February 14, 2017

California Weighs Fair Pricing for Distributed, Centralized Energy

Everyone hates paying for something that they don’t use (how many cable channels do you have?). In California, local electricity customers may finally get satisfaction about paying for the transmission grid capacity that they don’t use.

At issue is an obscure pricing mechanism known as Transmission Access Charges. These charges are meant to capture the cost of delivering power to customers, but the fees don’t distinguish between distant or local energy sources. So a customer pays a transmission fee on all the power they consume, whether it was produced next door or 500 miles away.

With this problematic pricing mechanism, the charges don’t decline when a customer’s on-site or nearby power generation increases, even though such distributed power generation doesn’t use the greater transmission system. The fees are substantial, adding as much as 3¢ per kilowatt-hour to the cost of distributed energy. Plus, the more Californians install solar technology and reduce demand for long-distance power transmission, the less these charges make any sense.

Getting Traction for Fair Pricing

Beginning in 2009, Southern California’s Clean Coalition began fighting the economic disparity between transmission use and transmission costs, and the seven-year campaign has finally garnered the attention of the Golden State’s transmission manager, or Independent System Operator, CAISO. For the first time, the system operator is inviting stakeholder comments on the issue.

Instead of basing access charges on the amount of electricity a customer consumes (end-use metered customer load [EUML]), the Clean Coalition proposes that California utilities derive transmission assessments on Transmission Energy Downflow (TED), a measure of how much electricity actually travels on the transmission system to reach the customer. Switching to this more accurate measure would result in immediate savings for customers that rely more on distributed energy resources, and it would also bring about institutional change. In grid planning, the current charge discriminates against distributed energy projects that can lower grid costs by delivering power with technology like solar, for example, near demand. The following graphic illustrates this phenomena.

On the left, a centralized project has a lower bid in the “least cost best fit” analysis because the system operator is ignoring actual transmission costs and instead applies the charges to all customers regardless of their usage. On the right, the fair application of transmission fees means that the distributed energy project wins along with customers.

Big Savings from Fair Pricing

The fair playing field would reduce demand for unnecessary and expensive transmission expansion in the long run, saving California customers as much as 3¢ per kilowatt-hour, an average of about $200 per year. The reduced demand for transmission would also mean better utilization of existing grid capacity, more distributed energy (like solar), and fewer fights over the use of eminent domain to take private land for transmission towers.

Apart from reaping benefits for consumers, the proposed switch to more accurate transmission pricing would also remove perverse incentives where investor-owned utilities that are choosing between centralized and distributed projects are financially rewarded for expanding transmission infrastructure (by getting a return on their investment for building more transmission).

Fair and Consistent Pricing

The change to more accurate transmission pricing isn’t novel. Already, California municipal utilities and others that do not own transmission lines are billed for transmission access based on actual instead of aggregate use. Adopting the rule for utilities that own transmission would advance accounting accuracy and align policy across utility service territories.

The policy change many also help remedy a national bias toward transmission building, encouraged by incentives provided by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for transmission expansion, even when more cost-effective alternatives are not considered.

Transmission Access Charges may be an obscure pricing concept, but getting it right is a golden opportunity for the Golden State to use fairer pricing to make the most efficient use of its electric grid.

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