Monday’s front-page article on electricity metering and pricing by David Cay Johnston highlights two important developments in modernizing electricity policy. One overarching theme in the article is that markets cannot function up to their potential when buyers and sellers face systematic asymmetric information. In the case of electricity, retail customers do not see price changes until after those changes have taken effect, because under existing regulation they pay averaged rates and only receive information about the prices they face at the end of the month when they receive their bill. However, underlying costs of serving those customers can change hourly, so with customers paying averaged prices there is a mismatch between the prices they pay and the costs of serving them.
We could improve efficiency (and thus enable conservation and lower costs) if we had pricing that allowed for a better match of the price the customer pays with the cost, but unless the customer has some way of gaining information about prices in advance, but if we don’t do that, then we have the aforementioned asymmetric information problem. The information focus of Johnston’s article is vital to understanding the value of using digital technology and dynamic pricing to empower consumers to stand up and say “no, I won’t pay that price”.
The other crucial innovation Johnston discusses in the article is the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s Energy Smart Pricing Plan in Chicago (I have written extensively about this program over the past three years).
Just as cellphone customers delay personal calls until they become free at night and on weekends, and just as millions of people fly at less popular times because air fares are lower, people who know the price of electricity at any given moment can cut back when prices are high and use more when prices are low. Participants in the Community Energy Cooperative program, for example, can check a Web site that tells them, hour by hour, how much their electricity costs; they get e-mail alerts when the price is set to rise above 20 cents a kilowatt-hour.
If just a fraction of all Americans had this information and could adjust their power use accordingly, the savings would be huge. Consumers would save nearly $23 billion a year if they shifted just 7 percent of their usage during peak periods to less costly times, research at Carnegie Mellon University indicates. That is the equivalent of the entire nation getting a free month of power every year.
I would only add two points to Johnston’s articulation of the benefits of dynamic pricing and digital metering. The technology can’t create all of these benefits on its own: rate redesign to allow dynamic pricing is imperative. What good is having technology to enable responsive demand if the meter just gets the same old, same old averaged price signal? Not much. Digital technology and dynamic pricing are symbiotic. Furthermore, the most significant benefits of digital technology and dynamic pricing are largely unseen by us in advance, which is why it’s so bloody hard to get them enacted in regulation!
The most substantial benefits of the retail competition that technology + pricing enable come from product differentiation and innovation in the products and services available to customers. Think about telecom: we got some benefit from the reduction in prices for long-distance service, but the real value proposition has been in the proliferation of new products and services that have transformed our lives. There are entrepreneurs out there thinking about ways to do that in electric power retail service, and the potential exists, if we will but let it happen.