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.


3 thoughts on “Permissionless innovation in electricity: the benefits of experimentation

  1. Lynne,

    Nice talk. That looked like a good meeting.

    One thing I’ve long thought about in the electricity innovaton context is the degree to which reliability is an unpriced good for energy consumers. We “need” 99.9995% reliable grids because we don’t have an option to purchase (or forego purchase and engage in self-help) of anything less. So we get the gold-plated T&D system that bakes in fragility (reminds me of Nasim Taleb). But in telecoms people have opted for less reliability when it is coupled to other things they value more (land line versus smart phone).

    Just a thought.


  2. Thanks! I agree with your point about reliability as a differentiation dimension, even in network industries. In fact, Mike G and I had a paper about a decade ago about selling reliability as a differentiated product to retail customers, and how digital switches make it that much cheaper, and potentially more valuable to consumers, to do so. If I can save money by entering into a retail contract in which I can set different trigger prices on different systems or different rooms in my home, the technology now exists to make that value proposition possible.

  3. Just looked up the ALEC resolution on smart metering, which states the relatively uncontroversial point that everyone who uses the grid should help pay for the grid. The point is reasonable, but subtle: using the grid off-peak imposes different costs than using it one peak, etc. And consumers willing to be interrupted can quite reasonable expect to pay less than consumers who want reliability that the status quo claims/and or demands of the existing grid.

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