If there has been one organization that has been a central force in fighting the policies and rates that enable rooftop solar, it is the Edison Electric Institute (EEI). In 2013, the trade group published a report talking about the “utility death spiral”, and arguing that among other factors, customer-sited distributed generation represents an existential threat to its member utilities.
Since then, utilities across the country have been acting as though rooftop solar is an existential threat, and doing whatever they can to stop it – including attempting to dismantle net metering, imposing discriminatory charges on their customers who adopt solar, and designing rates to claw back more money from customers who go solar, and/or kill the rooftop solar market outright.
But while corporations using their money to advocate for policies that favor them isn’t widely questioned on its own merits, utilities aren’t any company selling a service, and utility customers don’t have the same kind of choices that other consumers have. You can choose to buy an Apple or an Android phone, or if you are a Luddite no cell phone at all. But if you have electricity service to your home or business, even if you live in a region with a choice of supplier, a portion of your bill still goes to the local utility.
“EEI’s budget is mostly made up of utility member dues that electric ratepayers are forced to pay,” explains Energy and Policy Institute Research Director Matt Kaspar.
Another difference is that by advocating to undermine the economics of rooftop solar, utilities are advocating against their own customers who choose to lessen their dependence upon them. And often they are doing so with the guidance of EEI, which has worked to stop distributed solar across the nation.
California pushes back
So far, regulators around the nation have largely been allowing utilities to recover most of their dues for what is described as a “beneficial” service from ratepayers. However last week the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) decided not to allow utility Southern California Edison (SCE) to make its customers pay these dues, as part of its ruling on its rate case. As stated in the proposed decision adopted on May 16:
SCE has failed to present supporting evidence which would enable us to determine how much EEI’s beneficial services should cost ratepayers. We find SCE has not met its burden to establish any portion of the EEI dues are recoverable from ratepayers.
SCE had asked for ratepayers to pay for more than 3/4 of the cost of $1.9 million in EEI dues, but this figure was less than the organization recommends. The utility had submitted the EEI invoices as its evidence that it was reasonable to shift this portion of the dues to its customers.
In the past CPUC has allowed such spending, and in other cases The Utility Reform Network (TURN) has merely argued that utilities be required to submit a smaller portion of customer money in the mix. As such, the SCE ruling marks a break with tradition.
Michigan sides with DTE (again)
The results were very different earlier this month in Michigan. On March 6 an administrative law judge recommended that regulators reject DTE’s proposal and not allow the utility to spend $1.3 million of the money it received from ratepayers on dues. However the Michigan Public Service Commission’s final ruling rejected this advice, and went ahead and gave DTE the green light.
One of the issues brought up in Michigan was the portion of EEI spending that goes to lobbying, as opposed to other activities such as workforce education and training. Witness Karl Rábago, the executive director of the Pace Energy and Climate Center, noted the lack of transparency at the organization, and that there have been no recent audits that show just how much money is spent on lobbying.
This is the latest in a series of decisions where the Michigan Public Service Commission has sided with DTE, including approving a mammoth gas plant while commissioners admitted that they had not seriously considered other alternatives.