Smart shopping for electric power just got easier in Houston

Michael Giberson

CenterPoint Energy, the Houston-area electric distribution company, has launched to help area retail electric customers shop for electric power. Help may be needed: currently 43 companies offer a total of 239 different service options in the CenterPoint service territory according to data from, the Texas PUC’s retail power website.

The basic idea is pretty simple: customers sign up, TrueCost accesses their smart-meter based electric power consumption data and estimates bills, the customers provide some information on the kind of retailer and contract they want (low price, environmental characteristics, number of PUC complaints, years in service, etc.), and then the website identifies the contracts that appears most suited to the customer.

TrueCost doesn’t search through all possible contracts, however, just contracts from the several retailers that have agreed to participate. Currently 10 of the 43 companies in the area are participating. Customers should be aware that TrueCost gets paid a flat fee by the retailer for each customer that signs up through the service. (TrueCost noted in the Q&A that the flat fee means that the service doesn’t have an incentive to upsell customers to more costly contracts.)

Simple. Smart. Cool. (And speaking of cool, the young people of Houston would like you to know that a Forbes real estate blogger has named Houston the #1 on its list of America’s Coolest Cities to Live.)

By the way, TrueCost also charts average retail power prices offered in Texas’s competitive retail power markets and provides commentary in an accompanying blog.

One-year plans keep momentum from summer price spike

One-year plans keep momentum from summer price spike (July 5, 2012)

INVITATION: If any of our Houston area readers have tried out MyTrueCost, send me an email and let me know what you think. My email address can be found here.

Hayek’s knowledge problem as an issue in electric power market design

Michael Giberson

Recently the Brattle Group submitted a study of resource adequacy issues within the ERCOT power system and the policy options available to ERCOT and the PUC of Texas, the regulatory authority overseeing the ERCOT system. As the Brattle report points out, ERCOT has so far stuck with a so-called “energy-only” market design while the other RTO markets have implemented some form of capacity markets to help assure the market will be adequately supplied with generating resources.

The Brattle report is available from the ERCOT website. The PUCT is taking comments on the report in Project No. 40480, “Commission Proceeding Regarding Policy Options on Resource Adequacy.” A workshop will be held to discuss the Brattle recommendations on July 27, 2012 at the PUCT offices in Austin.

BP Energy Company finds Hayek’s knowledge problem as a key issue in electric power market design. After quoting a segment from “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” BP Energy Company writes:

Hayek’s “Knowledge Problem” and its optimal solution – decentralized commercial markets – provide the best lens for regulators to see the fundamental issue in electricity market design in response to rapid technological change and increasingly diverse groups of willingly innovative buyers and sellers. As the procurement and use of electricity cross a complexity threshold, as a few customer classes are transformed into a multitude of individual market participants, electricity market design needs to move away from centralized planning to a decentralized procurement of resources, to be both sustainable and efficient in meeting the resource adequacy objectives for the bulk power system and society at large.

The unwieldy process of centralized procurement of resources in the organized markets within the Eastern Interconnection is not proving to be a healthy evolution for electricity markets; instead, these interventions have greatly interfered with the natural development of networks among market participants that can lead to a healthier market ecosystem. Utility economist Kenneth Rose, in a recent working paper that highlights the continuing problems of centralized procurement in the capacity mechanisms in the Eastern Interconnect, reprises the “Knowledge Problem” in the following analysis:

“…. They (RTOs and regulators) are attempting to create a final product market for something that is merely one input of many that are needed to generate electricity.

This may explain why the capacity construct that the RTOs are using has become so complex. Every aspect of the capacity market design has to be redesigned and readjusted to fit changing conditions, rather than allowing the market participants to adjust to market information over time, as happens generally in competitive markets…..

The complex mechanism of capacity markets is not self-sustaining since the RTOs and regulators will need to continuously update and fix the apparatus as conditions change…. A truly competitive market, in contrast, changes as circumstances change, without the stakeholders having to agree on changes and without the regulator having to insert its judgment by choosing and approving what it thinks will work. “

The result is that to date, regulators, not market participants, procure virtually all of new resources. Some of those resources, especially “demand resources,” are poorly designed and have questionable value. Incumbent technologies and business practices are favored over innovative ones, to the ultimate detriment of consumers and local businesses.

As might be obvious by the name of this blog, we at KP find Hayek’s identification of the knowledge problem a key discovery in the long history of the study of markets. It is no surprise that efforts to manage the growth of markets run up against knowledge problem issues, and regulators and other market designers would be wise to consider its significance.

NOTES: Hayek’s article, “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” was published in the American Economic Review (September 1945) (ungated here and here). Rose’s report is “An Examination of RTO Capacity Markets,” IPU Working Paper No. 2011-4, Michigan State University (September 2011). I mentioned the Brattle report on ERCOT resource adequacy issues in this earlier post, see also this earlier post on capacity market issues.

Competitive power market in Texas faces supply concerns. Now what?

Michael Giberson

The question troubling some folks in Texas’s competitive power market: Will Texas consumers want to consume more electric power than suppliers are able to supply? A resource adequacy review by ERCOT, the power system and market operator for most of the state, suggests that consumer demand may outstrip resources available as early as 2014. ERCOT officials have also warned that extreme temperatures this summer could result in reliability concerns, though the most recent review reveals resources will likely be adequate.

The longer-term resource review has attracted a number of media reports, including this morning’s story by Rebecca Smith in the Wall Street Journal, “Power Shortage Vexes Texas: Report Urges Price Increase to Spur Industry to Build More Generating Plants.” See links to other stories at the end of this post.

The “report urging price increases” is that of the Brattle Group, “ERCOT Investment Incentives and Resource Adequacy,” June 1, 2012. ERCOT asked Brattle to study generator investment criteria, the connections between incentives, investments, and resource adequacy, and policy options to support resource adequacy. The Brattle report will bear further study, but for now a few comments about it and the WSJ article.

The newspaper story, following the main thrust of ERCOT’s request and therefore the main part of Brattle’s response, is focused almost entirely on price incentives to potential investors in additional generation resources. The story mentions several of the relevant factors: demand growth, low power prices due to low natural gas prices, ERCOT’s “energy-only” market design, and the lack of significant connections to neighboring grids. The rest of the story plays out as expected: generators say the current offer cap is too low and consumer representatives express horror at the prospect of paying extreme prices to generators who might refuse to expand.  The story entirely misses the possibility that consumers are not complete idiots willing to sit idly by in their air-conditioned palaces and pay 100 times the usual power prices.

Consumers have two easy ways of avoiding any potential $9,000 MWh price: (1) have a fixed price contract with a retailer or (2) simply cut power consumption during pricing peaks. Few consumers actually paid $3,000 MWh last year during February 2011′s few hours of rolling blackouts or the summer’s infrequent emergency conditions. Instead what happened in February and summer 2011 is that retailers who did not secure all of the power their customers wanted by short- or long-term contracts ended up paying the $3,000 price (but just for the additional supplies they needed) AND power generators under contract to supply power who found themselves unable to meet their commitments also ended up paying the $3,000 price (for any committed capacity that they could not deliver). The market risks are divided up between retailers and generators and very little of it is pushed out directly onto the consumer.

Obviously, whatever risks generators take on will be reflected in the prices they’ll seek in contracts with retailers, and whatever risks retailers take on will be reflected in the prices that retailers offer to consumers. But competition among generators to contract with retailers and competition among retailers to sell to consumers should work to do well one thing that the usual rate-regulated monopoly power systems do poorly: competition should shift risks onto the market participant who can most efficiently manage the risks. Consumers typically are not the best able to handle the risks, so competitive markets usually won’t stick them with the risks.

The Brattle report makes a couple of additional valuable points. First, the study assumes only the current level of demand response activity, but additional price-responsiveness on the consumer side of the market would provide additional resource adequacy support. Second, the “1-in-10″ reliability standard typically employed in power systems reliability analyses has rarely been studied from an economic standpoint. The report suggests that overall reliability of delivered power to consumers could be improved and costs reduced by shifting some of the expense away from the bulk power system and toward distribution systems.

So far as I have noticed, the report itself doesn’t recommend a particular policy course, but simply reports on some of the likely advantages and disadvantages of several resource adequacy policy options. The Brattle press release accompanying the report does, however, indicate a clear preference for adding a centralized forward capacity market (similar to that employed by PJM; though note not everyone is happy with PJM’s capacity market).

One last bit of perspective. It is the goal of a resource adequacy study to be excessively cautious. Things probably will not turn out as bad as projected, in part because suppliers, retailers, and consumers will continue to adjust to changing conditions.  But things could be as bad as projected, and that is exactly what the study is intended to highlight.


NOTE: Prices above are all quoted in $ per Megawatt Hour (MWh), a typical price metric for wholesale markets, but consumer bills are usually quoted in cents per kilowatt hour (kwh). Typical wholesale prices in ERCOT have been running between $20 and $50 MWh, the equivalent of between 2 and 5 cents kwh. Typical consumer prices in ERCOT range between 8 and 14 cents kwh. The $3,000 MWh price cap is equal to $3 kwh (so $9,000 MWh is the same as $9 kwh or about 100 times  typical retail prices).

Austin Energy wants an electric power rate hike

Michael Giberson

Deep in the heart of the competitive wholesale and retail electric power market that is (the ERCOT system in) Texas lies a little island of small-scale socialism: the municipal electric utility called Austin Energy. While power prices are dropping all around the state due to low natural gas prices, in the Texas state capital Austin Energy is seeking a rate increase.*

Austin has long been a bit out of step with the rest of the state, so this could serve as just another opportunity for “real Texans” to poke fun at the aging hippies that have taken control of the capital’s city government.

Instead, however, you should read Martin Toohey’s excellent article in the Austin American-Statesman, “As natural gas prices dip, Austin Energy rates still to increase.” For many years the city utility has pursued a policy of fuel-source diversification. As the article explains, it is easier to see the value of a diversification plan when natural gas prices spike, and harder to see the value when natural gas prices drop sharply.

*Note that the link goes to a live (i.e. periodically updated) price chart which shows the average prices of one-year fixed rate prices in the Houston area. Similar price effects are present elsewhere in the state. Currently the price chart shows a drop from just over 10 cents/kwh during most of 2011 to about 9.5 cents/kwh in April 2012.

On belief in the possibility of price spikes

Michael Giberson

Laylan Copelin, reporting for the Austin American-Statesman, documents the power system resource issues currently troubling state utility regulators in Texas: “State set to grapple again with question: How to encourage more private-sector power generation?

Texas suffered one rolling blackout last winter and narrowly avoided another this summer.

The weather extremes might have exposed an Achilles’ heel to the Legislature’s decade-long embrace of a deregulated market approach to electricity generation: Investors are reluctant to invest in new power plants because they can’t make money despite rising demand that is testing the state’s electricity capacity.

Power generators are urging state officials to tweak the rules to raise wholesale prices, while consumers are arguing that they would face higher prices with no assurance that the new generation would be built. They say let supply and demand work, but that butts heads in some instances with the overriding concern to keep the lights on.

In areas of the country with traditional regulated privately-owned utilities this isn’t much of a problem. The regulator determines a resource adequacy goal and prudent expenses undertaken by the utility in pursuit of that goal get folded into electric power rates. The arrangement is, by design, low risk and profit enhancing for the utility. (And I suppose you could say it works, at least in the sense that none of the major regional blackouts have resulted from a shortage of generating resources. Critics would complain about costs and efficiency, but not the efficacy of the regulated approach.)

In ERCOT’s market only the wires companies remain fully regulated and the state regulator has limited tools available to direct additional generation resources to be built. Instead the theory behind the decade-old market re-design was that prices were to be relied upon to incent investment. As part of the “energy only” market design approach, Texas selected a price cap at about $3000/MWh as compared to the $1000/MWh price cap that most other similar markets impose in the United States. The idea is that the prospect of occasionally earning extraordinary returns would help prompt sufficient investment.

In short, according to one generation company rep, “The ERCOT market requires the developer to believe in the possibility of price spikes.” The problem is, she added, “it is difficult to get banks to finance ‘possibility.’”

Yes, maybe, but in a world in which an Australian cricket player can insure his mustache for £200,000, it seems difficult to belief that no one can figure out how to estimate the likelihood of price spikes. Maybe the banks are not the best financial players to take the action, yet someone should be able to work it out. Right?

Of course, there are a pair of big players in the market that add a further dose of uncertainty to anyone trying to run the numbers: the ERCOT market itself and the Public Utility Commission of Texas. ERCOT is tasked with both ensuring reliable operations of the power system and running an efficient power market. Sometimes actions taken by ERCOT to ensure reliability – like paying uneconomic generators to stay online just in case needed – depress prices in the wholesale market.

The PUCT, just by contemplating a number of policies that could suppress prices in the futures, will inadvertantly cast a shadow over any current investment decision. Generator investments are built to last 20-, 30-, or 40 years. No one counts on 40 years of policy stability in making an investment decision, but the prospect that things may change this year or next in ways you can’t quite pin down will certainly make a prospective investor nervous.

The investment side of the ERCOT power market requires belief in the possibility of price spikes, but it is not at all clear how rational that belief is in a world in which the market operator and regulator feel pressured and empowered to eliminate such spikes. The PUCT should do two things to clear up the matter. First, to the extent possible PUCT should oversee ERCOT market reforms needed to limit the price-supressing effects of emergency reliability actions. Second, PUCT should affirm in the strongest voice possible that price spikes are a natural, infrequent but important part of the commercial wholesale power market environment that generators and retailers participate in, and therefore generators and retailers should get on with the business of managing the inherent price risk.

FERC, NERC conclude “weather-related causes” explain most electric power and gas supply problems during February’s extreme cold in Southwest U.S.

Michael Giberson

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) have issued their report on the events surrounding electric power and natural gas supply interruptions around the Southwest United States in early February, 2001. The culprit? According to the press release: “the task force found a majority of the electric outages and gas shortages were due to weather-related causes.”

My initial snarky response was, “It took you six months to figure this out? I think ERCOT power system operators had reached the same conclusion by about 6 AM on February 2.” But, of course, at the time there was some uncertainty about contributing factors and it is useful to go back over the event carefully in order to see what can be learned from the experience.

In the case of this report, “go back over the event carefully” seems to dramatically underestimate the effort. The resulting document totals 357 pages from cover to cover, including eleven appendices on topics ranging from “Electricity: How it is generated and distributed” to “Impact of cold weather on gas production.”

Much of the report, appendices included, is more or less a primer on current electric power and natural gas systems, focusing on the Texas, New Mexico and Arizona systems, and with an emphasis on reliability and weatherization issues. The report adds to that primer an account of what went wrong during the cold snap lasting February 1-5 and then reaches some conclusions and offers recommendations. The report appears to be a “one stop shop” for policymakers, power systems operators, and others interested in what went wrong.

The FERC press release highlighted a recommendation to Southwest states to consider whether to require winterization plans. In addition, the press release noted the following (from among the total of 26 electric power and 6 natural gas system recommendations):

  • Generation owners and operators should ensure adequate construction, maintenance and inspection of freeze protection elements such as insulation, heat tracing and wind breaks.
  • Reliability coordinators and balancing authorities should require generators to provide accurate data about the temperature limits of units so they know whether they can rely on those units during extreme weather.
  • Balancing authorities should review the distribution of reserves to ensure that they are useable and deliverable during contingencies.
  • State lawmakers and regulators in Texas and New Mexico, working with industry, should determine if weather-related production shortages can be mitigated through the adoption of minimum winterization standards for natural gas production and processing facilities.

Also of interest in the report, FERC/NERC reviewed the ERCOT Independent Market Monitor’s report on the rolling blackouts (which concluded no market manipulation was involved) and similarly found that there was no evidence of market manipulation.

While there is a great deal of additional detail in this report, the overall conclusions are more or less the same as reached in earlier reviews. This information, along with the economic incentives to put it to work, will likely keep the energy industry in the Southwest from experiencing rolling blackouts next winter.

RELATED: Tom Fowler offers a summary at The rolling blackouts in ERCOT were the topic of many posts earlier this year at Knowledge Problem, the interested reader can start with this KP search: ERCOT+blackout.

ERCOT reliability monitor issues report on the February 2 rolling blackouts

Michael Giberson

The Texas Reliability Entity has issued its report on the ERCOT extreme cold weather events and rolling blackouts of February 2, 2011. Texas RE is the NERC regional entity for the ERCOT power system and contracted to the Public Utility Commission of Texas to serve as ERCOT reliability monitor for the state agency. In this latter role it was asked by the PUCT to report on compliance with ERCOT reliability rules during the cold weather event. (The ERCOT independent market monitor has already issued its report on market issues surrounding the February 2 event. See link to report, related KP post.)

In brief, Texas RE finds that ERCOT and ERCOT market participants took steps to prepare for the extreme cold, but the preparations were  not always adequate. For the most part it appears that parties complied with ERCOT protocols. In some cases, rules may have been violated and Texas RE is continuing to investigate. Texas RE notes it is working with NERC on further analyses of the events surrounding the rolling blackouts.

The report indicates that market participants were quick to learn from the failures of February 2. From the report at page 11:

Similar weather conditions occurred in the ERCOT Region on February 9-10; however, freezing equipment issues did not have the same impact as on February 2. ERCOT and many generation facilities implemented lessons learned from the February 2 event and prevented similar issues during the cold weather that followed on February 9-10. These lessons learned include improving winterization of the power plant equipment, starting combustion turbines further ahead in advance of severe temperatures to keep lube oil warm, and exercising moving equipment to ensure that the units will be available.

As previously noted here, powerful economic forces are already at work that will help avoid a repeat of February 2′s system emergency. Generator companies that did not deliver to the market the power they had committed day ahead suffered significant financial consequences (and similarly for retailers that had not contracted sufficient power in the day-ahead market to cover their customer loads, so ended up topping off at the extreme real-time market rate).

Here is the conclusion of the Texas RE report:

Texas RE’s investigation has revealed that, for the most part, ERCOT’s and Market Participants’ conduct during the Energy Emergency Alert that occurred on February 2, 2011, was consistent with requirements set out in the Protocols and Operating Guides. Loss of scheduled generation due to freezing pipes, valves, and instrumentation, and to a lesser extent issues associated with natural gas supplies, caused a shortage of generation reserves which ultimately required ERCOT to direct firm load shed in order to restore system reliability. Although ERCOT and Market Participants took steps to prepare for the expected cold weather, the actions taken proved to be inadequate or ineffective for the prolonged freezing weather which occurred February 1-4, 2011. However, ERCOT and many generation operators implemented lessons learned from the February 2 event and prevented similar issues during the cold weather that followed on February 9-10.

During the February 2 EEA Event, ERCOT Market Participants committed potential violations of the ERCOT Protocols and Operating Guides in connection with failures to meet Ancillary Services obligations, failures to meet Emergency Interruptible Load Service obligations, failures to execute manual load shed in accordance with requirements, and possibly with the performance of Black Start units. Texas RE will conduct additional investigations as necessary to determine the full extent and implications of non-compliance with the Protocols and Operating Guides, and will forward information to the PUCT for further action, as appropriate. Issues of possible noncompliance with NERC standards are being examined as part of Texas RE’s analysis in its capacity as the NERC Regional Entity for the Texas Region.

Independent monitor finds no market abuse during ERCOT rolling blackouts on February 2

Michael Giberson

The ERCOT independent market monitor (IMM) has released its report on the February 2, 2011 rolling blackouts. Excerpts from the report introduction are below, but let’s get to the meat of the matter. The IMM was asked (1) whether there was any evidence that market participants tried to manipulate the market for financial gains during the period, and (2) whether markets operated efficiently and as expected during the period.

The short answers are (1) no evidence of manipulation was found, and (2) the markets operated efficiently and outcomes were consistent with the market design.

While these may seem like excessively upbeat conclusions given the failings in the ERCOT region that day, the key is to distinguish between the physical systems – which did fail and created significant hardships that day – and the market systems – which appeared to work as intended. The market review concluded market participants faced increasing incentives to have generation available before the event, companies responded to incentives by taking many preparatory steps (nonetheless, inadequate as we see in hindsight), during the emergency companies faced substantial incentives to bring generation to the market, and companies responded to those substantial incentives by engaging in extraordinary efforts to bring offline generators back online.

A key image on the manipulation question is Figure 5, which shows the relationship between generation outages and net market position for February 2. In brief, every generation company that was able to keep their forced outages below 10 percent (i.e. 90 percent or higher generator availability) netted a positive revenue flow from the market that day. Those generation companies with forced outages of 20 percent or higher ended up owing money to the market for February 2. It is highly unlikely that a firm profited by withholding generation capability from the market that day. (See the report, pp. 12-14, for additional details on the figure.)

Figure 5: Generation Availability and Net Financial Position on Feb. 2, 2011

Figure 5: Generation Availability and Net Financial Position on Feb. 2, 2011

The Texas Reliability Entity, reliability monitor for ERCOT, will also be issuing a report on the event directed at generator compliance with ERCOT reliability protocols and related rules. The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) are also investigating outages in Texas and elsewhere in the Southwest and may publish reports.

For background, here is the introductory section of the IMM’s “Investigation of the ERCOT Energy Emergency Alert Level 3 on February 2, 2011“:

In the early morning hours of February 2, 2011, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (“ERCOT”) region experienced extreme cold weather conditions, record electricity demand levels, and the loss of numerous electric generating facilities across the ERCOT region. These events combined to result in the declaration of Energy Emergency Alert (“EEA”) Level 3 at 5:43 a.m., with the initial interruption of 1,000 MW of firm load at that time, and reaching 4,000 MW of firm load shed by 6:30 a.m. Subsequently, firm load was restored in 500 MW increments beginning shortly prior to 8:00 a.m., with all firm load restored shortly after 1:00 p.m. on February 2nd . Prior to the declaration of EEA Level 3, load resources contracted to provide responsive reserve service were deployed at approximately 5:20 a.m., and Emergency Interruptible Load Service (“EILS”), another contractual demand response service, was deployed concurrent with the declaration of EEA Level 3, at approximately 5:46 a.m.

On February 4, 2011, the Executive Director of the Public Utility Commission of Texas (“PUCT” or “Commission”) directed Potomac Economics as the Commission’s Independent Market Monitor (“IMM”), and the Texas Reliability Entity (“TRE”) as the Commission’s Reliability Monitor, to investigate the ERCOT EEA Level 3 that occurred on February 2, 2011, and subsequent related events and developments on February 3-4, 2011, including all preparations leading to the emergency event, as well as action taken once the event occurred, and focusing on the actions of ERCOT and the ERCOT market participants to determine whether all appropriate laws, rules, requirements and processes were followed.

The primary role of the IMM as the Commission’s market monitor is to: (1) detect and prevent market manipulation strategies and market power abuses; and (2) evaluate the operations of the wholesale market and the current market rules and proposed changes to the market rules, and recommend measures to enhance market efficiency.

The primary role of the TRE as the Commission’s reliability monitor is to monitor and investigate material occurrences of non-compliance with ERCOT procedures that have the potential to impede ERCOT operations, or represent a risk to system reliability.

Given this division of responsibilities, this IMM report addresses the following two issues related to the ERCOT EEA Level 3 on February 2, 2011 and subsequent related events and developments on February 3-4, 2011: (1) whether market manipulation strategies or market power abuses were a cause or played a role in these events; and (2) whether the operations of the wholesale market and the existing market rules produced efficient market outcomes.

The review and analysis performed by the IMM and described in this report yields the following findings related to the events in the ERCOT wholesale market on and around February 2, 2011:

  • Based on our review of the cause of each generating unit outage and/or capacity de-ration, as well as the financial positions of market participants, we do not find any evidence of market manipulation or market power abuse in relation to the widespread generating unit outages that resulted in the EEA3 event on February 2nd .
  • Given the system conditions that materialized on February 2nd and 3rd, we find that the ERCOT real-time and day-ahead wholesale markets operated efficiently and the outcomes are consistent with the ERCOT energy-only wholesale market design.

Finally, because the review of the EEA3 event on February 2, 2011 is the subject of review by multiple entities and the IMM report is but one facet of this review, we have not at this time provided recommendations that may be beneficial in preventing a reoccurrence of the events experienced on and around February 2nd . We anticipate and are looking forward to participating in the development of a comprehensive set of actions that will serve to significantly improve the future reliable operation of the ERCOT grid in manners consistent with the competitive ERCOT market structure.

Previous Knowledge Problem posts on the ERCOT’s rolling blackout:

Cold snap brings rolling power outages to Texas; is ERCOT policy of isolation at fault? (February 4, 2011)

Texas Observer: Some Companies Made Millions Off the Texas Blackouts (February 4, 2011)

The natural gas that didn’t come in from the cold (February 7, 2011)

Transmitting power from Mexico to Texas (February 8, 2011)

More cold for Texas and a test of my conjecture on preparedness (February 9, 2011)

Roundup of news and commentary on the Texas rolling blackouts (February 11, 2011)

Good news and bad news from price-spike induced failure of retail power company in Texas (February 12, 2011)

ERCOT blackout hearings underway in Texas State Senate (February 15, 2011)

ERCOT rolling blackout news: Powerful market forces already at work (February 16, 2011)

Is the deregulated market in the ERCOT region sufficiently competitive?

Michael Giberson

Two groups of municipal utilities in Texas, long critical of electric power deregulation in Texas and ERCOT in particular, have joined forces to issue a report, “The story of ERCOT: The grid operator, power market & prices under Texas electric deregulation.” The municipals describe the report as examining “governance issues related to ERCOT as an organization as well as deregulation issues related to ERCOT as a region.” In general, they assert that ERCOT has been costly, has suffered some significant episodes of mismanagement, the market hasn’t been as competitive as needed, and that power prices have been too high in the ERCOT region as a result.

Overall “The story of ERCOT” looks like a pretty good effort. ERCOT is a complicated entity, but worth understanding. The report contributes to a better understanding of ERCOT. But in the one section I chose to examine carefully, I was less satisfied.

Among the questions they ask is the one I pulled for the title, “Is the deregulated market in the ERCOT region sufficiently competitive?”, addressed specifically on pages 70-71. Here the report authors have a handful of complaints:

  1. “Questionable trading practices … very similar to those that helped undermine the California market … known as ‘hockey stick’ bidding.”
  2. The largest generator, TXU (now Luminant), was frequently a pivotal supplier in the market – able to set market price regardless of the actions of competitors.
  3. TXU was charged with market power abuse by the PUC in 2005. (A recommended fine of $210 was later reduced to $15 million.)
  4. Another company acknowledged in engaging in practices very much like hockey-stick bidding in 2007, “which has been found to violate market rules elsewhere in the nation.”

Hockey stick bidding, in which a generator offers the last few megawatts of power at a price substantially above the marginal cost of supplying that power, is a problem. If the power market were always competitive, consumers could be agnostic about individual generator’s offers; occasionally conditions will give generators temporary-but-substantial amounts of market power. These brief moments of market power are not always predictable, but hockey stick bidding means that generators don’t have to guess when they have market power, they just use a bidding strategy in which most of their power is offered at competitive levels and the last tiny bit at monopoly prices. The market in effect reveals that the generator has market power by dispatching all of the unit’s power, and having revealed the market power the market then does the generator the favor of automatically exercising it on the generator’s behalf.

There are arguments for and against allowing generators full flexibility in their offers, including allowing hockey stick bids, but on net consumers are right to oppose the practice. (I’m not at all sure what they mean by “very similar to those that helped undermine the California market”; California’s market fell mostly due to a host of other kinds of bad market design choices which exposed the market to manipulation and kept the consumer-side of the market mostly unable to protect itself.)

Luminant remains a large player in the market, with a market share that should continue warranting special attention from the PUC and ERCOT’s independent market monitor. The report doesn’t mention that Luminant has entered into a “Voluntary Mitigation Plan” (VMP) in 2008 as part of the settlement producing the $15 million fine. The point of the VMP was to deprive Luminant of the ability to exercise any market power.  If the municipals have continuing concerns with Luminant then it would be useful to know what is wrong with the VMP.

I tried tracking down the reference to “another company … engaging in practices very much like hockey-stick bidding in 2007.” A footnote points to page 11 in Jay Zarnikau and Parviz Adib, “Will the Texas market succeed, where so many others have now failed?” (Available from Frontier Economics), but I didn’t find an explanation there. Generally speaking, the Zarnikau and Adib paper takes a more optimistic tone than the municipals’ report does.

Overall, in this brief section of the paper, I would have liked a little more analysis and not just a list of complaints. It is one thing to see apparent problems, but much more useful to diagnose the sources of the problem and suggest improvements.

ERCOT rolling blackout news: Powerful market forces already at work

Michael Giberson

A regulatory filing by Energy Futures Holdings Corp., the parent company of Luminant, a major power generator in the Texas market, provides a small peak behind the curtain of confidentiality that has limited the public’s view of what all went wrong on February 2. A small peak, but a significant story:

In an 8-K filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, EFH reported that it lost about $30 million on February 2 because of weather-related outages at several of its power plants. The outages kept the company from delivering power it had contracted to sell, so the company was responsible for purchasing power at the real-time market price to cover for its shortfall. Real-time prices spiked to the market’s $3,000 cap during the emergency.

Add that supply-side news to last Friday’s announcement that under-prepared power retailer Abacus Resources Energy has been forced from the market. As one of the participants in yesterday’s Texas senate hearings said, there are already powerful economic incentives at work to help the market avoid a repeat of the Groundhog Day blackouts.

More news reports:

And this commentary by Ken Herman in the Austin American-Statesman: “If they could give us warm, fuzzy feelings, we wouldn’t be here“:

On public display Tuesday in the Texas Senate chamber was a reminder of the main reason humans form governments. It is, scholars tell us, primarily for the pleasure of convening committee hearings at which we can watch well-heeled witnesses squirm….