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.
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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.