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Yearly Electricity Auction Yields Mixed Results for NJ Consumers

Rates will drop for most residential and small-business customers, climb for large businesses and industries.

The state yesterday announced the results of its annual electricity auction, a process used partly to determine utility bill prices, and the outcome was decidedly mixed in a market some thought would deliver more savings to consumers.

At a time when natural-gas prices are near historic lows, the auction yielded savings for residential and small commercial customers for three of New Jersey’s four electric utilities, with prices dropping by 3 percent to as much as 5.4 percent, effective June 1. It is the fourth year prices have dropped for residents and small businesses.

That’s the good news.

But for larger commercial and industrial customers, prices basically doubled for the electricity they will need, according to a consultant for the state Board of Utilities, which conducted the auction over the past few days. For both residents and larger customers, any increases apply only to the portion of the bill covering the cost of generating electricity, which accounts for about two-thirds of the cost paid by ratepayers.

The contrast in auction results reflects changes in the energy market since the state deregulated its electric monopolies in 1999, and explains partly why even with the steep drop in the fuel that sets the price for electricity, consumers in New Jersey still pay some of the highest energy bills in the nation.

Here’s why:

The BPU no longer controls the price of producing the electricity consumers get from suppliers; the federal government decides how much utilities will earn on transmission projects they undertake; and the PJM Interconnection, the regional operator of the nation’s largest power grid, regulates how much suppliers will earn for making sure the lights don’t go out. On top of all that, the state’s efforts to promote solar energy also are boosting costs, as the BPU conceded in a press release announcing the results of the auction.

The state blamed the surprising large increase for industrial customers on a rise in capacity payments to power suppliers, which ensure there is enough electricity in reserve to maintain reliability on the power grid. Those capacity payments jumped by 65 percent from the prior year, according to the BPU.

That was of little comfort to business lobbyists.

“That’s an awful large increase,’’ said Hal Bozarth, executive director of the Chemistry Industry Council of New Jersey. “It’s a clear signal to me the auction system is broken in many places.’’

The vast majority of industrial and commercial customers, however, have contracts with so-called third-party suppliers, which are not affected by the jump in prices in the most recent auction, BPU officials noted.

The doubling of prices to industrial customers only applies to the relatively few establishments that have not switched from their incumbent utility.

“It’s disturbing,’’ said Stefanie Brand, director of the New Jersey Division of Rate Counsel. “It’s definitely going to have an impact on them.’’

Other factors contributed to the mixed results in the most recent auction.

For Public Service Electric & Gas, the state’s largest utility with more than 2 million customers, more than the three other utilities combined—prices for residential and small-business customers were essentially flat.

Its customers will see their monthly bills rise by 6 cents a month, an increase largely attributed to the billions of dollars the company is investing in new transmission projects ordered by the regional grid operator and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Those projects could lower electric bills in the long run by easing congestion on the power grid, which spikes electricity costs, and bringing more power into the capacity into the state, according to PSE&G spokeswoman Karen Johnson.

The state, however, has contested many of the incentives handed out by FERC, which has rewarded PSE&G with much higher rates of return on a handful of transmission projects, much more than the utility receives for maintaining its distribution lines, which deliver power from substations to homes and businesses.

“We’re not saying we don’t need transmission,’’ Brand said. “But they can earn a fair return on them without earning excessive returns.’’

The price of electricity per kilowatt hour for PSE&G customers in this year’s auction was 9.218 cents per kilowatt hour, almost a penny more than the prior year, Brand said. “Some of these numbers are moving in the wrong direction,’’ she said.

The state is also trying to address the rising costs of capacity payments by giving subsidies to new power-plant developers, a controversial strategy under attack from both incumbent power suppliers and the PJM.

Nonetheless, three new power plants, one without any state subsidies, are due to begin supplying power in 2015 -- too late, however, to drive down costs for this year and next.

Citing the increase in capacity costs, Brand said the auction results show “graphically when efforts have been made to increase investment in new generation and why residents will benefit from it.’’

BPU President Bob Hanna, in a conference call with reporters to discuss the auction results, said it is very hard to predict what is going to happen with natural-gas prices, the main driver in setting electricity prices.

“For now, I see a period of stability,’’ he said.

And for now, some consumers will see a drop in bills. According to the BPU, customers of Atlantic City Electric will see their monthly bills drop by 5.4 percent, or $6.42 cents a month; for Jersey Central Power & Light customers, there will be a decline of 3 percent, or $2.91 per month; and Rockland Electric customers will see their bills dip 5.3 percent, or $6.74 monthly.

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