Success Story: Decoupling Utilities in Rhode Island

Jerry Elmer

This month Rhode Island’s dominant utility, National Grid, made its second-ever filing with the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) under Rhode Island’s “revenue decoupling” statute. Grid’s filing clarifies matters in a debate that swirled around the environmental community in Rhode Island (and the rest of New England) for years but ought now to be resolved once and for all – an argument over whether decoupling is a rip-off of utility rate-payers. CLF (and other environmental advocates) have argued for years that there are important environmental benefits to be reaped from decoupling. Opponents, including some ratepayer advocates, argued that decoupling would be bad for rate-payers because it would inevitably lead to unjustified rate hikes.

Grid’s highly technical, 59-page filing with the PUC this month is dense reading, with pages upon pages of complicated charts, but at the end of the day the filing resolves the controversy. Decoupling is good for ratepayers. In the year that ended on March 31, 2013, Rhode Island electricity ratepayers will receive a collective refund from National Grid of $4.2 million, including over $42,000 in interest on ratepayer overpayments.

Some explanation of what decoupling is and how this controversy has developed is in order.

Traditional utility regulation provides little incentive for utilities to promote energy efficiency. This is because reduction in sales equals a reduction in profits for the utility.

Decoupling is a way to address this problem and to align the utility’s pecuniary interest with the public interest in efficiency and conservation. Decoupling separates (that is, “decouples”) a utility’s income from the amount of commodity the utility sells. This effectively removes a major disincentive to utility enthusiasm for and participation in energy efficiency measures.

Decoupling is not all that is needed to achieve carbon-emission reductions through energy efficiency; but decoupling is one important and necessary ingredient. Many states have decoupled, and there is a high correlation between states that reduce carbon emissions the most (thereby lowering ratepayer bills the most) and states that have decoupled.

Work on “decoupling” is one aspect of CLF’s wider work on reducing carbon emissions in order to address the climate change emergency. More specifically, decoupling is closely linked to our work on energy efficiency. One of the most effective ways to reduce carbon emissions in the short- and medium-term is to work on energy efficiency.

In 2008, CLF participated in a litigation in the PUC in which we tried to get the PUC to decouple gas prices. The litigation, PUC Docket # 3943, took weeks, and CLF presented an expert witness, crossed examined witnesses of other parties, submitted briefs. But CLF lost the case; the PUC ruled that it would not decouple gas prices in Rhode Island.

In 2009, CLF tried again, this time trying to get the PUC to decouple electricity prices. This litigation, PUC Docket 4065, also took weeks – again, we presented an expert witness, cross-examined other parties’ witnesses, briefed the issue. Again we lost; the PUC ruled that it would not decouple electricity prices.

The main argument against decoupling was that it would hurt ratepayers. The Division of Public Utilities and Carriers (this is the statutory ratepayer advocate in Rhode Island, and is different than the PUC) opposed decoupling for this reason, as did others. One expert witness against decoupling put it this way: “[T]he plan would allow a broad range of automatic rate adjustments that would result in rate increases . . . .There is no down side to the Company. The only down side is to the ratepayers.”

In response, CLF introduced evidence that actually came from 28 natural gas utilities and 12 electric utilities in 17 states across the country that have operative decoupling mechanisms. This broad range of utilities showed two important results from decoupling. The first, and smaller point is that decoupling adjustments tend to be minor. Compared to total residential retail rates, decoupling adjustments have been most often under two percent, positive or negative, with the majority under 1 percent. The second, and larger, point is that decoupling adjustments go both ways, sometimes providing small refunds to customers, sometimes providing small surcharges.

Nevertheless, despite the evidence we introduced, we lost both cases. The PUC was persuaded that decoupling was just a trick whereby the utility could always ratchet rates upward.

In 2010, CLF, working with other environmental organizations supported a bill in the Rhode Island General Assembly that would require decoupling of both electricity and gas prices. On May 20, 2010, Governor Donald Carcieri signed the bill into law.

On October 18, 2010, the PUC opened a new docket in order to implement the new law that mandated decoupling. This time, the question wasn’t whether Rhode Island would decouple, but how. CLF participated as a full party in the docket in order to ensure that the decoupling mechanisms adopted would be designed to reap all the environmental benefits without unduly hurting or harming ratepayers. Nine months later, on July 26, 2011, the PUC approved an excellent set of decoupling rules for both electricity and gas.

A year ago, in May 2012, Grid filed its first-ever report under the then-new Rhode Island decoupling statute and under the PUC rules. That report showed that, on the electricity side, Grid needed to rebate to Rhode Island ratepayers just over a million dollars for the year that had ended on March 31, 2012.

This month, Grid filed its second-ever report under the now-not-so-new-anymore decoupling statute.  This year, the amount Grid is going to rebate to Rhode Island ratepayers has more than quadrupled, to $4.2 million.  Rhode Island ratepayers are getting rebates – not additional payments – in both of the first two years that electricity decoupling has been implemented in Rhode Island.

Remember the main point that CLF’s expert witnesses made in the decoupling dockets that we lost in 2008 and 2009: decoupling adjustments go both ways. Sometimes ratepayers pay a little extra; sometimes ratepayers get a rebate. Real-world results from the first two years of decoupling show that CLF’s main point was 100% correct.  And not only are Rhode Island ratepayers getting a rebate from Grid, but everyone in Rhode Island enjoys the savings and efficiency benefits that decoupling enables – and the environment enjoys lower carbon emissions.

As I suggested a year ago when the first-year figures came out, there may be two lessons that can be learned from this – one about CLF and one about the broader environmental movement.

About CLF: One of the things I love about working for CLF is the stick-to-itiveness that the organization (and my fellow and sister staff members) have. In 2008, we litigated decoupling, and we lost. So we tried again. When we lost again, we turned to a different forum, the General Assembly. When the law we supported passed, we were pleased – but we didn’t rest. We still had another litigation in the PUC to make sure that the law was properly implemented.

CLF is nothing if not persistent!

And about the broader environmental movement: So often our opponents argue that environmental protections are too costly to implement. Too often, the arguments made by environmentalists about the benefits and savings from environmental protections are just not believed by decision-makers and by ordinary citizens. With decoupling, everyone (including the PUC and so many others) just “knew” that decoupling would be an expensive rip-off. When evidence like this comes to light about the financial and pecuniary benefits of environmental laws, we should make sure that the public knows.

 

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2 Responses to “Success Story: Decoupling Utilities in Rhode Island”

  1. The last point about environmental protections often being cost effective needs to be more widely broadcast as in RI the legislature and economic development agencies often see environmental protection as in the way of business rather than as something that helps the economy.

  2. Marilyn Kaplan

    Congratulations to Jerry Elmer and the entire CLF team. This well written piece clearly explains the benefits of decoupling (and the triumph of CLF persistance). Thank you for your successful efforts.

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