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?

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.

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.

Rent-seeking diary: State dealer franchise laws and Tesla

By now you’ve probably heard that last week the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission passed a rule stipulating that automobile sales in the state cannot be direct-to-consumer, and must instead take place via dealer franchises. Tesla Motors was the clear target of this regulation, with its innovative electric vehicles and direct-to-consumer sales model. New Jersey is not the first state in which this regulatory tangle is occurring; last summer Tesla ran into dealer franchise law hurdles in Virginia and New York, as I discussed here in July.

The SF Gate blog post above notes:

Tesla said the administration had “gone back on its word,” claiming two top Christie aides had agreed not to move forward with the regulation. …

But a Christie spokesman rejected the accusations of a double-cross. The regulation, he said, won’t prevent Tesla from seeking legislation to allow direct sales in New Jersey.

Note that the political establishment response is to engage with the political process to get legislation passed to allow direct sales. What would such engagement entail? Will it entail the kind of crony relationships that have led to the entanglement of so many businesses and politicians in the past — will Tesla have to find its own politicians to fund in the hopes of a favorable legislative outcome? If so, that will vindicate my sad statement last July:

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?

In New Jersey, it appears that the answer is yes, at least for now, as established car dealers cling to their old business model and hope to avoid being disintermediated. Tesla has thus far avoided the crony trap, and has instead focused on relabeling their New Jersey showrooms as “galleries” while encouraging customers to purchase the vehicle online. Will that legalistic sleight of hand suffice to enable an end-run around status-quo-protecting obstacles?

Alex Tabarrok discusses the Tesla-New Jersey case today, and analyzes it very usefully with a brief history of the evolution of state dealer franchise laws and how they served as a Coasean solution to an incentive problem:

Franchising rules evolved in Coasean fashion so that manufacturers could not expropriate dealers and dealers could not expropriate manufacturers. To encourage dealers to invest in a knowledgeable sales and repair staff, for example, manufactures promised dealers exclusive franchise (i.e. they would not license a competitor next door). But with exclusive franchises dealers would have an incentive to take advantage of their monopoly power and increase profits by selling fewer units at higher profits. Selling fewer units, however, works to the detriment of the manufacturer and the public (aka the double marginalization problem (video)). Thus the manufactures required dealers buy and sell a minimum quantity of cars, so-called quantity forcing. Selling more units is exactly what we want a monopoly to do, so these restrictions benefited manufactures and consumers.

Here Alex’s account dovetails with the history that Elon Musk provided in his open letter to the people of New Jersey on Friday:

Many decades ago, the incumbent auto manufacturers sold franchises to generate capital and gain a salesforce. The franchisees then further invested a lot of their money and time in building up the dealerships. That’s a fair deal and it should not be broken. However, some of the big auto companies later engaged in pressure tactics to get the franchisees to sell their dealerships back at a low price. The franchisees rightly sought protection from their state legislatures, which resulted in the laws on the books today throughout the United States (these laws are not present anywhere else in the world).

Musk’s letter is well worth reading in its entirety, as an eloquent and well-argued statement about regulatory and legislative entry barriers that enable incumbent firms to raise the costs of their rivals. He also provides a thoughtful and economically sophisticated (and accurate, I think) explanation for why they don’t want to sell Tesla vehicles through established dealers.

Here Alex adds another political economy detail of the economic leverage of the franchise dealers in the states — they provided jobs and their sales generated a large share of a state’s sales tax revenue, so politicians found it in their interest to shore up the state-level dealer franchise laws to protect the dealers. Thus a set of laws that initially benefitted both producers and consumers has evolved into industry-protecting regulation.

One other theme I’ve noted in the discussion of Tesla’s reaction to New Jersey cronyism is to criticize Tesla for the benefits it derives from government protection. Tesla’s business intersects with government programs in three areas: (1) taking a DOE-guaranteed loan of $465 million during the financial crisis, which has been paid back in full (and was smaller than the multi-billion-dollar loans to the Big Three); (2) the federal $7,500 income tax credit to individuals purchasing electric vehicles, from which all manufacturers of electric vehicles benefit and which is probably not decisive at the margin for Tesla’s high-income target customers; (3) revenue arising from the existence of a regulation-generated market for vehicle emission credits (ZEV) credits in California, in which Toyota and Nissan also sell ZEV credits to GM and Chrysler. I expect that being practical and not leaving money on the table is a sufficient motive to induce Tesla’s management to engage in those programs. But these benefits from government social engineering and regulation differ in kind from the kind of industry-protecting regulatory cronyism evident in New Jersey (and Texas, and other states forbidding direct-to-consumer car sales).

Permissionless innovation in electricity: the benefits of experimentation

Last Monday I was scheduled to participate in the Utility Industry of the Future Symposium at the NYU Law School. Risk aversion about getting back for Tuesday classes in the face of a forecast 7″ snowfall in New York kept me from attending (and the snow never materialized, which makes the cost even more bitter!), so I missed out on the great talks and panels. But I’ve edited my remarks into the essay below, with helpful comments and critical readings from Mark Silberg and Jim Speta. Happy thinking!

If you look through the lens of an economist, especially an economic historian, the modern world looks marvelous – innovation enables us to live very different lives than even 20 years ago, lives that are richer in experience and value in many ways. We are surrounded by dynamism, by the change arising from creativity, experimentation, and new ideas. The benefits of such dynamism are cumulative and compound upon each other. Economic history teaches us that well-being emerges from the compounding of incremental changes over time, until two decades later you look at your old, say, computer and you wonder that you ever accomplished anything that way at all.

The digital technology that allows us to flourish in unanticipated ways, large and small, is an expression of human creativity in an environment in which experimentation is rife and entry barriers are low. That combination of experimentation and low entry barriers is what has made the Internet such a rich, interesting, useful platform for us to use to make ourselves better off, in the different ways and meanings we each have.

And yet, very little (if any) of this dynamism has originated in the electricity industry, and little of this dynamism has affected how most people transact in and engage with electricity. Digital technologies now exist that consumers could use to observe and manage their electricity consumption in a more timely way than after the fact, at the end of the month, and to transact for services they value – different pricing, different fuel sources, and automating their consumption responses to changes in those. From the service convergence in telecom (“triple play”) we have experimented with and learned the value of bundling. Such bundling of retail electricity service with home entertainment, home security, etc. are services that companies like ADT and Verizon are exploring, but have been extremely slow to develop and have not commercialized yet, due to the combination of regulatory entry barriers that restrict producers and reinforce customer inertia. All of these examples of technologies, of pricing, of bundling, are examples of stalled innovation, of foregone innovation in this space.

Although we do not observe it directly, the cost of foregone innovation is high. Today residential consumers still generally have low-cost, plain-vanilla commodity electricity service, with untapped potential to create new value beyond basic service. Producers earn guaranteed, regulation-constrained profits by providing these services, and the persistence of regulated “default service contracts” in nominally competitive states is an entry barrier facing producers that might otherwise experiment with new services, pricing, and bundles. If producers don’t experiment, consumers can’t experiment, and thus both parties suffer the cost of foregone innovation – consumers lose the opportunity to choose services they may value more, and producers lose the opportunity to profit by providing them. By (imperfect) analogy, think about what your life would be like if Apple had not been allowed to set up retail stores that enable consumers to engage in learning while shopping. It would be poorer (and that’s true even if you don’t own any Apple devices, because the experimentation and learning and low entry barriers even benefits you because it encourages new products and entry).

This process of producer and consumer experimentation and learning is the essence of how we create value through exchange and market processes. What Internet pioneer Vint Cerf calls permissionless innovation, what writer Matt Ridley calls ideas having sex — these are the processes by which we humans create, strive, learn, adapt, and thrive.

But regulation is a permission-based system, and regulation slows or stifles innovation in electricity by cutting off this permissionless innovation. Legal entry barriers, the bureaucratic procedures for cost recovery, the risk aversion of both regulator and regulated, all undermine precisely the processes that enable innovation to yield consumer benefits and producer profits. In this way regulation that dictates business models and entry barriers discourages activities that benefit society, that are in the public interest.

The question of public interest is of course central to any analysis of electricity regulation’s effects. Our current model of utility regulation has been built on the late 19th century idea that cost-based regulation and restricting entry would make reliable electric service ubiquitous and as cheap as is feasible. Up through the 1960s, while exploiting the economies of scale and scope in the conventional mechanical technologies, that concept of the public interest was generally beneficial. But by so doing, utility regulation entrenched “iron in the ground” technologies in the bureaucratic process. It also entrenched an attitude and a culture of prudential preference for those conventional technologies on the part of both regulator and regulated.

This entrenchment becomes a problem because the substance of what constitutes the public interest is not static. It has changed since the late 19th century, as has so much in our lives, and it has changed to incorporate the dimension of environmental quality as we have learned of the environmental effects of fossil fuel consumption. But the concept of the public interest of central generation and low prices that is fossilized in regulatory rules does not reflect that change. I argue that the “Rube Goldberg” machine accretion of RPS, tax credits, and energy efficiency mandates to regulated utilities reflects just how poorly situated the traditional regulated environment is to adapting to the largely unforeseeable changes arising from the combination of dynamic economic and environmental considerations. Traditional regulation is not flexible enough to be adaptive.

The other entrenchment that we observe with regulation is the entrenchment of interests. Even if regulation was initiated as a mechanism for protecting consumer interests, in the administrative and legal process it creates entrenched interests in maintaining the legal and technological status quo. What we learn from public choice theory, and what we observe in regulated industries including electricity, is that regulation becomes industry-protecting regulation. Industry-protecting regulation cultivates constituency interests, and those constituency interests generally prefer to thwart innovation and retain entry barriers to restrict interconnection and third-party and consumer experimentation. This political economy dynamic contributes to the stifling of innovation.

As I’ve been thinking through this aloud with you, you’ve probably been thinking “but what about reliability and permissionless innovation – doesn’t the physical nature of our interconnected network necessitate permission to innovate?” In the centralized electro-mechanical T&D network that is more true, and in such an environment regulation provides stability of investments and returns. But again we see the cost of foregone innovation staring us in the face. Digital switches, open interconnection and interoperability standards (that haven’t been compromised by the NSA), and more economical small-scale generation are innovations that make high reliability in a resilient distributed system more possible (for example, a “system of systems” of microgrids and rooftop solar and EVs). Those are the types of conditions that hold in the Internet – digital switches, traffic rules, TCP-IP and other open data protocols — and as long as innovators abide by those physical rules, they can enter, enabling experimentation, trial and error, and learning.

Thus I conclude that for electricity policy to focus on facilitating what is socially beneficial, it should focus on clear, transparent, and just physical rules for the operation of the grid, on reducing entry barriers that prevent producer and consumer experimentation and learning, and on enabling a legal and technological environment in which consumers can use competition and technology to protect themselves.

Politicized implementation of U.S. oil import quotas, 1959-1973

The oil import quota system in place from 1959 to 1973 restricted imports to an amount equal to the difference between the federal government’s estimate of domestic oil demand and the estimate of domestic oil supply. But, of course, nothing in industry-protection policy can be easy, so the policy contained a number of adjustments and exclusions.

Chief among exclusion was the “overland exemption” for imports from Canada and Mexico. Hilarity ensues.

120. There is an overland “exemption” for imports from Canada and Mexico. The overland exemption has been construed to include imports from Mexico which are transported by tanker to Brownsville, Texas, where they are entered in bond, transferred to trucks which cross the Mexican border, then re-enter the United States where they are released from bond and are said to have entered by overland means. The oil is reloaded aboard tankers for shipment by sea to the U.S. East Coast. On the other hand, the exemption has not been extended to shipments from Canada across the Great Lakes or to rail shipments from Canada to Ketchikan in Southern Alaska because of a short inland waterway crossing by rail car ferry. The “overland exemption” for both Canadian and Mexican imports are further limited quantitatively by intergovernmental agreements.

From Cabinet Task Force on Oil Import Control, The Oil Import Question, (1970), at pp. 9-10.

 

Raisin’ a complaint against USDA marketing orders

Can raisin growers pack and sell all of the raisins they grow? Yes, but only if the USDA permits it. Sometimes the USDA claims the right to take raisins off the market in the effort to keep the price to consumers higher. If a raisin grower doesn’t comply with the USDA’s demands, then the government’s attorneys will come a knocking. That is what happened to Marvin Horne and his wife, raisin growers in California, when they chose not to comply with the USDA’s demand to hand over a 47% share of the Horne’s 2002 crop without any payment from the government.

It is, as Planet Money describes it in a radio segment, kind of crazy. In most industries the federal government tries to block industry collusion–it is bad for consumers, they say–but with raisins and a number of other crops the federal government requires it. Your tax dollars at work.

The Planet Money broadcast is worth a listen. Here also is ReasonTV on the story: Feds vs. Raisins: Small Farmers Stand Up to the USDA

This 2002 act of non-compliance is, more than 10 years later, still bouncing around the courts. In a recent decision the Supreme Court declared that Horne et al. could raise a takings claim without first paying the USDA’s proposed fine of about half-a-million dollars, but that small victory only allows them to continue the legal fight.

MORE: The Cato Institute filed a legal brief at the Supreme Court in support of the Horne et al. position. Links: Summary of brief; Full brief. See also coverage at SCOTUSblog.

Bruce Yandle on bootleggers & Baptists

Bruce Yandle’s “bootleggers & Baptists” model of political coalition formation is one of the most useful models in the political economy of regulation (and one that both Mike and I employ frequently, as seen by our many posts using the model).

Here’s a great new Learn Liberty video featuring Bruce himself describing how coalitions of seemingly-unlikely interests can form to enact particular regulations. He describes the original formulation, and then applies it to environmental regulation.

 

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?

Adam Thierer on regulating media platforms

The Mercatus Center’s Adam Thierer analyzes communications technologies and the policies influencing the development and use of them, and I’ve always found his work extremely valuable in my own thinking. Adam and Brent Skorup have a new Mercatus study on lobbying in the information technology sector, A History of Cronyism and Capture in the Information Technology Sector.

One area where Adam and I have common cause is in the interaction of regulation and technological change, and the extent to which regulation may not yield the desired outcomes when regulation dilutes incentives to innovate and stifles change, due to some static definition of “public interest” that is inconsistent with dynamism and experimentation.

I recommend this Surprisingly Free podcast, in which Adam discusses proposals to regulate Facebook and other social media platform companies as public utilities; the podcast page also has links to some of Adam’s written work. In particular, if you want to explore these ideas I suggest Adam’s Mercatus paper on the perils of classifying social media companies as public utilities, in which he argues:

Social media aren’t public utilities for two key reasons:

  1. Social Media do not possess the potential to become natural monopolies. They are virtually no costs to consumers and competitors have the ability to duplicate such platforms. The hottest networks are changing every year, and there is no way for the government to determine which platform is going to become popular next.  Remember MySpace or CompuServe?
  2. Social Media are not essential facilities. Those who claim that Facebook is a “social utility” or “social commons” must admit that such sites are not essential to survival, economic success, or online life. Unlike water and electricity, life can go on without social networking services.

Public utility regulation would instead stifle digital innovation and raise prices of these services for users. Not only are social media sites largely free and universally available, but they are also constantly innovating.

I am going to be digging into a new research project later this summer using some of Adam’s arguments, so I am particularly interested in your comments and thoughts.