For water and sewer utilities regulated by a state’s public utilities commission (PUC), mounting a rate case can be an expensive proposition. In fact, for some particularly small utilities, mounting a rate case can be more expensive than operating the utility for many months. It’s no wonder, therefore, that utilities may be reluctant to undertake rate cases on a regular basis. Some utilities may even wait longer than a decade between rate increases, a decision that may preserve short-term fiscal health, but can be costly in the long term.
The unpredictability of future costs makes it difficult to design new rate structures in preparation for a rate case. In my study at the EFC of rate structures across four different states, I’ve found four, region-specific challenges utilities may confront that lead to financial instability. These are declining water sales due to reduced demand and conservation measures, volatility in the price of power, drought stressors, and environmental and health regulations. The challenge in a rate case, therefore, is, how can the utility commission ensure the cost of service is fair to the consumer and that rates allow the utility to remain fiscally healthy? The three strategies discussed below can help utilities remain fiscally stable while avoiding constantly mounting rate cases by designing rate structures that adjust for uncertainty in future conditions.