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Context of 'April 18, 2012: Small New Jersey Utility Leads Nation in Providing Solar-Generated Electricity for Customers; Utility Once Ran One of Dirtiest Coal Plants in State'

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A small New Jersey utility leads the nation in providing solar-powered electricity to its customers. The Vineland Municipal Utilities Authority provides solar-generated power to its 25,000 customers, leading the nation on a watts-per-customer basis, according to an analysis by the Solar Energy Power Association. Three of the state’s four electric utilities are among the top 10 nationwide in the amount of electricity generated from solar units installed or the number of watts produced from solar during 2011. The utilities in New Jersey, far from battling solar energy, are embracing it, though some fear this push will be undercut by a proposed cut in the prices solar owners earn for the power their units produce. The New Jersey Board of Public Utilities is considering whether to expand the utilities’ solar promotion efforts, a move supported by the solar industry. Proponents say the move would help stabilize the solar energy market in the state, which is trying to handle a drop in the amount of money solar systems earn for their owners. The Vineland utility, located in Cumberland County, used to operate one of the dirtiest coal plants in the state to provide its customers with electricity. The analysis shows that utilities are increasing their involvement in building solar plants, contrasting the status of a few years ago, when the market was dominated by customer-owned, net-metered systems that do not supply electricity directly to the grid. [NJ Spotlight, 4/18/2012]

Entity Tags: Solar Energy Power Association, Vineland Municipal Utilities Authority, New Jersey Board of Public Utilities

Timeline Tags: US Solar Industry

A report by the Edison Electric Institute (EEI) finds that within a decade or so, solar energy and other renewable distributed energy resources (DER) could lay waste to the utility business model and to American power utilities. The utility business model, which has remained relatively unchanged since the early 20th century, is not capable of coping with the “disruptive challenges” posed to it by solar and other renewable energy power generation. David Roberts, a staff writer for the environmental news publication Grist, will write of the EEI report in April 2013: “It is one of the most prescient and brutally frank things I’ve ever read about the power sector. It is a rare thing to hear an industry tell the tale of its own incipient obsolescence.” Standard power utilities are “regulated monopolies,” which means they are the sole providers of power in their service areas. The business model relies on the utilities selling power as “overseen” by public utility commissions (PUCs), which control what utilities can charge for their power. Inexpensive solar (photovoltaic, or PV) power “eats away at [that business model] like acid,” Roberts writes. Solar power is not regulated for the benefit of the utility companies. In simplistic terms, a kilowatt-hour (kwh) of solar energy generated by, say, a rooftop solar array is a kilowatt-hour of reduced demand for the utility. Solar power peaks each day at noon, usually the time of most intense sunlight, which is one of the power utilities’ “peak load” times. Power utilities make much of their profits from peak load electricity, as they charge more per kwh for peak load electricity. Roberts writes, “[W]hen solar panels provide peak power, they aren’t just reducing demand, they’re reducing demand for the utilities’ most valuable product.” The EEI report also challenges the myth that power consumers must rely on grid power and not solar power because solar power is not available when the sun is not shining. Battery storage, micro turbine, and other developing technologies are making it possible for many consumers to go entirely “grid free,” to opt out of grid-generated electricity entirely. Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers says, “If the cost of solar panels keeps coming down, installation costs come down and if they combine solar with battery technology and a power management system, then we have someone just using [the grid] for backup.” If a large number of consumers begin generating their own power and using the grid for backup alone, the EEI report says, the utilities face “irreparable damage to [their] revenues and growth prospects.” Utilities generally anticipate revenues that allow them to invest heavily in fossil fuel plants that will not recoup costs for 30 years. Those investments could be more difficult to recoup if consumers begin generating their own power via solar and other DER power sources, leading the utility companies to contemplate raising the rates of those consumers who do not opt out of grid-based power. The EEI report states: “The financial implications of these threats are fairly evident. Start with the increased cost of supporting a network capable of managing and integrating distributed generation sources. Next, under most rate structures, add the decline in revenues attributed to revenues lost from sales foregone. These forces lead to increased revenues required from remaining customers… and sought through rate increases. The result of higher electricity prices and competitive threats will encourage a higher rate of DER additions, or will promote greater use of efficiency or demand-side solutions. Increased uncertainty and risk will not be welcomed by investors, who will seek a higher return on investment and force defensive-minded investors to reduce exposure to the sector. These competitive and financial risks would likely erode credit quality. The decline in credit quality will lead to a higher cost of capital, putting further pressure on customer rates. Ultimately, capital availability will be reduced, and this will affect future investment plans. The cycle of decline has been previously witnessed in technology-disrupted sectors (such as telecommunications) and other deregulated industries (airlines).” In other words, as consumers begin to opt out of grid-based power consumption, and utilities raise their rates to compensate for the loss of revenue, more and more consumers will opt out, further shrinking the number of consumers paying the utilities to generate their electricity. Even small numbers of consumers using rooftop solar strikes at the utilities’ main profit centers (one reason why German utilities are already feeling the pinch). Currently, less than 1 percent of US electricity is generated by solar arrays. But a projection by Bloomberg Energy Finance forecasts that in some areas of the nation, up to 10 percent of power load will be generated by solar arrays. The EEI report speculates that utility consumers in those areas will see massive increases in their rates as the utilities compensate for the lost revenues. [Kind, 1/2013 pdf file; Grist Magazine, 4/10/2013]

Entity Tags: Edison Electric Institute, Bloomberg Energy Finance, Grist, David Roberts, Jim Rogers

Timeline Tags: US Solar Industry

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:
bullet estimating how much power their customers will need;
bullet estimating the investments they will need to make in power plants, fuel, transmission lines, and so forth in order to meet that demand;
bullet estimating how much they need to charge customers to cover their investments and offer a reasonable rate of return to their investors;
bullet convincing their state’s public utility commission (PUC) that their rates are warranted and fair; and
bullet 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. [Grist Magazine, 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; Grist Magazine, 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. [Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, 6/27/2012; Grist Magazine, 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. [Grist Magazine, 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.” [Grist Magazine, 5/21/2013]

Entity Tags: Southern California Edison, David Rubin, David Roberts, Alliance for Solar Choice, Database for State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency

Timeline Tags: US Solar Industry

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