A year-end update on electricity policy from the field

A version of this article was published in Greentech Media on December 28, 2017.

By Sonia Aggarwal

The electricity sector’s competitive dynamic completely flipped in 2017. Not only is it cheaper to build new wind and solar than new coal or often natural gas, but in growing swaths of the country, it’s often cheaper to build new wind (and sometimes solar) than continuing to run existing coal plants. And the implications are profound.

Utilities from Missouri, to Wisconsin, Minnesota, and others have proposed early shut-downs of coal facilities, pointing to real customer affordability benefits from switching to cleaner power sources.  Once-profitable merchant coal plants in Texas and Massachusetts retired or announced retirement, unable to compete with cheap natural gas and renewables.  Promising work on transition support for coal communities is gaining momentum. And, despite federal-level attempts to roll back policies that protect public health from energy-related pollution, only twelve states are at risk of missing their Clean Power Plan targets. The electricity market has shifted, and the policies and institutions that govern it need to do more work to catch up.

When we started America’s Power Plan five years ago, we hypothesized that the current electricity sector institutional and market structures were not set up to support an affordable, reliable, majority-clean energy system that adequately supported utility customers through the profound grid transformation underway. We were, of course, not the only ones –great thinking was going on nationwide about which policy and institutional changes might be required to support the new system, so we teamed with around 200 of America’s electricity policy experts to think through a comprehensive plan for the next phase of this system evolution. Our top recommendations included refocusing the utility business on performance rather than capital spending, promoting wholesale markets that expose the value of flexibility, supporting proactive transmission policy, and setting smart rate design that charges customers a fair price for grid services they consume while paying them a fair price for those they provide.

Many of these changes are underway in leader states and regions, and we are hopeful progress will continue. For specific insights, we asked experts in the field, many of whom have been involved in America’s Power Plan from the beginning, to comment on changes they are witnessing in the field and what they are hopeful about for 2018. We focused on five topics: the implications of the changes in relative costs of electricity technologies, new utility models, wholesale power markets, transmission policy, and customer rate design. Here’s what we heard from some of our nation’s brightest minds.

What was the most surprising implication of the changes in relative costs of electricity sources in 2017? 

“For the U.S., I view 2017 as the year in which conventional wisdom has come around to the idea that switching to clean energy could save utility customers money. Specifically, we have seen clean energy costs fall to the point that the total cost of electricity from new clean energy (with federal subsidies) in much of the country could actually be lower than the cost of burning additional fuel in operating coal plants.” – Uday Varadarajan, Principal, Climate Policy Initiative

What are you most hopeful for in terms of anticipated price dynamics in 2018?

“We are adding lots of clean power to a world with flat or declining demand, and the new power has zero marginal cost, so low wholesale prices dominate. Many of the ancillary services will also be cheap for some time to come, simply because of surplus supply. These trends should last a few years, to the benefit of customers and the environment.” – Hal Harvey, CEO, Energy Innovation

What do you think was the most exciting development in terms of utility business models in 2017?

“2017 gave us signs battery storage will become economically compelling for utilities and their customers.  We also saw hints of the value of grid-edge data analytics, and a new debate on defining grid resilience. Channeled through the concept of “grid modernization,” these developments may offer utilities a significant investment strategy for environmental and financial sustainability, while also driving program innovation.  If utilities can leverage these transformational elements with an emerging responsiveness to customers – particularly commercial and industrial customers – 2018 may be the year power sector uncertainty turns to clarity and confidence.  In 2017, we also saw the start of a new interest in the electrification of transportation, which can offer both a new grid management resource and a significant revenue growth opportunity for the power sector.  If that interest turns into investment and deployment of smart charging infrastructure, that confidence and clarity will become flat-out excitement and enthusiasm.” –Tanuj Deora, Chief Content Officer, Smart Electric Power Alliance

What are you most hopeful for in terms of new utility models in 2018?

“Looking to 2018, I’m hopeful for the continued proliferation of innovative financial mechanisms that can create real win-wins for everyone, including the utility’s shareholders. Some I have my eyes on: capital recycling mechanisms that enable utilities to retire coal and invest in renewables and piloted incentive approaches in NY and California that reward the utility for pursuing DER alternatives to conventional infrastructure.” –Virginia Lacy, Principal, Rocky Mountain Institute

What do you think was the most exciting development in electricity markets in 2017?

“Ameren Missouri announced a massive increase in wind and solar plans from 120 MW previously to 750 MW based on falling costs and large customer demand.  This illustrates that even in a context with no federal or state climate policy and no direct consumer market access, supply and demand pressures will result in renewable energy growth.”  – Rob Gramlich, President, Grid Strategies LLC

What are you most hopeful for in terms of anticipated changes to wholesale markets in 2018?

“For 2018 and forward I certainly hope stakeholders will continue to trust and allow (wholesale) markets to work and to evolve. Short-term, interventions for specific outcomes may be tempting, but long-term, well designed markets are more efficient to provide reliability at lowest possible cost.” – Ake Almgren, vice-chair of the board for PJM Interconnection

What do you think was the most promising development in transmission in 2017? 

“In the view of Americans for a Clean Energy Grid, the most exciting development in transmission in 2017 was the announcement of American Electric Power Corporation’s intent to build dedicated 300-mile 765 KV transmission line to deliver energy from the “Wind Catcher” project, 800 state-of-the-art wind turbines in the Oklahoma panhandle with two gigawatts of capacity, into the Tulsa region and from there into markets in Oklahoma, Texas, and Louisiana.  The largest project of its type, this announcement underlines the attractive combined economics of renewable energy and high-voltage transmission, competitive even in the fossil fuel industry’s principal domestic production region, as well as the leadership of a major traditional electric utility committing to delivering clean energy through an expanded, modernized, and integrated high-voltage grid as part of its strategy going forward. – John Jimison, Executive Director, Americans for a Clean Energy Grid, Inc.

What are you most hopeful for in terms of progress on transmission siting in 2018?

In 2018 we will be looking for more utilities to respond directly to stakeholder concerns during the siting process. There are a lot of great stories out there of utilities adapting proposed projects to better meet the needs and preferences of local communities. But a few bad actors remain. As we look for ways to avoid the protests and prolonged court battles of recent years, it will be up to utilities and key stakeholders to forge the compromise that makes big projects possible.”  – Johnathan Hladik, policy program director, Center for Rural Affairs

What do you think was the most exciting development in electricity rate design in 2017? 

“Many states rejected increases in fixed charges, and embraced time-varying pricing of some sort.  This helps put electricity pricing in the same realm as pricing for unregulated commodities like groceries, gasoline, and hotel rooms, where prices vary as costs change and demand varies, but consumers pay only for what we use. Utilities as far-flung as Honolulu and the UK introduced “sunshine” rates, lowest during the middle of the day when solar production is highest, reflecting the fact that renewable energy is quickly becoming the economical choice for electricity supply.  – Jim Lazar, senior advisor at RAP

What are you most hopeful for in terms of anticipated changes to electricity rate design in 2018?

“I look forward to building on work to use anonymized customer usage data to research rate design questions. Combining this data with other publicly available data will help us look at how changes in rate design will impact specific groups of customers, such as economically disadvantaged customers or customers with particular types of housing needs. I am also looking forward to exploring the value of resources like community solar and optimizing rate designs to ensure the value is capture and appropriately shared among utility customers.” – Kristin Munsch, Deputy Director of Illinois Citizens Utility Board

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These insights cover many important power sector trends underway, and shed light on priorities for the coming year.  It is clear the electricity sector is in a period of rapid transformation.  Feel free to contact us to get in touch and tell us what you’re most interested in hearing about next year!