Concerned Citizen

Can electric cars save utilities

Can Electric Cars Save Utilities?

Over the past decade, we as a society have become much more energy efficient; we have energy efficient light bulbs, our appliances require less watts, and we can even install solar panels onto our homes to generate our own energy. Undoubtedly, these are great steps to take if we want to preserve natural resources and save some capital for other expenses like shopping or groceries. But is there a downside to someone?

As mentioned in a previous blog, the utility death spiral is a reality that could be all too imminent. Hawaii and some parts of Europe are already seeing the foreboding signs of a utility crisis. A result of declining prices and rising costs, utility companies are left desperate for new load growth. Utilities have been threatened by numerous factors like LED bulbs, on-site solar, and energy efficient appliances, which cause significant declines in utility sales. If revenue falls too quickly, then utilities become liable to start in free-fall, much like what happened in Germany where utilities lost half a trillion euros in their markets. Innovation and progressive change are good, but pace is pertinent in their execution. 

Another haunting reality for utilities is the void of commonly found, high-demand appliances in consumer facilities. Decades have passed since the refrigerator or heating and A/C units, all of which require considerable amounts of energy to operate, have been taken into our homes and commercial facilities. When these appliances were first introduced, utilities saw a major increase of demand. But that was long ago, and we have since become a much more energy efficient society, especially with largely encouraged renewable energy sectors.

However, quick innovation can involve shifts in losses and benefits from one industry to another. So if the electric car companies can take business away from the gigantic petroleum energy by releasing more electric cars (EV’s), then everybody wins. Well, everybody except the petroleum industry, but that’s another discussion.

Can a Shift to Electric Cars Save Utilities?

The answer to this question is a bit complicated. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) states that transportation energy is the second largest consumer of energy in the U.S, right behind electric power generation. However, a predictable 93% of that power comes from petroleum products. A recent post by the Edison Electric Institute (EEI) claims that EV’s could provide the load growth that utility companies so desperately need. EEI published a post on Transportation Electrification back in 2014. This post details how EV’s could benefit all parties involved, society included, if we moved from petroleum powered vehicles to battery powered ones.

Between 2007 and 2013, retail sales of electricity in the United States across all sectors dropped 2%. In addition, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave America’s energy infrastructure a D+ grade in their 2013 report card and estimated a 3.6 trillion dollar investment needed by 2020.

–Transportation Electrification, EEI

However, there are some foreseeable problems with a large scale shift to EV’s. One being that peak demand times could be significantly increased by people charging their EV’s. From what we notice today, EV owners typically charge their vehicles when they get home from work. Makes sense, right? You get home, plug in your car, and go inside to watch football and chill out for a while. The only issue with that is that utilities already see peak load times around these hours, so adding even more demand during these times could prove costly and difficult for utilities to handle. Some utilities, including Alabama Power, are hoping to fight this by offering qualifying EV owners rate incentives if they charge their vehicles in off-peak hours, which, if done correctly, could actually benefit grid stability and efficiency.

“Alabama Power offers an optional rate rider for customers with a Plug-in electric vehicle (PEV). The rate rider allows customers to charge their electric vehicle at a discounted rate during off-peak hours of 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. To qualify for eligibility, a customer must own a PEV that is manufactured primarily for use on public streets, roads, and highways. Electric scooters, electric bicycles, golf carts, and motorized electric wheelchairs are not included.”

California’s Shift

EEI claims that a large scale electric transportation shift would benefit the electric vehicle industry, the consumer, the environment, and especially utilities who need to see a significant rise in load growth. As we know, electric vehicles have significantly lower carbon emissions that damage the atmosphere, save the consumer money on gas, and would cause a considerable rise in electric demand for utility companies.

California is already making notable efforts in regards to filling it’s streets with electric vehicles. The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) received several proposals from different companies who wish to accomplish different goals in expanding their fleets to exclusively EV’s and installing thousands of new EV charging stations. The proposals are filed under California’s Zero-Emission Vehicle Program that plans to propagate a utility infrastructure to support 1 million Ev’s by 2020. The state hit 250,000 in late 2016.

The proposals approximate to 1 billion dollars in funding. If granted, tens of thousands of charging stations would be installed in California airports, ports, warehouses, and residencies. The Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) is seeking $253 million for three efforts: “expanding electrification for fleets with medium- and heavy-duty vehicles, responding to consumer demand for fast-charging stations, and exploring new uses for vehicle electrification through five, one-year projects.”

Vehicle Electrification and Alabama

Alabama faces one big problem with the electrification of its transportation industry: charging. Alabama is all but void of any charging facilities that EV’s so desperately need. If utilities are truly depending on EV’s for the load growth that they need, then charging station projects would have to come soon.

Additionally, Alabama needs to take a hard look at its policy in the transportation policy to encourage growth in electric transportation. These changes could be everything from building codes at the local level that require installation of chargers for large destinations to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) using Volkswagen settlement money to build the infrastructure for heavy duty trucks.

As you can see from California’s example, where energy efficiency and renewables have stunted electric demand growth, utilities are making aggressive moves to electrify transportation. Regulators are working with electric utilities to build the shared infrastructure while keep the market open to private sector innovations. We hope Alabama will follow suit.

Energy Alabama Signs On to Comments Opposing TVA’s NEPA Rule Changes

Energy Alabama, and a host of energy and conservation groups, signed on to comments prepared by the Southern Environmental Law Center opposing changes to TVA’s implementing regulations for the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”).

Energy Alabama is extremely concerned that TVA’s proposed changes undermine transparency, stifle public involvement in TVA’s decisions, and bestow upon TVA almost boundless discretion to decide whether and how it must review the effects of its activities on the people and environment throughout its seven-state service territory, which includes nearly all of Tennessee, and portions of Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Virginia.

To view the full comments, please visit: https://alcse.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/2017-09-06-Comment-on-TVA-Proposed-NEPA-Rule.pdf

What is a Value-of-Solar Tariff?

A value-of-solar tariff, or VOST, is a rate design policy that gives customers with solar panels credit for the electricity they generate at a specific price. The credit is then applied to the customer’s utility bill. A VOST usually clarifies how much energy is sold from the customer to utility company and from the utility company to customer; it also determines at what rate the energy is valued. Value-of-solar tariffs are generally viewed as unfair and for two main reasons: the value of the tariff is lower than market rate in most areas and the benefits of VOSTs aren’t broadly advertised. But VOSTs don’t HAVE to be unfair.

As of right now, there aren’t many markets that have fair compensation for solar in the form of VOSTs. The two main places that are under the current implementation of value-of-solar tariffs, Minnesota and Austin, Texas, purchase all of their energy at the utility’s retail rate and pay out a separate VOS rate in dollars per kilowatt hour. In Minnesota, the VOST rate is about $0.145 per kilowatt-hour which is above the residential retail electricity rate of $0.115 per kilowatt-hour. This rate means that for every kilowatt-hour a solar user produces, the user doesn’t have to pay for a kilowatt-hour and they save a little on the electricity they don’t produce but still use. Why would a state or utility pay higher than retail? Because through a VOST process, IF the total value of solar energy is taken into account, there may be cases where it is in fact worth more than retail.  This type of VOST is very customer friendly to encourage the residents of Minnesota to begin producing solar energy themselves; unfortunately, outside of Austin, Texas, the same cannot be said for other states. One of the reasons for less than market rate compensation is the cost of providing the VOST in the first place or other services that utilities must provide for you to sell to them.

What is the unseen value of a VOST?

An end financial value of a VOST is made up of many subparts. For example, some value components include: avoided cost (money saved by the utility from not having to buy additional fuel for the power plant), environmental (the value of reducing harm to the environment and its subsequent cleanup), and transmission system impact (less strain on power lines due to generation being located closer to where it is being used), among others.

For a user to successfully produce and sell back solar energy to a utility company, they have to use the grid. Even if a customer produces the same amount of energy as they use, there are still costs to selling the energy back and for energy used from the grid when solar is not producing. When paying out for solar, utilities have to consider the cost of business (grid maintenance, labor, parts, etc.), which takes a portion out of the amount the customer receives. The need utilities to receive compensation for their services in a VOST to maintain the grid cannot be overlooked.

The second reason value-of-solar tariffs can get a bad reputation is customer lack of knowledge about its benefits. Utilities can better understand customer load, timing, and volume because a VOST separates electricity generated by the consumer from electricity consumed. This is valuable information that utilities can use to better predict when peak times might occur and how much electricity they’re actually using. However, customers may not understand all the variables that make up a VOST or why they are there.

Another reason is how customers receive compensation based on utility-specific benefits and costs of their electricity generation, instead of fixed retail rates that may span many regions. Customers are able to select what VOST is most beneficial to them depending on their energy production and use, as opposed to going with the rate of their region no matter the circumstances.

Value-of-solar tariffs are one of several viable options for solar users to sell back their solar energy, and there are both good (Minnesota and Austin, Texas) and bad (almost everywhere else) ways of providing it to customers. One important aspect that cannot be overlooked is how a VOST is beneficial to the energy system (e.g. the grid) as a whole. With a true integrated value, a VOST can provide the grid with much needed support and gives utilities valuable information; but as it becomes more widespread, concrete worth needs to be given to the value provided from things like environmental and avoided energy costs. VOST has a bright future if implemented correctly, and as more states follow Minnesota’s example, solar will continue to grow more valuable.

The Importance of Reducing Solar Soft Costs

What are solar soft costs? Soft costs are any costs, fees, or taxes that are included with a product after material and labor. While solar energy is worthwhile, thanks to the long term savings and the benefits for the environment, many potential users are hesitant at first due to the initial cost. A significant portion of the heavy sticker price is the “extra” added when taking soft costs into account.

Solar is becoming more prevalent in America, and many users are beginning to see their investment come to fruition. Unfortunately, many potential users are halted before they get started; so let’s look at some of the soft costs and how they could be reduced.

Courtesy of U.S. Department of Energy

As the graph shows, a massive 64% of the cost of solar is due to soft costs. Costs like permitting fees, interconnection labor, installation labor, and installer profit are significant portions of the soft costs, but are also necessary. The solar system needs to be approved by the city (permitting fee), connected to the grid (interconnection labor), installed (installation labor), and the company selling it needs to make some profit to stay open and continue selling their product (installer profit). However, most of the other costs could be trimmed down so there isn’t as much of a cost for each one.

The other portions of soft cost: sales tax, transaction costs, supply chain costs, indirect corporate costs, and customer acquisition, CAN be reduced, sometimes to virtually nothing. Some states actually pay the solar user, through stipends or other incentives, to install rather than charge sales tax; therefore, sales tax could be done away with or reworked so the user gets that cost back. In fact, some states like Florida, do not charge sales tax on renewable energy, effectively eliminating this soft cost.

Transaction costs are costs that come from a third-party lender when the buyer needs a loan and could be reduced to a lower rate. We find that buyers need to be aware of the hidden fees and transactions costs that can quickly add significant cost to their installation. Some transaction costs are unavoidable and more than fair. After all, no one is going to loan you money at 0% interest. That being said, be aware of who is charging what fees and where they’re being charged in the process. Supply chain costs are from the transporting and housing of solar units from the company to the buyer. Better supply chain management and cooperative buying can help reduce this cost.

Lastly, and probably most interestingly, customer acquisition is the cost for the solar installer to reach out and connect its potential customers. This cost is effectively sales and marketing; and while it’s a necessary function, you can immediately see the issue. If hundreds of people contact their local solar installer only to be turned away because of bad site conditions, not being able to finance the system, or any number of reasons, the solar contractor has spent money on a customer that ultimately cannot buy its product. That means this cost must be charged to the next customer who CAN purchase the system. The U.S. Department of Energy and many startups around the country are developing tools explicitly designed to attack this problem. The more information at the fingertips of consumers and contractors helps reduce the amount of time spent on projects that just simply could never be built.

A good way to think of solar installation with lower soft costs is to merely look overseas. Germany is one example of solar installation working without high soft costs and their wide user base is proof it’s effective. By making solar more available (cheaper), Germany has a much bigger user base than the United States and they see more users every year. Although the process of buying solar is different in Germany, they immediately provide savings by getting rid of most soft costs from the start.

Let’s not handicap solar right out of the gate. By working to significantly reduce soft costs, we can make solar more affordable for everyday Alabamians. Quite literally, giving them the power back.

Understanding Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978 (PURPA)

Defining PURPA

Passed in 1978 as one part of the National Energy Act, the Public Utility Regulatory Policies act (PURPA), provided a major benefit to the production and integration of renewable energy.

The National Energy Act was conceived in reaction to the energy crisis of 1973. It contained a plethora of legislation that would aim to drastically cut the demand for imported oil. One such act, now today as PURPA, would give manufacturers of renewable energy a toe-hold in the door to large scale energy manufacturing and deployment, which is always appreciated. PURPA was meant to promote better energy conservation, domestic power production, and renewable energy construction and integration.

Prior to PURPA, electric utilities were structured in what is known as vertical monopolies, which basically means that they control all aspects of energy supply: the generation, distribution and control were all controlled by one company, which was originally thought to be more effective method of energy maintenance. Well, that is until PURPA was introduced and broke that model and would make it much easier for other energy companies to integrate into the grid.

PURPA also eliminated “rate structure” promotions offered by utilities. Rate structure decreased the cost of electricity by kWh with increasing usage, with smaller increments included, as well.

PURPA’s Role in Renewable Energy

PURPA enabled non-utility generators (NUG’s) to generate and attach energy to the energy grid by breaking the monopolies that held control of it. Not only that, but PURPA also forced utility companies to purchase energy from other energy producers, like producers of renewable energy, if that cost was less than their avoided cost, or the cost of producing the extra energy on their own and delivering it to the consumer. As a result, more and more cogeneration plants were built and implemented into the system. These plants were required by law to harness thermal energy in the form of steam, which would otherwise be wasted if energy alone was produced.

Controversy with PURPA

PURPA was not as big of an issue back in the 1970’s. However, more and more utility providers are having issues with PURPA. Specifically, having to accept renewable energy providers, specifically providers of solar energy, due to the fact that solar energy has become gradually more affordable and viable in energy production over the last few years.

One such controversy has erupted in Montana where the state’s largest investor-owned utility company, known as NorthWestern Energy, filed a claim with the state’s public service commission stating that the current rates of qualified providers (QF’s), which were stalled at $66 per mega-watt hour, was out of date as of 2013. The commission granted the proposal and altered the terms of which QF’s that provided between 100 kilowatts and 3 megawatts received the current avoided cost rate. None of the projects met the criteria.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) declared that the Montana State Commission had ruled in a way that was inconsistent with PURPA. However, as of this writing, they have not made any movements to rectify the commissions movement, which begs the question as to how seriously PURPA is being enforced.

In another instance, a North Carolina based utility company, Duke Energy, is currently backing a bill that would bring all renewable energy construction to a slow crawl. Introduced by Rep. Dean Arp (R-Union), House bill 909 is encouraging the once halted negotiations between Duke Energy, renewable energy advocates, and other PURPA stakeholders.

The bill would remove all North Carolina renewable energy projects from the umbrella of PURPA, and would throw those projects into a bidding process lead by Duke Energy. The bidding would have a ceiling of a predicted 400 megawatts.

“This bill would crush renewables in every sense, except perhaps in agriculture,” said Chris Carmody, the executive director of the North Carolina Clean Energy Business Alliance. You can read more on the North Carolina controversy here!

But Montana and North Carolina are not the only states seeing conflict with PURPA. Utah and Oregon utilities are starting to call for new contract lengths, rates, and other changes. Solar companies have since stated that the proposed changes would make it impossible to finance solar projects. It is not farsighted to say that further controversy could emerge in the near future.

New Legislation Affecting PURPA

PURPA is seeing a steady decline in significance as most of the contracts signed in the 1980’s are coming to an end. Furthermore, PURPA was amended in 2005 under the Energy Policy Act of 2005. The amendments to PURPA begin on Section E, subsection 1251 through 1254 of the Energy Policy act. Here is a short list of what amendments were made:

  • Each electric utility service shall make available upon request net metering services to any electric consumer the utility serves
  • Each electric utility shall develop a plan to minimize dependence on 1 fuel source and to ensure that the electric energy it sells to consumers is generated using a diverse range of fuels and technologies, including renewable technologies.
  • Each electric utility shall develop and implement a 10-year plan to increase the efficiency of its fossil fuel generation.