Reinventing the idea of single part tariff for power distribution to domestic consumers: Does it make sense!

Prior to 1992, a single part tariff based on  cost plus on actual basis was in place in India’s power sector according to schedule 6 of Electricity supply act 1948.  Single part tariff, though outdated due to several issues, is being reconsidered by some of the regulatory bodies to bring in transparency to the system along with making it more accessible to customer.

Prior to 1997,  the rationale for a single part average tariff in transmission and distribution was that it is not cost effective or technically possible to segregate the various cost elements in the system. Unbundling tariffs would require system load studies on a dynamic basis to identify the nature and direction of flows to various constituents of the system. However, it was agreed upon that some form unbundling would better allocate costs and result in efficient outcomes. At that point of time, technology and operational constraints were major hindrances in implementing multi part tariff.

The reconsideration of introducing the single part tariff  is to have a balanced approach where in customers interest can be taken care of in terms of actual usage of power with due consideration given to quality of power supplied. At the same time, it will be ensured that the distribution companies (discoms) recover their fixed cost incurred in laying down the necessary infrastructure. Utilities will prefer to have such a mechanism as it will reduce their risk of lower sales and hide much inefficiency. On the other side, it will reduce customer control with no incentive to reduce power consumption and increase efficiency at customer end. While prima facie, the idea of introducing single part tariff on the basis of minimum contracted load seems lucrative for the domestic consumers at short term, the impact of this on medium term and long term needs to be evaluated in details. The value chain of electricity comprises from generation to distribution with consumer being at the receiving end of the services. Besides economic contribution, electricity plays a major role in sustainable living for the common people. Hence the tariff setting process and its implications in calculation of final electricity cost plays a crucial role for each and every customer at large.

As the customers segment is fragmented and not homogeneous to each and every states, the applicability of such a system and its overall viability remains a question mark. While it may be designed for a set of customers, say domestic customers where there is predictability on the power consumption to a larger extent, designing such a system for other customers like agricultural and industrial nay be worrisome.

Consumers are majorly concerned about the electricity bills and the services they are getting from the utilities. They are least concerned about the operation of the distribution utilities and the way discoms function which is best left to the utilities and regulators to decide upon.

What it ails for the costumers at large?

The existing system of billing does not reflect various components of the fixed cost and the methodology on how the price fixing is done for arriving at the fixed cost per  MW per month basis. Consumers often fail to understand the rationale behind the fixed price fixation. The arbitrary nature of price fixation for the fixed cost component has been always a bone of contention between the consumers and the utilities. It is perceived that the fixed cost component should be gradually declined while the assets are depreciating over a time period. Also, if there is no significant up-gradation of the assets owing to the increased contracted load or demand, it should be diminishing in nature only with O&M component forming the major part of the recovery.

Giving a break up of fixed charges and rationale for price increase would have been a good idea for the regulator to consider. Discoms need to clearly show these components to keep a track of its own spending for planning and revenue generation. In the absence of such a system, there may be an attempt to hide various other inefficiencies in the grab of higher fixed cost component in the distribution segment to mop up higher revenues for the distribution companies.  DERC (Delhi Electricity Regulatory Commission) in a recent judgment hiked the fixed charges for high electricity consumers (under domestic category) above 2 kW contracted load. While consumers with 3kW, 4kW and 5kW would pay a fixed charge of INR 105, INR 140 and INR 175 per month, there will be a reduction of fixed charges for consumers with contracted load of 1kw ( INR 40 to INR 20 per month) and there is no change for consumers of 2kW contracted load. This is irrespective of electricity usage by consumers. The rationale for such a decision needs to be evaluated in details. It seems that it is an indirect way to pass on the cost without directly revising tariffs for the consumers.

Consumers are also worried about power quality and availability. The regulator is right when it says there is valid concern from consumers for not getting power for 24x7 but paying for the fixed cost for power outages and unavailability. Linking of the fixed cost at pro rata basis to the actual hour of power supplied will be definitely a good move from the regulator.

Though this system would sensitize the costumer to actually use less power and contract lesser load for its requirement, fixing a cap of contracted load from the regulator will not help them. In the same time, discoms would like to recover a certain amount from the customer and will not allow for a lesser demand from the customer. In these circumstances, it would be prudent to think of a system where in an annual connection load fee (bare minimum that would suffice to the discoms additional charges that cannot be passed on via fixed charges or variable charges) that can be collected over 12 months with monthly consumption charges.

Similarly for a consumer, who is consuming a higher amount of energy will end up spending the actual amount under the existing system. On the contrary, the consumer may want to game the system with showing less contracted capacity and consuming more units of energy and eventually stressing out the grid. The penalty system might not be deterrence to this in comparison with overall fixed charges asked for. This will result in frequent tripping if the single point contracted load is less than the actual withdrawal.

It will only create chaos at the short term and in the long term bulk domestic consumers would like to shift to stand alone systems or captive power systems. They may also switch to have their own roof top solar as an alternative. In this way, utility will have a greater risk in losing their loyal costumer which will dent their business perspective.

What is in store for the distribution Utilities?

The operational efficiency and management of power procurement and distribution at the utility remains a major concern for most of the utilities in India. Due to inaccurate demand prediction from the consumers, they fail to secure long term power procurement orders. Also, utilities show it as an excuse for not getting into fresh procurement contracts. Instead, they prefer to go for short term power procurement from traders or power exchanges at a high cost and pass on the burden to consumers. Regulators need to be more careful to this aspect so that additional unplanned burden should not be passed on to the consumers. In other way, utilities prefer in heavy load shedding in summer seasons or at the peak hours of operations. Sometimes, due to pressure from various sources (mostly political), they tend to overdraw from the grid, resulting a heavy penalty on the utility. It also jeopardizes the grid system security.

The lack of long term planning for system up gradation and securing future power procurement comes from the faulty demand forecasting at the consumer level. As consumers seem to show less contracted capacity but actually draw more than their contractual capacity, it puts both the grid system and its security at a higher risk. The proposed model will no doubt will put additional revenue to the pockets of power distribution utilities in short term as costumers will end up paying a higher amount. In long term, it will act as a catalyst to push inefficiency to the system and there is also risk of  good performing discom going the other way around.  It would be very difficult to assess the demand on annual basis and vague estimations of ARR (Annual Revenue requirement) might be a possibility.

Despite severe power outages, several regions in India show power surplus owing to the faulty data and information fed into the system. The proposed system will aggravate the situation further. This will project a false scenario that there is less demand from the consumer side and hence the power procurement planning may be effected. It may act as a blessing in disguise for the discoms to continue the ill practice of manipulating data at the demand end. Also, the transparency in the operations of distribution utilities stands a chance of being compromised. This is a structural issue; with government owned discoms play hardball showing that there is reduced shortage at their end while for private discoms this would be an opportunity lost in the system planning.

As far the domestic consumers are concerned, the solar roof-tops are anticipated to gain huge momentum as cost of power consumption shall not vary as per the rated or designated load but as per connections. With huge levels of discrepancies observed at load estimations of the country as utilities manipulate the data for drawl and injection, the single part tariff will act as a blessing in disguise for the discoms to continue the ill practice.

The Challenges for the Regulator:

On the regulators side also, there will be implementation challenges in fixing minimum contracted load for an individual consumer or to a group society at large. Whether it will be done by the utility or to be left with individual consumers or group housing society remains a question mark as of now?  But regulators can come with a proposition to charge extra tariff where demand exceeds contracted amount to balance out for the grid stability and compensate the discoms provided services are provided.

The setting of proper benchmarks for contracted capacity for such a scenario would be a difficult task.  Will it be based on income level of the person for an individual level or the life style it demands based on the appliances at the households? Similarly in the case of a society, where there are people from various income levels, electricity consumption level, life styles, it would be difficult to assess their demand and put strict contracted load criteria. This would also result in discrepancies and putting a benchmark on consumption level would be difficult. Averaging out may distort the overall balance towards either side (consumer or the utility). Also, the seasonal requirement adjustment of the fixed cost would be a big concern.  Only changing the fixed component up and down without any proper framework would serve no purpose and it will be an eye wash only.

The utility needs to find out how much volume the consumer demands in terms of power consumption for a specific time for the experiment to succeed. Also, it needs to access the overall effect on the revenue streams from these consumers. Smart metering at consumer end can be an option where in “Time of Day” consumption can be tracked with power outage time to check on quality of power supplied. Besides this, it may be a boomerang for the utility as consumers are very sensitive to price and they will not allow such a system to be experimented with. One can also assume the political slugfest that may be created out of this.  It would be better for the regulator to keep pressing for the technological interventions and installation of smart meters or pre-paid meters.

A comprehensive study may also be carried out after installation of smart meters to study the load profile in details and planning can be made thereafter accordingly. This can be taken by the regulators itself rather than passing it to the discoms. Regulators need to be sensitive on this issue as any changes made at the consumer level has a cascading effect on the entire value chain of electricity that is from distribution to generation. The effect on the other segments also needs to be studied in details before making any changes down the line. Any changes in the regulation should not be seen as a going back to the pre reformed era without proper evaluation of both sides of the string.

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Radha Krishna Tripathy

Radha Krishna Tripathy is a Senior Fellow at CUTS Institute for Regulation & Competition (CIRC). At CIRC, he is responsible for conducting policy-oriented research and writing research papers on policy and regulations. In his more than 12 years of experience, he has worked with various organizations including development consulting firms, research bodies and think tanks in various capacities from project management to business development. He has authored various articles and research reports in energy and infrastructure sector. His current areas of interests include regulatory reforms, competition policy, sustainability and Public Private Partnership. He holds an MBA degree in power management and B Tech degree in production and industrial engineering. Currently, he is pursuing his PhD in energy management from Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Petroleum and Technology, Noida.

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