RD356 - State Corporation Commission Report: Implementation of The Natural Gas Conservation and Ratemaking Efficiency Act - December 1, 2012
In 2008, the General Assembly enacted the Natural Gas Conservation and Ratemaking Efficiency Act (“Natural Gas Conservation Act” or “Act”) (*1) authorizing natural gas utilities to file conservation and ratemaking efficiency plans that are intended to promote improved energy efficiency and increased conservation and to implement ratemaking mechanisms that “decouple” the recovery of a utility’s allowed distribution revenue (i.e., its “non-gas” revenue) from the level of consumption of natural gas by its customers. The Natural Gas Conservation Act (*2) also requires the State Corporation Commission (“SCC” or “Commission”) to provide a report to the Governor, the Speaker of the House of Delegates, the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, and the Chairs of the Senate and House Committees on Commerce and Labor regarding the implementation of the Act by December 1, 2009, and annually by such date each year thereafter until December 1, 2013. This report is the fourth such report tendered by the Commission in compliance with this requirement.
Thus far, three natural gas utilities have received approval for conservation and ratemaking efficiency (“CARE”) plans with the Commission. Virginia Natural Gas, Inc. (“VNG”), filed an application seeking approval of its plan on July 3, 2008. Columbia Gas of Virginia, Inc. (“Columbia”), and Washington Gas Light Company (“WGL”) filed applications seeking approval of their plans on June 8, 2009, and September 29, 2009, respectively. VNG’s proposed plan was approved with modifications, and VNG was permitted to place its proposed decoupling rate adjustment mechanism into effect on January 1, 2009. Columbia’s plan was approved with modifications, and Columbia was permitted to place its proposed decoupling rate adjustment mechanism into effect on December 31, 2009. WGL’s proposed plan was approved with modifications, and WGL was permitted to place its proposed decoupling rate adjustment mechanism into effect on May 1, 2010. VNG’s plan ended December 31, 2011, and VNG has not sought approval to implement a new CARE plan. However, it has provided notice that it will be applying for a new CARE plan on or after December 3, 2012.
All three natural gas utilities evaluated their efficiency programs utilizing the Participant (“Participant”), Rate Impact Measure (“RIM”), Total Resource Cost (“TRC”), and Program Administrator (“PA”) Tests. The Participant Test measures the impact of the program on those customers who are direct participants in a program; i.e., the customers who actually receive the incentive or service. The RIM Test measures the net impact on the utility’s customers as a whole, with no focus on the participants’ direct benefits. The TRC Test measures the overall impact on both participants and non-participants in a given program. The PA Test estimates the impact on the utility in its administration of the program and its avoidance of alternative resource costs. In considering these tests, it should be noted that they rely on projections that are likely to vary from actual experience. Some estimates are difficult to predict with any significant degree of accuracy. Consequently, actual cost/benefit test results will likely vary, perhaps significantly, from the utilities’ estimates. Further, cost/benefit tests do not consider any increases or decreases in a utility’s non-gas revenue that might arise from the implementation of decoupling mechanisms.
Generally, the utilities’ estimates indicate that for their proposed programs, cost/benefit results will show that costs exceed benefits under the RIM Test but that benefits will exceed costs under the other tests. Failure of the RIM Test indicates that customers who do not participate in the proposed programs will be negatively impacted by the proposed plans. These negative impacts may be offset by benefits to participants to the extent that the programs pass the TRC Test.
All three utilities proposed decoupling rate adjustment clauses (“RACs”) designed to produce average non-gas revenues (*3) per customer equal to the average non-gas revenue per customer produced by the rates and test year conditions established in base rate proceedings in accordance with the Act’s definition of “allowed distribution revenue.” The Act’s definition of “allowed distribution revenue,” and the related requirement that this definition serve as the basis for decoupling RACs, effectively provides adjustments for changes in average weather-normalized usage that may be unrelated to the utilities’ efficiency programs. Average weather-normalized usage and non-gas revenue are, in reality, impacted by a number of factors. These factors include changing customer lifestyles, customer demographics, housing sizes, furnace and appliance efficiencies, customer price and inflation elasticities, customer awareness, and other factors unrelated to the utilities’ offerings of efficiency programs. As such, the decoupling RACs adjust for the aforementioned changes as well as those changes attributable to utility-sponsored efficiency programs.
In summary, Virginia’s three largest natural gas utilities have implemented energy conservation plans that include the offering of various efficiency programs to customers. The preliminary results of these plans indicate that the Natural Gas Conservation Act has or will stimulate utility investment in energy and conservation programs.
Sufficient evidence does not yet exist to conclude that these investments are cost-effective under either the RIM or TRC Tests. Initial estimates indicate that these investments will be beneficial from some perspectives, but the estimates also show that the utilities’ efficiency plans may negatively impact non-gas rates paid by consumers and that non-participants in programs will be adversely impacted. Additionally, the cost/benefit results do not consider any revenue impact resulting from the implementation of decoupling mechanisms. Such revenue changes could significantly impact the costs and benefits of a utility’s plan when viewed from a utility customer’s perspective because under a decoupling mechanism, customers may, in effect, be required to pay the utility for reduced consumption even though the reduced consumption may not be attributable to the utility’s CARE programs. When the costs of decoupling mechanisms are included, it is far more likely that CARE programs do not pass any of the cost-benefit tests.
Further, it is likely that the decoupling mechanisms adopted pursuant to the Act will increase utilities’ non-gas revenues as compared to the revenues that the utilities would otherwise have received. (*4) Such increases can be attributed to the Act’s definition of “allowed distribution revenue” and the related requirement that this definition serve as the basis for decoupling mechanisms. To illustrate this point, the current actual results indicate that during the three-year period it was in effect, VNG’s decoupling mechanism resulted in its residential customers compensating VNG approximately $13.4 million for energy reductions estimated to be approximately 21.7 million Ccfs. (*5) However, VNG’s own estimates indicate that its programs have generated actual reductions of approximately 2.5 million Ccfs. (*6) The Commission will continue to monitor results of the utilities’ efficiency plans and report to the Governor and General Assembly as directed.
(*1) 2008 Va. Acts ch. 639.
(*2) The Natural Gas Conservation and Ratemaking Efficiency Act is codified at Title 56, Chapter 25, § 56-600 et seq. of the Code of Virginia (“Code”).
(*3) Non-gas revenues are those revenues that are intended to provide a return on utility investments and to recover non-purchased gas-related expenses that include depreciation expenses, operating and maintenance expenses, and taxes. The recovery of costs associated with purchasing natural gas supplies for resale to customers are not considered to be non-gas revenues.
(*4) The Natural Gas Conservation Act allows gas utilities to propose plans and decoupling mechanisms outside the context of comprehensive rate proceedings in which all revenues are reviewed for reasonableness to consumers and fairness to utilities.
(*5) Ccf is a measurement of natural gas volume equivalent to 100 cubic feet.
(*6) The results are similar for Columbia’s and WGL’s programs. Specifically, since its inception, Columbia’s decoupling mechanism has enabled it to collect additional non-gas revenue of nearly $7.4 million based on assumed usage reductions of 31.8 million Ccfs. However, Columbia’s engineering estimates indicate that its programs have generated actual reductions of approximately 1.6 million Ccfs. WGL’s decoupling mechanism has enabled it to collect additional non-gas revenue of $5.3 million from ratepayers based on assumed usage reductions of approximately 7.9 million therms. WGL’s engineering estimates indicate that its programs have generated actual reductions of approximately 113,509 therms.