electricity rate design

Probing Residential Demand Charges

What are Demand Charge Rates?

We have become very accustomed to the electric bill we receive every month. This bill has different charges like sanitation, tax, etc. But the largest charge is very likely to be the electric service charge. Put simply, this charge is what the utility company charges to meet your demand, or the amount of power your home consumes, during that monthly billing period. This is what is known as a standard consumption rate, which could be either fixed or variable. But you probably paid a fixed rate, which means that you pay the same rate for your energy regardless of how much or when you need it.

Related: Understanding Your Utility Bill

Fixed rates have been used for a very long time for residential consumers, and are probably the most common rate structure around. However, a different billing policy exists for commercial consumers, one called demand charge rates (DC’s). DC’s are a completely different charge that commercial and industrial sectors have to pay for, along with their consumption rates. A DC can be defined as an extra cost that a consumer has to pay for their maximum demand over a billing period, and can make up around 30% of a utility bill. So, imagine not only paying for the energy you use, but paying more the maximum used at any one time. Kinda lame, right?

Another way to think of this is like turning everything in your house on at the same time. That’s a lot of juice! And the utility will charge for this because they still have to supply you even when everyone is turning on everything at once.

(If you want to learn more about rate design, then check out our article on the ins and outs of rate design! )

Are Demand Charge Necessary?

Demand charges are designed to lower the cost of grid operation during peak hours of demand. DC’s supposedly help utility companies offset the cost of meeting high peaks of demand, which they have to do at all times, and that can be expensive. Utilities have to meet demand 24/7, and to do so they have to operate a lot of expensive equipment and generation plants.

Utilities argue that DC’s help cover the cost of maintenance and construction of wires, transformers, power plants, substation, etc. DC’s also encourage consumers to have a more consistent demand, with smaller demand peaks offset by spreading demand over a larger period of time.

However, charging the consumer more just because they have a peak demand during any given time is not always the best solution. For example, a business could reach its peak demand in system off-peak hours where the total demand on the grid is considerably less significant than system peak demand hours. This means that a business has to pay more for their energy although they are not costing the utility any more to meet their demand.

You can read our article on the Duck Curve if you want to learn more about demand, peak hour efficiency, and the costs of meeting demand during peak hours!

Residential Integration

DC’s have been around for decades in the industrial and commercial worlds respectively, until recently.  The Arizona Public Service (APS) attempted to integrate their residential customers into their Demand Charge policies back in 2016, but was met with frustration and from residential costumers. APS and and regulators were swarmed with public backlash in the form of upset calls and even protest.

The problem with integrating DC’s into residential districts lies in that individual residential homes, even in their peak demand, do not often put adequate stress on the grid to justify charging more. This stress point usually occurs only a few times per year. Furthermore, residential consumers are not used to being charged this way and frankly many do not understand what the charge is much less how to manage it. Simply put, it requires action by the consumer to manage.

Residential demands and peaks are also very similar. For the most part, we all wake up, shower, and use appliances before we leave for work/school, and we turn on the air conditioner when we return. Commercial and industrial facilities, however, tend to have much more sporadic and instantaneous peaks and demands throughout their billing cycles, especially those facilities operate on a 24 hour basis. Not to mention that these facilities require much larger amounts of power than any given residential home.

APS also made errors in giving proper effort to outreach to consumers of what DC’s really are. It takes a long time, sometime years, to adequately inform every consumer of policy changes. Some people don’t watch TV or have a smartphone, and some do not even have an adequate mailing address. So conducting proper outreach is difficult, but absolutely required.

It is doubtful that APS will be the only utility to attempt to push DC’s on their residential consumers.

A Better Alternative

A third rate design currently exists in the world of energy, one that we believe to be a healthier, more efficient one. This rate is called Time of Use (TOU). This system is more complicated than the standard consumption rate, so let’s break it down.

Related: 6 Reasons Time of Use Rates Are the Best Option

TOU rate policies work by monitoring energy use during peak demand hours. Peak hours vary slightly from grid to grid, but utilities generally see a big ramp in demand in the morning hours (approximately 6AM-9AM) followed by another ramp that evening (approximately 6PM-10PM).  Consumers under TOU rates would be charged more for using energy during these hours. But, unlike demand charges, time of use rates only apply if you use energy during hours where the grid is at its most stressed, and not just whenever your home meets its own peak demand. Consumers under TOU’s are generally charged less per kWh in the off-peak hours than consumers who are billed through the standard fixed rates. TOU’s give business and homeowners alike the capability to save money by reducing stress on the system by lowering their demand peaks, which in turn saves money for the utilities, as well. 

But we like TOU’s for a number of reasons. One being that it gives you the ability and encouragement to work around times of peak demand, and you can even save money by doing so. And who doesn’t like saving money? But it does take some amount of work on the consumer’s part to do. If you usually wash clothes in a dryer and washer or keep the A/C or heat on during peak hours, then try and move those times of usage to non-peak hours.

Furthermore, you can install automatic timers on your water heater and other equipment to only make it run during off peak hours. (Trust us, you’ll still have plenty of hot water). Also, and we love this one, you could install solar panels into your home to lower your demand even more! This would be especially helpful if the the highest charges are during the day with the sun is plentiful. TOUs and committing to these changes could save you hundreds of dollars per year on your electric bills. It’s also worth mentioning that a true TOU system would leave out any unwarranted and extraneous fees. You pay for the energy you consume, when you consume it, period.

TOU’s can not only help you save money, but they also provide real help to the grid. If implemented properly, TOU’s will reflect times when the grid is at it’s highest demand. These times are much more costly for utilities to meet as they have to operate a plethora of expensive equipment to do so. Operation of less expensive equipment = money saved for utilities and you.

Our own Tennessee Valley Authority is proposing TOU’s for utility companies such as Huntsville Utilities, but it’s unknown if they have plans to move TOU’s to their other consumers.

Perfect Utility Rate Design

6 Reasons Time of Use Rates Are the Best Option

Previously we discussed the pros and cons of the available utility use rates. In that post we mentioned that while none of the options are perfect we do have a favorite, so here’s

6 Reasons Time of Use Rates Are The Best Option

 

  1. Time of Use (TOU) Rates will lower your bill.

With some simple adjustments to your electricity use habits, you would save a significant amount of money with TOU rates versus standard consumption rates.

  1. A true Time of Use Rate system wouldn’t charge any unwarranted fees.

Utilities are notorious for trying to increase fixed charges and fees. With a true TOU rate, you are only charged for the amount of electricity you consumed (based on when you used it) with no extraneous charges.

  1. Time of Use Rates rates encourage the use of solar.

The current system for most utilities across the country charges a “fixed rate,” meaning you are charged that rate regardless of the amount of electricity you use. Without these fixed charges, TOU rates can encourage the use of solar, especially if the peak rates are during daylight hours.

  1. Time of Use Rates can be available to everybody, whether you’re a business owner or a resident.

Additionally, in most states, TOU rates are already available on a voluntary basis.

  1. Time of Use Rates are good for the consumer and the utility.

If implemented properly, TOU rates are directly related to when the system (e.g., the grid) experiences the most cost. By changing your behaviors, you’re not only saving money but also helping the entire system.

  1. There’s only one downside.

Many don’t know of – or have not seen the benefits of – TOU rates. As such, consumer education would be the greatest barrier for getting TOU rates off the ground. Consumers would need to be educated on how they can actually save money with TOU rates – because, unfortunately, you would not be able to switch to TOU rates and have your bill magically decrease. Saving money with TOU rates would require some work on the part of the consumer. Here are a few things that you would have to do to save more money with TOU rates:

  • Plug devices such as computers, televisions, game
  • consoles, and printers into power strips and turn off the switch when these devices are not in use during peak demand hours.
  • Program your AC/heater to not run as much during peak hours.
  • Use your washer and dryer during non-peak times.
  • Install automatic timers to only run your water heater during non-peak times (trust us, you’ll still have plenty of hot water).
  • Use solar during peak demand hours!

With some careful alteration of your electricity habits, most consumers would save hundreds of dollars a year on electricity with TOU rates compared to standard consumption charges. TOU rates are good for utilities and your electricity bill – and all that’s needed is to get the word out.

Perfect Utility Rate Design

Does a Perfect Rate Design Exist?

Does a Perfect Utility Rate Design Exist?

The simple answer: no. There is no perfect rate design, as there are up and downsides to each. However, we believe there is a best option, and we’ll talk about that in a later blog post. For now, let us analyze the positives and negatives of each of the three main types of rate designs. If you need a refresher on the often-confusing world of rate design, check out our blog post on the topic.

Fixed Charges and Consumption Charges – In many ways, this rate design seems like it would be the most ideal, especially for residential consumers. Your monthly charge would consist of a fixed charge, the charge of being connected to the utility, and a consumption charge based on how much electricity you used during the billing period. Seems great, right? You pay for electricity you use, along with a fixed charge, and don’t pay for electricity you didn’t use. Simple! Well, as it turns out, the word “fixed” is not so fixed… It’s really a relative term.

Recently, Alabama Power has started a “pilot program” that exponentially hikes the fixed charge rate (up to 400 percent!). For now, the rate increase is voluntary and experimental, but it forebodes of future substantial rate inflation. Even now, many utilities across the country are actively trying to increase fixed rates. Fixed charges are generally thought to be bad for consumers because they discourage energy efficiency and renewable energy and are liable to increase without warning (check out our blog post on fixed charges!).

Time of Use (TOU) – Most simply, TOU rates charge customers prices based on the time of day in which the energy is consumed. When the grid is congested, the prices goes up, and when there is plenty of excess electricity available, the prices goes down. This system could encourage energy conservation and efficiency by motivating customers to use electricity outside of peak demand times and to conserve it inside peak demand times. Additionally, no fixed charge means more freedom and incentive to conserve energy. The only downside to this system resides in the amount of customer education it would require, such as learning how to use other means of energy consumption (like solar!) or simply remembering not to consume as much energy during the specified times. Most customers are not used to being charged this way and would need time to adjust.

Peak Demand Charges – Because of the hiked charge on peak usages, this rate design encourages customers to not make large, instantaneous demands on the system, no matter the time of day. This rate design is typically reserved for commercial consumers where it is oftentimes necessary or unavoidable to use large amounts of electricity at one time. Of course, there are ways to somewhat decrease high peak demand charges (such as installing solar if you have a daytime peak or spacing out electricity use more smoothly), but the rate design is still imperfect. Peak demand charges, then, can be a good, sensible idea but tend to be impractical in the sense that each customer’s individual peak isn’t always as necessary as the system’s overall needs.

Choosing the right rate design is difficult; each one presents its own challenge to overcome. The question to ask when pondering the plethora of rate design options is “Which one is best, not easiest, for the energy sector?” We’ll leave you with that hint until the final blog post in this series, where we will explain in detail why we believe a certain rate design is the best.

Perfect Utility Rate Design

The Ins and Outs of Electricity Rate Design

Electricity rate design has the power to completely alter the energy sector, for better or worse. The world of electricity rate design can be a confusing one, so before we get into which rate design would be most beneficial for you and the energy sector (that’s for a later blog post!), let us first define and explore three of the main types of rate designs.

Fixed Charges and Consumption Charges – The current system for billing electricity for most utilities across the country, this rate design charges fixed fees in tandem with a usage bill and is most common with residential consumers. Fixed charges never change from month to month (as the name implies), as they are there as a result of your connection to the grid. Recently, utility companies across the country have been advocating for significant fixed charge increases. In theory, a fixed charge is there to compensate the utility for the fixed portion of their costs as a result of having you as a customer (for instance, the cost to bill you and read your meter).

Related: Are fixed utility charges bad for consumers?

Time of Use – This system is decidedly more complicated than the previous one, and would require some work on the part of you, the consumer. The idea is simple: the cost of using electricity would change according to the time of day (for instance, customers would be charged higher rates for using electricity during specified peak demand times).

Figure 1: An example of a suggested TOU rate for summer months. Source: www.pge.com

The execution of Time of Use (TOU) rates (such as advocacy and ensuring customer understanding) is where the system becomes more complicated. States such as California and Massachusetts have already adopted a TOU rate design, and our own Tennessee Valley Authority has also proposed making the transition to TOU rates. Additionally, TOU rates are already available in most states on a voluntary basis. At its most basic, TOU rates provide price signals to customers to encourage them to use when rates are low and conserve when rates are high.

Related: 6 Reasons Why Time of Use Rates Are the Best Option

Peak Demand Charges – In many states and especially for commercial customers, electricity use is billed in two ways by the utility: based on consumption, that is, how much electricity you actually used in a given period, and peak demand, or the highest capacity required during that billing period. A simple way to think about this is with an analogy: the odometer in your car would represent the “consumption,” and the fastest speed you traveled during that period would be the “peak demand.” Your car needs to be able to last for a long time (high mileage) but also may need to go fast from time to time (of course, if you drive a Tesla Model S, that’s all the time! But we digress…). In the case of this electricity rate design, you would be charged for both consumption and peak demand, and oftentimes these two charges appear as one combined charge.

The main idea behind peak demand charges is that they provide customers with price signals to encourage them not to make large, instantaneous demands on the systems but instead to spread their usage out over the day more smoothly. Depending on the rate structure in a given area, and your habits, demand charges can constitute up to 30% of an electricity bill.

Related: Probing Residential Demand Charges

 

Are Fixed Utility Charges Bad for Customers?

As solar energy and energy efficiency becomes more common, many electric companies have responded by dramatically increasing, or attempting to increase, monthly fixed utility charges.

What are fixed charges?

Fixed charges are static charges that occur on a regular basis. Most utilities have fixed charges, sometimes called an availability charge, on your monthly bill. Typically, this charge is small (less than $15-$20/month) and is normally in place to cover fixed costs a utility must provide in order for you to receive their service. An example of a fixed cost is the meter on your house and/or the expense to read it each month.

Throughout the United States, utility companies and, to a lesser degree, electric co-ops are charging solar users a fixed cost to re-coop the perceived loss of revenue from the users going off the grid, reducing their demand from the utility, or even just to discourage the use of new technologies.

The idea of large fixed cost increases originates from a suggestion in the “Disruptive Challenges” report released by Edison Electric Institute in January of 2013. Since the report was released, many solar users have seen fixed charges affect their monthly meter bill; sometimes costing as much as 50 dollars extra each month.

Fixed charges not only affect existing solar users, they have the potential to deter future users as well. Solar paying for itself is one benefit that is slowly being taken away; with one user saying, “I think the fixed fee for solar is excessive. When I do the cash flow that amount takes 25 percent of my monthly profit. It would take an extra three to four years to get the project paid off.” Most fixed charges push the payback on installations from a 10-year plan closer to a 13- or 15-year plan before the consumer begins to see that benefit.

David Shaffer, an attorney and development director of Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Association, said a high fixed charge, “decreases the cost-effectiveness of solar arrays and elongates the payback period,” he said. “Selling solar is based on the payback. If you get payback in under 10 years it’s a great deal, but if it’s beyond 10 years it gets more difficult.

Fixed charges cut into the viability of selling solar in those (rural) areas because financially it doesn’t make sense.” Another issue with fixed rate charges is their inconsistency. During 2014, as many as 23 fixed charges proposals were being considered by state regulators across the country and that trend continued through 2015.

In Minnesota alone there are different fixed charges depending in the company. Meeker Cooperative has a $55 net metering charge on an almost 40 kilowatt system, Xcel Energy has a flat fee for $10 a month for all customers but nothing specific for solar users, Minnesota Power has a monthly fee of $2.55 a month for a 20 kilowatt system, and the list goes on.

The increase in fixed charges hits close to home in the Southeast too. In the Southeast, electricity markets are primarily served by large integrated utilities. The Southeast also lacks a single regional transmission organization or independent system operator that establishes the economics of real-time transmission costs and contracts for ancillary services, or anything that supports the transmission of electricity from its generation site to the customer. Therefore, the responsibility falls to the co-ops, municipal utilities, and regulators to create smarter rate design and make economic decisions on the cost of service and constituent feedback. This often means individual states or regions are at the mercy of one company or local regulators who may not be as well versed in the intricacies of the electric market.

In a report conducted by the Kansas Corporation Commission, they concluded that increased fixed charges in Kansas would increase electricity use by 1.1 to 6.8%, varying by utility and season. This means the projected increase would be greater than all the energy savings from all the energy efficiency programs in the state. The same report found that such a change in rate structure and consumption would offset the financial benefits of decades of energy efficiency efforts and penalize customers who have already invested in or installed energy efficiency measures under the previous rate structure. The increase in fixed charges would weaken the incentive for future investors in energy efficiency, which could have negative impacts on the local economy and environment.

There is hope the trend may stop sooner than later. Regulators and stakeholders of utilities have begun seeking a new approach to fixed costs, with one idea being a demand charge that reflects the amount based on customer usage. One reason for this is the benefit energy efficiency will provide to the utility companies and customers alike. Contrary to some utility claims, solar is projected to decrease system costs for utilities. A new study by Rocky Mountain Institute shows that distributed energy resource (DER) customers with solar and battery storage provide value to the grid by reducing peak demand, deferring or avoiding system upgrades, relieving congestion, and providing ancillary services. In addition, other studies by utility regulators have found the value of distributed solar to exceed retail rates. For example, Nevada regulators found that the value rooftop solar adds to the grid is 18.5 cents/kWh, Mississippi 17 cents/kWh, Maine 33.7 cents/kWh, Minnesota 14.5 cents/kWh, and Vermont 25.7 cents/kWh.

Implementing fixed charges as blunt instruments will only result in a missed opportunity for utilities to align the interests of customers using DERs with those of the grid as a whole. Although still a work in progress, one thing is for certain. Massive hikes in fixed charges are bad for consumers, utility companies, and solar users everywhere.