The sharing economy and the electricity industry

In a recent essay, the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Matthew Crosby asks “will there ever be an AirBnB or Uber for the electricity grid?” It’s a good question, a complicated question, and one that I have pondered myself a few times. He correctly identifies the characteristics of such platforms that have made them attractive and successful, and relates them to distributed energy resources (DERs):

What’s been missing so far is a trusted, open peer-to-peer (P2P) platform that will allow DERs to “play” in a shared economy. An independent platform underlies the success of many shared economy businesses. At its core, the platform monetizes trust and interconnection among market actors — a driver and a passenger, a homeowner and a visitor, and soon, a power producer and consumer — and allows users to both bypass the central incumbent (such as a taxi service, hotel, or electric utility) and go through a new service provider (Uber, Airbnb, or in the power sector, Google).

Now, as millions gain experience and trust with Airbnb, Uber and Lyft, they may likely begin to ask, “Why couldn’t I share, sell or buy the energy services of consumer-owned and -sited DERs like rooftop solar panels or smart thermostats?” The answer may lie in emerging business models that enable both peer-to-peer sharing of the benefits of DERs and the increased utilization of the electric system and DERs.

A P2P platform very explicitly reduces transaction costs that prevent exchanges between buyer and seller, earning revenue via a commission per transaction (and this is why Uber has in its sights such things as running your errands for you (video)). That reduction allows owners of underutilized assets (cars, apartments, solar panels, and who knows what else will evolve) to make someone else better off by selling them the use of that asset. Saying it that way makes the static welfare gain to the two parties obvious, but think also about the dynamic welfare gain — you are more likely, all other things equal, to invest in such an asset or to invest in a bigger/nicer asset if you can increase its capacity utilization. Deregulation catalyzed this process in the airline industry, and digital technology is catalyzing it now in rides and rooms. This prospect is exciting for those interested in accelerating the growth of DERs.

Note also that Crosby makes an insightful observation when he says that such P2P networks are more beneficial if they have access to a central backbone, which in this case would be the existing electricity distribution grid. Technologically, the edge of the network (where all of the cool distributed stuff is getting created) and the core of the network are complements, not substitutes. That is not and has not been the case in the electricity network, in large part because regulation has largely prevented “innovation at the edge of the network” since approximately the early 20th century and the creation of a standard plug for lights and appliances!

The standard static and dynamic welfare gain arguments, though, are not a deep enough analysis — we need to layer on the political economy analysis of the process of getting from here to there. As the controversies over Uber have shown, this process is often contentious and not straightforward, particularly in industries like rides and electricity, the incumbents in which have had regulatory entry barriers to create and protect regulatory rents. The incumbents may be in a transitional gains trap, where the rents are capitalized into their asset values, and thus to avoid economic losses to themselves and/or their shareholders, they must argue for the maintenance of the regulatory entry barrier even if overall social welfare is higher without it (i.e., if a Kaldor-Hicks improvement is possible). The concentration of benefits from maintaining the entry barrier may make this regulation persist, even if in aggregate the diffuse benefits across the non-incumbents is larger than the costs.

That’s one way to frame the current institutional design challenge in electricity. Given that the incumbent utility business model is a regulatory construct, what’s a useful and feasible way to adapt the regulatory environment to the new value propositions that new digital and distributed energy technologies have made possible? If it is likely that the diffuse economic and environmental benefits of P2P electricity exchange are larger than the costs, what does a regulatory environment look like that would enable P2P networks and the distribution grid to be complements and not substitutes? And how would we transfer the resources to the incumbents to get them out of the transitional gains trap, to get them to agree that they will serve as the intelligent digital platform for such innovation?

I think this is the question at the guts of all of the debate over the utility “death spiral”, the future utility business model, and other such innovation-induced dynamism in this industry. I’ve long argued that my vision of a technology-enabled value-creating electricity industry would have such P2P characteristics, with plug-level sensors that enable transactive automated control within the home, and with meshed connections that enable neighbors with electric vehicles and/or rooftop solar to exchange with each other (one place I made that argument was in my 2009 Beesley lecture at the IEA, captured in this 2010 Economic Affairs article). Crosby’s analysis here is consistent with that vision, and that future.

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