In East, power costs fall, bills rise
Record-low costs for power in the eastern United States haven’t translated into lower monthly payments for consumers.
As the price of electricity in the region fell by half over the past decade, utilities raised monthly bills for residential customers by 26 percent, according to government data. Consumer advocates say the power companies are using falling electricity costs as cover to raise other charges. Utilities counter that they are passing on billions of dollars’ worth of government-mandated improvements to long-neglected infrastructure.
It’s “a good thing that energy prices have fallen off and allowed the required capital to be installed and be done without impacting the consumer,” said Exelon Corp. Chief Executive Officer Chris Crane in an interview during a conference organized by Bloomberg New Energy Finance in New York on Monday.
Electricity itself makes up about a third of the average utility bill, down from about half just eight years ago, thanks to a flood of cheap fuel — natural gas extracted by hydraulic fracturing from tight-rock formations. The rest of the retail charges are for delivering supplies, including adding enough capacity to handle demand surges.
Spot power traded in the market run by PJM Interconnection LLC has averaged about $31 a megawatt-hour this year. That’s less than half the $84.55 average in 2008.
In Pennsylvania, ground zero for the U.S. shale revolution, consumers aren’t seeing the savings you’d expect, said Tanya McCloskey, the state’s acting consumer advocate. Utility projects, including power-line sensors and aging equipment replacements, are pushing up charges, with grid maintenance costs accounting for almost half a total bill.
Spending on the transmission system by investor-owned utilities gained for a fifth year in 2014 to $42 billion, according to the latest data from Edison Electric Institute, a Washington-based trade group.
PJM, operator of the mid-Atlantic power grid, approved $3.2 billion in new transmission projects last year as it seeks to improve reliability of the system. Among projects completed was PPL Corp.’s 500-kilovolt Susquehanna-Roseland power line extending from eastern Pennsylvania to northern New Jersey.
“There’s been a lot of upward pressure on the distribution rate as you make repairs to the system,” McCloskey said.
Because of the shale boom and rise in renewable energy generation, consumers are paying less for the electricity that keeps their lights on, said Matt Mooren, energy and utility adviser at PA Consulting Group based in Madison, Wis. For a residential utility rate of 10 cents per kilowatt-hour, electricity itself accounts for about 3 to 4 cents these days, he said. It was closer to 5 or 6 cents in 2008, before the shale boom took hold, he said.
The arrival of intermittent, renewable energy resources on U.S. power grids also is partly to blame for the rising delivery costs. Moving away from large, centralized power plants and toward smaller, more widely distributed sources has utilities installing digital sensors, meters and more power lines,