Solar advocates in Pittsburgh fight fixed utility charges and win

By Henry McKay on January 16, 2019

In late December, the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission (PUC) approved a partial settlement regarding Duquesne Light Company (DLC), the electric distribution utility serving the Pittsburgh area. The settlement denied DLC’s request to raise the residential customer charge from approximately $14 per month to over $16 per month. Instead, DLC is required to lower the customer charge to $12.50 per month, and it’s all thanks to the work of energy advocates like you!

Why this matters for solar supporters

In early 2018, DLC asked the PUC for permission to alter its complex system of rates and fees that it charges to electricity customers, including the proposed increase in the customer charge. We believe that any request from a monopoly utility to raise customer bills should be met with a degree of skepticism, but the proposed customer charge increase was particularly concerning for solar and energy efficiency advocates.

The customer charge is a fixed charge that cannot be lowered by using less electricity, unlike the volumetric portions of the bill, which are pegged to the volume of electricity a customer receives in a given month. Across the country, as the growth of rooftop solar has threatened the traditional utility business model by lowering demand for grid electricity, utilities have sought to increase fixed charges as a way to discourage solar adoption.

When fixed charges are higher, a customer is less able to lower their electric bill by going solar because a larger portion of their bill is fixed regardless of their consumption. At a time when we should be knocking down barriers to installing residential solar systems, a customer charge increase would have been unacceptable.

That’s why we testified against the proposed customer charge increase at a PUC hearing last June and why dozens of you signed our petition or reached out directly to the PUC protesting the changes. Thanks to your efforts and those of other energy advocates across the state, DLC’s request for a higher customer charge resulted in that charge actually shrinking! This kind of reversal is unusual, but may be part of a promising new trend. What’s more, other rate increases were also reduced, shrinking the overall electric bill increase for a typical customer to 4.4% down from almost 9%.

Good news for electric vehicle lovers

The partial settlement also included other good news for energy advocates. In 2019, DLC will launch the Chargeup EV Pilot, a program meant to accelerate electric vehicle infrastructure and adoption in the Pittsburgh region. Part of Chargeup will consist of a small bill credit for DLC customers who register their electric vehicles with the utility. The Natural Resources Defense Council has a more detailed writeup of the Chargeup EV Pilot here.

Thank you to everyone who joined the fight against higher fixed charges! You’ve successfully helped defeat a looming obstacle to solar energy and demonstrated the power of informed collective action. Keep it up—our solar movement continues to grow and the fight’s not over yet!