By Rich Heidorn Jr.
NEW YORK — Investor-owned utilities will have a central role in the expansion of distributed generation and renewables, ensuring profit growth even as load remains flat, the industry’s trade group told securities analysts Wednesday.
At its annual Wall Street briefing, leaders of the Edison Electric Institute touted utilities’ dividend growth and partnerships with technology companies to make their case for utility stocks.
But when EEI President Tom Kuhn and five other executives completed their presentations and opened the floor to questions, the first query addressed the lack of load growth, an analyst calling it “the elephant that, frankly, is not in the room.”
“You have had no sales growth whatsoever in something like the past eight years despite the increase in the economy. My question to you is: What are you going to be selling … to customers in the future if they’re not buying electricity?”
Kuhn said that while increasing efficiency has disconnected load growth from the gross domestic product, it is also providing opportunities for capital expenditures — about $7 billion annually, he told about 150 analysts at the luncheon session at the University Club off Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.
He also cited spending on grid security and opportunities in the electrification of transportation.
“You want to sell what’s best for the customer,” Kuhn said. “In the future it may be things that flatten load — storage and other kinds of things … I think [vehicle] electrification is an important part of the equation, but [we’re] not really counting on major electricity growth to deliver what’s best for the customer.
“Over the past seven years, although load hasn’t really increased, you’ve seen utilities do pretty well,” he continued, citing the growth in dividends (39 of 46 publicly traded companies tracked by EEI raised dividends in 2015) and stock prices (up 71.5% over five years, despite a 3.9% drop in 2015).
Kuhn blamed 2015’s drop on rising interest rates and low natural gas prices. The EEI index’s 2015 performance trailed the Dow Jones Industrial Average (0.2%), the S&P 500 (1.4%) and the NASDAQ (5.7%). EEI’s five-year average beat the Dow Jones (70.8%) but fell short of the S&P (80.8%) and NASDAQ (88.8%).
The EEI index was up 7% in January, however, while broader indexes lost more than 10% amid concern over slowing economic growth in China.
Kuhn noted that utility credit ratings have improved to an average of BBB+, with 84% of companies rated as stable or positive as balance sheets have shifted toward regulated operations and away from competitive businesses.
Capital expenditures, which hit a record $108.6 billion in 2015, are forecast at $101.2 billion for 2016 and $92.2 billion next year. Spending, which was formerly dominated by generation, has shifted to distribution, which has doubled its share over the last five years, he said.
In recent strategy meetings with utility CEOs, EEI identified grid modernization, clean energy and customer solutions as areas for growth, said David Owens, executive vice president for business operations and regulatory affairs.
“It’s not just about electricity sales. It’s about your enhanced relationship with the customer,” Owens said.
It is utilities that are developing microgrids for military bases and that will build the charging infrastructure needed for electric vehicles, he said.
“We have many customers who are looking at a full array of technologies where they have greater control over their usage and greater control over their bills,” he said. “We’re seeking to become a full-service provider behind the meter… so we see a bright future.”
Role in Renewables
Richard McMahon, vice president of energy supply and finance, said utilities are the “primary investors” in all forms of renewables, with utility-scale solar representing 60% of all installed solar capacity.
EEI’s solar value proposition is cost. Utility-scale solar costs less than half as much as roof-top panels ($1.48/W versus $3.55/W for the first three quarters of 2015), according to the group.
The group cited Energy Information Administration projections that non-hydro renewables will triple between 2010 and 2040. (See related story, EEI: Power Sector Carbon Reductions to Continue Despite CPP Stay.)
McMahon said utilities also will be “major players” in buying and deploying storage. “Maybe the one silver bullet in energy storage hasn’t emerged yet, but there’s a lot of testing … currently going on in the industry and its happening really across the value chain,” he said, citing uses at the wholesale level for peaking, at transmission for voltage control and in distribution for power quality.
Brian Wolff, executive vice president for public policy and external affairs, touted EEI’s 182 technology partnerships with the likes of Tesla, Apple, Google and Nest Labs. “We view many of the so-called ‘competitors’ or ‘disruptors’ to our industry as partners,” he said.
EEI members spent more than $90 million last year to add 800 plug-in electric vehicles to their fleets. Seventy utilities have committed to invest at least $250 million over the next five years to increase their EV fleets. “This helps to push down vehicle development costs for automakers, making EVs more affordable for customers,” Wolff said.
In addition to making their case for utility stocks in investors’ portfolios, EEI officials also briefed analysts on the group’s policy initiatives — chief among them changing state net metering policies to eliminate cost shifting from customers with rooftop solar. Owens said legislatures or utility regulators in more than three dozen states are considering changes.
The issue could be addressed by increasing charges for the fixed costs of the grid; through separate rates for buying and selling power; or a three-part rate, including a monthly basic service charge, a demand charge and an energy charge, Owens said.
Wolff expressed disappointment that a bipartisan energy bill stalled in the Senate earlier this month over aid to Flint, Mich., which is seeking funding to address lead in its water system. Assuming the hurdle is overcome, it would have to be reconciled with legislation that cleared the House earlier.
Although Senate leaders said they will reconsider their bill later this year, Wolff said, chances of passage are far from certain. “The closer we get to the election, the less appetite Congress has for doing big things,” he said.
Former FERC Commissioner Philip Moeller, who joined EEI last month as senior vice president of energy delivery and “chief solutions officer,” expressed disappointment at the Supreme Court’s January ruling upholding FERC Order 745.
Moeller was the lone dissenter on the order, which required RTOs to pay demand response at the same LMP rate as generation. Moeller argued for payment of LMP minus the avoided cost of generation. “I hope the commission will [revisit DR pricing] sooner rather than later,” he said. (See Clark Calls for New Look at Order 745.)
EEI executives declined to take sides when asked about the power purchase agreements FirstEnergy and American Electric Power are seeking for their merchant generation in Ohio. The issue has pitted EEI Chairman Nick Akins, AEP’s CEO, against EEI Vice Chairman Chris Crane, CEO of Exelon. (See Exelon Calls FirstEnergy PPA ‘Grossly Lopsided,’ Says it Can Offer a Better Deal.)
All but one of the Ohio plants at issue are coal-fired, the exception being FirstEnergy’s Davis-Besse nuclear station.
But EEI’s McMahon chose to focus on the woes of nuclear plants whose revenues have decreased as low natural gas prices have lowered clearing prices — an issue on which AEP, FirstEnergy and Exelon are in agreement.
“I think there’s an overall recognition that companies are going to do what they need to do” to protect their baseload generation, he said. “Our focus has been more working with the FERC, working with the other trades and the RTOs to address these issues so that the markets really provide the appropriate price signals to those companies.”