• Determinants of the Cost of Electricity Service in PCE Eligible Communities

      Foster, Mark; Townsend, Ralph (Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of Alaska Anchorage, 2017-01-20)
      This report is one of two companion reports ISER prepared for the Alaska Energy Authority. The other report, “True Cost of Electricity in Rural Alaska and True Cost of Bulk Fuel in Rural Alaska,” is dated October 26, 2016. That report estimates the full costs of providing electricity in rural Alaska, including the costs of subsidies provided to lower the price consumers pay. This second report assesses how the costs of electric generation in Power Cost Equalization (PCE) communities are or might be affected by three factors that are not related to the differences in electricity generation costs. Those three factors are the organizational structures of utilities, postage stamp rate design, and managerial information available on energy subsidy programs. 1. Organizational Structures of Utilities Electric utilities in PCE communities are organized as cooperatives, are run by local villages and municipalities, or are investor-owned utilities. The scale of these utilities varies widely, and includes regional utilities that manage separate electric grids in multiple communities. A review of those organizational structures indicates that: 1.1. There are significant differences in distribution, customer service, and general and administrative costs (DCG&A) across utilities. These differences are correlated with the utility size and organizational structure, with the smallest utilities having significantly higher DCG&A costs per kWh. 1.2. Small local utilities that have merged with larger regional utilities have benefited from reduced costs and professional management. Incentives to encourage small local utilities to join larger, more efficient regional utilities should be considered. 1.3. The cost of borrowing for large local and regional electric coops remains low compared with that for stand-alone local villages, municipalities, and investor-owned utilities. 1.4. The state government should consider allowing a return on equity as an allowable expense within the PCE cost of service [AS 42.45.110(a)] to enable utilities to build equity, enhance debt coverage and facilitate the expanded use of private capital, and reduce dependency on limited public capital resources. This private capital may take the form of investor capital for investor-owned utilities or member capital for cooperatives. 2. Postage Stamp Rate Designs 2.1. Postage stamp rate designs—a single rate for electricity for some set of customers—can help reduce costs and improve affordability in smaller, remote communities through an implicit cost subsidization from customers in larger communities. 4 2.2. The subsidies in postage stamp rates may decrease incentives for utilities to manage their costs, because higher costs may be subsidized by postage stamp rate-making. 2.3. The increase in cost in subsidy-providing communities risks inefficient bypass by large commercial or government users. This could increase the total cost of electric service and leave the remaining customers with higher rates and diminished affordability. Separating communities into rate groups according to their cost structure may mitigate, but not eliminate, the risk of self-generators bypassing the local electric utility. 3. Efficiency in Governance of Energy Subsidy Systems 3.1. To assess whether the PCE program is achieving its goals, transparent information about the allocation of the subsidies and about the operation of the subsidized utilities is required. The companion report to this one identified some issues about reliability of information generated under the current reporting system. Improvements in the reporting requirements could address these issues. A common issue is inconsistency in accounting for capital that state and federal agencies contribute to utilities. Those capital contributions include both grants or low-interest loans to finance capital projects as well as sources of short-term government financing, such as annual fuel loans, emergency loans, and write-offs of operating loans for troubled utilities. If capital investments for generation were separated from other capital, investments to reduce fuel costs (such as wind power) could be assessed more directly. 3.2. The PCE program is one of several programs that subsidize energy costs in rural Alaska, and an understanding of the interaction among these programs is required. An annual compilation of all state and federal heating and electrical subsidy support systems by community would enable better understanding of both individual program impact and also the collective programmatic impact of the subsidies on energy affordability. 3.3. Information on system reliability, usually measured as outage hours, is required to fully assess utility performance. 3.4. Currently, there is no information on how well the PCE program and other energy subsidy programs in rural Alaska target families and communities that face the greatest energy affordability challenges. Because of limitations on income data in small rural Alaska communities, assessing how well subsidies are targeted may be challenging. However, in light of general information that energy subsidies are often inefficient at poverty reduction, this is an important question. 3.5. The environmental impact of energy subsidies for rural Alaska, including the PCE program, through CO2 emissions and PM 2.5 emissions, has not been assessed.