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How Can We Replace Traditional Infrastructure with Clean Energy?

In March, Acadia Center released an analysis demonstrating that outdated financial incentives are driving expenditures on expensive and unnecessary utility infrastructure and inhibiting clean energy in the Northeast. The report, Incentives for Change: Why Utilities Continue to Build and How Regulators Can Motivate Them to Modernize, shows that under current rules, utilities can earn more money on infrastructure expenditures like natural gas pipelines and electric transmission lines than on cleaner, local energy resources like energy efficiency, rooftop solar, and highly efficient electric heat pumps. The key takeaway from the analysis is that without changes to the way they are regulated and rewarded, utilities will continue to advocate for infrastructure over local energy resources because their fiduciary duty to shareholders requires it.

Meanwhile, experience throughout the Northeast shows that clean, local energy resources can replace expensive grid infrastructure proposed by utlilities. These local alternatives include energy efficiency and demand response technologies that reduce demand for electricity at specific times, as well as roof-top solar, battery storage, and efficient combined heat and power.

Energy efficiency investments alone have avoided over $400 million in major transmission upgrades in Vermont and New Hampshire.1 Similarly, the Tiverton/Little Compton pilot project in Rhode Island,2 the Brooklyn/Queens Demand Management Project in New York,3 and the Boothbay Smart Grid Reliability Project in Maine4 are real world examples of local clean energy resources deferring or avoiding upgrades to the distribution grid. Earlier this year, expert witnesses for the New Jersey Division of Rate Counsel argued that a $75 million, 10-mile transmission line is no longer needed due to increasing adoption of distributed generation.5 There are additional examples from California also, where the state’s grid operator (California Independent System Operator, or CAISO) announced in December 2016 that it is putting the Gates-Gregg 230 kV transmission line project on hold, and may cancel the project entirely, due to forecasted increases in the development of solar energy.6

These clean energy projects are possible when consumers are given the ability to shape a cleaner, lower cost energy system through their investment decisions and behaviors. To motivate utilities to give consumers these options, utility regulators need to adopt alternative economic structures that balance the need to bring clean energy resources on-line with the need to keep utilities financially healthy.

Acadia Center’s UtilityVision outlines an alternative economic structure to resolve this conflict. UtilityVision recommends that states adopt performance incentives to motivate utilities to advance priorities such as system efficiency, grid enhancements, distributed generation, energy efficiency, and other energy system goals. Regulators can then increase the portion of revenue recovered through those performance incentives while reducing the portion of revenue that is linked to infrastructure projects, helping to shift utility priorities further towards achieving the performance outcomes.

A handful of states are beginning to adopt reforms to focus the utility’s financial incentives on advancing public policy goals for clean energy development. On January 25, 2017, the New York Public Service Commission issued an Order approving a shareholder incentive to reward Con Edison for deploying distributed energy resources (DER) to defer or avoid traditional transmission and distribution projects and deliver net benefits to ratepayers. The PSC approved a shared-savings model that uses a benefit-cost framework to determine the difference between the net present value of DER and the traditional infrastructure solution. The PSC found that this reward structure effectively signals the utility to find the most cost-effective grid solutions for ratepayers and advances additional energy and environmental goals.7

The California Public Utilities Commission is taking similar steps to resolve the conflict between bringing more DER online and ensuring they do not harm utilities’ profits. In December 2016, Commissioner Florio issued an Order creating a model to financially incentivize utilities to adopt DER. The Order will incentivize the deployment of cost-effective DER that displaces or defers utility spending on infrastructure by offering the utility a reward equal to 4% of the payment made to the DER customer or vendor.8

Whether the New York and California model is the best of many ways to revamp the utility business model to incorporate DER is an open question. One limitation of this model is that it is based on a comparison between DER and the traditional infrastructure projects that would otherwise be built in their place. This model makes it relatively straightforward to compensate the utility based on the cost savings and greater net benefits from the DER solution, but it is not easy to apply to more general deployment of DER. For instance, in Rhode Island,9 stakeholders led by the Office of Energy Resources are considering how to reward the utility for proactively and strategically using DER to improve grid conditions and prevent problems before the grid gets to the point of needing infrastructure upgrades. In this case, the NY/CA model can’t be used because there isn’t a traditional infrastructure project to compare to the proposed DER.

States must continue to seek reforms to utility regulations so that clean energy can flourish and both consumers and utilities are treated fairly. Replacing poles, wires, transformers, and substation upgrades with rooftop solar, battery storage, demand response, and energy efficiency can reduce costs and make the grid cleaner—but utilities make a guaranteed rate of return on their million (and billion) dollar grid investments, and any lower cost DER alternatives threaten to undercut those revenues. Until a new system of incentives is created, it will be an uphill battle to achieve states’ goals for a lower cost, cleaner energy grid.


1Schelgel, Hurley, and Zuckerman, 2014, “Accounting for Big Energy Efficiency in RTO Plans and Forecasts: Keeping the Lights on While Avoiding Major Supply Investment.” http://aceee.org/files/proceedings/2014/data/papers/8-1215.pdf

2 Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission Docket No. 4581, “2016 System Reliability Procurement Report”. October 2015. http://www.ripuc.org/eventsactions/docket/4581-NGrid-2016-SRP(10-14-15).pdf

3 New York Public Service Commission Case 14-E-0302, “Petition of Consolidated Edison Company of New York, Inc. for Approval of Brooklyn Queens Demand Management Program.” June 15, 2014.

4 Maine Public Utilities Commission Docket No. 2011-238, “Final Report for the Boothbay Sub-Region Smart Grid Reliability Project.” January 19, 2016.

5 “Rate Counsel Sees No Need For High Voltage Transmission Line,” NJ Spotlight (Jan 19, 2017) available at: http://www.njspotlight.com/stories/17/01/08/rate-counsel-sees-no-need-for-high-voltage-transmission-line/

6 ”Solar Growth Puts Fresno High-Voltage Line on Hold,” Fresno Bee (Dec 20, 2016). Available at: http://www.fresnobee.com/news/local/article122063189.html

7 New York Public Service Commission, Case 15-E-0229, Petition of Consolidated Edison Company of New York, Inc. for Implementation of Projects and Programs that Support Reforming the Energy Vision, Order Approving Shareholder Incentives. January 25, 2017. http://documents.dps.ny.gov/public/MatterManagement/CaseMaster.aspx?MatterSeq=47911

8 California Public Utilities Commission, Decision 16-12-036, Rulemaking 14-10-003, Order Instituting Rulemaking to Create a Consistent Regulatory Framework for the Guidance, Planning, and Evaluation of Integrated Distributed Energy Resources. December 22, 2016.  http://docs.cpuc.ca.gov/PublishedDocs/Published/G000/M171/K555/171555623.PDF

9 More about Rhode Island’s Power Sector Transformation initiative can be found at: http://www.ripuc.org/utilityinfo/electric/PST_home.html