The Cost of Outages Is a Policy Issue

Based on my work with Canadian and Australian utilities, the cost of outages is first a policy issue – not a regulatory one, not an operation one. Arguments based on the cost of outages may resonate with policy makers, including Smart City stakeholders, because of public pressure or impact on the economy at large. However, these arguments do not resonate with regulatory agents (who follow policies) nor with utilities (who do not have customer outage costs in their financial statements. Individual users may or may not know their specific costs related to outages, but broad outage cost assessments will not affect them

While utility customers are the ones bearing the cost of outages, multiple surveys have shown that customers are not willing to pay more for more reliable power. Even in individual cases, where a utility would propose to split specific reliability improvement costs with industrial users, the customers decline even though the associated payback period was much shorter than would be required for other purchasing decisions. Essentially customers are saying to policy makers and regulators that they pay enough and that reliability is something that is just expected. Public opinion, regardless of the actual costs incurred, is a powerful tool for disgruntled customers, who can vote policy makers in or out of office. Public opinion may incite policy makers to act, requiring utilities to invest in reliability improvement

This being said, customers incur real costs when an interruption occurs, but accurately capturing these costs is elusive – the ICE calculator is the best developed attempt at estimating overall economic costs. Policy makers, stewards of the economy, can be sensitive to the economic cost argument, when reliability improvement costs are seen through the lens of an industrial policy, with may lead to subsidies to improve reliability

The regulatory agencies follow policies. Traditionally, rates that utilities charge are based on the cost of generating, transmitting and distributing. In return for their obligation to serve customers in an exclusive service territory, utilities are allowed a guaranteed rate of return on their capital expenditures. Reliability is attained tacitly through conservative engineering and maintenance activities. However, policy and regulatory changes over the last 20 years or so have put tremendous pressure on utilities to reduce their costs, and many have gone through or are still going through massive downsizing. As a direct consequence, reliability suffered for some systems. If reliability incentives or penalties are used, reliability targets are typically based on historical values, not the economic costs of outages

Utilities would like to invest more to improve reliability. These investments would add to the asset base upon which investors get a guaranteed return. However, regulators may not let utilities spend for reliability improvement because of the impact on rates unless policy requires them to

Since outage costs may resonate with policy makers, it is a worthwhile argument for Smart City initiatives. Cities cannot function without electricity. It moves subways and trains. It cools, heats and lights our homes and businesses. It pumps our water and keeps fresh the food we eat. And it powers the technologies that are the foundation of a Smart City. By implementing smart grid technologies such as microgrids and distribution automation, electric utilities play a key role in making cities both resilient and sustainable. Yet, many electric utilities do not partner with mayors to work on cities’ resiliency and sustainability challenges. Policy makers could then use outage cost arguments when working with their utilities on reliability improvement initiatives.

 

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