A group of clean-energy proponents are calling on state utility regulators to make sure plans for modernizing the state’s power grid include the necessary components to accommodate the expected increase in use of electric vehicles.
“EVs are a key piece of Connecticut’s clean energy future, and the state’s utilities can play a role in advancing these vehicles,” said Emily Lewis, senior policy analyst for Acadia Center, a regional environmental group with an office in Connecticut. “Through this grid modernization proceeding, PURA can set the stage for utility engagement that supports EV deployment, protects consumers, and shares the benefits of EVs more equitably.”
Read the full article from the New Haven Register here.
PROVIDENCE — Acadia Center applauds the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission’s (PUC) approval today of an amended comprehensive settlement in National Grid’s distribution rate case and Power Sector Transformation proceeding. The PUC’s order represents the first steps toward utility business model reforms and power sector transformation activities that will further Rhode Island’s ability to achieve a clean energy future.
“Approval of the revised National Grid settlement will greatly benefit ratepayers and the state by putting Rhode Island firmly on a path toward expanding local clean energy resources and bolstering energy system reliability,” said Daniel Sosland, Acadia Center President. “Rhode Island has jumped into a leadership role among New England states seeking to reform utility regulations. Embracing the changes needed to modernize the energy system will deliver large economic, public health, consumer and environmental benefits to all Rhode Islanders.”
The agreement lowers National Grid’s return on equity and reduces the utility’s original base rate proposal by over $40 million. The agreement also provides more meaningful bill relief for low-income customers, up to a maximum discount of 30% for some qualifying customers. Importantly, the agreement also approves initial investments in a modern grid, electric vehicle charging, and energy storage as well as a study of Advanced Metering Functionality (AMF) and further grid modernization investment.
“Acadia Center commends the Public Utilities Commission, Division of Public Utilities and Carriers, National Grid, the Office of Energy Resources and other intervenors for the commitment and collaboration throughout this process,” said Erika Niedowski, Rhode Island Director for Acadia Center. “We look forward to working with our colleagues through the newly established Power Sector Transformation Advisory Group to advance further reforms including new utility performance mechanisms, grid flexibility and resiliency, and expansion of clean energy resources that benefit customers.”
Acadia Center engaged in every stage of Rhode Island’s Power Sector Transformation stakeholder process and provided expert testimony to the PUC on a variety of components in today’s settlement. Acadia Center has long recommended the types of reforms included in the settlement through reports and materials such as UtilityVision.
“Rhode Island is now leading the way in New England utility business model reforms,” said Mark LeBel, staff attorney at Acadia Center. “In the future, Rhode Island must do even more to shift investments away from expensive capacity building projects that primarily benefit the utility and toward projects that benefit the customer by maximizing energy efficiency, expanding distributed energy resources, and bolstering system reliability.”
Acadia Center will release a more detailed summary of the approved settlement in the coming days.
NEW YORK — On April 18, Central Hudson Gas and Electric proposed a settlement in its ongoing rate proceeding, in which it agrees to reduce its current electric and gas residential customer charge from $24 to $19.50 over three years. Central Hudson’s customer charge reduction makes it the first New York utility to reduce its customer charge in more than a decade.
Jen Metzger, Director of Citizens for Local Power, said: “Central Hudson’s historically high fixed charges have been a burden on many seniors and low- and moderate-income households, which tend use less energy. We welcome this important step in the right direction to alleviate this burden and make rates fairer by tying them more closely to how much energy customers actually use.”
Cullen Howe, Acadia Center’s New York Director, said: “Central Hudson’s agreement to reduce these regressive fees will benefit the majority of its residential customers. As the state looks to ramp up its efforts on energy efficiency and clean energy, Acadia Center believes it is crucial that New York utilities and regulators provide the right incentives to invest in these resources. Though Central Hudson’s fixed charge is still high and must continue to be lowered, other utilities should follow its example and begin reducing their customer charges as well.”
Also referred to as basic service or fixed charges, customer charges are flat fees that every customer pays, regardless of the amount of electricity or gas used. Across the country, fixed charges for residential electric customers typically range from $5 to $10 a month, but in some states — notably New York — these charges are significantly higher. Central Hudson’s current customer charges are the highest in New York and among the highest in the nation.
High electric customer charges disproportionately burden low-income customers, who typically use less electricity than average and generally benefit from lower customer charges. They also conflict with New York’s goals for a clean, modern, consumer-friendly electric system by removing any incentive for customers to lower their electricity bills through conservation, investment in energy efficiency, or renewable energy technologies like solar power.
While these reductions are an important step, other New York utilities have continued to maintain, or seek increases to, these charges. On March 15, for example, the Public Service Commission approved a decision allowing National Grid to maintain its existing monthly customer charge at $17, and Orange & Rockland County Utilities recently filed a rate proceeding seeking to increase its current $20 customer charge to $22. The New York Customer Charge coalition has set up a web site at www.lowerfixedcharges.org to continue advocating for lowering these charges and providing rate relief to low-income and low-usage New York energy consumers.
Jessica Azulay, Program Director at Alliance for a Green Economy, said: “We hope the Central Hudson agreement is the first step in a process to reduce fixed charges for all utilities across New York State. New York has set ambitious energy affordability and climate goals. Reduction in fixed charges is a major tool that utility regulators can and should use to accomplish both of those goals. We urge the Public Service Commission to use this tool aggressively to ease energy burdens for residential customers and incentivize conservation, energy efficiency, and investments in distributed renewable energy.”
Richard Berkley, Executive Director of the Public Utility Law Project of New York, said: “We are grateful to Central Hudson for taking the lead in beginning what will hopefully be a statewide reduction of New York’s extremely high customer charges. In a state where approximately half of residential energy consumers have trouble paying their utility and other vital bills such as food, medicine, mortgages or rent, taking concrete steps toward greater affordability by reducing these regressive charges is something we can all support, and we are equally grateful to our coalition partners and to the Department of Public Service for its assistance in bringing about the first reductions of these charges.”
“Fixed customer charges in New York are too high and are bad policy. This settlement marks an important step toward reducing the harmful effects that these charges have on customers, and in aligning rates with the New York vision for electricity markets,” said Karl R. Rábago, executive director for the Pace Energy and Climate Center and a former utility regulatory commissioner. “We are pleased that our years of work in rate cases in New York against these unfair utility charges is bearing fruit.”
Jonathan Bix, Executive Director of Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson, said, “This nearly 20% reduction in Central Hudson’s fixed charge will increase affordability and decrease shutoffs for low-income customers. Although this reduction is a critical victory, Central Hudson and other utilities must continue to lower their regressive fixed charges, including Orange & Rockland Utilities through their current rate proceeding.”
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.
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
Peter Shattuck, state director of the environmental advocacy group the Acadia Center, said his group recognizes ELM’s frustrations but added, “We wouldn’t go quite that far.” But he did acknowledge the problems environmentalists face in trying to shape the policies for the wind farm developments.
“It’s a potential conflict, but there is no way around it,” he said of the companies’ prominent roles developing the RFPs. “But someone has to negotiate on behalf of Massachusetts. They have to go out and negotiate the best deals. But if they are developing projects also, that is when you need very strong oversight.”
The groups making the request include such environmental groups as the Acadia Center and the Sierra Club, as well as consumer groups including AARP Connecticut and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
Bill Dornbos, Connecticut director and senior attorney at Acadia Center, said reducing UI’s current fixed charge for residential customers “would not only give immediate relief to Connecticut homeowners who are struggling with high energy costs, but it would also better align our electricity pricing with our energy efficiency and clean energy policies and help grow clean energy industries that can boost Connecticut’s economy.”
State lawmakers responded by passing a new consumer protection law, enacted in 2015, that requires PURA to apply a new standard to fixed charges. Dornbos said passage of the law “made it clear that they (lawmakers) wanted to see fixed charges capped and reduced.”
“They clearly did not want the status quo to continue,” he said.
Connecticut’s Office of Consumer Counsel has offered expert testimony concluding that UI’s residential fixed charge should be reduced to between $6 and $8 per month to comply with the new law’s requirements, Dornbos said,
“I think the public is going to be very disappointed if that is not the outcome,” he said.
Read the full article from the New Haven Register here.