Home Dominion Power “Dominion’s bills aren’t just confusing, they mask a perverse incentive in the...

“Dominion’s bills aren’t just confusing, they mask a perverse incentive in the rate structure that rewards people who use more electricity”

"Not all [utilities] hide the ball the way Dominion does"

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by Ivy Main, cross posted from Power for the People VA

A seemingly simple question came across my desk a few weeks ago: What does Dominion Energy Virginia charge residents per kilowatt-hour (kWh)? Given how frequently I write about Dominion, I was embarrassed not to have a quick answer. In my own defense, though, Dominion makes it hard to find out. And when you do find out, the answer is, it depends.

Examine a recent bill, and you will see the number of kilowatt-hours you used in the preceding month, a confusing list of charges and the dollar amount that you owe. You can do the math to figure out what you paid this month per kilowatt-hour, but that’s more of a snapshot than the whole picture.

 A Fairfax resident’s Mar. 6, 2023 Dominion Energy electricity bill. (Ivy Main/The Virginia Mercury)

I asked colleagues to send me their utility bills to see what people were actually paying, and I got out my calculator. Everyone’s rate was different, and the more electricity they used, the less they paid per kWh. Even after I removed state and local taxes from the equation, rates ranged from a low of 12.2 cents per kWh for a home that used 2930 kWh in February, to a high of 17.3 cents for a home that, thanks to solar panels, drew just 179 kWh from the grid in the same time period.

As that solar home shows, the flat rate of the basic customer charge skews the average price higher. That basic charge is currently $6.58 per month, according to Dominion’s residential rate schedule, but you won’t see it on your bill.

The rate schedule reveals other information your bill doesn’t tell you, and that’s where the real impact lies: you pay less per kWh, in both generation and distribution charges, for the electricity you use in excess of 800 kilowatts per month from October through May. From June to September, you pay less in distribution charges for every kilowatt over 800, but more in generation charges.

You’re also charged a single rate year-round for transmission, which is different from distribution. Plus, every kilowatt-hour is subject to a list of riders – “charges applied to certain rate schedules to recover various costs associated with Dominion Energy’s electric operations and electricity production,” according to Dominion – and non-bypassable charges. The rate schedule doesn’t identify these charges, but the bill does, albeit with no explanation for how the amounts are determined. Your bill also lists fuel as a separate charge under Electricity Supply, though fuel does not appear in the rate schedule.

Still with me? No? All of this must make sense to the State Corporation Commission, which approved the rate schedule, but it is thoroughly opaque to customers.

The sufficiently dogged can find a worksheet on Dominion’s website that breaks out all these costs. If you plug in the month and a number of kWh you used, it will calculate a bill. You still need to do the math yourself to arrive at the price per kWh, but you can then play with numbers to see how usage affects rates.

Doing that confirms what I saw in my colleagues’ bills. Assuming 1,000 kWh, the number Dominion uses to represent the “typical” customer, the price works out to 14 cents in winter.  Change that to a frugal 500 kWh and you get 15 cents. Raise it to 2,000 kWh, and it goes down to about 13 cents.

When challenged about this in the past, Dominion justified its buy-more, pay-less winter rate structure by arguing it was needed to make bills affordable for customers with electric heating, whose use can double or triple in the wintertime. The company didn’t mention that it also benefits wealthier people with large homes, and decreases the incentive for customers to conserve energy.

It also turns out that large homes do well in summer, too. According to the worksheet, a customer using 1,000 kWh in June would pay 14.6 cents per kWh. For 2,000 kWh, it rises slightly to 14.7 cents. The customer who uses only 500 kWh pays the highest rate, at 15 cents. Energy efficiency, alas, is not rewarded.

So Dominion’s bills aren’t just confusing, they mask a perverse incentive in the rate structure that rewards people who use more electricity. This year’s utility legislation changes a lot of things, but it doesn’t require greater clarity in billing,  nor does it fix that upside-down incentive.

All utility bills are not equal

This perverse incentive is shared by some other Virginia utilities, though not all, and not all hide the ball the way Dominion does. Appalachian Power’s website shows it charges a single rate no matter how much you use. There’s neither a price break nor a penalty for higher consumption. The website provides two examples, for customers using 1,000 and 2,000 kWh, respectively. This makes it easy to calculate what you’re paying per kWh (about 16.5 cents), though you won’t find that number on either the website or the bills themselves. But neither the bill nor APCo’s website mentions the existence or amount of the basic customer charge, which can only be inferred from the website examples.

I also looked at February bills sent me by customers of Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative (NOVEC) and Rappahannock Electric Cooperative (REC). In both cases the bills were easy to understand. They identify the flat monthly charge, though in both cases the charge is unfortunately more than twice as high as Dominion’s. The bills also list the rates applicable per kWh for generation, transmission and distribution. Both utilities give a year-round volume discount on the distribution charge for higher levels of usage, another regrettable feature. However, REC’s SCC filing shows it imposes a higher electricity supply charge in summer for monthly usage over 800 kWh. I could not find current information about NOVEC’s rates online; I hope its customers have better access.

Being able to understand your electric bill matters. Virginia’s average residential rates increased 20% between December 2021 and December 2022, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, mostly due to last year’s spike in the price of methane gas and coal. Even before last year, our bills were higher than those in most other states.

Consumers have an array of options to help them lower their energy costs, including new federal and state programs and incentives for weatherization, energy efficient appliances and renewable energy. But customers who are confused about what they currently pay are less likely to act.

For the same reason, utility rate structures should incentivize customers to take steps that conserve energy. Lower rates for using more electricity undercut the value of investments in energy efficiency.

If utilities want to help their customers, they can start by sending the right message.

 

This article was originally published in the Virginia Mercury on March 16, 2023.

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