How cool is this? A transparent solar cell

I’ve not been sharing enough of my “how cool is this?” moments, and believe me, I’ve had plenty of them in the digital and clean tech areas lately. I find this one very exciting: Michigan State researchers have developed a fully transparent solar cell that could be used for windows or device screens:

Instead of trying to create a transparent photovoltaic cell (which is nigh impossible), they use a transparent luminescent solar concentrator (TLSC). The TLSC consists of organic salts that absorb specific non-visible wavelengths of ultraviolet and infrared light, which they then luminesce (glow) as another wavelength of infrared light (also non-visible). This emitted infrared light is guided to the edge of plastic, where thin strips of conventional photovoltaic solar cell convert it into electricity. [Research paper: DOI: 10.1002/adom.201400103– “Near-Infrared Harvesting Transparent Luminescent Solar Concentrators”] …

So far, one of the larger barriers to large-scale adoption of solar power is the intrusive and ugly nature of solar panels — obviously, if we can produce large amounts of solar power from sheets of glass and plastic that look like normal sheets of glass and plastic, then that would be big.

The energy efficiency numbers are low, 1%, but they estimate they could go up to 5%. Figuring out how much cost this TLSC technology adds to large panes of glass and comparing that to alternative electricity prices is the next step in assessing its commercial viability. But the technology is seriously cool.

 

Forthcoming paper: Implications of Smart Grid Innovation for Organizational Models in Electricity Distribution

Back in 2001 I participated in a year-long forum on the future of the electricity distribution model. Convened by the Center for the Advancement of Energy Markets, the DISCO of the Future Forum brought together many stakeholders to develop several scenarios and analyze their implications (and several of those folks remain friends, playmates in the intellectual sandbox, and commenters here at KP [waves at Ed]!). As noted in this 2002 Electric Light and Power article,

Among the 100 recommendations that CAEM discusses in the report, the forum gave suggestions ranging from small issues-that regulators should consider requiring a standard form (or a “consumer label”) on pricing and terms and conditions of service for small customers to be provided to customers at the tie of the initial offer (as well as upon request)-to larger ones, including the suggestions that regulators should establish a standard distribution utility reporting format for all significant distribution upgrades and extensions, and that regulated DISCOs should be permitted to recover their reasonable costs for development of grid interface designs and grid interconnect application review.

“The technology exists to support a competitive retail market responsive to price signals and demand constraints,” the report concludes. “The extent to which the market is opened to competition and the extent to which these technologies are applied by suppliers, DISCOS and customers will, in large part, be determined by state legislatures and regulators.”

Now in 2015, technological dynamism has brought to a head many of the same questions, regulatory models, and business models that we “penciled out” 14 years ago.

In a new paper, forthcoming in the Wiley Handbook of Smart Grid Development, I grapple with that question: what are the implications of this technological dynamism for the organizational form of the distribution company? What transactions in the vertically-integrated supply chain should be unbundled, what assets should it own, and what are the practical policy issues being tackled in various places around the world as they deal with these questions? I analyze these questions using a theoretical framework from the economics of organization and new institutional economics. And I start off with a historical overview of the industry’s technology, regulation, and organizational model.

Implications of Smart Grid Innovation for Organizational Models in Electricity Distribution

Abstract: Digital technologies from outside the electricity industry are prompting changes in both regulatory institutions and electric utility business models, leading to the disaggregation or unbundling of historically vertically integrated electricity firms in some jurisdictions and not others, and simultaneously opening the door for competition with the traditional electric utility business. This chapter uses the technological and organizational history of the industry, combined with the transactions cost theory of the firm and of vertical integration, to explore the implications of smart grid technologies for future distribution company business models. Smart grid technologies reduce transactions costs, changing economical firm boundaries and reducing the traditional drivers of vertical integration. Possible business models for the distribution company include an integrated utility, a network manager, or a coordinating platform provider.

The New York REV and the distribution company of the future

We live in interesting times in the electricity industry. Vibrant technological dynamism, the very dynamism that has transformed how we work, play, and live, puts increasing pressure on the early-20th-century physical network, regulatory model, and resulting business model of the vertically-integrated distribution utility.

While the utility “death spiral” rhetoric is overblown, these pressures are real. They reflect the extent to which regulatory and organizational institutions, as well as the architecture of the network, are incompatible with a general social objective of not obstructing such innovation. Boosting my innovation-focused claim is the synthesis of relatively new environmental objectives into the policy mix. Innovation, particularly innovation at the distribution edge, is an expression of human creativity that fosters both older economic policy objectives of consumer protection from concentrations of market power and newer environmental policy objectives of a cleaner and prosperous energy future.

But institutions change slowly, especially bureaucratic institutions where decision-makers have a stake in the direction and magnitude of institutional change. Institutional change requires imagination to see a different world as possible, practical vision to see how to get from today’s reality toward that different world, and courage to exercise the leadership and navigate the tough tradeoffs that inevitably arise.

That’s the sense in which the New York Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) proceeding of the New York State Public Service Commission (Greentech) is compelling and encouraging. Launched in spring 2014 with a staff paper, REV is looking squarely at institutional change to align the regulatory framework and the business model of the distribution utility more with these policy objectives and with fostering innovation. As Katherine Tweed summarized the goals in the Greentech Media article linked above,

The report calls for an overhaul of the regulation of the state’s distribution utilities to achieve five policy objectives:

  • Increasing customer knowledge and providing tools that support effective management of their total energy bill
  • Market animation and leverage of ratepayer contributions
  • System-wide efficiency
  • Fuel and resource diversity
  • System reliability and resiliency

The PSC acknowledges that the current ratemaking procedure simply doesn’t work and that the distribution system is not equipped for the changes coming to the energy market. New York is already a deregulated market in which distribution is separated from generation and there is retail choice for electricity. Although that’s a step beyond many states, it is hardly enough for what’s coming in the market.

Last week the NY PSC issued its first order in the REV proceeding, that the incumbent distribution utilities will serve as distributed system platform providers (DSPPs) and should start planning accordingly. As noted by RTO Insider,

The framework envisions utilities serving a central role in the transition as distributed system platform (DSP) providers, responsible for integrated system planning and grid and market operations.

In most cases, however, utilities will be barred from owning distributed energy resources (DER): demand response, distributed generation, distributed storage and end-use energy efficiency.

The planning function will be reflected in the utilities’ distributed system implementation plan (DSIP), a multi-year forecast proposing capital and operating expenditures to serve the DSP functions and provide third parties the system information they need to plan for market participation.

A platform business model is not a cut and dry thing, though, especially in a regulated industry where the regulatory institutions reinforced and perpetuated a vertically integrated model for over a century (with that model only really modified due to generator technological change in the 1980s leading to generation unbundling). Institutional design and market design, the symbiosis of technology and institutions, will have to be front and center, if the vertically-integrated uni-directional delivery model of the 20th century is to evolve into a distribution facilitator of the 21st century.

In fact, the institutional design issues at stake here have been the focus of my research during my sabbatical, so I hope to have more to add to the discussion based on some of my forthcoming work on the subject.

When does state utility regulation distort costs?

I suspect the simplest answer to the title question is “always.” Maybe the answer depends on your definition of “distort,” but both the intended and generally expected consequences of state utility rate regulation has always been to push costs to be something other than what would naturally emerge in the absence of rate regulation.

More substantive, though, is the analysis provided in Steve Cicala’s article in the January 2015 American Economic Review, “When Does Regulation Distort Costs? Lessons from Fuel Procurement in US Electricity Generation.” (here is an earlier ungated version of the paper.)

Here is a summary from the University of Chicago press release:

A study in the latest issue of the American Economic Review used recent state regulatory changes in electricity markets as a laboratory to evaluate which factors can contribute to a regulation causing a bigger mess than the problem it was meant to fix….

Cicala used data on almost $1 trillion worth of fuel deliveries to power plants to look at what happens when a power plant becomes deregulated. He found that the deregulated plants combined save about $1 billion a year compared to those that remained regulated. This is because a lack of transparency, political influence and poorly designed reimbursement rates led the regulated plants to pursue inefficient strategies when purchasing coal.

The $1 billion that deregulated plants save stems from paying about 12 percent less for their coal because they shop around for the best prices. Regulated plants have no incentive to shop around because their profits do not depend on how much they pay for fuel. They also are looked upon more favorably by regulators if they purchase from mines within their state, even if those mines don’t sell the cheapest coal. To make matters worse, regulators have a difficult time figuring out if they are being overcharged because coal is typically purchased through confidential contracts.

Although power plants that burned natural gas were subject to the exact same regulations as the coal-fired plants, there was no drop in the price paid for gas after deregulation. Cicala attributed the difference to the fact that natural gas is sold on a transparent, open market. This prevents political influences from sneaking through and allows regulators to know when plants are paying too much.

What’s different about the buying strategy of deregulated coal plant operators? Cicala dove deep into two decades of detailed, restricted-access procurement data to answer this question. First, he found that deregulated plants switch to cheaper, low-sulfur coal. This not only saves them money, but also allows them to comply with environmental regulations. On the other hand, regulated plants often comply with regulations by installing expensive “scrubber” technology, which allows them to make money from the capital improvements.

“It’s ironic to hear supporters of Eastern coal complain about ‘regulation’: they’re losing business from the deregulated plants,” said Cicala, a scholar at the Harris School of Public Policy.

Deregulated plants also increase purchases from out-of-state mines by about 25 percent. As mentioned, regulated plants are looked upon more favorably if they buy from in-state mines. Finally, deregulated plants purchase their coal from more productive mines (coal seams are thicker and closer to the surface) that require about 25 percent less labor to extract from the ground and that pay 5 percent higher wages.

“Recognizing that there are failures in financial markets, health care markets, energy markets, etc., it’s critical to know what makes for ‘bad’ regulations when designing new ones to avoid making the problem worse,” Cicala said. [Emphasis added.]

Moody’s concludes: mass grid defection not yet on the horizon

Yes, solar power systems are getting cheaper and battery storage is improving. The combination has many folks worried (or elated) about the future prospects of grid-based electric utilities when consumers can get the power they want at home. (See Lynne’s post from last summer for background.)

An analysis by Moody’s concludes that battery storage remains an order of magnitude too high, so grid defections are not yet a demonstrable threat. Analysis of consumer power use data leads them to project a need for a larger home system than other analysts have used. Moody’s further suggests that consumers will be reluctant to make the lifestyle changes–frequent monitoring of battery levels, forced conservation during extended low-solar resource periods–so grid defection may be yet slower than the simple engineering economics computation would suggest.

COMMENT: I’ll project that in a world of widespread consumer power defections, we will see two developments to help consumers avoid the need to face forced conservation. Nobody will have to miss watching Super Bowl LXXX because it was cloudy the week before in Boston. First, plug-in hybrid vehicles hook-ups so the home batteries can be recharged by the consumer’s gasoline or diesel engine. Second, home battery service companies will provide similar mobile recharge services (or hot-swapping home battery systems, etc.) Who knows, in a world of widespread defection, maybe the local electric company will offer spot recharge services at a market-based rate?

[HT to Clean Beta]

Charging for non-customer-specific fixed costs

UC Berkeley economist Severin Borenstein has a really, really great post at the Energy at Haas blog on utility fixed charges to recoup system fixed costs. If you want a primer on volumetric versus two-part pricing, this is a good one. After a very clear and cogent explanation and illustration of the differences among variable costs, customer-specific fixed costs, and system fixed costs, he says

Second, as everyone who studies electricity markets knows (and even much of the energy media have grown to understand), the marginal cost of electricity generation goes up at higher-demand times, and all generation gets paid those high peak prices.  That means extra revenue for the baseload plants above their lower marginal cost, and that revenue that can go to pay the fixed costs of those plants, as I discussed in a paper back in 1999. …

The same is not true, however, for distribution costs.  Retail prices don’t rise at peak times and create extra revenue that covers fixed costs of distribution.  That creates a revenue shortfall that has to be made up somewhere. Likewise, the cost of customer-specific fixed costs don’t get compensated in a system where the volumetric charge for electricity reflects its true marginal cost.

He continues with a good discussion of the lack of a theoretical economic principle informing distribution fixed costs.

I want to take it in another, complementary, direction. The asymmetry he points out is, of course, an artifact of cost-based regulated rate recovery, which means that even under retail competition this challenge will arise, even though his explanation of it is articulated under fixed, regulated rates. And the fact that late night regulated rates are higher than energy costs may not generate a revenue excess that would be sufficient to pay the system fixed costs portion in the way he describes as happening in wholesale markets and transmission fixed costs. This is a thorny problem of cost-based regulation.

Consider a regulated, vertically-integrated distribution utility. This utility offers a menu of contracts — a fixed price, a TOU price, and a real-time price (the attentive among you will notice that this setup approximates what we studied in the GridWise Olympic Peninsula Project). It’s possible, as David Chassin and Ross Guttromson demonstrated, for the utility to find an efficient frontier among these three contract types to maximize expected revenue in aggregate across the groups of customers choosing among those contracts. That’s a situation in which retail revenue does vary, driven especially by the RTP customers, and revenue can be higher to the extent that there’s a core of inelastic retail demand. But they still have to figure out a principle, a rule, a metric, an algorithm for sharing those distribution system fixed costs, or for taking them into account when setting their fixed and TOU prices. And then to be non-discriminatory, they’d probably have to allocate the same system fixed costs to the RTP customers too. So we’re back where we started.

And this is also the case under retail competition. Take, for example, this table of delivery charges in Texas, where the regulated utilities are transmission and distribution wires companies.  It breaks them down between customer fixed charges and system fixed charges, but it’s still the same type of scenario as Severin describes.

As long as there’s a component of the value chain that’s cost-recovery regulated, and as long as that component has system-specific and customer-specific fixed costs, this question will have to be part of the analysis.

A related question is whether, or how, the regulated utility will be permitted to provide services that generate new revenue streams that will allow them to cover those costs. That’s a thicket I’ll crawl into another day.

Platform economics and “unscaling” the electricity industry

A few weeks ago I mused over the question of whether there would ever be an Uber or AirBnB for the electricity grid. This question is a platform question — both Uber and AirBnB have business models in which they bring together two parties for mutual benefit, and the platform provider’s revenue stream can come from charging one or both parties for facilitating the transaction (although there are other means too). I said that a “P2P platform very explicitly reduces transaction costs that prevent exchanges between buyer and seller”, and that’s really the core of a platform business model. Platform providers exist to make exchanges feasible that were not before, to make them easier, and ultimately to make them either cheaper or more valuable (or some combination of the two).

In this sense the Nobel Prize award to Jean Tirole (pdf, very good summary of his work) this week was timely, because one of the areas of economics to which he has contributed is the economics of two-sided platform markets. Alex Tabarrok wrote an excellent summary of Tirole’s platform economics work. As Alex observes,

Antitrust and regulation of two-sided markets is challenging because the two sets of prices [that the platform firm charges to the two parties] may look discriminatory or unfair even when they are welfare enhancing. … Platform markets mean that pricing at marginal cost can no longer be considered optimal in every market and pricing above marginal cost can no longer be considered as an indication of monopoly power.

One aspect of platform firms is that they connect distinct users in a network. Platform firms are network firms. Not all network firms/industries operate or think of their business models as platform firms, though. That will change.

What role does a network firm provide? It’s connection, facilitating exchange between two parties. This idea is not novel, not original in the digital age. Go back in economic history to the beginnings of canals, say, or rail networks. Transportation is a quintessential non-digital network platform industry. I think you can characterize all network infrastructure industries as having some aspects of platform or two-sided markets; rail networks bring together transportation providers and passengers/freight, postal networks bring together correspondents, pipeline networks bring together buyers and sellers of oil or natural gas, electric wires networks bring together generators and consumers.

What’s novel in the digital age is that by changing transaction costs, the technology changes the transactional boundary of the firm and reduces the economic impetus for vertical integration. A digital platform firm, like Google or Uber, is not vertically integrated upstream or downstream in any of the value chains that its platform enables (although some of Google’s acquisitions are changing that somewhat), whereas historically, railroads and gas companies and electric companies started out vertically integrated. Rail network owners were vertically integrated upstream into train ownership and transportation provision, and electric utilities were integrated upstream into generation. In network infrastructure industries, the platform is physical, and firms bundled the network service into their offering. But they have not been seen or thought of as platforms in the sense that we are coming to understand as such firms and industries emerge; I suspect that’s because of the economic benefit and the historical path dependence of the vertical integration.

Another distinguishing feature of platforms and two-sided markets is that the cost-revenue relationship is not uni-directional, a point summarized well in this Harvard Business Review article overview from 2006:

Two-sided networks can be found in many industries, sharing the space with traditional product and service offerings. However, two-sided networks differ from other offerings in a fundamental way. In the traditional value chain, value moves from left to right: To the left of the company is cost; to the right is revenue. In two-sided networks, cost and revenue are both to the left and the right, because the platform has a distinct group of users on each side. The platform incurs costs in serving both groups and can collect revenue from each, although one side is often subsidized, as we’ll see.

In this sense, I still think that the electricity network and its transactions has platform characteristics — the wires firm incurs costs to deliver energy from generators to consumers, and those costs arise in serving both distinct groups.

As I apply these concepts to the electricity industry, I think digital technologies have two platform-related types of effects. The first is the reduction in transaction costs that were a big part of the economic drive for vertical integration in the first place — digital technologies make distributed digital sensing, monitoring, and measurement of energy flow and system status possible in ways that were inconceivable or impossibly costly before the invention of the transistor.

The second is the ability that digital technologies create for the network firm to handle more diverse and heterogenous types of agents in a two-sided market. For example, digital sensors and automated digital switches make it possible to automate rules for the interconnection of distributed generation, electric vehicles, microgrids, and other diverse users into the distribution grid in ways that can be mutually beneficial in a two-sided market sense. The old electro-mechanical sensors could not do that.

This is the sense in which I think a lot of tech entrepreneurs talk about “unscaling the electricity industry”:

If we want secure, clean and affordable energy, we can’t continue down this path. Instead, we need to grow in a very different way, one more akin to the Silicon Valley playbook of unscaling an industry by aggregating individual users onto platforms.

Digitally-enabled distributed resources are becoming increasingly economical at smaller scales, and some of these types of resources — microgrids, electric vehicles — can either be producers or consumers, each having associated costs and revenues and with their identities changing depending on whether they are selling excess energy or buying it.

This is a substantive, meaningful sense in which the distribution wires firm can, and should, operate as a platform and think about platform strategies as the utility business model evolves. An electric distribution platform facilitates exchange in two-sided electricity and energy service markets, charging a fee for doing so. In the near term, much of that facilitation takes the form of distribution, of the transportation and delivery. As distributed resources proliferate, the platform firm must rethink how it creates value, and reaps revenues, by facilitating beneficial exchange in two-sided markets.