Navigating Utility Business Model Reform

Written By: Jen Neville
December 6, 2018


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Advancing efficient and equitable approaches to update the utility business model—motivated by emerging technological, policy and market conditions in the electric power sector—is crucial to the grid’s transition to a more secure, clean and affordable customer-centric system, according to a recent report. Five case studies illustrating various business model reforms in action accompany the report.

In identifying, evaluating and encouraging innovation in business models, the report, Navigating Utility Business Model Reform: A Practical Guide to Regulatory Design, offers a menu of regulatory options for policymakers, utilities and electric customers to best support and manage the maturation of a 21st-century grid. It also offers electricity system leaders and stakeholders reform options to best respond to these pressures and support policy and regulatory decision-making.

Powerful trends are impacting the contours of the electric system, including growing policy demands for improved environmental performance, the increasingly widespread availability of distributed energy resources like rooftop solar and storage, more customer demand for energy choice and the need for strengthened resilience in the face of more extreme weather across the country. To do so, the report seeks to establish foundational elements of different reform options, poses key questions to explore their applicability, identifies illustrative experiences for ideas and concepts and explores policy implementation options to help spur action.

“The grid is experiencing rapid changes in its shift to a 21st-century system, and electric utilities have a fundamental role to play in ensuring this transition strengthens resilience, improves environmental performance and protects the interests of customers while maintaining essential features of affordability and reliability,” Dan Cross-Call, a manager at RMI and one of the report’s authors, stated.

The reform options included are revenue decoupling, platform revenues, performance-incentive mechanisms and multiyear rate plans, among others. In addition, case studies are also provided showing current examples of utility business model reforms and the regulatory constructs that make them work. The case studies examine:

– Oklahoma’s Energy Efficiency Incentives—How Public Service Co. of Oklahoma and Oklahoma Gas & Electric are responding to shared savings and lost revenue adjustment mechanisms intended to remove the utilities’ financial disincentive to maximize customer energy efficiency opportunities.

– Maryland’s Behavioral Demand Response Program—How Baltimore Gas & Electric lowered summertime demand driven by air-conditioning use through customer rebates for reducing consumption during peak-demand days, with BGE able to sell the energy and peak-demand reductions directly into the PJM wholesale market.

– Regulatory Accounting of Cloud Computing—How Illinois and New York are trying to level the playing field for service-based alternatives to traditional capital investments through the regulatory accounting treatment of software-as-a-service.

– Brooklyn Queens Demand Management Program—How Con Edison is deferring distribution infrastructure upgrades in an area of rising demand by deploying nontraditional methods of customer- and utility-side demand reduction, with the utility rewarded with performance incentives and accelerated depreciation.

– United Kingdom’s RIIO Performance-Based Framework for Driving Innovation and Delivering Value—How the UK’s Office of Gas and Electricity Markets created RIIO (Revenue = Incentives + Innovation + Outputs), the most comprehensive performance-based regulatory system yet developed to reflect changing market conditions. RIIO allows utilities to take advantage of the growing service economy and rewards utilities for achieving desired outcomes.

“With so many utilities launching new grid modernization initiatives, now is the time to address utility regulation and business model shortcomings. Energy is now extremely cheap if solar and wind power are the backbone of our electricity system,” noted Mike O’Boyle, director of America’s Power Plan. “To succeed, utilities must be intrinsically motivated to invest in modern technologies that make the grid more efficient, flexible, affordable and resilient"

“As regulators and utilities think about new business models for a changing electric power sector, there is a lot to be learned from what's being done already,” added Lisa Frantzis, senior vice president of Advanced Energy Economy, of which AEE Institute is the nonprofit educational affiliate. “These case studies shine a light on ways that utilities can better align their business goals with customer preferences and public policy objectives. As the electricity system becomes more distributed, meets evolving customer needs, and serves to power vehicles as well as homes and businesses, we need to build on examples of business model and regulatory reform like those discussed in our case studies.”

The report was produced in a joint collaboration between Rocky Mountain Institute, America’s Power Plan and Advanced Energy Economy Institute.

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