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Quarantining the utility: State regulators should adopt a competitive retail electricity market 2.0

EDITORIAL: We’re way past due for a competitive retail electricity market 2.0. On a whim I answered the phone despite knowing it was a telemarketing call. The robocaller invited me to press 1 if I wanted to save 30 percent on my electricity bill. The invitation was too good to pass up. I was soon patched through to a man who identified himself as being with the “supply department” for my local utility company. I asked him to confirm what he said, that he was calling from my local utility, which I knew to be a lie. He repeated the misrepresentation and asked me to get a copy of my electricity bill. He hung up on me as I scolded him for scamming people.

The next day I answered the phone again, this time a woman invited me to save 10 percent on my electricity bill. I was entitled to the savings because of a state law, she said. The telemarketer, reading from a script, got flustered as I interrupted her to ask that she repeat her introductory misrepresentation that she was calling from my local utility provider. She returned to her script and asked me to get a copy of my electricity bill. I put the phone down while I attended to something else, determined to waste as much of her time as possible.

When I returned to the phone and told her I couldn’t find my bill, she patched me through to her supervisor. When I asked the supervisor to confirm that she was with my utility company, she admitted she wasn’t and attributed the initial misrepresentation to that person, who was clearly reading from a script, being new to the job. She said if I could just get my utility customer number she could see to enabling me to obtain a 10 percent savings in electricity. So if she wasn’t with my utility company, who did she represent, I asked. “Choice Energy,” she replied.

So I asked, since she wasn’t representing my utility provider, if having Choice Energy provide me with a 10 percent savings on electricity wouldn’t require me to enter into a contract. She said there was no contract involved. There would be no signup fee or cancellation fee either, she said. After some more pointless dissembling I lost patience and hung up without bothering to explain that a contract is the predicate for signup and cancellation fees.

When you go to the website for Choice Energy, the tag line is “America’s Trusted Choice.” Headquartered in Iowa, I reached Mike Needham, the company’s owner. He said the company wasn’t marketing in my area, and wasn’t even licensed to be a supplier in my state. He suggested it might be another company, based in Houston, which has “choice energy” in its name, or another company altogether. “We’ve received complaints similar to this in the past,” he said. Calls to the Houston-based company were not returned.

These experiences aren’t unique to my area or me. State regulators in several states where consumers can choose among competing energy suppliers – particularly Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts and New York – are increasingly alarmed by these sorts of misrepresentations by marketers. After gaining the trust of the customer, either at the door or over the phone, these marketers, once they’ve obtained the utility customer number, switch the customer to another supplier, either with some form of consent or without their knowledge. There may actually be a savings involved for a few months, but then the price gets jacked up and the customer ends up paying more for electricity than if they’d stayed with the default service of their utility company.

This is a huge problem that threatens the future of retail electricity competition and the great promise of competition-driven innovation in products and services. In many cases the competitive electricity supplier doesn’t even necessarily know these questionable marketing practices are happening. They typically contract out the marketing effort, and the marketing contractor engages marketers on a commission basis, providing a financial incentive for playing fast and loose.

At the recent conference, “Growing the Power Business & Cutting Carbon Emissions,” sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania’s Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, Pennsylvania Consumer Advocate Tanya McCloskey cited concerns about “false and misleading marketing” and called on competitive suppliers to be part of the solution.

That’s fair but too many policymakers are painting the entire industry with a broad brush. Rather than take meaningful steps to reform the utility-dominated market structure, which in most states utilizes a 20-year-old market model badly in need of a major revamp, they have proposed shutting down entirely the residential customer market except for municipal aggregation. In the end that will deprive consumers of not only their right to choose, but will blunt the wave of innovation in electricity products and services policy makers can enable by quarantining the utility from the competitive marketplace.

The current model for retail electricity competition, employed by all the states with competitive retail choice except for Texas, makes utility service the default option that customers receive unless they choose to purchase from a competitive supplier. The incentive to shop is muted since the utility is purchasing power on behalf of its default customers in the wholesale power market and passing that product through at cost. The utility can do this because it is making money from its monopoly-regulated transmission and distribution services. And if it makes a mistake or the wholesale power market takes a twist it didn’t anticipate, the utility can go to state regulators and ask to be made whole through regulated rates.

These are not options that competitive retail suppliers have. They, too, must obtain power for their customers in the wholesale market, but they don’t have transmission and distribution wires with monopoly-guaranteed rates that allow them the luxury to provide power at cost. They have no recourse if they bet wrong on the market price. And the utility doesn’t incur any marketing costs to obtain its commanding share of the market. Given this, it is wholly unfair and unreasonable to compare the rates of competitive suppliers with the price of default service, as all too many state officials are doing.

Further, competitive suppliers are often relegated to a line item on the utility bill, and that line item may not even list the supplier by name. The ability of competitive suppliers to interact with their customers through the bill is virtually nonexistent, hindering their ability to offer value-added products and services that differentiate the supplier from their competitors.

We need to find a better way. Yes, competitive suppliers can and must do more to police their ranks and help regulators oversee the marketplace. In particular, they must move beyond simply offering free airline miles as an example of innovation in the marketplace. But the unfair and anticompetitive market structure used in all the competitive states except Texas needs a major overhaul. We need a competitive retail electricity market 2.0. Only once the market power-wielding utility is quarantined from the market will electricity consumers begin to enjoy a truly competitive market offering innovation and value beyond simply providing electrons.

By moving to a competitive retail electricity market 2.0 state officials will unleash the same kind of sweeping innovation we saw in telecommunications, which led to incredible technological change benefiting consumers and the economy as a whole. Today’s electricity system is the equivalent of a black rotary phone with a wire running into the wall. We need to move to an electricity equivalent of the smart phone. If we do, we’ll not only unleash unquantifiable economic benefits, but sweeping clean energy development and energy efficiency that benefits the environment as well.

Yes, competitive energy suppliers can and must do more to police their ranks. But state policy makers must move beyond a decades-old market design that helps perpetuate problems for consumers and adopt a competitive retail electricity market 2.0. Retreating to failed monopoly-regulated rates for residential consumers is a betrayal of consumers and a recipe for inefficient clean-energy development.

[Disclosure: The writer formerly was a consultant to the Retail Energy Supply Association.]

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Senate Democrats decry FERC nominee’s refusal to concede need for recusal

Today’s lede: McNamee’s refusal to acknowledge need for recusal. At Thursday’s confirmation hearing Senate Democrats repeatedly pressed Bernard McNamee, President Trump’s nominee to fill the vacant seat at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, to recuse himself from a pending proceeding at the commission that is an outgrowth of the administration’s proposal (RM18-1) to impose consumer subsidies to support uneconomic coal and nuclear plants in wholesale power markets.

McNamee, who has been in and out as a political appointee at the Department of Energy over the course of the past two years of the Trump administration (interrupted by a short stint at a conservative think tank where he advocated the benefits of fossil fuels), reportedly was the author of the proposed rule to impose consumer subsidies for baseload coal and nuclear plants, which FERC unanimously rejected earlier this year. But while the proposal was rejected, the commission initiated a proceeding (AD18-7) to examine the “resilience” of the power grid and whether FERC should reconsider its rules overseeing competitive wholesale power markets to somehow prevent coal and nuclear generation plants from closing because they are no longer economic resources in the markets.

McNamee in both his prepared testimony and remarks before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee repeatedly said he would be an “impartial arbiter” respectful of FERC’s role as an independent agency and quasi-judicial agency. But he declined to say whether he needed to recuse himself, given his past roles that clearly represent a conflict of interest. He appeared to imply that he could participate in that proceeding if he is confirmed since FERC rejected the proposed rule “and opened a new docket.” Repeatedly pressed about whether he would recuse himself from the proceeding, McNamee said he would consult with ethics counsel.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., described McNamee’s appointment as not a case of the fox guarding the henhouse, but placing the fox inside the henhouse. “I believe you need to recuse yourself,” Wyden said.

Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, recited the pertinent law to declare that McNamee had a clear legal obligation to recuse himself from the proceeding.  King said he was surprised and disappointed by McNamee’s response that he would consult with ethics counsel, rather than acknowledge the clear need for recusal.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the committee’s chairman, said she expected the committee to advance McNamee’s nomination later this month.

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Industry speakers call for new competitive market construct that better meets clean energy policy goals

DATELINE, Hershey, Pa. – ‘Growing the power business and cutting carbon emissions’ was the theme of the Third Annual Regional Executive Energy Summit in Hershey, Pa., Nov. 8-9, sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania’s Kleinman Center for Energy Policy. The agenda and discussion, spearheaded by former Pennsylvania regulator John Hanger, had its finger on the pulse of the regulatory Gordian Knot that is hindering the progression of the electric industry’s necessary evolution from a 19th century monopoly-regulated paradigm to a clean-energy future in which regulatory barriers to innovation are removed and competition fosters economic, innovative and cleaner resources and service providers.

Gordon van Welie, president and CEO of ISO New England, warned that the U.S. risks repeating the mistakes of Germany, which failed to adequately price the environmental cost of carbon emissions while shutting down nuclear generation and making a big commitment to renewable energy, which resulted in the unintended consequence of higher carbon-emitting coal-fired generation.

Andy Ott, president of PJM Interconnection, which operates the nation’s largest competitive wholesale power market, agreed. Germany wanted to get to zero carbon emissions and went in the opposite direction, he said.

The New England market that van Wylie oversees is Ground Zero in the retrenchment away from the economic and environmental gains that competitive electricity markets provided, as state policy makers rush to embrace mandates for specific resources, such as offshore wind energy and Canadian hydropower.

Because the federal government is not adopting policies providing a price on carbon emissions, states are ratcheting up renewable portfolio standards and out-of-market power purchase agreements for favored clean energy resources, which “create a whole set of unintended consequences,” van Wylie said.

“We’re starting to see the system crack in New England,” said Abraham Silverman, NRG’s vice president and deputy general counsel. The region is on track to mandate the procurement of some $400 million in out-of-market resources by the 2023-2024 timeframe, he noted.

Dan Dolan, president of the New England Power Generators Association, summarized the threat to New England’s competitive market gains in a column published by Utility Dive Sept. 5. “State-subsidized contracts for thousands of megawatts of new resources are hitting the competitive market and are set to exceed 60 percent of all electricity consumed in New England over the next several years,” Dolan wrote.

As New England states authorize long-term out-of-market contracts to meet clean-energy policy mandates, power generation resources are increasingly unable to recover their costs in the market, Dolan noted.

“On the current trajectory, the state of the New England electricity market will rapidly worsen, requiring further out-of-market actions to adequately compensate generators in order to preserve grid reliability. State subsidies will beget reliability subsidies, driving consumer costs ever higher and doing away with future market-based investments for new or existing power generation,” Dolan wrote. “If immediate action is not taken to address the accelerating cycle of out-of-market activity, the remarkable benefits New England consumers have reaped from competition will be upended, requiring a return to consumers bearing the costs of resource investments.”

ISO New England’s Van Wylie, speaking in Hershey, summarized the competitive gains at risk, noting that in the past 20 years New England’s electricity costs have declined by 50 percent as consumers have not been financially at risk for resource investment decisions in the region’s competitive wholesale electricity market. That enormous economic value was accompanied by a tremendous reduction in harmful emissions, van Wylie noted. But those gains are being put at risk as state policy makers seek further environmental gains through out-of-market mandates.

Van Wylie noted that 20 years ago all resources in New England were built with consumers guaranteeing the financial risk of the investment. Under competition, the region went to 95 percent of generation resources being provided by merchant generators dependent on returns from the market, rather than guaranteed returns from captive consumers. Now the region is “whipsawing back” as it is on track to have between 50 percent and 60 percent of resources from state-mandated out-of-market power purchase agreements, he said.

Speakers at the conference in Hershey called for a new regulatory paradigm that preserves competitive markets as a driver of clean energy and consumer value.

“We need a new framework. We need a system that internalizes environmental costs,” said Kathleen Barron, senior vice president for regulatory affairs and policy at Exelon Corp.

Consumers are “at risk” in the absence of a market structure that meets the  zero-carbon energy goals of state policy makers, Silverman said, calling for commoditizing environmental costs within the existing markets so “entrepreneurs can come in and solve the problem.”

Panel discussion participants disagreed as to whether congressional action is necessary before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission-regulated organized wholesale power markets can begin internalizing the cost of carbon emissions. Ott and van Wylie, the heads of two prominent FERC-regulated competitive markets, said no. But Barron, who prior to joining Exelon was deputy general counsel at FERC, disagreed.

“FERC has the legal authority within its existing statute to say rates are not just and reasonable without pricing this externality,” Barron said. “We need a new framework. We need a system that internalizes environmental costs,” she said.

NRG’s Silverman, also a FERC alum, agreed. “We need to have the states, the RTOs and FERC on common ground,” he said, calling for FERC to adopt a rule providing that “part of a just and reasonable rate” includes the pricing of environmental externalities.

In addition to problems plaguing the competitive wholesale markets, the discussion in Hershey also addressed lingering retail market-design problems preventing greater customer value and clean energy gains. In particular, speakers cited the need for consolidated supplier billing and an end to utility default service as a price comparison to competitive supply.

Leah Gibbons, director of regulatory affairs at NRG Energy, summarized the frustrations of competitive retail suppliers. The incumbent utility controls the wires, manages customer billing and therefore the supplier’s interface with its customer, and has access to all customer information in the market, Gibbons noted. Further, she noted the utility in response to state mandates for energy efficiency can recoup its costs from captive customers through wires charges, something competitive suppliers can’t do.

The problems that persist in competitive retail power markets are because “a real full unbundling” of utility rates did not occur, Gibbons said. She noted that in New Jersey, one utility’s billing system doesn’t even list the name of the competitive supplier, instead listing the commodity charge as being from a “third-party supplier.”

She called for consolidated supplier billing, so competitive retail suppliers can control the billing interface with the customer. She also called for ending the utility’s role as a default service provider, or at the least making default service “a last resort, not a first resort.”

Competitive electricity suppliers can disrupt the electricity sector just as Uber did transportation, and Blockbuster-killer Netflix did for home entertainment, but there needs to be “a level playing field,” said Manu Asthana, president, North American Home, Direct Energy. Suppliers should not be required to compete against a utility default price that doesn’t offer a proper benchmark for comparison, he said. Asthana also echoed NRG’s concerns about the lack of consolidated billing and utility control of customer data. “I want to have a relationship with the customer so I can improve their life in some way,” he said.

The growing concerns among regulators in competitive states about the prices provided by competitive suppliers are a result of the “inefficient construct” in competitive states, Gibbons said. “We need to start addressing these underlying issues.”

But state officials appeared to be on different pages when it comes to reforming retail electricity markets.

“We view the competitive market as the best driver of innovation,” said John Fiastro, director of government affairs and communications at the Maryland Energy Administration. “We need a fundamental shift in the market,” he said.

But Tanya McCloskey, Pennsylvania’s consumer advocate, faulted competitive suppliers for not doing a better job of policing “false and misleading” marketing by suppliers and their contracted marketing firms. “Energy is not like any other product,” she said, calling electricity “an essential service.”

“Food is an essential product but we don’t set the price of food,” Direct’s Asthana noted.

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Arizona Corporation Commission initiates workshop process to flesh out electricity competition; will consider interim expansion of competitive access Dec. 17

Today’s lede: Arizona utility regulators to begin retail electricity competition workshops next month. When one door closes, another opens. One day after Nevada voters rejected a ballot initiative that would have ended monopoly regulation in that state, across the state line the Arizona Corporation Commission late Wednesday agreed to begin a workshop process to help frame a new policy addressing retail electricity competition in the state.

In the closing minutes of a daylong open meeting, Commission Chairman Tom Forese brought up the last agenda item for discussion, building on a rulemaking (RU-00000A-18-0284) launched in August that would modify the commission’s Energy Rules regarding retail electricity competition. Specifically, Forese called for the commission to initiate a workshop process beginning Dec. 3 to, as Forese described, “have a comprehensive discussion on competition in Arizona [and] everything this would entail.”

Forese nominated Commissioners Boyd Dunn and Bob Burns as co-chairs, noting that he would attend but not chair the workshop process.

“I’ll be happy to co-chair with commissioner Burns,” Dunn said. “This issue of deregulation can go so many different directions. When this was discussed before, how many workshops were there?”

Dunn referred to the commission’s last dalliance with a formal regulatory process considering opening the state’s monopoly-regulated electricity market to competition, only to suddenly conclude in September of 2013 that the state’s constitution barred the regulators from taking action.

Elijah Abinah, the ACC’s utilities division director, responded that the commission’s previously aborted effort to consider electricity competition in Arizona had encompassed “at least 30 workshops.”

“Mr. Burns and I will be at this for quite a while,” Dunn replied.

New competitive access program to be considered at December open meeting. Forese asked staff to put together a “conceptual bridge to retail competition” in time for consideration during the next ACC open meeting Dec. 17. The ACC chairman called for establishing a new program similar to the ag-x rate rider at Arizona Public Service, which allows the utility’s largest electricity customers to obtain their electricity needs from competitive suppliers, with the utility obtaining the power and “wheeling” it to the customer. Forese called for development of “something similar” to the ag-x rider, but that “specifically would be available for smaller users.”

In a last-minute exchange, Abinah confirmed with Forese that the ongoing development of an electricity competition policy in Arizona will not encompass the state’s rural electric cooperatives. Abinah also indicated that a policy relating to electric vehicles also will be forwarded to the commissioners next month.

The developments appear to indicate the ACC will hit the road running next month in what could potentially result in Arizona becoming the first state to proactively open its electricity market to competition in the wake of California’s epic failed restructuring effort, which devolved into a calamitous financial crisis in 2000-2001. While at least a dozen states have opened their markets to competition, all of these restructuring efforts were initiated by state policy makers prior to California’s infamous energy crisis. In the wake of California, many states, including Arizona and Nevada, stepped back from developing restructuring programs. In Virginia, the state reversed course and re-monopolized just as utilities were about to lose their monopoly protection, and in Michigan utilities convinced lawmakers to ratchet back competitive access, limiting customer choice to just 10 percent of each utility’s load.

Arizona has embarked on a course that could establish the state and the commission as trail blazers on transitioning from monopoly regulation to competition, potentially establishing a regulatory record and a framework that other states, such as neighboring Nevada, could adopt. But it remains to be seen how far the ACC will take this. As Dunn indicated, it appears to be the start of a lengthy process. Nevertheless, competition advocates should be encouraged that Forese has called for rapid development of an interim program that would expand competitive access as the regulators struggle to work out a broader retail competition program in the long term.

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Money prevails as energy choice ballot measure craps out in Nevada and Steyer-funded RPS ballot measures see mixed results

Special election edition: Nevada voters reject Question 3 as Tom Steyer nets an initial win with just one of his renewable energy mandate ballot measures. Nevada’s voters yesterday roundly rejected Question 3, the ballot measure that would have ended monopoly utility regulation and allowed the state’s electricity consumers to choose among competing suppliers. The measure was rejected by roughly two of every three voters, marking a resounding victory for the unprecedented $63 million or more spent by the NV Energy-funded effort to defeat the ballot measure. NV Energy, a unit of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway business empire, is the predominant utility in Nevada.

The vote yesterday was almost an exactly inverse outcome from two years ago, when the energy choice ballot measure was approved by more than 70 percent of voters. In order to effectively change the state constitution to end monopoly regulation and allow electricity competition, the ballot measure must be approved by voters twice.

So what was the defining difference between the two elections and their decidedly lopsided outcomes? NV Energy stayed neutral in the 2016 election and did not wage a fear campaign to defeat the measure. This time around the campaign against Question 3 outspent the “yes” campaign by a 2-1 margin, and defeated the ballot measure. The “yes” campaign was largely supported financially by Las Vegas Sands Corp. casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, a leading funder of GOP candidates and policies, and the data services giant Switch.

The defeat of Question 3 was among a suite of ballot initiatives that oil and electric industry interests spent big money to successfully defeat yesterday. The list includes the rejection by Washington State voters of Ballot Initiative 1631, which would have imposed a modest $15/ton carbon emissions tax; Colorado voters’ rejection of Proposition 112, a measure that would have restricted hydraulic fracturing in the state; and the defeat in Arizona of Proposition 127, a measure funded by billionaire Democratic activist Tom Steyer that would have imposed a 50 percent renewable energy mandate by 2030.

“The industry wins are stark examples of how money-fueled negative messaging can persuade voters,” Ben Geman writes in the Axios Generate daily newsletter.

“Typically money does win,” said Denise Roth-Barber, an analyst with the National Institute on Money in State Politics. “If you have a tremendous amount of money you can get your message out,” Roth-Barber said in a telephone interview. But she emphasized that money doesn’t always prevail, citing examples where industry interests spent big to pass a ballot initiative but voters were unpersuaded.

But the experience in Nevada with Question 3 – which The Nevada independent dubbed “the most expensive ballot question in Nevada history” – appears to offer an object lesson in money prevailing. Without heavy spending by NV Energy to defeat it, nearly three in four voters approved Question 3 in 2016. Yesterday, after NV Energy spent tens of millions of dollars in a campaign to persuade voters that electricity competition would threaten renewable energy development and stable electricity rates, some two in three voters rejected the measure.

The object lesson doesn’t end there. In Arizona, Steyer’s Prop 127 went down in flames after utility interests in the state – particularly Pinnacle West’s Arizona Public Service – spent more than $25 million to defeat the measure. In contrast, Nevada voters resoundingly approved by a 3-2 margin Question 6, another Steyer-funded ballot measure which would require Nevada to meet 50 percent of its electricity needs with renewable energy sources by 2030.

The difference in those two outcomes is that, like in 2016 with Question 3, NV Energy stayed on the sidelines and did not oppose Question 6, which must be approved by voters a second time in order to take effect. It remains to be seen whether NV Energy will remain on the sidelines in two years when Question 6 comes before voters again, or will repeat its Question 3 playbook and spend big to defeat it in the required second vote.

In other election results, concerns about massive cost overruns at the Plant Vogtle nuclear power plant expansion project – and resulting rising electricity costs for consumers – apparently did not dissuade voters from supporting the two Republican incumbents in Georgia’s Public Service Commission elections. Chuck Eaton and Tricia Pridemore, who generally are pro-nuclear and pro-Southern Co., appear to have prevailed against challengers who had questioned the $30 billion in spending on the nuclear expansion effort and leaned in support of greater renewable energy development in the state.

Meanwhile, in Arizona, Republican incumbent Corporation Commission member Justin Olson, one of three sitting commissioners who have supported reconsideration of electricity competition in the state, and fellow Republican Rodney Glassman, appear to have prevailed against Democratic challengers.

Buried lede: The Arizona Corporation Commission’s open meeting got under way today with an agenda item that could involve a vote on a rulemaking (RU-00000A-18-0284) that would modify the Arizona Corporation Commission’s Energy Rules regarding retail electricity competition. Details to follow.

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Election highlights: Will Nevada go ‘all in’ on electricity choice? On election eve, Arizona regulators add retail electric competition to meeting agenda

Special election edition: Rolling the dice in Las Vegas as RPS ballot initiatives are in a Steyer situation. “There is great electricity in the air,” President Trump said on the campaign trail last night. But while all eyes are on the balance of power in today’s mid-term election, it is also without question one of the most consequential in terms of the obscure issue of electricity regulation as any in memory. Like a gambler on winning-streak high, voters in Nevada will decide, all in, yea or nay, whether to amend the state’s constitution to end monopoly regulation of electric utilities, namely Warren Buffet’s NV Energy, and allow the state’s consumers to shop among competing electricity providers.

The most recent Rasmussen poll (September) doesn’t bode well for Nevada’s Question 3, as the customer choice initiative is known. Las Vegas Sands Corp. gambling mogul Sheldon Adelson, who happens to be a big financial supporter of the GOP agenda and candidates, has been outspent 2-1 in an unprecedented $100 million advertising war over today’s vote. It is the second of two required votes. The initiative must be passed twice by voters in order to effectively alter the state’s constitution.

In the 2016 election, voters overwhelmingly approved the energy choice initiative. More than 70 percent of voters agreed that monopoly protection for NV Energy should end, and consumers should be able to choose among competing suppliers of electricity.

NV Energy remained neutral two years ago, leading to the landslide approval of the initiative. This year, NV Energy, a unit of Berkshire Hathaway, went all in, wagering some $70 million that a fear-mongering campaign over the prospects of electricity competition in the state will sway voters to reject the ballot question as risk to continued renewable energy investment and stable rates. Supporters have countered with the fact that more than a dozen states have adopted competitive retail energy markets for electricity, driving down consumer costs and enabling cleaner energy-generation technologies.

If Question 3 fails to muster enough votes today, it likely won’t be the end of the debate in Nevada. Especially since many political leaders expressed support for competition, but rejected the constitution-altering ballot measure as the vehicle for effectuating such a change. Pass or fail, the debate over electricity restructuring in Nevada will move to the state Legislature after today’s vote.

The Arizona Corporation Commission election will determine the line up as the commission appears poised to revisit the idea of retail electric choice. Incumbent Justin Olson and fellow Republican Rodney Glassman face off against Democrats Sandra Kennedy and Kiana Sears. Olson and fellow commissioners Robert Burns and Boyd Dunn have suggested the state revisit the idea of restructuring to promote electricity competition. Tomorrow’s commission agenda has been amended to include a “possible vote on a policy regarding retail electric competition.”

While the mainstream media’s attention will be on pivotal Senate races in Nevada and Arizona, the trade and financial press will be watching to see what happens with two Tom Steyer-funded ballot initiatives to establish stricter renewable energy mandates in those sun-rich states. There is a marked contrast in how utilities in the two states have responded to the ballot measures that billionaire Democratic activist Steyer has spent millions to promote. In Nevada, NV Energy has not weighed into the fray against Question 6, which would require at least 50 percent of the state’s electricity to come from renewable sources by 2030. Arizona’s Proposition 127 also would create a 50 percent renewables mandate by 2030, but the state’s utilities – Pinnacle West in particular – have spent millions of dollars to thwart its passage. Another important ballot initiative is in Washington State, where voters will decide whether to impose a tax on carbon emissions. Ballot Initiative 1631 would impose a $15 dollars per ton fee on carbon emissions, an amount that would rise $2 per ton annually until the state meets specified emissions-reduction goals.

Meanwhile, the election of Public Service Commission members in Georgia promises to be a de facto referendum on the state’s commitment to impose nearly $30 billion in costs on the state’s electricity consumers to build two new nuclear power reactors at the Plant Vogtle nuclear power station. With generous campaign finance support from Southern Co., Georgia’s PSC has always been friendly to the utility giant’s agenda. But this year candidates have stood out in their opposition to the immense costs that Southern’s nuclear development program is imposing on consumers, while calling for the state to do more to promote renewable energy development.

In two PSC races, challengers have been running against the incumbents’ support for the expensive nuclear development program. Republican incumbent Chuck Eaton and Democratic challenger Lindy Miller have been engaged in a rhetorical battle over the extent to which Georgia’s electricity costs are increasing. That race also features Libertarian candidate Ryan Graham. Republican incumbent Tricia Pridemore, an ardent proponent of the Vogtle nuclear expansion and nuclear power in general, faces Democrat Dawn Randolph and Libertarian John Turpish.

A win by the nuclear cost-skeptical challengers could mark a turning point in the state’s Southern-dominated regulatory climate.

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Record coal capacity retirements seen for 2018; Influential S.C. lawmaker urges against rate action that threatens Dominion merger (10/31/18)

Record drop in U.S. coal-fired capacity likely in 2018 as plants grow increasingly uneconomic. This year will most likely see a record set for coal-fired power capacity retirements in the U.S. The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis expects a total of 15.4 gigawatts of capacity to close in 2018 through the retirement of 44 units at 22 plants in more than a dozen states. At least 11GW have already been closed this year, and the retirement trend is on pace to easily exceed the record 14.7GW of coal-fired generation capacity closed in 2015.

Key S.C. lawmaker urges against rate action that thwarts Dominion’s SCANA acquisition. The leader of the S.C. House cautioned the state’s utility watchdog Monday against pursuing an SCE&G rate cut so big that it could be defeated in court and “cost South Carolina ratepayers more money in the long term.” Instead, in a Monday letter, S.C. House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, was supportive of concessions for ratepayers that were included in Virginia-based Dominion Energy’s latest offer to buy SCE&G’s parent company, Cayce-based SCANA. The Darlington Republican urged the S.C. Office of Regulatory Staff to pursue a rate cut for SCE&G in the neighborhood of the temporary, $21-a-month cut that S.C. lawmakers passed earlier this year. Dominion’s latest offer permanently would cut SCE&G’s rates by a similar amount — about $20 a month, double what the Virginia-based company previously offered. “These concessions by Dominion are undoubtedly victories for ORS and, most importantly, the ratepayer,” Lucas wrote to Regulatory Staff executive director Nanette Edwards.

Dominion Energy offers to take over management of Santee Cooper. Dominion Energy has offered to take over and manage Santee Cooper to help it save costs after the state-owned power company racked up $4 billion in debt on a failed nuclear project. In a Monday letter to Santee Cooper chief executive Jim Brogdon, Dominion CEO Tom Farrell wrote the “unique management arrangement” would save Santee Cooper’s electric customers “hundreds of millions of dollars in overhead, fuel and capital related costs.” The proposed arrangement also would save Santee Cooper from being bought by another investor-owned utility, which “would in our view only result in higher rates for Santee Cooper’s electric customers,” Farrell wrote. Dominion has not offered to purchase Santee Cooper, which has 1,650 employees and is based in Moncks Corner.

Millions pumped into fight for, against Arizona’s renewable energy proposition. The state’s largest electric company has now poured more than $30 million into its bid to persuade Arizonans not to force it and other utilities to use more renewable resources. And the spending by Arizona Public Service under the banner of Arizonans for Affordable Energy doesn’t count another more than $734,000 pumped into the campaign against Proposition 127 by rural electric cooperatives, plus about $165,000 from Unisource Energy, the parent company of Tucson Electric Power. That’s not to say the dollars are all on one side of the issue. Citizens for a Healthy Arizona, financed largely by a political action committee formed by California billionaire Tom Steyer, already had spent close to $24 million by Oct. 20, the last day of the reporting period for the newly filed disclosure forms. The initiative would require utilities to obtain half of their power from renewable sources by 2030, a list that includes solar, geothermal and wind. By contrast, the current rules adopted by the Arizona Corporation Commission mandate just a 15 percent renewable standard by 2025.

N.J. regulators tap Rutgers to conduct energy storage assessment. The state is looking to get a better handle on how it should go about achieving aggressive goals to use energy storage systems in New Jersey, a technology crucial to the policy of transitioning to cleaner sources of energy. The New Jersey Board of Public Utilities this week awarded a $300,000 contract to Rutgers University to do a comprehensive analysis of the state’s energy-storage needs and opportunities.

Maryland, Pennsylvania regulators consider large upgrade to electric grid. As the regional electric grid resolves significant congestion at the Maryland-Pennsylvania border, at least two projects are going to come close to home. Among those proposed is the upgrade of a 9.8-mile transmission line between Washington and Frederick counties. The upgrade would protect the area from widespread power losses should a large expansion of the Mid-Atlantic grid move forward, but it will also mean taller poles across Catoctin Mountain and the expansions of the substations on either end. “The key thing to remember is that Potomac Edison does not need to rebuild this line or upgrade the Ringgold and Catoctin substations with new equipment if Transource does not build its line,” said Potomac Edison spokesman Todd Meyers.

Florida regulators sign off on TECO solar projects in Tampa Bay. The Florida Public Service Commission on Monday gave a key approval to a Tampa Electric Co. plan that will add five solar-energy projects in Hillsborough and Polk counties.

ENGIE Resources acquires Plymouth Rock Energy from private equity fund. MVC Capital, Inc., a publicly traded business development company that makes private debt and equity investments, announced that MVC Private Equity Fund, L.P. has agreed to sell its stake in Plymouth Rock Energy to ENGIE Resources. Consummation of the transaction is subject to the satisfaction of certain closing conditions, including receiving approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The anticipated closing is expected by Nov. 30. On Oct. 29, ENGIE agreed to purchase Plymouth, a leading retail energy provider of natural gas and electricity. “The Plymouth team has built a leading energy marketing company in the Northeast through the hard work of its highly-skilled personnel and strong investment partners,” said Adam Sokol, President of Plymouth. “Since 2004, we have organically grown the business through strong customer relationships and customer service, and we believe that the business is well positioned for future growth under ENGIE,” said David Sokol, Vice President of Plymouth. “We are very happy with the purchase, and the fine job done by Plymouth staff to build this portfolio of customers,” said Graham Leith, Senior Vice President, Head of Retail, ENGIE Resources. “Plymouth’s customers will join our portfolio of over 25,000 commercial & industrial power & natural gas customers, expanding our market share in New York, and it should give us a much larger presence down-state.”

Maryland residents can install home energy storage and receive state tax credit. CleanChoice Energy, a renewable energy company that provides clean energy products to customers across the country, has partnered with Swell Energy to offer home energy storage batteries to Maryland residents for the first time. Through the partnership, Marylanders can now get clean home energy backup and may be eligible to receive a state tax credit of up to $5,000. Home energy batteries provide power during outages without the need of polluting home generators. Last year, more than 36.7 million people–including 88,000 Marylanders–were affected by 3,526 reported power outages across the country. “People need reliable backup power now more than ever. Climate change is fueling extreme weather that makes the grid more vulnerable to power outages at the exact time that we all depend on electricity for nearly everything. Marylanders can now have peace of mind knowing their lights will stay on when the power goes out,” said Tom Matzzie, CEO of CleanChoice Energy. “Home battery backup makes our homes more resilient, helps move us closer to 100 percent clean energy, and can make dirty generators obsolete.” “This program enables us to offer Maryland CleanChoice Energy consumers a radically simple, cost-effective clean energy and smart home solution,” said Matthew Rising, CRO of Swell Energy.

Cinemark signs nine-year wind VPPA. Cinemark USA, Inc. announced Oct. 29 it has signed a nine-year VPPA with AEP Energy Partners for up to 40 megawatts of renewable energy from AEP’s Trent Mesa wind energy center in Nolan County, Texas. Cinemark will receive RECS for the wind power capacity representing approximately 38% of its current total annual domestic energy consumption. “We remain committed to reducing our carbon footprint through both onsite and offsite renewable energy projects,” said Mark Zoradi, Cinemark’s CEO, in a statement. “This new virtual power purchase agreement between Cinemark and AEP is the next step in our ongoing efforts.”

Canadian Solar’s project to supply California’s Silicon Valley, Monterey. Canadian Solar Inc. agreed to sell output from a solar-storage project in California to municipalities in Silicon Valley and the Monterey area. Silicon Valley Clean Energy and Monterey Bay Community Power, which buy renewable energy on behalf of homes and businesses, signed 15-year contracts with the 150-megawatt project being developed by Canadian Solar’s unit Recurrent Energy, according to an emailed statement. Terms weren’t disclosed. Falling battery prices are prompting more solar developers to add storage to their projects, helping extend their output. The Slate solar project in Kings County is expected to begin operations in 2021. It will feature 180 megawatt-hours of battery storage.

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Big spending aims to sway voting next week on Nevada’s electricity choice ballot question; Minnesota regulators make ratepayers financially responsible for new gas-fired power plant (10/30/18)

Adelson and Buffett clash in Nevada showdown over electricity. Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and investor Warren Buffett are set for a desert showdown over electricity next week as the two billionaires’ interests collide on election ballots in Nevada. At issue in the Nov. 6 election is the cost and control of power from the neon lights shining on the Las Vegas Strip to the state’s gold mines. A measure supported by Republican donor Adelson, who is also Las Vegas Sands Corp’s chairman, would force state legislators to break up control over much of the state’s electricity effectively held by a unit of Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc, NV Energy. It would allow customers to choose their own power provider by 2023. Buffett has supported liberal causes and backed Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016. Unlike previous western duels, both sides in Nevada are showing up with cash.

Big money and star power highlight energy choice fight in Nevada. Opponents of Nevada’s Energy Choice Initiative have outspent supporters two to one but those in favor of opening the state’s electric market to competition are bringing the star power. Property Brothers star Jonathan Scott said he applied the no BS mentality to Nevada’s energy market after installing solar on his Las Vegas home a few years ago. He is now the face of the Yes on Question 3 campaign starring in commercials for the cause. “All of these profits are going to billionaires who are not Nevadans. They don’t live here. Why should all of the profits go there instead of bringing down the rates of the millions who live here,” Scott said. The battle has generated around $100 million in fundraising between the two sides, with opponents raising nearly two-thirds of that total.

Minnesota regulators put ratepayers on the hook for new gas-fired power plant. The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission voted 3-2 Monday to approve a proposal for a natural gas plant that would be built across the border from Duluth in Superior, Wisc., despite objections from clean energy and ratepayer groups, as well as some large industrial customers that would receive power from the new facility. The Nemadji Trail Energy Center would be a joint venture between Minnesota Power and the Dairyland Power Cooperative in Wisconsin. If Wisconsin regulators approve the plan, the new power plant would produce at least 525 megawatts of electricity. Minnesota Power and its ratepayers would be on the hook for half the $700 million cost.

Santa Monica, Calif., selects 100 percent renewable energy as default option. The Santa Monica City Council approved the selection of 100 percent renewable energy as the default product for all residential electricity customers starting in February 2019. This will offer residents and businesses in Santa Monica the ability to use electric utility options from cleaner sources. The 100 percent renewable energy tier is one of a variety of options being offered to residents and businesses. The Clean Power Alliance (CPA) of Southern California, a Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) program, will serve the electricity to residents and businesses.

Calif. community choice aggregation supplier touts savings. David Baker has noticed a change in his energy bill. The president of RobbJack, a Lincoln-based manufacturer of carbide cutting tools, used to get his electricity from Pacific Gas & Electric, until this past February when Pioneer Community Energy launched in Placer County. Baker says representatives from Pioneer worked closely with him on a plan to cut electricity costs. RobbJack runs air conditioning and power for industrial machines in a 42,500 square-foot space, so Baker says even small savings make a big dent. Pioneer’s entrance into the market has also been a win for Thunder Valley Casino Resort, another customer. It has seen rates drop by 2-3 percent, says Doug Elmets, a spokesman for the United Auburn Indian Community, which owns the casino. “Currently, we know collectively we’re saving ratepayers here in Placer County $10 million a year,” says Placer County treasurer and tax collector Jenine Windeshausen of the switch to Pioneer. “And it’s highly likely that money is going to be spent here.”

Pennsylvania in no rush to support uneconomic nuclear power plants. As other states move to rescue their uneconomic nuclear power plants, Pennsylvania is still weighing whether to take action. Fueled by concerns over climate change, grid reliability, and job retention, states including Illinois and New York have recently given billions of dollars to support nuclear energy by essentially broadening their definitions of clean power. In May, New Jersey approved $300 million annually to help support its nuclear fleet. A similar push is underway to persuade Ohio lawmakers to rescue two facilities there. Two of Pennsylvania’s five nuclear generation facilities face early closure — Exelon’s Three Mile Island plant outside Harrisburg and FirstEnergy Solutions Beaver Valley plant near Pittsburgh. At the moment, there appears to be little urgency at the state level to keep them open, although a report expected to be released next month will lay out possible options.

Coal-fired power plant closure squeezing gypsum manufacturers. The Bruce Mansfield coal-fired power plant in Shippingport, Pa., is connected by a nearly mile-long system of conveyor belts to the National Gypsum drywall manufacturing plant across the road. There, some of the power plant’s waste is turned into the building blocks of future walls and ceilings. So when Bruce Mansfield closes by June 2021, as its owner FirstEnergy Solutions announced in August, the impact will ripple along the conveyor belt to its neighbor. National Gypsum plans to keep running the plant, where 90 people work, indefinitely, spokeswoman Beth Straeten said. “We have diversified the sources of supply of our gypsum and we are committed to operating our Shippingport plant long term,” she said.

Coal’s next big thing could be mini power plant. If coal has a future, the Energy Department is banking on small modular coal-fired power plants that it says would generate more energy out of the same amount of coal, while polluting less. With 40 percent of the existing coal fleet retired or facing closure, the agency is trying to use new technologies—ranging from advanced materials that can operate at higher temperatures to improved sensors and controls—to revive the coal industry. “What we’re proposing to do is leapfrog over that 40- to 50-year old coal technology,” Steve Winberg, head of the agency’s fossil energy office, told Bloomberg Environment. “This small modular size range is also what the developing world needs so that would mean jobs in the United States.”

Xcel Energy and Google launch effort to develop new energy solutions. Xcel Energy announced it is working with Google to deliver tools customers can use to manage their energy use and save money. Through this collaboration, Xcel Energy is launching its first set of voice actions using the Google Assistant as a seamless way for customers to access information about improving energy efficiency in their homes. “Xcel Energy is always seeking ways to bring value to our customers through new energy options and enhanced service,” said Brett Carter, executive vice president and chief customer and innovation officer at Xcel Energy. “We are excited to partner with Google and other tech leaders, as we create new ways to develop and deploy innovative energy solutions for our customers and leverage our investment in smart meter technology.”

EDF cannot limit nuclear energy sales to competitors – regulator. Power demand from French utility EDF’s retail subsidiaries cannot limit the amount of cheap nuclear electricity that is available for its competitors to buy, the energy regulator said on Monday. Under the so-called ARENH mechanism, EDF’s many smaller competitors have the right to buy up to 100 terawatt hours of power – about a quarter of the state-controlled utility’s annual nuclear energy output – to  compensate for EDF’s monopoly on nuclear production and boost competition. In recent years, competitors have made limited use of the arrangement as market prices were below the ARENH price, which has been fixed at 42 euros per megawatt hour since 2012. But with market prices now around 75 euros per MWh, demand for access to the mechanism is high. Alternative power suppliers have argued that the available ARENH volume has been limited by the demand of EDF’s unit Sowee, which like other alternative suppliers offers competitive market rates rather than the regulated power tariffs offered by EDF.

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Spending on Nevada’s energy choice ballot measure tops dollars for closely watched Senate contest (10/29/18)

Today’s lede: Spending on Nevada electricity choice ballot question more than for pivotal senate contest. Politico reporters Darius Dixon and Eric Wolff report on the “billionaire’s brawl” between Warren Buffett’s NV Energy utility and Las Vegas Sands owner Sheldon Adelson to determine Question 3 on Nevada’s ballot. The tens of millions of dollars dedicated to swaying voters over the electricity choice ballot measure has topped spending for the state’s pivotal Senate race between incumbent Republican Dean Heller and Democrat Jacky Rosen, a nationally watched contest that could determine whether the Trump administration faces an opposition Senate next year.

“More than a dozen states have broken up their electric monopolies over the past quarter century in favor of competitive markets, but Nevada would be the first to do so by ballot initiative. Squashing the amendment in Nevada could help stave off similar challenges to utilities in other states where regulated monopolies have dominated — and made steady cash — for a century,” Dixon and Wolff write.

See also:

Why firefighters, law enforcement groups oppose Question 3. Nevada firefighters and law enforcement groups strongly oppose Question 3 because it’s a risky constitutional amendment that would leave Nevada consumers with higher electricity rates, fewer consumer protections and a less reliable electricity system.

 

Other electric industry news items of interest:

PJM to test blockchain for trading for renewables. Blockchain, the technology that underpins cryptocurrency transactions, is about to get tested in a trading system for matching clean-energy buyers and sellers in the largest U.S. power market. PJM Interconnection LLC and Energy Web Foundation are developing a digital ledger system to track electricity from wind and solar power plants as it’s produced, delivered, traded and sold, according to Jaclynn Lukach, vice president of PJM’s environmental information services unit. They expect to start a pilot program by the end of the first quarter. It’s a big test for an emerging technology that developers say has the potential to make transactions faster and cheaper, through a secure trading platform that can attract more participation than existing mechanisms.

Pa. township manager calls for legislation to prop up nuclear power. Unless our state Legislature and governor fix broken energy policy, we are less than one year away from the Three Mile Island Generating Station’s permanent closure. Unfortunately, current energy policy places nuclear energy at a disadvantage in Pennsylvania.  The “clock is ticking” on a solution that will not only save 675 good-paying jobs in our community, but also protect thousands of jobs for other nuclear power plant employees and skilled laborers who work as contractors in plants across the state to keep them safely and efficiently running. Fixing our state’s broken energy policy would also keep our air clean and ensure the reliability of our power grid.

S.C. regulators begin hearings on cost recovery for failed nuclear plant. Fifteen months after two S.C. utilities abandoned their decadelong effort to build two new nuclear reactors in Fairfield County, teams of lawyers will duke it out during a month-long hearing to decide who — S.C. residents or their utility and its owners — will be stuck with those gargantuan costs. At stake when the S.C. Public Service Commission meets Thursday is how big the power bills of SCE&G customers will be in the future. The Cayce-based utility’s own future also is on the line in one of the lengthiest and most complex rate cases the PSC ever has held. A ruling that favors customers could send SCE&G — once the darling of South Carolina’s business community — spiraling toward bankruptcy.

Santee Cooper wants $351 million in merger benefits from Dominion’s SCANA acquisition. If Virginia-based Dominion Energy gets the state’s OK to purchase SCANA, making refunds to its S.C. electric customers who paid $2 billion for a failed nuclear project, Santee Cooper wants a cut, too. In a Friday afternoon filing, the state-owned minority partner in SCANA’s $9 billion V.C. Summer expansion project asked the S.C. Public Service Commission to require that Dominion and SCANA set aside $351 million for Santee Cooper. The money would go for refunds or lower power bills for the roughly 2 million South Carolinians who rely on Santee Cooper’s electricity, either directly or through a co-op, Santee Cooper spokeswoman Mollie Gore said Friday. In the filing, Santee Cooper argues the PSC can approve SCANA’s purchase only if it serves the public interest of South Carolina. But, currently, Dominion’s buyout proposal takes care of only customers of SCANA subsidiary SCE&G, Santee Cooper’s attorneys wrote.

Former Nevada regulator endorses renewable energy ballot measure. Today, we can demonstrate that that early investment continues to pay dividends. In the past decade, we have seen the price of renewable energy projects drop drastically — now cheaper than fossil fuels — with solar costs decreasing by more than 80 percent. The cheapest project proposal in this nation this year was in Nevada. We expect prices will get even lower. That’s why we need to continue our support and vote “yes” on Question 6, which will double our current standard to 50 percent by 2030.

W.Va. utilities chided for ‘power play’ aiming to ‘strangle’ solar. About eight years ago, my husband and I installed solar panels on our farm in Calhoun County. The panels provide about 35 percent of our total electricity. In our rural area, power outages are frequent and it has been common to lose power for many consecutive days. Our solar and battery storage system provides security so that our critical appliances, especially the water pump, which provides household water from the well, and the deep freezer, which preserves food that took countless hours to raise and put up, stay operational even when Mon Power’s power is out for many days at a time. Our investment is now at risk, thanks to Mon Power and Appalachian Power. These utilities are asking the Public Service Commission to drastically reduce the rate at which solar homeowners are compensated for the power we produce.

N.J. assemblyman touts state’s pivot to renewables. The people of our state overwhelmingly favor renewable energy — like wind and solar — and they want us to move to a completely clean energy future faster than we are heading today.

American Sustainable Business Council endorses bill to make D.C. carbon neutral. Hundreds of mayors throughout the United States have taken up the challenge and pledged to transition their cities to 100 percent clean energy by 2035. Here at home, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has pledged to move the District to becoming a carbon-neutral city by 2050. D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) introduced the CleanEnergy DC Omnibus Act of 2018 in July. Let’s get going and pass this common-sense bill. Our residents and businesses deserve no less.

N.H. governor lauded for making high electricity costs a priority. Here in New Hampshire, we are faced with some of the highest electricity rates in the nation. Gov. Chris Sununu immediately recognized the need to address energy costs. In an effort to get those costs down, or at least keep them from getting any higher, he took action by eliminating the electric consumption tax in his version of the state budget. Gov. Sununu knows it is critical to tackle electric rates in whatever way possible to ensure that families don’t have to make the hard decisions about what bills to pay, and so that we keep businesses of all sizes in the state employing our people and growing our economy.

Judge rejects claim Connecticut illegally raided ratepayer funds to balance budget. A U.S. District Court judge in New Haven has rejected claims made by a coalition of utility ratepayer and consumer advocacy groups claiming that Connecticut government officials lacked the authority necessary to raid energy efficiency and clean-power programs in order to balance the state’s budget. Judge Janet C. Hall issued her 27-page ruling late Thursday. In her ruling, Hall contends the legal language which allows the state’s electric utilities to collect ratepayer money for projects that improve energy efficiency and pay for renewable energy doesn’t explicitly prohibit those funds for any other purposes.

Consumer watchdog decries re-nomination of Los Angeles ratepayer advocate.  The re-nomination for a second term of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s ratepayer advocate, Fred Pickel, by a city-appointed committee is a betrayal of all of the municipal utility’s ratepayers, Consumer Watchdog said today. The Mayor and City Council should reject the recommendation or abolish the Office of Public Accountability that Pickel heads, the group said. “Choosing to nominate Fred Pickel to another 5-year contract at nearly $300,000 a year without even talking to some of the most qualified applicants for the job betrays all DWP ratepayers,” said consumer advocate Liza Tucker. “It had nothing to do with picking a true ratepayer advocate to protect the interests of ratepayers and everything to do with Mayor Eric Garcetti and City Council President Herb Wesson wanting a rubber-stamper of DWP decisions.”

Officials warn area residents about door-to-door utilities scammers. An anonymous caller reported to HARCATUS Family Support staff that people are going door-to-door in Newcomerstown asking residents to let them see their utility bills to confirm that they have received their $50 gift card credit. “To our knowledge, the Ohio Percent of Income Payment Plan Plus (PIPP Plus) has not authorized this activity,” said Michele Lucas, Community Services Director for HARCATUS Tri-County CAO, Inc. “We consider it to be a scam. Please do not give personal information of any kind to strangers, who cannot properly identify themselves.”

Energy alternatives on the rise in Michigan–slowly. Residents pay less for electricity from the grid when they produce some energy themselves from solar, wind and other alternative sources, according to a recent report. But their efforts still don’t make up much of the state’s energy needs. The energy from alternative sources produced in Michigan by energy users increased from 21,888 kilowatts in 2016 to 29,571 kilowatts in 2017, according to the report by the Public Services Commission. That’s a 35 percent increase, but it makes up only 0.032 percent of Michigan’s retail electricity sales.

Portland General Electric to award 100 MW of renewables. Portland General Electric is on track to award several 20-year contracts for a cumulative 100 MW of renewable energy generation by the end of this year, with short-list proposed projects including wind, solar, and battery storage.

Sunrun challenging Tesla in the home solar business. “It is all but guaranteed that Sunrun will emerge as the top residential solar installer in the U.S.,” said Allison Mond, a senior analyst at Wood Mackenzie, which provides consulting on various issues including energy and renewables. “Tesla’s residential solar business is in rapid decline as the company has cut many sales channels.” Wood Mackenzie, which tracks and supplies solar data for the Solar Energy Industries Association, says Tesla accounts for 9.3 percent of residential solar installations nationwide this year, followed by Sunrun at 9.0 percent, in a fragmented industry. In 2015, SolarCity had one-third of the market while Sunrun had 5 percent.

Buddhist monks start electricity retail business in Japan. A company in Kyoto launched by Buddhist monks will begin selling electricity in western Japan in April next year as part of efforts to combat global warming, a representative of the business said. In cooperation with Miyama Power HD in Fukuoka Prefecture, TERA Energy aims to sell electricity generated only from renewable sources, including utilizing photovoltaic solar panels and small hydropower generation. Initially, however, the company will sell power generated from traditional, non-renewable sources.

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UT study confirms market reality that natural gas, renewables most cost-effective new generation resources (10/26/18)

Today’s lede: University of Texas research allows policymakers and stakeholders to slice and dice data on new electricity generation costs . Updated data from the University of Texas Energy Institute confirms market trends indicating that renewables and natural gas offer the most cost-effective resources for new electricity generation.

“Researchers analyzed data for the most competitive sources of new electricity generation,” UT’s Energy Institute said in a press release. “Wind again proved to be the option with the lowest cost, on a levelized basis, for a broad swath of the country, from the High Plains, the Midwest and Texas, and even portions of the Northeast. Solar power is the cheapest technology in much of the Southwest, and, based on updated data, also in the eastern and northern regions of the U.S. Natural gas prevailed for much of the rest of the country.”

The new data updates the institute’s white paper, “New U.S. Power Costs: by County, with Environmental Externalities,” which is part of a comprehensive study, “Full Cost of Electricity (FCe-), issued in 2016. The research provides a series of maps reflecting shifting market conditions, a new policy environment and other factors affecting electricity generation costs in counties across the United States. The new version also offers the data according to congressional districts.

The institute also developed online calculators to foster “discussion among policymakers and others about the cost implications of policy actions associated with new electricity generation,” the institute said. “We think our methodology is sound and hope it encourages constructive dialogue,” said Joshua Rhodes, a research affiliate at the Energy Institute and lead author of the paper. “To enable this dialogue among stakeholders who disagree about the various cost factors, we’ve created tools to allow them to change the factors and observe the outcomes.”

 

Other electric industry news items of interest:

Termination of S.C. MOX fuels plant yet another setback for the U.S. nuclear sector. Shoddy construction, midprocess design changes and mismanagement have claimed another major nuclear energy project in the United States. Earlier this month the U.S. Department of Energy terminated construction of a facility in South Carolina designed to transform 34 metric tons of surplus military plutonium, enough for about 17,000 nuclear weapons, into fuel for nuclear power plants. DOE says the project is unnecessary and too expensive, while supporters say it is needed to keep a federal promise to move the plutonium cache out of state and to preserve 1,800 jobs at the site. The Aiken, S.C., project began in 2007 and was at least $2.6 billion over its $4.9 billion estimated cost and still years from completion. The cost escalations and delays were akin to those afflicting the pair of Westinghouse AP1000 nuclear reactors under construction in nearby Vogtle, Ga., and another pair killed last year at South Carolina’s VC Summer plant.

San Diego community choice aggregation program will be state’s largest yet. San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer announced Thursday he will pursue an alternative energy program that would see the city take over energy purchasing and price setting for residents and businesses. The city’s Climate Action Plan, proposed in 2014, states that San Diego must achieve 100 percent renewable energy by 2035, and community choice aggregation is laid out as one option to reach that goal. The mayor had entertained a second option proposed by SDG&E, but the utility withdrew its proposal in a letter on Monday. If approved by the City Council, San Diego’s community choice program would be the largest of its kind in the state. SDG&E would still take care of energy delivery, grid maintenance and customer billing. Nicole Capretz, executive director of the nonprofit Climate Action Campaign and a chief proponent of community choice, praised the mayor’s decision. “Today is a watershed moment that will transform both our energy and political systems,” she said in a statement. “It’s about the community taking control of our energy destiny and putting the public interest above corporate profits. We could not be more excited about this new day in San Diego.”

Dominion reframes rate incentive in S.C. utility acquisition bid. Dominion Energy’s latest offer to buy S.C. Electric & Gas includes dropping its offer of a $1,000 customer refund in exchange for reducing monthly bills even further. In a new filing with South Carolina’s utility regulators, the company says it is willing to cut SCE&G’s electricity rates by 14 percent from where they were earlier this year. That’s double its previous offer. The extra savings translates to about $10 more off a monthly bill for the typical home. The reduction is part of the debate over what the company will ultimately pay for SCE&G’s failed effort to build a pair of nuclear reactors at the V.C. Summer power plant north of Columbia. SCE&G ratepayers have pumped some $2 billion into the nuclear project, and they might be on the hook for billions more.

Michigan rate bill aimed at thwarting self-generation by Hemlock Semi-Conductors. Newly enacted legislation allowing the Michigan Public Service Commission to create long-term industrial electric load rates for specific industrial customers was a move aimed at Hemlock Semi-Conductors in Saginaw County, one of the largest electricity users in the state which has been examining developing its own power generation plant. With 7 percent of all Consumers Energy Co. power sales to Hemlock, Consumers warned it would have to raise rates to customers by more than 1 percent or more than $60 million to make up for the loss of Hemlock’s business. House Bill 5902 gives authority to the PSC to allow customized electricity rates for companies meeting certain criteria. Supporters of the legislation said the bill was necessary to block Hemlock from developing its own power generation plant.

Ohio PUC orders utilities to cut rates after tax cut. The Ohio body regulating utilities is directing those utilities to lower rates in light of last year’s federal corporate income tax cut – a process several utilities have already started. “The PUCO (Public Utilities Commission of Ohio) warned of penalties for utilities that fail to initiate the process for rate reductions,” an Ohio Consumers’ Counsel spokesman said in an email on the order. “Today the PUCO chairman announced that utilities must give Ohioans back ‘every dime’ the utilities over-collected for federal taxes,” Ohio Consumers’ Counsel Bruce Weston said in a statement. “I applaud this tough stance for consumer protection. And I appreciate the few utilities that have reached out to (the Office of Consumers’ Counsel) to settle-up for the benefit of their customers. We’ve been advocating that all utilities should reduce customers’ monthly bills to match the utilities’ reduced taxes.”

Pa. homeowner wins battle with zoning board over rooftop solar installation. Bill Hopping watched a work crew on Monday install solar panels on his Birmingham Township home, taking a small measure of satisfaction at the end of a year-long struggle with local authorities over renewable power. The crew scrambled for footholds on the slick, pitched metal roof, not unlike the slippery slope that Hopping and his wife, Yolanda, embarked on in 2017 when the Chester County town’s zoning board rejected their proposed system. It did not comply with rules prohibiting rooftop solar panels from being visible from the street. Hopping, a former corporate lawyer who now has a part-time private practice, sued the township, saying it could not constitutionally prohibit rooftop solar panels on purely aesthetic grounds. Both sides dug in for a long battle. But last month the township conceded and let the Hoppings install their $60,000 rooftop solar system on their Radley Run house, facing the street.

In wake of devastating hurricane, Puerto Rico contemplates 100 percent renewables. The Puerto Rican government is considering committing the island to a 100 percent renewable energy grid by 2050, according to a new plan introduced Wednesday. The plan, introduced as an adjustment to the territory’s energy bill by Governor Ricardo Rosselló, specifies that the island will stop the use of coal for electricity by 2028, prioritizing solar instead. The bill also would exempt solar panels for energy storage from sales tax.The bill “will guide a resilient, reliable and robust energy system, with fair rates and reasonable for all classes of consumers, making it possible for the user of the energy service to produce and participate in the generation of energy, facilitate interconnection of distributed generation and micro networks, and disaggregate and transform the electrical system to an open one,” according to the draft text.

Washington state regulators question Avista, Hydro One merger impacts. Washington state regulators spent more than four hours Tuesday asking questions to officials from Avista Utilities about their proposed merger with the Ontario-based company Hydro One. Utilities and Transportation Commission members have concerns with how the Spokane utility might be affected by moves made by the provincial government of Ontario. The concerns stemmed from a shakeup earlier this year in Hydro One’s board of directors, which came after voters elected a premier who promised to lower electric rates and cut executive pay. The board and CEO stepped down. “This is structured in a way that is durable and for the long term, and in a way it really didn’t matter what happened in Ontario around politics and boards and CEO’s. The issues that we’ve put in place in order to ensure that Avista maintains its ability to serve its customers, stakeholders, no matter who is on the board or who is CEO of Hydro One, and that is the critical piece to make sure it all works for us,” Avista CEO Scott Morris said in an interview with Spokane Public Radio.

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