Complete Society

Ideas and strategies for a sustainable world

True priorities in policy debates

One of the key issues I keep seeing in all types of policy discussions is that people don’t take the time to agree, or at least lay on the table, not just the goals/objectives of the policy, but more importantly, the *priorities* of those objectives.

Taking examples from my recent experience, wouldn’t it be refreshing to walk in to something like a CPUC public workshop and have everyone declare their top 5 priorities *in ranked order* at the outset?  Everyone wants to appear that they are trying to find the best, balanced solution, but where the rubber meets the road, each has a definite ranking.

The Feed-In Tariff discussion is a great case study here.  The base assumption is that for whatever reason, everyone wants more renewable energy online.  But when we start debating FIT design, people’s actual detailed priorities emerge to some degree.

Every stakeholder who talks to a policymaker tries to say that their position is the objectively best position for everyone.  But demanding an actual ranking of priorities will show how their position is grounded.

Whatever the actual order, policymakers who care what’s best for society (as opposed to just their reelection) should at least be clear within themselves what their priorities are and ask for clarity and honesty from all stakeholders.  If a stakeholder’s priorities doesn’t line up with yours, then you know to discount their arguments and design ideas.

Looking at the apparent priorities of some of the louder stakeholders in the FIT discussion, then shows how you should evaluate what they say.  Some examples:

– A major player in renewable energy regularly attacks the best-proven FIT designs even though a FIT would increase their addressable market 10x.    What’s clear is that their top priority is not to expand the market, but instead to keep the market at a size they can dominate and keep the barriers to entry high to new entrants.

– A seemingly “grassroots” non-profit similarly advocates for programs that advantage larger, entrenched players.  While one would assume that the non-profit would advocate for the best policies for the most people, the reality is that the org is sponsored by those larger players and the org’s funding is actually the top priority.

– An influential consultant consistently disparages FITs and discounts the success stories from around the world.  Even though their job is to provide objective evaluation, this consultant has a clear ideological bias that prevents objective analysis in this space.  Their top priority is to fight an ideological battle against “socialism in the US” rather than what’s best for renewable energy.

As a society we try to demand transparency from our policymakers.  If a policymaker truly wants to design the best policies, they should demand or ferret out transparency from their stakeholders.


August 15, 2010 Posted by | Policy | Leave a comment

CA Energy Bills Part 2: SB32

SB32 – “FIT-like” extension

The quick way to think about SB32 is that it expands and does a little fixing to the existing FIT-like program in California. Despite what many reporters are saying, this is not a new FIT for California. California has had a FIT-like program since early 2008, starting with AB1969. That program is limited to projects up to 1.5MW and has failed mainly because the price you are paid for the electricity you produce is too low to make investment worthwhile. Despite a goal of deploying 500 MW of renewable energy, the program has resulted in about 10MW of biogas projects.

The program is FIT-like because it sets a fixed rate for energy over a long-term contract (10, 15 or 20 years) and directs utilities to create a standard contract for everyone in this program rather than having each developer negotiate a new contract for each project.

SB32 made improvements to this program in several ways, including:

  • The price set by the CPUC can now include the value of avoiding environmental impacts (e.g. GHG emissions).
  • The price may also include the value of “locational benefits” which can mean several things depending on how the CPUC interprets the bill. At a minimum, it is expected that this will include the extra value of energy produced on distributions circuits that need help with peak demand.
  • Projects can be up to 3 MW: better economies of scale could help make investment viable
    The program applies to all utilities, not just the big Investor Owned Utilities (IOUs)

The primary distinction between this SB32-expanded program and the German-style FIT is the pricing. The California program starts with what’s called the Market-Price-Referent, and estimate of how much the energy is worth to consumers based on what they would have paid for a 500 MW gas-fired power plant. This is called “value-based” pricing. SB32 allows other elements to be added to the MPR whereas the existing program is limited to just MPR.

German-style FITs calculate price based on “cost plus reasonable profit”. First, you estimate the cost of developing and operating a solar farm for example. Then you consider a reasonable ROI, such as 7%. Then, based on how much energy the farm will produce over the life of the contract, you set a rate that the utilities pay per Kilowatt-hour to provide that reasonable ROI.

Bottom line is that we don’t know whether the SB32 changes will result in more renewable energy development because we don’t know what the price will be. The most successful programs in countries around the world use the German-style cost-based approach.

However, the FIT Coalition decided to support SB32 because it represented some real progress this year. The non-price related improvements were good steps towards a successful FIT and we welcomed those.

You can read our letter to supporters and to the Governor on SB32 here. We’re happy that SB32 was signed but we’ll be gearing up full force to get AB1106, an even better FIT, passed in early 2010.

To learn more about FIT’s in general, visit the FIT Coalition at and join our mailing list for regular updates.

October 18, 2009 Posted by | Policy, Uncategorized | | 1 Comment

CA Energy Bills Part 1: AB920

Two particular bills, AB920 & SB32, signed by Governor Schwarzenegger on Oct 11, 2009 have received a lot of attention recently for how they change the incentives in California to produce energy from renewable sources. Being steeped in this topic for the last 6 months as co-founder of the FIT Coalition, I am seeing that unfortunately, much of the reporting on these bills has been confused and inaccurate.

People have been throwing around the term “feed-in-tariff” with respect to both bills. If you think very broadly as a FIT being any system for selling energy back to the utility company, then sure, the term applies. But, there are many different ways to implement such systems and just as many meanings for a FIT.

This means that you can’t really liken the world’s most successful FIT, the German one, to AB920, but you can make a more direct compare/contrast to SB32. I’ll try to provide the important details of each bill and likely effects below but note that I’ve been focusing on FITs, not net metering, so while I’ve read and analyzed AB920, I’m not an expert on its likely impacts. (This post is about AB920. Part 2 will be about SB32)

AB920 – Net Metering excess
In simplest terms, basic Net Metering allows a property owner to “zero out” their electricity bill over a 12-month period. Any energy your solar system produces beyond what you use in a particular month gets credited to your bills in other months. So, for example, in the summer, your solar system produces more energy than you use. Then in the winter, you use more than you system produces. The excess production from the summer offsets the energy you took from the grid in the winter.

This program complements the California Solar Initiative. The CSI gives rebates to people who install solar systems based on the size of the system. Basically, Net Metering alone wasn’t enough to get people to install solar because it was still too expensive. So, the CSI brought the cost down and has been pretty successful in getting a lot of people to install.

Two of the problems that have remained with Net Metering:

  1. Larger solar systems have better economies of scale but even if you have space for a big system, there’s no incentive to do this when you can’t get any money for the energy you produce beyond zero-ing out your bill.
  2. Once you have a system, there’s no incentive to become more energy efficient, again because you can’t get compensated for the extra energy your solar system produces.

AB920 was targeted at solving these issues. In the simplest terms, now the utility has to pay you for all the energy that you produce after zero-ing your bill. It’s important to know that the rate the utility pays you will not be your typical electricity rate that you pay for energy. On your bill, you pay the *retail rate*, whereas for the excess energy, you will earn something close to the *wholesale rate*.

Will this be a big boost to Net Metering and incent a lot more people to deploy solar energy production? It will help some but probably not as much as people think because:

  • You now have a reason to put in a bigger system, *but* you may risk not getting the CSI subsidy. The CSI requires you to install a system no bigger than your peak demand estimate. So, if building a bigger system and getting the excess payments is worth more than losing the CSI subsidy, you might do this. I think this will probably only apply to businesses rather than residential homes, and/or will be more effective in a few years when the CSI subsidies have come down.
  • The price the utilities pay is going to be pretty low. The price is set by the PUC but it is required to reflect the “value” of the energy and make sure that it doesn’t raise prices for people without solar systems. That means the price will be at a low wholesale rate for energy. And btw, this energy is not “dispatchable” so it’s worth even less to the utilities.
  • Net metering and this program ends when enough customers have signed up to make up 2.5% of the utilities delivered energy. Many of the utilities are not far from that limit which is why there was a bill to try to up that cap this year. The bill failed, so the overall program may come to a halt mid-2010 anyway.

Here are two reasons that people typically don’t use the term feed-in-tariff to describe net-metering or even net-metering excess:

  • FIT usually applies to independent power producers selling energy at the wholesale level to utilities. It doesn’t include offsetting a retail bill.
  • FITs usually don’t require the power producer to be a customer of the utility. You should be able to sell power with a FIT on a bare piece of land that doesn’t take any energy from the grid.

To sum up, AB920 is not a feed-in-tariff in the way FITs are talked about in the industry and is unlikely to incent a lot of new, larger development of solar in the short term. In a few years, this bill may have more of an impact due to two trends: CSI subsidies will be coming down so developers won’t face as much of a subsidy loss, and solar panel costs may come down enough so that the AB920 payments make a real difference in the investment decision.

October 18, 2009 Posted by | Policy, Uncategorized | | 2 Comments

Smart Grid and ARRA Money

For those I haven’t talked to recently, I’m in the process of shifting my career towards government policy and regulation, targeting areas that are relevant to climate change and energy. (See my last post Ultimate Vision)

With my tech and business background in Internet, the most natural fit seems to be smart grid policy.  So, here are my notes from last Friday’s “workshop” at the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) where the topic was how companies in California can get smart grid related funds from the Recovery Act  (aka Obama’s stimulus package).  The specific goal was for these companies to inform the PUC on what they think the PUC could do to help them get this money.

To set the stage, PUC Commissioner Rachelle Chong reviewed the Act and the relevant timelines. Two important dates:  The DOE is due to release details about the requirements for getting funding by April 17th.  And the funds from the Act need to be obligated by Sep 30th, 2010.  Also, most of the funding would be in the form of matching funds, where the companies would need to come up with half the cost of any proposed project.
In my mind, the themes for the day were

  • We don’t know the criteria that the DOE is going to set for these funds, but
  • The DOE is in a hurry to allocate this money (in govt time, 1.5 years is fast), so
  • We need to prepare “shovel ready” project proposals to compete with other states right now based on what we think the DOE is going to want to see

During the 2.5-hour workshop, we heard from each of the major Investor Owned Utilities (IOU) as well as several publicly owned utilities, the California ISO, a few technology companies, and a few groups representing ratepayers (i.e. electricity consumers).

Based on the first bullet above, it felt like maybe this event was a little early, as if it was difficult for any of these groups to really describe what they wanted to do when they were shooting at an uncertain target. But, as Jake Wise, my Presidio classmate and a PUC analyst, said, things move slowly enough that it was valuable to get the ball rolling and everyone at least talking about moving together.

Also, two of the commissioners are planning to go to DC on 3/31, gather as much information as they can and represent California as a united front in competing for these dollars.  So, this workshop was also asking for input they could take to DC.

Without detailing all the projects and technologies that were described, the major takeaways I heard:

  • CA utilities are national leaders in Smart Grid, are dedicated to rapid development and deployment and already have demo projects planned that could qualify for Recovery Act money
  • All the necessary technologies exist already.  They just need standards to be set for interoperability and those standards should not just be developed by a bunch of engineers in a room.  The standards should be worked out through demo setups and field tests
  • Projects need to look “shovel ready” so make sure that PUC approval process is expedited and synched with the DOE approval process.  There’s a real risk that the historical PUC slowness will be perceived as a barrier to deploying the money quickly.  To that end, consider applying for Recovery money for *already approved* projects
  • Ratepayer concerns and job creation are important but none of the companies directly addressed these topics in the workshop.

Based on this input, the main recommendations directly for the PUC seemed to be:

  • Continue to act as the convener.  The PUC seems to be the right place to hold the combined vision, coordinate amongst the players, and present a unified face to the DOE
  • Dedicate staff specifically to the Recovery Act
  • Create a unified definition and vision of Smart Grid for California and maintain a publicly accessible inventory of Smart Grid projects in the state
  • Streamline the PUC processes to approve ratepayer funding as matching funds for qualifying projects
  • Make it easy for existing, already approved Smart Grid projects to defray ratepayer costs with Recovery Act money
  • Help ensure that the ratepayers see some benefits of these funds, not just the market participants

Personally, I feel that we were missing concrete ideas on job creation, one of the Recovery Act’s major priorities.  The Smart Grid projects and technologies would mean additional business for these companies but the number of jobs created, especially for blue-collar workers, seems minimal.

So, my thought for the commissioners is to go to the DOE and float the idea of job creation by increasing support for distributed generation.  The basic thinking is that large scale distributed generation will require Smart Grid advances in protocols, control systems, interface standards and rate structures.  This piece of the Smart Grid could be developed in parallel with the rest of the pieces and so could be funded in distinct, well-defined chunks.

If the grid supports easy, cost effective installation of distributed generation that requires less specialized training (and fewer truck rolls by the utilities), California would see a big jump in demand for installers and related green collar jobs.   This would, in my opinion, be the quickest way to create a large number of jobs that blue-collar workers could qualify for.

If the commissioners find that this logic plays well at the DOE, then we could influence the criteria that are published in April and encourage the California utilities to develop projects on this specific area.

March 30, 2009 Posted by | Cleantech, Policy | | 1 Comment