Inside California’s rate restructuring plan and the battle for fixed charges looming over it

By Herman K. Trabish, Utility Dive

California regulators united behind a new rate framework before the Independence Day holiday, but lurking behind the decision is a bigger one for utilities and renewables advocates alike.

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) voted unanimously on July 3 to flatten the current four-tiered electricity rate system to two tiers, push for time-of-use (TOU) rates by 2019, and make other noteworthy changes to how utilities bill customers. California’s investor owned utilities, San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E), Southern California Edison (SCE), and Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), hailed it as a step toward making rates fair. The state’s utility watchdog condemned the decision, the ratepayer advocate is concerned about it, and solar advocates are studying it warily. All recognize a decision on fixed monthly charges was deferred.

Reaction from utilities: SDG&E

SDG&E Spokesperson Amber Albrecht:

  • “We were hoping for more immediate relief but we are on the right path. This new rate structure inserts more fairness and transparency into electric utility bills,” and “brings rates more in line with the true cost of service.” The new rate design will not take away customers’ incentive to be more efficient about their electricity consumption.
  • SDG&E tier 3 and 4 customers now pay “136% more than those in the lowest tier” and those in the lowest tier “pay 15% less than the cost of the basic delivery of electricity.” With the new two tier plan, the higher users’ bills will come down while the lower users’ monthly bills will likely edge up to around $2 to $5.
  • In 2017, the SUE will go into effect; it is expected to be levied on about 2% of SDG&E customers. “Each IOU’s rates will be slightly different but the basic pattern will be the same.”
  • “This is the first step in a broader discussion about the modern electricity bill. Now we know what the framework will be. Moving forward, the CPUC will have a number of proceedings and make a number of decisions on things like net energy metering.”

Reaction from utilities: Southern California Edison

SCE Director of Pricing Design Russ Garwacki:

  • “Our estimates find the high usage customers are paying $600 million in subsidies per year to low usage customers. Even when fully implemented in 2019, there will still be significant subsidies left in the rate structure but this does provide relief.” The new plan corrects an overpayment by higher usage customers without asking lower usage customers to subsidize them.
  • Incentives for conservation and solar: The new rate design will not take away customers’ incentive to be more efficient about their electricity consumption. Lower rates for tier 2 customers will reduce their incentive to be more efficient, but higher rates for tier 1 customers provide them with an incentive to conserve. “There is a point-counterpoint. And that extends to the incentive to go solar. Because the tiers are flattened and the rates are more closely tied to cost, more middle usage customers will consider solar. A recent CPUC energy division report found solar adoption is higher under flatter tiers.”
  • Minimum bill/fixed charges: The decision “was a compromise and balancing of a large number of issues,”—the minimum bill is an example. It is not, as characterized, a replacement for a fixed charge. The commission decided to deal with the fixed charge in 2019, but the implication of the minimum bill is that even the lowest usage customers should pay “some fair share” for the distribution system. “They viewed the minimum bill as a first step toward fixed charges. That is not what we asked for but it is a step in the right direction.”
  • TOU rates: Rates follow cost with a TOU structure and it is important to provide that cost signal for residential customers. SCE just completed transitioning all its non-residential customers to TOU rates. Studies are beginning to demonstrate that, over time, usage shifts and the load profile flattens in response to them. SCE wanted an opt-in to TOU rates, but the commission disagreed.

Reaction: Solar Industry

  • Solar Energy Industries Association: “Most importantly, we’re glad to see that the commission has not adopted fixed charges – and recognized that there’s no evidence to justify them. These rates are workable, although we believe a greater tier differential would more appropriately reflect the costs of high energy users.” The flattened tiers “should significantly mitigate any concerns the utilities have about cost shifts among ratepayers.”
  • Solar Electric Power Association: “This decision is an important part of the process to incorporate more distributed resources into the system.” But rate design “needs to be articulated as part of a broader conversation on the utility business models.”
  • SolarCity: “The proposed decision achieves the utilities’ goal of flattening the tiers while also making the entire rate system more equitable for ratepayers. If net metering remains in place, this decision will continue to allow Californians to go solar.”

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