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?

Online Library of Liberty forum on McCloskey’s Bourgeois Era

At its Online Library of Liberty, Liberty Fund hosts a monthly “Liberty Matters” forum in which a set of scholars discusses a particular set of ideas. This month’s forum features Deirdre McCloskey‘s Bourgeois Era series of books, two of which have been published (Bourgeois Virtues, Bourgeois Dignity). McCloskey’s main argument is that the various material and institutional factors that we’ve hypothesized as the causes of industrialization and the dramatic increase in living standards are insufficient for explaining why it happened when, where, and how it did — in northern Europe, particularly Britain and the Netherlands, accelerating in the 18th century from previous foundations there. The most important factor, according to McCloskey, was ideas, particularly the cultural acceptance of commerce, trade, and mercantile activity as honorable.

The forum features a lead essay from Don Boudreaux, commentary essays from Joel Mokyr and John Nye, and responses from McCloskey and the other authors. The forum will continue for the rest of the month, with further commentary certain to follow.

If you want an opportunity to think about one of the most important intellectual questions of economics, here it is. The essays, responses, and interactions are an encapsulation of a lively and important debate in economic history over the past two decades. And if you want to dig more deeply, the bibliography and the references in each essay are a reading list for a solid course in economic history. These ideas affect not only our understanding of economic history and the history of industrialization, but also how ideas and attitudes affect economic activity and living standards today. Well worth your time and consideration.

The political economy of Uber’s multi-dimensional creative destruction

Over the past week it’s been hard to keep up with the news about Uber. Uber’s creative destruction is rapid, and occurring on multiple dimensions in different places. And while the focus right now is on Uber’s disruption in the shared transportation market, I suspect that more disruption will arise in other markets too.

Start with two facts from this Wired article from last week by Marcus Wohlsen: Uber has just completed a funding round that raised an additional $1.2 billion, and last week it announced lower UberX fares in San Francisco, New York, and Chicago (the Chicago reduction was not mentioned in the article, but I am an Uber Chicago customer, so I received a notification of it). This second fact is interesting, especially once one digs in a little deeper:

With not just success but survival on the line, Uber has even more incentive to expand as rapidly as possible. If it gets big enough quickly enough, the political price could become too high for any elected official who tries to pull Uber to the curb.

Yesterday, Uber announced it was lowering UberX fares by 20 percent in New York City, claiming the cuts would make its cheapest service cheaper than a regular yellow taxi. That follows a 25 percent decrease in the San Francisco Bay Areaannounced last week, and a similar drop in Los Angeles UberX prices revealed earlier last month. The company says UberX drivers in California (though apparently not in New York) will still get paid their standard 80 percent portion of what the fare would have been before the discount. As Forbes‘ Ellen Huet points out, the arrangement means a San Francisco ride that once cost $15 will now cost passengers $11.25, but the driver still gets paid $12.

So one thing they’re doing with their cash is essentially topping off payments to drivers while lowering prices to customers for the UberX service. Note that Uber is a multi-service firm, with rides at different quality/price combinations. I think Wohlsen’s Wired argument is right, and that they are pursuing a strategy of “grow the base quickly”, even if it means that the UberX prices are loss leaders for now (while their other service prices remain unchanged). In a recent (highly recommended!) EconTalk podcast, Russ Roberts and Mike Munger also make this point.

This “grow the base” strategy is common in tech industries, and we’ve seen it repeatedly over the past 15 years with Amazon and others. But, as Wohlsen notes, this strategy has an additional benefit of making regulatory inertia and status quo protection more costly. The more popular Uber becomes with more people, the harder it will be for existing taxi interests to succeed in shutting them down.

The ease, the transparency, the convenience, the lower transaction costs, the ability to see and submit driver ratings, the consumer assessment of whether Uber’s reputation and driver certification provides him/her with enough expectation of safety — all of these are things that consumers can now assess for themselves, without a regulator’s judgment substitution for their own judgment. The technology, the business model, and the reputation mechanism diminish the public safety justification for taxi regulation. Creative destruction and freedom to innovate are the core of improvements in living standards. But the regulated taxi industry, having paid for medallions with the expectation of perpetual entry barriers, are seeing the value of the government-created entry barrier wither, and are lobbying to stem the losses in the value of their medallions. Note here the similarity between this situation and the one in the 1990s when regulated electric utilities argued, largely successfully, that they should be compensated for “stranded costs” when they were required to divest their generation capacity at lower prices due to the anticipation of competitive wholesale markets. One consequence of regulation is the expectation of the right to a profitable business model, an expectation that flies in the face of economic growth and dynamic change.

Another move that I think represents a political compromise while giving Uber a PR opportunity was last week’s agreement with the New York Attorney General to cap “surge pricing” during citywide emergencies, a policy that Uber appears to be extending nationally. As Megan McArdle notes, this does indeed make economists sad, since Uber’s surge pricing is a wonderful example of how dynamic pricing induces more drivers to supply rides when demand is high, rather than leaving potential passengers with fewer taxis in the face of a fixed, regulated price.

Sadly, no one else loves surge pricing as much as economists do. Instead of getting all excited about the subtle, elegant machinery of price discovery, people get all outraged about “price gouging.” No matter how earnestly economists and their fellow travelers explain that this is irrational madness — that price gouging actually makes everyone better off by ensuring greater supply and allocating the supply to (approximately) those with the greatest demand — the rest of the country continues to view marking up generators after a hurricane, or similar maneuvers, as a pretty serious moral crime.

Back in April Mike wrote here about how likely this was to happen in NY, and in commenting on the agreement with the NY AG last week, Regulation editor Peter Van Doren gave a great shout-out to Mike’s lead article in the Spring 2011 issue on price gouging regulations and their ethical and welfare effects.

Even though the surge pricing cap during emergencies is economically harmful but politically predictable (in Megan’s words), I think the real effects of Uber will transcend the shared ride market. It’s a flexible piece of software — an app, a menu of contracts with drivers and riders, transparency, a reputation mechanism. Much as Amazon started by disrupting the retail book market and then expanded because of the flexibility of its software, I expect Uber to do something similar, in some form.

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.

Ben Powell on drought and water pricing

Ben Powell at Texas Tech has an essay on water scarcity at Huffington Post in which he channels David Zetland:

But water shortages in Lubbock and elsewhere are not meteorological phenomena. The shortages are a man-made result of bad economic policy.

Droughts make water scarcer, but by themselves they cannot cause shortages. To have a shortage and a risk of depletion, a resource must be mispriced.

With the freedom to choose, consumers can demonstrate whether it’s worth the cost to them to water their lawn an extra day or hose dust off of their house. Realistic pricing also incentivizes them to take account of water’s scarcity when they consume it in ways that aren’t currently prohibited. Have your long shower if you want . . . but pay the real price of it instead of the current subsidized rate.

Of course Ben is correct in his analysis and his policy recommendation, although I would nuance it with David’s “some for free, pay for more” to address some of the income distribution/regressivity aspects of municipal water pricing. Water is almost universally mispriced and wasted, exacerbating the distress and economic costs of drought.

ICLE letter to Gov. Christie opposing direct vehicle distribution ban: Over 70 economists and law professors

Geoff Manne of the International Center for Law and Economics has spearheaded a detailed, thorough, analytical letter to New Jersey Governor Christie examining the state’s ban on direct vehicle distribution and why it is bad for consumers. Geoff summarizes the argument in a post today at Truth on the Market:

Earlier this month New Jersey became the most recent (but likely not the last) state to ban direct sales of automobiles. Although the rule nominally applies more broadly, it is directly aimed at keeping Tesla Motors (or at least its business model) out of New Jersey. Automobile dealers have offered several arguments why the rule is in the public interest, but a little basic economics reveals that these arguments are meritless.

Today the International Center for Law & Economics sent an open letter to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, urging reconsideration of the regulation and explaining why the rule is unjustified — except as rent-seeking protectionism by independent auto dealers.

The letter, which was principally written by University of Michigan law professor, Dan Crane, and based in large part on his blog posts here at Truth on the Market (see here and here), was signed by more than 70 economists and law professors.

I am one of the signatories on the letter, because I believe the analysis is sound, the decision will harm consumers, and the law is motivated by protecting incumbent interests.

I encourage you to read the analysis in the letter in its entirety. Note that although the catalyst of this letter is Tesla, this law is sufficiently general to ban any direct distribution of vehicles, and thus will continue to stifle competition in an industry that has been benefiting from incumbent legal protection for several decades.

Information technology has reduced the transaction costs that previously made vehicle transactions too costly relative to local transactions between consumers and dealers. Statutes and regulations protecting those incumbents foreclose potential consumer benefits, and thus do the opposite of the purported “consumer protection” that is the stated goal of the legislation.

See also comments from Loyola law professor (and fellow runner and Chicagoan!) Matthew Sag.

Rent-seeking diary: It’s only Tennessee whiskey if it’s Jack Daniel’s

Today’s Wall Street Journal has an article, Jack Daniel’s Faces a Whiskey Rebellion, that highlights how politically powerful industries can use industry-protecting regulation to raise their rivals’ costs:

At the company’s urging, Tennessee passed legislation last year requiring anything labeled “Tennessee Whiskey” not just to be made in the state, but also to be made from at least 51% corn, filtered through maple charcoal and aged in new, charred oak barrels.

So there are three dimensions on which JD’s competitors could vary, at least slightly, and still make something that consumers could recognize as Tennessee whiskey (not bourbon, not whisky).

Who are the rivals in the Tennessee whiskey market, in which Jack Daniel’s has a 90+ percent market share? Dickel is the largest rival,

Diageo says the George Dickel brand is in compliance with the new law, and that it has no plans to change the way it is made. But the liquor giant says last year’s law puts a lid on innovation and that Brown-Forman shouldn’t be allowed to define the only path to high-quality Tennessee Whiskey.

“We’re in favor of flexibility that lets all distillers, large and small, make Tennessee whiskey the way their family recipes tell them,” said Alix Dunn, a Diageo spokeswoman.

 

… but unless you’ve been under a rock for the past two years you’ve surely noticed the craft distilling revival in the US. Some craft distillers agree with Diageo that such legislation stifles innovation.

But others see a clear legislative definition of what constitutes Tennessee whiskey as providing a strong focal point around which distillers can coalesce, and compete. Although one of these is quoted in the article, I don’t see the argument. Perhaps I’ll mull it over while enjoying a cocktail.