New England ‘ratepayer advocates’ mum on solar power impact to consumers

PER CAPITA electricity use of small-scale solar power shows New England states near top of the list nationally. USEIA data

By Guy Page

A panel of New England state employee ‘ratepayer advocates’ hope to control the region’s rising electricity rates by increasing energy efficiency and reducing demand for electricity at peak-demand hours, they said at a recent forum in Burlington. But they said little about reducing one significant power cost driver: the high, state-mandated per-kilowatt price of solar power. 

The Ratepayer Advocate Roundtable took place last week at the quarterly meeting ISO-New England Consumer Liaison Group, held in Burlington’s Contois Auditorium. It featured Lou Cecere of the Vermont Department of Public Service and his peer ratepayer advocates from the other five New England states. 

All six New England states are in the top ten in overall power rates nationally.

They talked up the need for more energy efficiency and demand management. Saving energy and reducing peak demand are indeed important rate-reduction tools. But the panel paid scant attention to controlling the cost of high-priced residential solar power, according to one Vermont observer and an onsite report from the industry newsletter, RTO Insider.

Vermont’s, and the rest of New England’s, heavy investment in solar power and its top ten in the nation electricity rates appears clear. U.S. Dept. of Energy state-by-state electricity rates and solar power usage show that where solar power is mandated and heavily used, costs are high. 

All six New England states are in the top ten for electricity rates. All states have ‘net metering’ laws that pay residential home owners a fixed, above-market price for the electricity their panels produce. Non-solar homeowners in effect subsidize the above-market payments. Five of the New England states – with only New Hampshire excepted – are in the top twelve for residential solar generation per capita. 

Not surprisingly, sunny politically-blue states Hawaii and California top the per-capita solar list. But New England’s cloudier blue states also make the top ten – see graphs. 

To explain their support for the renewable-power driven transition of the New England power grid, the ratepayer advocates also signaled they are trying to redefine their roles. “We’re trying to broaden the definition of what a consumer interest is,” said Bill Dornbos of the Connecticut Office of Consumer Counsel, making the case – RTO Insider noted – that consumer needs include both low rates and a healthy climate and environment.

“Where would we be without these ratepayer advocates,” longtime lawmaker and volunteer energy consumer advocate Warren Van Wyck of Addison County mused in an email to the Vermont Daily Chronicle after attending the quarterly meeting.

Categories: Energy

5 replies »

  1. Here is the problem in a nutshell; “the ratepayer advocates also signaled they are trying to redefine their roles. “We’re trying to broaden the definition of what a consumer interest is,” Going on to say “that consumer needs include both low rates and a healthy climate and environment.” I don’t know about anyone else, but my primary concern is affordable rates. As for a ” healthy climate and environment” I propose halting these solar panel fields as the mining of the minerals used is bad for the environment (not to mention the slave labor to mine them), the disposal of these panels is bad for the environment, and they are an aesthetic eyesore to the environment we live in. Finally, the impact on the climate is minimal, at best.

    Tell me, who are these “rate advocates” . . . millennials?

  2. Washington Electric Coop newsletter President & GM Q&A :

    Louis: Over the last year, Washington Electric has done some detailed engineering work on our system. This thorough assessment is driven mainly by our need for a new construction work plan and long-range system plan.

    What we discovered is all of our substations are out of balance in terms of load to distributed generation. There’s a higher amount of solar production compared to power used on our system, substation by substation, than there should be. That can be a problem in terms of backfeed and potential risk to the grid.

    More concerning than that is what’s happening at the Jackson Corner substation. That sub hosts two large solar arrays allowed by the state’s Standard Offer programs. WEC doesn’t take power from them, but moves the power onto the grid. The sub is handling too much power, which leads to thermal overload, as well as being out of balance. Of course, net metering systems on that substation also contribute to the problem.

    What that means practically is that the transformers and other equipment at the Jackson Corner substation are at risk of damage or failure. We plan on rebuilding the sub entirely in our next cycle of borrowing from our federal lenders, the Rural Utility Service program of the USDA, and our new Construction Work Plan. However, it will take several years to get the financing, materials, design, and to reconstruct it. In the meantime, WEC will request the PUC not allow additional distributed generation linked to that sub until we can get it rebuilt.

    The transformers and other equipment based at the Jackson Corner substation are at risk from the amount of distributed generation.

    – Louis Porter

    That means that as generation projects are proposed, whether Standard Offer, net metering, or other, we have to file objections with the PUC because of the risk it creates for the sub and our ability to provide safe and reliable power to our membership.

    The substation structure at Jackson Corner is a wooden pole structure. It can’t take additional transformers. Because of supply chain delays, it would take just as long to increase the size of the transformers as it would to completely rebuild the sub, and a full rebuild is what we intend to do.

    Steve: Louis made the point that the relative magnitude of the problem depends on two Standard Offer projects hooked up to our setup. Large distributed generation projects place demands on our infrastructure when they are not co-located with additional load. These are relatively expensive to address and require going to regulators to allow us to invest in upgrades.

    Louis: While it’s true that the Jackson Corner substation has two Standard Offer projects on it, all the others are overloaded from a distributed generation to load perspective. Even if one residence’s net metering generation-to-load balances out over the course of a year, on sunny summer and fall days, generation from multiple solar projects overload each of our substations.

    Steve: A challenge is that policies and incentives in Vermont have not evolved to keep up with the large amount of intermittent distributed generation, primarily solar power, in some territories, including WEC’s. All members have to pay for the much of the infrastructure upgrades and maintenance needed to ensure people still have reliable electricity even with the amount of solar on the system.

  3. Sounds like this winter is going to be mighty cold for quite a few when the power goes out from overload. Hey, but wait, Mark MacDonald said just buy an extra blanket, thank you Orange County for voting him in with all his wisdom and caring!

  4. This whole thing is simple, common-sense economics. How?

    Question: Why are utilities in business? And yes, all of them, but I’m referring here to electric utilities. Answer: They’re in business to make money for themselves and their shareholders. Correct! Ding, ding ding!

    Question: What to consumers do when electric rates get higher and higher? Answer: They try to cut down on consumption via a variety of tactics: More insulation, more efficient appliances and lights, and so on and so forth. Correct! Ding, ding, ding!

    Question: What happens to utilities when enough customers cut their consumption? Answer: Their sell less product and their profits go down. Correct! Ding, ding ding!

    Question: What do utilities do when their profits go down? Answer: They raise rates to make up for the shortfall (and then some), because their shareholders don’t like making less on their investment. Correct! Ding, ding, ding!

    So what can we do? Well, we could use it till it’s gone, forcing someone to come up with something better (and there are better technologies available, but they’re hidden). In theory, the higher usage should keep rates from rising exponentially like they are now. They will rise, simply due to inflation, just not as much.

    The simple fact is, unless you find a way to go completely off-grid and generate your own power, be it via solar, wind, hydro, or some combination of them, you’ll forever be at the mercy of your particular utility companies.

    As someone once said, “You can’t roll a rock up a hill that steep.” The status quo won’t change and we’ll be having this discussion over and over again, ad infinitum. So why keep trying? Find a way to help yourself! Think you can’t afford it? Just add up what you paid for electricity the past several years, then add a conservative 3% for 15 years starting with 2024. Maybe you *can* afford it when you see what you’ll pay over that time, which should be the minimum lifetime of whatever you install.