Regulation’s effects on innovation in energy technologies: the experimentation connection

Lynne Kiesling

Remember the first time you bought a mobile phone (which in my case was 1995). You may have been happy with your land line phone, but this new mobile phone thing looks like it would be really handy in an emergency, so you-in-1995 said sure, I’ll get a cell phone, but not really use it that much. Then, the technology improved, and more of your friends and family got phones, so you used it more. Then you saw others with cool flip phones, in colors, and you did some searching to see if other phones had features you might like. Then came text messaging, and you experimented with learning a new shorthand language (or, if you’re like me, you stayed a pedant about spelling even in text messages that you had to tap out on number pad keys). You adopted text messaging, or not. Then came the touch screen, largely via the disruptive iPhone, and the cluster of smartphone innovation was upon us.  Maybe you have a smartphone, maybe you don’t; maybe your smartphone is an iPhone, maybe it isn’t. But since 1995, your choice of communication technology, and the set from which you can choose, has changed dramatically.

This change didn’t happen overnight, and for most people was not a discrete move from old choice to new choice, A to B, without any other choices along the way. Similarly for technological change and the production of goods and services. For both consumers and producers, our choices in markets are the consequence of a process of experimentation, trial and error, and learning. Indeed, whether your perspective on dynamic competition is based on Schumpeter or Hayek or Kirzner (or all of the above), the fundamental essence of competition in market processes is that it’s a process of experimentation, trial and error, and learning, on the part of both producers and consumers. That’s how we get new products and services, that’s how we signal to producers whether their innovations are valuable to us as consumers, that’s how innovation creates economic growth and vibrancy, through the application of our creativity and our taste for creating and experiencing novelty.

This kind of dynamism is common in our world, and is increasingly an aspect of our lives that creates value for us; mobile telephony is the most obvious example, but even in products as mundane as milk, the fundamental aspect of the market process is this experimentation, trial and error, and learning. How else would Organic Valley have started coming out with a line of milk that is entirely from pasture-raised cows? (I am happily consuming this milk; pasture-raised cows make milk with more essential fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid, very important for health)

But this kind of dynamism, while common, is not pervasive. Institutions matter, and in particular, various forms of government regulation can influence the extent to which such technological dynamism occurs in a market. The example I have in mind as a counterpoint, the example I want to explain and understand, is consumer-facing electricity technologies, like thermostats and home energy management systems. For the past several years there has been considerable innovation in this space, due to the application and extension of digital communication technology innovations. But despite the frequent claims over the past few years that this year will be the year of the consumer energy technology, it keeps not happening.

Tomorrow in New Orleans, at the Southern Economic Association meetings, I’ll be presenting a paper that grapples with this question. My argument is that traditional economic regulation of the electricity industry slows or stifles innovation because regulation undercuts the experimentation, trial and error, and learning of both producers and consumers. As I state in the abstract:

Persistent regulation in potentially competitive markets can undermine consumer benefits when technological change both makes those markets competitive and creates new opportunities for market experimentation. This paper applies the Bell Doctrine precedent of “quarantine the monopoly” to the electricity industry, and extends the Bell Doctrine by analyzing the role of market experimentation in generating the benefits of competition. The general failure to quarantine the monopoly wires segment and its regulated monopolist from the potentially competitive downstream retail market contributes to the slow pace and lackluster performance of retail electricity markets for residential customers. The form of this failure to quarantine the monopoly is the persistence of an incumbent default service contract that was intended to be a transition mechanism to full retail competition, coupled with the regulatory definition of product characteristics and market boundaries that is necessary to define the default product and evaluate the regulated monopolist’s performance in providing it. The consequence of the incumbent’s incomplete exit from the retail market suggests that as regulated monopolists and regulators evaluate customer-facing smart grid investments, regulators and other policymakers should consider the potential anti-competitive effects of the failure to quarantine the monopoly with respect to the default service contract and in-home energy management technology.

In August 2011 I wrote about the Bell Doctrine, Baxter’s precedent from the U.S. v. AT&T divestiture case, and how we have failed to quarantine the monopoly in electricity. This paper is an extension of that argument, and I welcome comments!

If you’ll be at the SEA meetings, I hope to see you there; I am headed to NOLA tonight, and look forward to a fun weekend full of good economic brain candy.

New York state also moves quickly on price gougers

Michael Giberson

The New York Attorney General’s office takes action against 13 gas station owners in the state for price gouging. Like last week’s prompt response by New Jersey, this is unusually quick work for price gouging cases.

A few quotes from the AG’s press release:

NEW YORK – Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman today announcedthat his office has notified 13 gas station operators of his intent to commence enforcement proceedings against them for violations of the New York State Price Gouging statute. These are the first of what is expected to be a series of actions taken in a wide-ranging investigation launched in the wake of Hurricane Sandy for price gouging after receiving hundreds of complaints from consumers across the state of New York.

“Our office has zero tolerance for price gouging and we are taking action to send a message that ripping off New Yorkers is against the law,” said Attorney General Schneiderman. “Today’s action is the first in a series of steps my office will take as we continue to actively investigate the hundreds of complaints we’ve received from consumers of businesses preying on victims of Hurricane Sandy. We will do everything we can to stop unscrupulous individuals from taking advantage of New Yorkers trying to rebuild their lives.”

Included is some explanation of price gouging law details:

New York’s price gouging law does not specifically define what constitutes an “unconscionably excessive price.” However, the statute provides that a price may be “unconscionably excessive” if: the amount charged represents a gross disparity between the price of the goods or services which were the subject of the transaction and their value measured by the price at which such consumer goods or services were sold or offered for sale by the defendant in the usual course of business immediately prior to the onset of the abnormal disruption of the market.

In other words, a “before-and-after” price analysis can be used as evidence of price gouging. Evidence that a price is unconscionably excessive may also include proof that “the amount charged grossly exceeded the price at which the same or similar goods or services were readily obtainable by other consumers in the trade area.” However, a merchant may counter with evidence that additional costs not within its control were imposed for the goods or services. Notably, the price gouging law does not prohibit any disparity between the price charged before and after there is an abnormal disruption of the market. Rather, the statute prohibits a “gross disparity,” when it is clear that a business is taking unfair advantage of consumers by charging unconscionably excessive prices, and increasing its profits, under severe circumstances that call for shared sacrifices.

Attorney General Schneiderman added, “These thirteen retailers stand out from others in the high prices they have charged and in the size of their price increases.”

Note the phrase “additional costs not within its control.” If a store manager takes actions to increase cost that are within the managers control: paying overtime to an employee, or undertaking extraordinary efforts to stock up on goods that post-emergency consumers might use, it may find that the state does not consider such costs as legitimate grounds for charging higher prices. (Case in point: People v. Chazy Hardware. Expense and risks involved in effort to procure generators after an ice storm not grounds for charging higher price.)

Two gasoline price gouging examples listed in the press release:

Attorney General Schneiderman noted as an example that, in the case of the Mobil station located at 40-40 Crescent Street in Long Island City, the price per gallon was posted at the roadside as $3.89. The line for the station was three city blocks long. When the consumer got to the pump, the price sign noted a cash price of $4.89 for regular gas and a credit card price of $4.99. The consumer paid the $4.99 using his credit card because he was low on cash and needed the gas.

In another example, at the Express mart station located at 1000 Rte 9 in Lindenhurst, a consumer has reported that there were no road signs indicating the gas prices, only a plywood sign next to the road stating they were only accepting cash for gasoline purchases. There was a long line at the gas station. When the consumer pulled up to the pump he was told the gas price was $4.99 a gallon. He paid the $4.99 because he needed the gas.

The 13 gasoline stations are branded: Shell (3), Mobile (4), USA Petroleum (2), Babylon Gas/Express Market, Sonomax, Delta, and Getty. Without looking for any evidence, I’ll hazard the guess that the seven “big name” stations are all franchisees and not vertically integrated companies with refineries and distribution operations and the other six are small local chains or franchisees of regional brands. Compare to the NJ seven listed here.

Headline: “Gov. Christie expects property taxes to rise in Sandy-ravaged areas”

Michael Giberson

At least the Governor understands that emergencies can drive costs up. We’ll see if this understanding goes beyond the expenditure of public funds to include excess costs faced by small business in New Jersey once the state gets around to prosecuting price gouging cases in earnest. Christie tax story here.

One example of the higher cost of government due to the storm: in at least four cases local government officials–mayor, police chief, sheriff, school superintendent–used local-government portable generators to power their homes or small businesses during power outages.