable portion of the rate. This causes the utilities to under-recover their fixed costs until the next rate case, when that portion of the fixed costs could be reallocated, increasing the variable rate paid by all customers in the class.

Simple net metering results in a subsidy from non-generating customers to on-site generating customers. Several electric utilities have approached their regulatory commissions to switch from simple net metering to an arrangement which compensates the on-site generating customers for only the utilities’ avoided wholesale cost of power. These efforts have been aggressively resisted by the solar energy industry and by on-site generation consumer groups and climate advocacy groups, because this compensation approach significantly reduces the on-site generation customers’ annual electricity cost savings.

Many customers’ solar purchase decisions were and are based on the assumption of continued simple net metering. Compensation at a reduced rate decreases the attractiveness on on-site solar for both existing and potential future solar generation customers. Existing on-site generation customers believe they are entitled to continue to benefit from the cost shifting to non-generating customers, since their purchase decisions were based on this compensation approach. Solar contractors see their future business volumes threatened by the reduced customer compensation per kilowatt hour returned to the grid.

Several state utility commissions have attempted to take the Solomonic approach to resolving the issue, suggesting customer compensation somewhere between the wholesale and retail cost of electricity. However, such an approach only reduces, but does not eliminate, the cross subsidy from non-generating to on-site generating customers. It remains unfair to the utilities and their non-generating customers.

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