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.

2 thoughts on “On Belief in the Possibility of Price Spikes

  1. From the point of view of non-renewables, the subsidies are tending to drive down power prices and so cutting into their income. On a broader level, the fact that investment capital is diverted into less productive resources is probably also a drag on the economy, but I don’t know if the scale of investment is significant relative to the larger economy (which probably has many larger problems).

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