The REVISED history of electric competition in Lubbock

Michael Giberson

At the time of the initial announcement that Lubbock Power & Light would acquire the distribution assets of competing electric utility Xcel within the city, leaving LP&L as a monopolist, I took note of several inconvenient statements about the benefits of competition included in official LP&L history.  (See “The (soon to be revised) history of electric competition in Lubbock,” November 5, 2009.)

At the time I wrote, “I’m guessing the official story is about to change.” Guess what? Now available on the LP&L website, a somewhat revised version of the document, “The History of Lubbock Power & Light.”

Here is a comparison of selected old and new paragraphs from “The History of Lubbock Power & Light.”  Old first paragraph (emphasis added in this quote and in quotes below):

In the electric utility industry, retail competition for electric customers is a relatively new concept. Not so in Lubbock, Texas. The good people of Lubbock have benefited from retail competition for electricity since 1916.

In the new history the first two sentences are:

Lubbock was a relatively new town at the time having been created in 1891 when two smaller settlements both moved their towns from several miles away to our present location. The first county court house was built at this time with the county itself having been created in 1876 by the Texas State Legislature.

Obviously a shift in emphasis (and a somewhat awkward first sentence) produced by the revision.

The old version of the history noted that the emergence of competition in the city immediately produced lower rates. This paragraph remains the same in both versions:

The effort by those early Lubbock leaders was realized a success on September 28, 1917 as the municipal power plant began producing electricity priced at only ten cents a kilowatt-hour. The other utility cut its rates accordingly soon after. Imagine that!

In the older version of the history, that early success was followed by a report of steadily falling prices in subsequent decades and then the following claims about the continued value of competition: low rates and high quality customer service:

Today, the vast majority of Lubbock remains dual-certified and customers still have a choice of electric utility providers. Customers whose account balances are current are allowed to switch from one company to the other at their discretion. The competition for the electric dollar in Lubbock has resulted in some of the lowest electricity costs in the state of Texas and in the nation. Another major benefit of competition is that customers enjoy increased levels of customer service than would be found in cities this size with only one electric provider.

Lubbock Power & Light’s mission is to provide low cost, reliable electric service. We feel we’ve been successful in that mission. All electric customers in Lubbock have benefited from the decision of those early pioneers to begin retail competition.

In the new view of Lubbock’s electric power history, the report of steadily falling prices jumps directly to a claim about LP&L’s mission:

Lubbock Power & Light’s mission is to provide low cost, reliable electric service. LP&L has competed with many private companies, but in the end the majority of the customers have chosen LP&L, leaving the private companies looking for other options.

Compare the final sentence above, in bold, with the final sentence in the old paragraph.  The old paragraph emphasizes the benefits to consumers, while the new official story shifts the viewpoint to that of the utilities.  The shift seems to me a possible harbinger of the future of utility service for LP&L customers: a shift in viewpoint from customer benefits to a utility perspective.

UPDATE: Link to a copy of the history of LP&L showing the post-November 2009 changes.

How valuable will a monopoly be to Lubbock Power & Light?

Michael Giberson

After over 90 years of operating in competition with a rival electric utility in town, late last year Lubbock Power & Light and Xcel announced a deal in which municipal electric utility LP&L would buy out Xcel’s distribution assets and customer accounts in the city for $87 million, leaving LP&L as a monopoly electric utility in the city.

Regulatory filings with the state reveal much more of the details of the deal.  A newspaper story in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal notes, for example, that the $87 million will buy assets that Xcel values at $64.2 million.  Lubbock’s electric power consumers may wonder what the city is getting for that extra $22.8 million payment.

It is a complex deal that, in addition to paying Xcel to get out of town, accommodates changes in numerous existing contracts between the two companies.  For example, a few years ago when LP&L was on the brink of bankruptcy, LP&L and Xcel entered into a deal under which Xcel controls operations at LP&L’s generating plants and LP&L began buying all of its power supply needs from Xcel.  That deal expires in 2019, but under the acquisition plan Xcel would continue to make available some wholesale power to LP&L.  Xcel purchases waste water from the city for cooling a power plant, and that agreement would be revised as well.  All the complexities make it hard to evaluate what, exactly, the deal is worth to citizens of Lubbock – putative owners of the municipal utility – and the value to be created by the deal (if any).

One question to be asked, as a starter, is why LP&L needs to pay anything above scrap value for the Xcel distribution system in the city.  After all, the city claims its existing system is sufficient to serve the entire city and that maintaining two utility systems is town is wasteful.  So LP&L doesn’t need Xcel’s distribution assets to take on current Xcel’s customers, and adding the distribution assets will simply result in a costly, wasteful, and over-built local distribution system.

Scrap value would be too low, since some of the Xcel distribution system may be incorporated into LP&L’s system (in cases in which the Xcel system is superior to the LP&L segment that it duplicates), but book value on the assets seems a reasonable upper limit.  In any case it is hard to believe LP&L should pay a premium over book value for Xcel’s assets.

Is having a monopoly going to be so valuable to LP&L that they are willing to pay Xcel a $20+ million bonus to get out of town? What does that imply for future electricity rates in the city?

BACKGROUND – Earlier posts on electric utility competition in Lubbock:

Note that, technically speaking, one or two small neighborhoods will still have a choice between LP&L and South Plains Electric Coop, but otherwise LP&L becomes the monopoly provider in the city of Lubbock.

ADDED: The related regulatory filings at the PUC of Texas can be found via the PUCT’s Interchange document system.  Start on this page, enter 37901 as the “Control Number,” and press the “Search Now” button.