Technology market experimentation in regulated industries: Are administrative pilot projects bad for retail markets?

Since 2008, multiple smart grid pilot projects have been occurring in the US, funded jointly through regulated utility investments and taxpayer-funded Department of Energy cost sharing. In this bureaucratic market environment, market experimentation takes the form of the large-scale, multi-year pilot project. The regulated utility (after approval from the state public utility commission) publishes a request for proposals from smart grid technology vendors to sell devices and systems that provide a pre-determined range of services specified in the RFP. The regulated utility, not the end user, is thus the vendor’s primary customer.

When regulated incumbent distribution monopolists provide in-home technology to residential customers in states where retail markets are nominally competitive but the incumbent is the default service provider, does that involvement of the regulated incumbent have an anti-competitive effect? Does it reduce experimentation and innovation?

In markets with low entry and exit barriers, entrepreneurship drives new product creation and product differentiation. Market experimentation reveals whether or not consumers value such innovations. In regulated markets like electricity, however, this experimentation occurs in a top-down, procurement-oriented manner, without the organic evolution of market boundaries as entrants generate new products and services. Innovations do not succeed or fail based on their ability to attract end-use customers, but rather on their ability to persuade the regulated monopolist that the product is cost-reducing to the firm rather than value-creating for the consumer (and, similarly, their ability to persuade regulators).

The stated goal of many projects is installing digital technologies that increase performance and reliability of the basic provision of basic wires distribution service. For that reason, the projects emphasize technologies in the distribution wires network (distribution automation) and the digital meter at each home. The digital meter is the edge of the wires network, from the regulated utility’s perspective, and in restructured states it is the edge of its business, the edge of the regulated footprint. A secondary goal is to explore how some customers actually use technology to control and manage their own energy use; a longer-run consequence of this exploration may be consumer learning with respect to their electricity consumption, now that digital technology exists that can enable them to reduce consumption and save money by automating their actions.

In these cases, consumer technology choices are being made at the firm level by the regulated monopolist, not at the consumer level by consumers. This narrowed path to market for in-home technology changes the nature of the market experimentation – on one hand, the larger-volume purchases by regulated utilities may attract vendors and investors and increase rivalry and experimentation, but on the other hand, the margin at which the technology rivalry occurs is not at the end-user as decision-maker, but instead at the regulated utility. The objective functions of the utility and their heterogeneous residential customers differ substantially, and this more bureaucratic, narrowed experimentation path reduces the role of the different preferences and knowledge of those heterogeneous consumers. In that sense, the in-home technology choice being in the hands of the regulated utility stifles market experimentation with respect to the preferences of the heterogeneous consumers, although it increases experimentation with respect to the features that the regulated monopolist thinks that its customers want.

Focusing any burgeoning consumer demand on a specific technology, specific vendor, and specific firm, while creating critical mass for some technology entrepreneurs, rigidifies and channels experimentation into vendors and technologies chosen by the regulated monopolist, not by end-use consumers. Ask yourself this counterfactual: would the innovation and increase in features and value of mobile technologies have been this high if instead of competing for the end user’s business, Apple and Google had to pitch their offerings to a large, regulated utility?

These regulated incumbent technology choices may have anti-competitive downstream effects. They reduce the set of experimentation and commercialization opportunities available to retail entrants to provide product differentiation, product bundling, or other innovative value propositions beyond the scope of those being tested by the incumbent monopolist. Bundling and product differentiation are the dominant forms that dynamic competition take, and in this industry such retail bundling and product differentiation would probably include in-home devices. The regulated incumbent providing in-home technology to default customers participating in pilot projects reduces the scope for competing retail providers to engage in either product differentiation or bundling. That limitation undercuts their business models and is potentially anti-competitive.

The regulated incumbent’s default service provision and designation of in-home technology reduces a motive for consumers to search for other providers and other competing products and services. While they may argue that they are providing a convenience to their customers, they are substituting their judgment of what they think their customers want for the individual judgments of their customers.

By offering a competing regulated retail service and leveraging it into the provision of in-home devices for pilot projects, the incumbent reduces the set of feasible potentially valuable profit opportunities facing the potential retail competitors, thus reducing entry. They have to be that much more innovative to get a foothold in this market against the incumbent, in the face of consumer switching costs and inertia, when incumbent provision of in-home devices reduces potential demand facing potential entrants. Even if the customer pays for and owns the device, the anti-competitive effect can arise from the monopolist offering the device as a complement to their regulated default service product.

Leaving in-home technology choice to retailers and consumers contributes to healthy retail competition. Allowing the upstream regulated incumbent to provide in-home technology hampers it, to the detriment of both entrepreneurs and the residential customers who would have gotten more value out of a different device than the one provided by the regulated incumbent. By increasing the number of default service customers with in-home smart grid devices, these projects decrease the potential demand facing these independent retailers by removing or diluting one of the service dimensions on which they could compete. Their forays into in-home technology may not have anti-competitive intent, but they still may have anti-competitive consequences.