The “utility death spiral”: The utility as a regulatory creation

Unless you follow the electricity industry you may not be aware of the past year’s discussion of the impending “utility death spiral”, ably summarized in this Clean Energy Group post:

There have been several reports out recently predicting that solar + storage systems will soon reach cost parity with grid-purchased electricity, thus presenting the first serious challenge to the centralized utility model.  Customers, the theory goes, will soon be able to cut the cord that has bound them to traditional utilities, opting instead to self-generate using cheap PV, with batteries to regulate the intermittent output and carry them through cloudy spells.  The plummeting cost of solar panels, plus the imminent increased production and decreased cost of electric vehicle batteries that can be used in stationary applications, have combined to create a technological perfect storm. As grid power costs rise and self-generation costs fall, a tipping point will arrive – within a decade, some analysts are predicting – at which time, it will become economically advantageous for millions of Americans to generate their own power.  The “death spiral” for utilities occurs because the more people self-generate, the more utilities will be forced to seek rate increases on a shrinking rate base… thus driving even more customers off the grid.

A January 2013 analysis from the Edison Electric Institute, Disruptive Challenges: Financial Implications and Strategic Responses to a Changing Retail Electric Business, precipitated this conversation. Focusing on the financial market implications for regulated utilities of distributed resources (DER) and technology-enabled demand-side management (an archaic term that I dislike intensely), or DSM, the report notes that:

The financial risks created by disruptive challenges include declining utility revenues, increasing costs, and lower profitability potential, particularly over the long term. As DER and DSM programs continue to capture “market share,” for example, utility revenues will be reduced. Adding the higher costs to integrate DER, increasing subsidies for DSM and direct metering of DER will result in the potential for a squeeze on profitability and, thus, credit metrics. While the regulatory process is expected to allow for recovery of lost revenues in future rate cases, tariff structures in most states call for non-DER customers to pay for (or absorb) lost revenues. As DER penetration increases, this is a cost recovery structure that will lead to political pressure to undo these cross subsidies and may result in utility stranded cost exposure.

I think the apocalyptic “death spiral” rhetoric is overblown and exaggerated, but this is a worthwhile, and perhaps overdue, conversation to have. As it has unfolded over the past year, though, I do think that some of the more essential questions on the topic are not being asked. Over the next few weeks I’m going to explore some of those questions, as I dive into a related new research project.

The theoretical argument for the possibility of death spiral is straightforward. The vertically-integrated, regulated distribution utility is a regulatory creation, intended to enable a financially sustainable business model for providing reliable basic electricity service to the largest possible number of customers for the least feasible cost, taking account of the economies of scale and scope resulting from the electro-mechanical generation and wires technologies implemented in the early 20th century. From a theoretical/benevolent social planner perspective, the objective is, given a market demand for a specific good/service, to minimize the total cost of providing that good/service subject to a zero economic profit constraint for the firm; this will lead to highest feasible output and total surplus combination (and lowest deadweight loss) consistent with the financial sustainability of the firm.

The regulatory mechanism for implementing this model to achieve this objective is to erect a legal entry barrier into the market for that specific good/service, and to assure the regulated monopolist cost recovery, including its opportunity cost of capital, otherwise known as rate-of-return regulation. In return, the regulated monopolist commits to serve all customers reliably through its vertically-integrated generation, transmission, distribution, and retail functions. The monopolist’s costs and opportunity cost of capital determine its revenue requirement, out of which we can derive flat, averaged retail prices that forecasts suggest will enable the monopolist to earn that amount of revenue.

That’s the regulatory model + business model that has existed with little substantive evolution since the early 20th century, and it did achieve the social policy objectives of the 20th century — widespread electrification and low, stable prices, which have enabled follow-on economic growth and well-distributed increased living standards. It’s a regulatory+business model, though, that is premised on a few things:

  1. Defining a market by defining the characteristics of the product/service sold in that market, in this case electricity with a particular physical (volts, amps, hertz) definition and a particular reliability level (paraphrasing Fred Kahn …)
  2. The economies of scale (those big central generators and big wires) and economies of scope (lower total cost when producing two or more products compared to producing those products separately) that exist due to large-scale electro-mechanical technologies
  3. The architectural implications of connecting large-scale electro-mechanical technologies together in a network via a set of centralized control nodes — technology -> architecture -> market environment, and in this case large-scale electro-mechanical technologies -> distributed wires network with centralized control points rather than distributed control points throughout the network, including the edge of the network (paraphrasing Larry Lessig …)
  4. The financial implications of having invested so many resources in long-lived physical assets to create that network and its control nodes — if demand is growing at a stable rate, and regulators can assure cost recovery, then the regulated monopolist can arrange financing for investments at attractive interest rates, as long as this arrangement is likely to be stable for the 30-to-40-year life of the assets

As long as those conditions are stable, regulatory cost recovery will sustain this business model. And that’s precisely the effect of smart grid technologies, distributed generation technologies, microgrid technologies — they violate one or more of those four premises, and can make it not just feasible, but actually beneficial for customers to change their behavior in ways that reduce the regulation-supported revenue of the regulated monopolist.

Digital technologies that enable greater consumer control and more choice of products and services break down the regulatory market boundaries that are required to regulate product quality. Generation innovations, from the combined-cycle gas turbine of the 1980s to small-scale Stirling engines, reduce the economies of scale that have driven the regulation of and investment in the industry for over a century. Wires networks with centralized control built to capitalize on those large-scale technologies may have less value in an environment with smaller-scale generation and digital, automated detection, response, and control. But those generation and wires assets are long-lived, and in a cost-recovery-based business model, have to be paid for even if they become the destruction in creative destruction. We saw that happen in the restructuring that occurred in the 1990s, with the liberalization of wholesale power markets and the unbundling of generation from the vertically-integrated monopolists in those states; part of the political bargain in restructuring was to compensate them for the “stranded costs” associated with having made those investments based on a regulatory commitment that they would receive cost recovery on them.

Thus the death spiral rhetoric, and the concern that the existing utility business model will not survive. But if my framing of the situation is accurate, then what we should be examining in more detail is the regulatory model, since the utility business model is itself a regulatory creation. This relationship between digital innovation (encompassing smart grid, distributed resources, and microgrids) and regulation is what I’m exploring. How should the regulatory model and the associated utility business model change in light of digital innovation?

Building, and commercializing, a better nuclear reactor

A couple of years ago, I was transfixed by the research from Leslie Dewan and Mark Massie highlighted in their TedX video on the future of nuclear power.


A recent IEEE Spectrum article highlights what Dewan and Massie have been up to since then, which is founding a startup called Transatomic Power in partnership with investor Russ Wilcox. The description of the reactor from the article indicates its potential benefits:

The design they came up with is a variant on the molten salt reactors first demonstrated in the 1950s. This type of reactor uses fuel dissolved in a liquid salt at a temperature of around 650 °C instead of the solid fuel rods found in today’s conventional reactors. Improving on the 1950s design, Dewan and Massie’s reactor could run on spent nuclear fuel, thus reducing the industry’s nuclear waste problem. What’s more, Dewan says, their reactor would be “walk-away safe,” a key selling point in a post-Fukushima world. “If you don’t have electric power, or if you don’t have any operators on site, the reactor will just coast to a stop, and the salt will freeze solid in the course of a few hours,” she says.

The article goes on to discuss raising funds for lab experiments and a subsequent demonstration project, and it ends on a skeptical note, with an indication that existing industrial nuclear manufacturers in the US and Europe are unlikely to be interested in commercializing such an advanced reactor technology. Perhaps the best prospects for such a technology are in Asia.

Another thing I found striking in reading this article, and that I find in general when reading about advanced nuclear reactor technology, is how dismissive some people are of such innovation — why not go for thorium, or why even bother with this when the “real” answer is to harness solar power for nuclear fission? Such criticisms of innovations like this are misguided, and show a misunderstanding of both the economics of innovation and the process of innovation itself. One of the clear benefits of this innovation is its use of a known, proven reactor technology in a novel way and using spent fuel rod waste as fuel. This incremental “killing two birds with one stone” approach may be an economical approach to generating clean electricity, reducing waste, and filling a technology gap while more basic science research continues on other generation technologies.

Arguing that nuclear is a waste of time is the equivalent of a “swing for the fences” energy innovation strategy. Transatomic’s reactor represents a “get guys on base” energy innovation strategy. We certainly should do basic research and swing for the fences, but that’s no substitute for the incremental benefits of getting new technologies on base that create value in multiple energy and environmental dimensions.

The spin on wind, or, an example of bullshit in the field of energy policy

The Wall Street Journal recently opined against President Obama’s nominee for Federal Energy Regulatory Commission chairman, Norman Bay, and in the process took a modest swipe at subsidies for wind energy.

The context here is Bay’s action while leading FERC’s enforcement division, and in particular his prosecution of electric power market participants who manage to run afoul of FERC’s vague definition for market manipulation even though their trading behavior complied with all laws, regulations, and market rules.

So here the WSJ‘s editorial board pokes a little at subsidized wind in the process of making a point about reckless prosecutions:

As a thought experiment, consider the production tax credit for wind energy. In certain places at certain times, the subsidy is lucrative enough that wind generators make bids at negative prices: Instead of selling their product, they pay the market to drive prices below zero or “buy” electricity that would otherwise go unsold to qualify for the credit.

That strategy harms unsubsidized energy sources, distorts competition and may be an offense against taxpayers. But it isn’t a crime in the conventional legal sense because wind outfits are merely exploiting the subsidy in the open. The rational solution would be to end the subsidies that create negative bids, not to indict the wind farms. But for Mr. Bay, the same logic doesn’t apply to FERC.

The first quoted paragraph seems descriptive of reality and doesn’t cast wind energy in any negative light. The second quoted paragraph suggests the subsidy harms unsubsidized competitors, also plainly true, and that it “distorts competition” and “may be an offense against taxpayers.” These last two characterizations also strike me as fair descriptions of current public policy, and perhaps as mildly negative in tone.

Of course folks at the wind industry’s lobby shop are eager to challenge any little perceived slight, so the AWEA’s Michael Goggin sent a letter to the editor:

Your editorial “Electric Prosecutor Acid Test” (May 19) ignores wind energy’s real consumer benefits by mentioning the red herring of negative electricity prices. Negative prices are extremely rare and are usually highly localized in remote areas where they have little to no impact on other power plants, are caused by inflexible nuclear power plants much of the time, and are being eliminated as long-needed grid upgrades are completed.

Wind energy’s real impact is saving consumers money by displacing more expensive forms of energy, which is precisely why utilities bought wind in the first place. This impact is entirely market-driven, occurs with or without the tax credit, and applies to all low-fuel-cost sources of energy, including nuclear.

The tax relief provided to wind energy more than pays for itself by enabling economic development that generates additional tax revenue and represents a small fraction of the cumulative incentives given to other energy sources.

Michael Goggin
American Wind Energy Association
Washington, DC

Let’s just say I’ll believe the “impact is entirely market-driven” when someone produces a convincing study that shows the exact same wind energy capacity build-out would have happened over the last 20 years in the absence of the U.S. federal Production Tax Credit and state renewable energy purchase mandates. Without the tax credit, the wind energy industry likely would be (I’m guessing) less than one-tenth of its current size and without a big tax credit wouldn’t be the target of much public policy debate.

Of course, without much public policy debate, the wind energy industry wouldn’t need to hire so many lobbyists. Hence the AWEA’s urge to jump on any perceived slight, stir the pot, and keep debate going.

MORE on the lobbying against the Bay nomination. See also this WSJ op-ed.


AWEA brags about wind energy’s mediocre performance

On May 2 The Hill published a column by AWEA data spinner Michael Goggin, “Wind energy protects consumers,” in which the reader is regaled by tales of great service and low, low prices provided by the wind energy industry.

Sorting through the claims led me back to the AWEA blog, where among other things Goggin applauds the industry that pays his salary for its grand performance in trying times this past January in New York. Goggin exclaimed the New York grid operator “received very high wind output when it needed it most during the last cold snap, while other forms of generation experienced a variety [of] problems.”

Following the link provided to the NYISO press release I find the claim, “On Tuesday, the NYISO had the benefit of more than 1,000 MW of wind power throughout much of the day.” The New York grid operator reported peak demand during the day (January 7, 2014) at 25,738 MW, so wind energy’s contribution was in the 4 percent range. Another way to say that is that other forms of generation, despite experiencing a variety of problems, provided about 96 percent of the energy New York consumers received when they “needed it most.”

The AWEA website indicates that New York has an installed capacity of 1,722 MW of wind power. Doing the math reveals that about 40 percent of the wind energy industry’s generating capability failed to show when New York electric power consumers “needed it most.”

Impressive? Not really.

To more fully consider the situation, we’d have to ask just how much non-wind electric generating capacity has been driven from the New York market by subsidized wind power. It is part of the AWEA storyline that clean, low-cost wind energy “displace[s] output from the most expensive and least efficient power plants,” and obviously over time frequently displaced units are driven from the market. One may reasonably wonder how much generation capacity was driven from the market before that cold January day when New York electric power consumers “needed it most.”

In related news, the National Renewable Energy Lab just produced an exploration of the wind energy industry’s future with and without the Production Tax Credit. In brief, if the PTC is not revived once again, the industry will likely shrink by about half over the next several years, kept in business mostly by state renewable energy purchase requirements. Indirectly the study concedes that NREL doesn’t think wind power is cost competitive with alternative electric energy supplies, but under the best possible wind resource and grid access conditions.

Please note my occasional wind energy disclaimer: I am not against wind energy (a technology which can contribute real value in the right places), just against bad policy (which takes real value created by other people and shovels it in the direction of investors in wind energy assets and people who happen to own windy plots of land with good grid access).

Easy to dream big when you can spend other people’s money, and really, why else would you build solar power in Michigan?

Crain’s Detroit Business reports:

A solar power work group in Michigan is making progress discussing the possibility of expanding the current utility-sponsored solar incentive program ….

But the real question is whether DTE and Consumers will voluntarily expand their programs — as environmentalists, manufacturers and solar installers have been asking the state to require for job creation and public health reasons — before the programs expire in 2015.

Involved in the solar power work group discussion are state regulators, solar PV installers, solar PV manufacturers, environmental groups, and the state’s two large regulated utilities, DTE and Consumers Energy Co., who collect a regulator-approved renewable energy surcharge from their customers.

Not mentioned in the article are the views of retail electric power consumers, whose money is up for grabs, nor anyone thinking of federal taxpayers’ stake in the matter.

There is a respectable answer to the question “why else would you build solar energy in Michigan?” If you have strong pro-solar commitments, for ethical or other reasons, the you may well feel strongly enough about it to be willing to spend your own money on a system. Or, if you are off-grid or want to be, solar is one way to stay powered.

But the answer most prevalent in the work group, at least if the Crain’s article is a guide, is much less respectable: they are mostly people who feel strongly enough about solar power–or the money they might make from it–that they want to force their unwilling neighbors to pay.

Background on the Michigan solar power work group can be found at the pro-solar-policy Michigan Land Use Institute.

Decarbonization Now? (No, not yet.)

Paul Krugman’s recent opinion column in the New York Times ran under the headline, “Salvation Gets Cheap.” At first I though Krugman was making a snarky comment on ex-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s claim that the ex-mayor’s work on restricting access to guns, and efforts on obesity and smoking would ensure a place in heaven. But no, Krugman is opining that technology is providing an easy way forward on climate change:

The climate change panel, in its usual deadpan prose, notes that “many RE [renewable energy] technologies have demonstrated substantial performance improvements and cost reductions” since it released its last assessment, back in 2007. The Department of Energy is willing to display a bit more open enthusiasm; it titled a report on clean energy released last year “Revolution Now.” That sounds like hyperbole, but you realize that it isn’t when you learn that the price of solar panels has fallen more than 75 percent just since 2008.

Thanks to this technological leap forward, the climate panel can talk about “decarbonizing” electricity generation as a realistic goal — and since coal-fired power plants are a very large part of the climate problem, that’s a big part of the solution right there.

It’s even possible that decarbonizing will take place without special encouragement, but we can’t and shouldn’t count on that. The point, instead, is that drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions are now within fairly easy reach.

The “Revolution Now” report, which was linked in Krugman’s column online, is surprisingly weak sauce. The U.S. Department of Energy report (your tax dollars at work) purports to describe “four technology revolutions that are here today” and “have achieved dramatic reductions in cost” and “a surge in consumer, industrial and commercial deployment” in the last five years. The four “revolutions” are onshore wind power, polysilicon photovoltaic modules, LED lighting, and electric vehicles.

Each “revolution” gets a two-page summary and a colorful chart showing declining costs and rising use. The summaries are footnoted, just like real research, and studded with more factoids than the front page of USA Today. Here’s a fun fact: the ratio of empirical claims to footnotes in the article’s two pages on wind power is 4-to-1.

You can get a sense of the quality of the report by considering the claims strung together on electric vehicles: First it is reported “more and more drivers are abandoning the gas pump for the affordability and convenience of in-home electric charging,” then that 50,000 EVs were purchased in 2012 and the rate of purchase doubled in early 2013. Next we are told “to maintain this momentum the most critical area for cost reduction is batteries.” A paragraph later the report said, “In many senses, EVs are already competitive with traditional cars.” In the final paragraph, however, a sober note: it will take “further progress on reducing the cost of EV batteries” to make “these benefits available to a larger audience.”

The sober note referenced a DOE battery cost target of $125/kwh by 2022, at which point the DOE expects ownership costs for a EV will be similar to a standard vehicle. A glance back at the chart suggests current battery costs nearer five times that level, leaving at least this reader wondering in which sense “EVs are already competitive with traditional cars” and part of the “technology revolutions that are here today.”

The revolution is here today! Or maybe in 2022!! Or maybe whenever “further progress” is made!!!

Overall the report is more enthusiasm than analysis, and not sufficient to justify changing beliefs on the cost of decarbonizing energy supplies.

Looking for renewable policy certainty in all the wrong places

From EnergyWire comes the headline, “In Missouri, industry wants off the ‘solar coaster’.” (link here via Midwest Energy News).

A utility rebate program authorized by voters in 2008 is making Missouri into a solar leader in the Midwest. But $175 million set aside to subsidize solar installations is [nearly] fully subscribed … and the same small businesses that scrambled to add workers last year to help meet surging demand are facing layoffs….

Heidi Schoen, executive director of the Missouri Solar Energy Industries Association, said the industry, which has generated thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in new taxes for the state, is just looking for certainty.

“We want off the solar coaster,” she said. “We don’t want to be in this boom-and-bust situation.”

It is a patently false claim.

If they wanted off of the boom-and-bust policy ‘solar coaster,’ they’d get off. They could go do unsubsidized solar installations for example, or if (when?) that proves unprofitable get work doing something else. By their actions they signal that they prefer the booms-and-busts that come with reliance on politicians for favors.