Continuing debate over the economic origins of electric utility regulation

State regulation of electric utilities began in earnest about 1907 and by around 1920 almost all states had begun state regulation. Prior to state regulation, most electric utilities were regulated through city-issued franchise agreements. Was state regulation of privately-owned electric utilities efficiency enhancing relative to the municipal franchise regulation of electric utilities that preceded it?

Thomas Lyon and Nathan Wilson, in the Journal of Regulatory Economics (2012, full cite below), write, “Electricity is perhaps the quintessential regulated industry, yet the historical roots of its regulation remain imperfectly understood. This lack of clarity exists despite the existence of a small but fascinating literature on the subject.”

Two main opposing lines of thought are supported: a public choice story of regulatory capture, and a transactions cost/contracting story of efficiency enhancing state regulation. Lyon and Wilson begin with a quick survey of this literature:

In a pioneering paper that initiated the empirical study of regulation, Stigler and Friedland (1962) argued that the behavior of electric utilities subject to state regulation was not significantly different from that of other utilities. Jarrell (1978) pointed out that interpreting this result was difficult, since utilities not subject to state regulation remained subject to municipal franchise contracting, which had preceded state regulation historically. He showed that not only was state regulation adopted earlier in states with lower rates, these early-adopting states subsequently saw their electric rates fall more slowly than those in other states; he thus characterized state regulation as a classic example of capture by the regulated industry.

More recent work suggests that because municipal franchise contracting was rife with corruption, state regulation was seen as more likely to protect the massive quasi-rents created by large-scale investment in generation capacity. If so, then the relative increase in prices under state regulation could have been necessary to support investment, and state regulation can be seen as a better form of long-term relational contract. Knittel (2006) used an empirical hazard model to shed new light on the drivers of early adoption of state regulation, and found they included not just low prices, but also capacity shortages and low residential electricity penetration rates.

This suggests that a desire to increase investment may have been an important  factor driving the adoption of state regulation. Neufeld (2008), in a similar empirical analysis, finds that states with a higher level of capacity per capita (proxying for larger appropriable quasi-rents) adopted state regulation earlier. This suggests that a desire to protect existing investments may have been an important factor driving the adoption of state regulation. Both papers imply that state regulation was expected to provide better protection for investment than did municipal franchise contracting.

Lyon and Wilson note that both the capture and contracting explanations are consistent with Jarrell’s finding of relative price increases after a move to state regulation, but that the explanations differ with respect to their implications for investment. The capture theory suggests that utilities would raise prices to allow owners to take more profits (with higher prices resulting in slower consumption growth, implying slower capacity growth), while the contract story suggests utilities would raise prices to invest in additional capacity once they had been relieved of the risk of municipal predation.

Lyon and Wilson examine investment in capacity over the period 1902 to 1937 to determine what effect, if any, state regulation had on investment. While data limits challenge the analysis, the authors find a fairly consistent pattern of state regulation being associated with slower rates of investment. That is to say, the authors conclude investment data supports the capture theory of regulation.

From their conclusion:

This paper has tested whether state regulation did indeed result in a stronger propensity to invest on the part of electric utilities. We found no support for this hypothesis. Instead, we found robust evidence that state regulation actually reduced the investment propensity of investor-owned utilities, controlling for existing levels of capacity per capita. From the perspective of enhancing investment, any protection against regulatory opportunism conferred by state regulation was apparently outweighed by its vulnerability to capture by regulated firms.

REFERENCES

Jarrell, Gregg A. “The Demand for State Regulation of the Electric Utility Industry.” Journal of Law & Economics 21 (1978): 269.

Lyon, Thomas P., and Nathan Wilson. “Capture or contract? The early years of electric utility regulation.” Journal of Regulatory Economics 42.3 (2012): 225.

Neufeld, John L. “Corruption, quasi-rents, and the regulation of electric utilities.” Journal of Economic History 68.04 (2008): 1059. [Article discussed earlier on KP here.]

Stigler, George J., and Claire Friedland. “What can regulators regulate? The case of electricity.” Journal of Law & Economics 5 (1962): 1.

Power demand in Texas grows more slowly than forecasted

From StateImpact Texas, a joint effort of radio station KUT Austin and KUHF Houston, a report that consumption of electric power in Texas isn’t growing as fast as expected:

As the Texas Public Utility Commission (PUC) considers changing the electricity market so there’s more money to build new power plants, a mystery has popped up: why aren’t Texans using as much electricity as predicted?

“There’s something that’s been going on recently with the forecasts, which affects a lot of things,” said PUC commissioner Kenneth Anderson at the commission’s open meeting last week.

Who Turned the Lights Out?

Anderson said forecasts from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) had predicted electricity demand would increase in 2013 by 2.1 percent.

In reality?

“It’s been barely one percent, if it’s even hit one percent,” Anderson said.

As the story highlights, this is kind of a big deal. The Texas PUC is contemplating fairly substantive changes to the ERCOT power market design based on projections that power generation capability won’t grow fast enough to meet forecasted future demand. If the forecasts are overstating the problem, maybe regulators need not be quite so nervous.

EIA shows higher wind power output cutting into baseload power generation

The Energy Information Administration’s “Today in Energy” series shows with a couple of charts how growing wind power output in the Southwest Power Pool region is cutting into the income of baseload power plants.

U.S. EIA chart based on Southwest Power Pool data.

The effect matters because baseload power plants tend to have the lowest operating costs. As baseload plants get pushed off the system, more of system capacity will shift to more flexible “load following” plants, which tend to have higher operating costs. Power prices in the Southwest Power Pool and other ISO power markets tend to reflect the operating costs of load following plants, so the effect will be to increase average wholesale power prices.

Wind power advocates sometimes want to claim credit for driving down power prices, and in the short run the addition of wind power can push prices down (especially, of course, if wind power plants have their output subsidized as with the Production Tax Credit). In the long run, as output of cheap-to-run baseload power plants is squeezed from the system, average prices will rise again.

The ERCOT market in Texas faces this same problem — in fact I suspect it is a little further down this path than the Southwest Power Pool — and the state has been struggling over projected resource adequacy concerns on the horizon. Of course, as Texas PUC commission Kenneth Anderson has pointed out, an efficient “energy-only” market with growing consumption should always see resource adequacy problems about four or five years ahead. If it doesn’t see shortages in the future, it implies the system is currently overbuilt. Still, incentives to invest in generation appear weak, wind power capacity additions in Texas are expected to continue, and resource adequacy analysts in ERCOT are nervous.

Exit, Voice, and LP&L

For many years Lubbock, Texas was the largest or among the largest cities with dual, competing electric utilities. If a consumer was unhappy with utility A, all it took was a phone call and about three days and the consumer would be hooked up to utility B. Standard economic theory suggests that such an arrangement would be unsustainable, but by most accounts electric rates stayed low and customer service was high. Some of this story is laid out in a 1981 Reason magazine article, “Two utilities are better than one.”

The official history once posted on municipal utility Lubbock Power & Light’s website claimed, “All electric customers in Lubbock have benefited from the decision of those early pioneers to begin retail competition.” It is true. A decade ago rising gas prices caught the city by surprise, LP&L tried to raise its rates noticeably higher than competitor Xcel, and consumers simply switched. Rather than simply stick consumers with the bill for their own lack of management savvy, the city and LP&L were forced into a complicated and unpleasant set of deals that diminished management’s role but kept rates low. Consumer exit protected the power consumer’s pocketbook.

Then, a couple of years ago, city powers that be decided two utilities were more trouble than one, LP&L bought out competitor Xcel in the city limits of Lubbock, and the town’s electric service was monopolized for the first time since September 1917. I blogged about the change, and a few locals objected, but the transaction sailed through without much difficulty.

Fast forward to today. The city council has recently approved a rate increase, implemented right before the summer began and accompanied by a massive billing snafu the first month, and now rather than LP&L being one of the cheapest in Texas it has rates near the state average.  Consumers, who no longer have exit as an easy option, are finding “voice” to be a frustrating experience.

Once you could call the competitor, and a few days later you’d be out. Now you can call your city council member, and when that turns out to be less than satisfying, start grumbling about recall petitions and lamenting the loss of the good old days. But pay your bills on time, or at least make billing arrangements in time, or get cut off.

As one Tech student remarked, “Maybe there is a lesson about competition in there.”

[NOTE: I'm not taking a stand for or against the rate increase. Perhaps it is needed given the circumstances, even though consolidation of the two utilities was supposed to yield cost savings, etc. etc. However, had the city still be in competition mode, I suspect the management plan would have been much different.]

“If your toilet’s so smart, how come I can hack it?”

Thus reads the headlines on David Meyer’s Gigaom post on news that the Satis toilet, manufactured by the Japanese firm Lixii, comes with a smartphone app that can be used to control any Satis toilet (see also this BBC news article). You may wonder why a toilet needs an app, which is a valid question; this one allows recording of one’s activity (if you so choose …), remote flushing, remote air freshener spray, and remote bidet operation. Subjective utility being what it is, I’ll consider Lixii as entrepreneurs responding to what they perceive as some undersatisfied preference in the market, which the extent of their subsequent profits will indicate or not …

Although the story is scatologically humorous, Meyer’s closing observation hits upon exactly the same point I made recently in my post about the hackability of home management systems:

Of course, it’s not like someone will be exploiting this vulnerability to prank someone a continent away — Bluetooth is a pretty short-range wireless technology. However, it’s the kind of thing that should be borne in mind by manufacturers who are starting to jazz up previously low-tech appliances with new-fangled connectivity.

Because when it comes to security, as Trustwave SpiderLabs and others have warned, the home is the last place you want to be caught with your pants down.

Disruptive innovation and the regulated utility

Over the weekend the New York Times ran a good story about how rooftop solar and regulatory rules allowing net metering are putting pressure on the regulated distribution utility business model:

The struggle over the California incentives is only the most recent and visible dust-up as many utilities cling to their established business, and its centralized distribution of energy, until they can figure out a new way to make money. …

“Net metering right now is the only way for customers to get value for their rooftop solar systems,” said Adam Browning, executive director of the advocacy group Vote Solar.

Mr. Browning and other proponents say that solar customers deserve fair payment not only for the electricity they transmit but for the value that smaller, more dispersed power generators give to utilities. Making more power closer to where it is used, advocates say, can reduce stress on the grid and make it more reliable, as well as save utilities from having to build and maintain more infrastructure and large, centralized generators.

But utility executives say that when solar customers no longer pay for electricity, they also stop paying for the grid, shifting those costs to other customers. Utilities generally make their profits by making investments in infrastructure and designing customer rates to earn that money back with a guaranteed return, set on average at about 10 percent.

In a nutshell, what’s happening is that environmental and global warming policy initiatives are resulting in government subsidies and tax credits for consumer investments in rooftop solar, especially in states like California. As more consumers install rooftop solar they both make less use of the electricity distribution network to receive electricity and can put the excess power generated from their solar panels onto the distribution grid (called net metering). Under net metering they receive a per-kilowatt-hour payment that ranges between the averaged, regulated retail rate and the wholesale price of electricity at that time, depending on the net metering rules that are in operation in that state. From the regulated utility’s perspective, this move creates a double whammy — it reduces the amount of electricity sold and distributed using the wires network, which reduces revenue and the ability of the utility to charge the customer for use of the wires, but since most of the costs for the network are fixed costs and the utility is guaranteed a particular rate of return on those assets, that means increasing rates for other customers who have not installed solar.

Offsetting some of that revenue decrease/fixed cost dilemma is the fact that net metering means that the utility is purchasing power from rooftop solar owners at a price lower than the spot price they would have to pay to purchase power in the wholesale market in that hour (i.e., wholesale price as avoided cost) … except what happens when they have already entered long-term contracts for power and have to pay anyway? And in California, the net metering payment to the customer is the fully-loaded retail rate, not just the energy portion of the rate, so even though the customer is essentially still using the network (to sell excess power to other users via the regulated utility instead of buying it), the utility is not receiving the wires charge portion of the per-kilowatt-hour regulated rate.

Sounds like a mess, right? It sure is. And, as Katie Fehrenbacher pointed out yesterday on Gigaom, the disruption of the regulated electric utility in the same way that Kodak, Blockbuster, and Borders have been disrupted out of existence is not a new idea. In fact, I made the same argument here at KP back in 2003, building on a paper I co-authored for the International Association of Energy Economics meetings in 2002 (and here are other KP posts that both Mike and I have made on net metering). I summarized that paper in this Reason Foundation column, in which I argued

Many technological and market innovations have reduced the natural monopoly rationale for traditional electric industry regulation. For example, consider distributed generation. Distributed generation (DG) is the use of an energy source (gas turbines, gas engines, fuel cells, for example) to generate electricity close to where it will be used. Technological change in the past decade and deregulation in the natural gas industry have made DG an economically viable alternative to buying electricity from a monopoly utility and receiving it over the utility’s transmission and distribution grid. The potential for this competition to discipline a transmission owner’s prices for transmission services is immense, but it still faces some obstacles. …

Technological change and market dynamics have made the natural monopoly model of electricity regulation obsolete. While technological changes and market innovations that shape the electricity industry’s evolution have received some attention, their roles in making natural monopoly regulation of transmission and distribution obsolete have not received systematic treatment. For that reason, the policy debate has focused on creating regional transmission organizations to rationalize grid construction, but has not dug more deeply into the possible benefits of dramatically rethinking the foundations of natural monopoly regulation.

I may have been a bit ahead of my time in making this argument, but the improvements in energy efficiency and production costs for solar technology and the shale gas revolution have made this point even more important.

Think a bit about how the regulated utilities and regulators have come to this point. They have come to this point by trying to retain much of the physical and legal structure of traditional regulation, and by trying to fold innovation into that structure. The top-down system-level imposition of requirements for the regulated utility to purchase excess solar-generated electricity and to pay a specific, fixed price for it. The attempts of regulated utilities to block such efforts, and to charge high “standby charges” to customers who install distributed generation but want to retain their grid interconnection as an insurance policy. The fact that regulation ensures cost recovery for the wires company and how that implies that a reduction in number of customers means a price increase to those customers staying on the wires network. And adding on top of that the subsidies and tax credits to induce residential customers to purchase and install rooftop solar. I don’t think we could design a worse process and set of institutions if we tried.

You may respond that there’s no real alternative, and I’d say you’re wrong. You can see the hint in my remarks above from 2003 — if these states had robust retail competition, then retailers could offer a variety of different contracts, products, and services associated with distributed generation. Wires companies could essentially charge standard per-unit transportation rates (assuming they would still be regulated). In that market design, much of the pressure on the business model of the wires company from distributed generation gets diluted. The wires company would still have to be forward-looking and think (with the regulators) about what increased penetration of distributed generation would mean for the required distribution capacity of the wires network and how to invest in it and recover the costs. But the wires company would be just that, a wires company, and not the party with the retail relationship with the residential customer, so all of these distortions arising from net metering would diminish. If I were a wires company I would certainly use digital meters and monitors to measure the amount of current flow and the direction of current flow, and I would charge a per-kilowatt-hour wires transportation charge regardless of direction of flow, whether the residential customer is consuming or producing. Digital technology makes that granular observation possible, which makes that revenue model possible.

That’s why states like California have created such an entangled mess for themselves by retaining the traditional regulated utility structure for integrated distribution and retail and trying to both absorb and incentivize disruptive distributed generation innovation in that traditional structure. Not surprisingly, Texas with its more deregulated and dis-integrated structure has escaped this mess — the only regulated entity is the wires (transmission and distribution) company, and retailers are free to offer residential customers compensation for any excess generation from distributed renewable generation sources, at a price mutually agreed upon between the retailer and the customer in their contract. In fact, Green Mountain Energy offers such a contract to residential customers in Texas. See how much easier that is than what is happening in California?

Honey, someone hacked our smart home

Ever since the first “vision” meeting I attended at the Department of Energy in 2003 about the technologically advanced electric power grid of the future, digital network security in a smart grid has been a paramount concern. Much of the concern emphasizes hardening the electrical and communication networks against nefarious attempts to access control rooms or substations. Less attention goes to the security of the home automation system itself.

Here’s why privacy and security issues matter so much in customer-facing smart grid products and services: how likely is it that someone can hack into your home energy management system? The resourceful technology and privacy journalist Kashmir Hill gained access to eight homes, merely by doing an Internet search to see if any homes had their devices set to be discoverable by a search engine:

Googling a very simple phrase led me to a list of “smart homes” that had done something rather stupid. The homes all have an automation system from Insteon that allows remote control of their lights, hot tubs, fans, televisions, water pumps, garage doors, cameras, and other devices, so that their owners can turn these things on and off with a smartphone app or via the Web. The dumb thing? Their systems had been made crawl-able by search engines – meaning they show up in search results — and due to Insteon not requiring user names and passwords by default in a now-discontinued product, I was able to click on the links, giving me the ability to turn these people’s homes into haunted houses, energy-consumption nightmares, or even robbery targets. Opening a garage door could make a house ripe for actual physical intrusion.

In this instance, early adopters of a now-discontinued home automation system had not changed their default settings to implement security protocols. They had not followed the simple security protocols that we have become habituated to in our home wireless networks, which most of us now routinely know to secure with a password at least. This security hurdle doesn’t seem very high, and it shouldn’t be; securing a home automation system separately with a username/password login is not difficult, and can be made less difficult for the technologically challenged through helpful customer service.

She goes on in the story to relate her interactions with some of the people whose houses she was able to access, as well as her discussion with people at Insteon:

Insteon chief information officer Mike Nunes says the systems that I’m seeing online are from a product discontinued in the last year. He blamed user error for the appearance in search results, saying the older product was not originally intended for remote access, and to set this up required some savvy on the users’ part. The devices had come with an instruction manual telling users how to put the devices online which strongly advised them to add a username and password to the system. (But, really, who reads instruction manuals closely?)

“This would require the user to have chosen to publish a link (IP address) to the Internet AND for them to have not set a username and password,” says Nunes. I told Nunes that requiring a username/password by default is good security-by-design to protect people from making a mistake like this. “It did not require it by default, but it supported it and encouraged it,” he replied.

One of the interesting aspects of her story (and you get a much deeper sense of it reading the whole article) is the extent to which these early adopters/automation hobbyists identified some but not all of the potential security holes in the home automation system. These are eager, knowledgeable consumers, and even they did not realize that some ports on the router were left open and thus made the system discoverable externally.

I think she’s right that for such technologies in such sensitive applications as home automation, default username/password authentication is good design. This is an application in which I think the behavioral economics arguments about setting defaults to overcome inertia bias are valid.

Insteon has since changed their default settings to require username/password authentication on the automation system separate from the home wireless network authentication, and the rest of the article describes some other companies that are working to close security holes in their home automation systems.

As we extend the smart grid into our home and the “Internet of things” becomes more deeply embedded in our lives, being aware of the value of securing our privacy and reducing the risk of unauthorized access to our homes and the devices and appliances in them becomes more important. The digital rules we apply to our financial transactions should guide our privacy and security awareness and decision in our home network too. That way we can enjoy the benefits of home automation and transactive energy that Hill lays out in her article while minimizing the risk of unauthorized access to our homes and our information.

How did an oil and gas state come to lead in wind power?

The Great Texas Wind Rush by Kate Galbraith and Asher Price

“The Great Texas Wind Rush” by Kate Galbraith and Asher Price

Kate Galbraith, a reporter for the Texas Tribune, and Asher Price, a reporter for the Austin American-Statesman, have written a great historical review of the development of wind power in Texas.

Admittedly, the book is a little light on the kind of details that the interested energy economist wants to know, but the narrative is strong and the economic clues are there for the interested reader to follow. The book covers the emergence of the industry from the pre-1980s idealists and tinkerers to the 2000’s industrial scale wind farms. Both the hopes and dreams of designers and developers, and the frequent crashing of those dreams, are reported upon. The industry has been boosted by often generous but usually uncertain policies, and challenged by sometimes high and sometimes low electric power prices. Some early California wind projects, mentioned in the book, seemed mostly about capturing generous investment incentives rather than long term power production. Many of these didn’t last long enough to meet their initial PURPA-based contract obligations. Texans tried to avoid the worst of the California policy experiences. (Turbine reliability has improved over the years, but remains an important issue in Texas and everywhere else.)

The book goes into all of these issues and more, all along keeping in touch with the characters that moved the business along.

West Texas locations and people feature prominently in the stories, and since I grew up in Amarillo and now work in Lubbock, I got a special kick out of reading about the locals. I have met five or six of the people interviewed for the book (and also met author Kate Galbraith when she was in Lubbock last year), and I’ve seen many of the wind power projects mentioned as I’ve driven around the state. Maybe I have an overly positive reaction to the book for personal reasons.

Still, I think the book provides a good review of the development of the industry. Whether you support or oppose wind power policies, this book will improve your understanding of the industry in Texas. It would provide a useful supplemental text for college courses on the wind power industry and renewable energy policy.

Political economy and dealer franchise laws

Tesla Motors is doing more than shaking up the automobile industry by producing an exciting high-end electric vehicle and establishing a network of battery-swapping stations. Tesla wants to sell directly to consumers, bypassing established dealer franchising that dominates the industry. But such dealer franchising has not been a mere transaction-cost-driven Coasian outcome — it’s undergirded by state laws that require manufacturers to sell their automobiles through independent dealers (Francine Lafontaine and Fiona Scott Morton, Journal of Economic Perspectives Summer 2010 (pdf) provides a useful overview of the history of such laws).

Existing dealers object to Tesla’s direct-to-market approach, and are using the dealer franchise laws to stop Tesla from doing so in states like Virginia; see also this Reason post on legislative events in New York. Note that Virginia law prohibits manufacturers from owning dealerships, outlawing vertical integration in the name of promoting competition, which means that a potential competitor can’t use vertical integration as a competitive strategy (yeah, that’ll promote competition …). Think about that restriction, and apply it to another innovative company: Apple. Dealer franchise laws in electronics would prohibit Apple (and Samsung, etc.) from operating its own stores. How would such a law affect competition in electronics? The answer is not clear, which is the point; vertical integration is not inherently anti-competitive at the retail level. In many ways, these laws are a relic, a holdover from a century ago when the economics of vertical integration was not well understood and vertically integrated firms with market power were per se suspect.

Dan Crane has a really nice post at Truth on the Market about the state dealer franchise laws that examines all of the arguments in favor of state dealer franchise laws. After countering them all and finding them wanting, Crane concludes that

Since the arguments for dealer laws are so weak, I’m left with the firm impression that this is just special interest rent-seeking of the worst kind.  It’s a real shame that Tesla—seemingly one of the most innovative, successful, and environmentally correct American industrial firms of the last decade—is going to have to spend tens of millions of dollars and may eventually have to cut shady political deals for the right to sell its own products.

This raises an interesting political economy situation. When innovative and environmentally correct meets the crony corporatism of existing legislation, is the entrenched incumbent dealer industry sufficiently politically powerful to succeed in retaining their enabling legislation that raises their new rival’s costs?

 

How cool is that nickel-iron battery?

It’s been too long since I’ve done a “how cool is that?” expression of awe and wonder at a piece of ingenious creativity. You may recall that early automobiles were battery-powered — the origins of the electric car are deep and over a century old. One battery technology, courtesy of (you guessed it) Thomas Edison, was nickel-iron; Edison was a proponent of electric vehicles.

Stanford researchers have been working on improving the performance of Edison’s nickel-iron battery, contributing to the portfolio of battery technologies that can improve electricity storage, which is the Holy Grail of electricity technology. As described by Stanford News,

“The Edison battery is very durable, but it has a number of drawbacks,” said Hongjie Dai, professor of chemistry. “A typical battery can take hours to charge, and the rate of discharge is also very slow.”

Now, Dai and his colleagues have dramatically improved the performance of this century-old technology. The Stanford team has created an ultrafast nickel-iron battery that can be fully charged in about 2 minutes and discharged in less than 30 seconds. …

Carbon has long been used to enhance electrical conductivity in electrodes. To improve the Edison battery’s performance, the Stanford team used graphene – nanosized sheets of carbon that are only 1-atom thick – and multi-walled carbon nanotubes, each consisting of about 10 concentric graphene sheets rolled together. …

“Our battery probably won’t be able to power an electric car by itself because the energy density is not ideal,” Wang said. “But it could assist lithium-ion batteries by giving them a real power boost for faster acceleration and regenerative braking.”

This approach to energy storage, using strongly-coupled nanomaterials, has a lot of promise for battery researchers working to improve efficiency, density, and charge decay over time.