Hope For Competitive Transmission?

Many people argue that electricity transmission is a natural monopoly, defined as having a subadditive cost structure (roughly speaking, decreasing long-run average costs over the relevant range of demand). Based on that belief, competitive entry is not allowed. Historically this has arisen because of the vertical integration of the industry, which is itself a consequence of the technical difficulties of unbundling the energy flow from the wires during the formative years of regulation in the early 20th century.

But with economic and technological change, particularly in electricity generation, the prospect for competitive transmission became brighter. Then in the late 1990s a lot of policy changes at FERC tried to implement nondiscriminatory transmission access for non-owners, and opened the possibility of transmission owners organizing their assets into private, for-profit, standalone transmission companies (known as transcos in the biz).

Transcos have had a rough time of it these past two years, with all of the sturm und drang over regional transmission organizations and FERC’s proposed standard market design. Plus, utility accounting rules work against reorganizing and vertically dis-integrating the transmission part of the value chain; both depreciation rules and capital gains taxes on these large, and massively depreciated, assets make the economics of selling your transmission assets to a transco very problematic.

So I was pleased to hear at least a little ray of sunshine from Pat Wood, FERC Chairman, who said that he sees a future for Translink, a proposed transco that dissolved in the face of these many obstacles. I hope he’s right, because competing transmission is an important way to generate efficient investment incentives in a world that does not look like 1907 any more, the year on which our electric utility regulation is imprinted.

I think more people will explore the transco model now that it looks like the FERC standard market design will not go ahead as planned. The discussion about competing wires, other forms of competition for grid networks such as distributed generation, and the crucial issue of end-use customers being able to bypass the grid access of the government-granted monopoly is a healthy one, and long overdue.