Platform economics and “unscaling” the electricity industry

A few weeks ago I mused over the question of whether there would ever be an Uber or AirBnB for the electricity grid. This question is a platform question — both Uber and AirBnB have business models in which they bring together two parties for mutual benefit, and the platform provider’s revenue stream can come from charging one or both parties for facilitating the transaction (although there are other means too). I said that a “P2P platform very explicitly reduces transaction costs that prevent exchanges between buyer and seller”, and that’s really the core of a platform business model. Platform providers exist to make exchanges feasible that were not before, to make them easier, and ultimately to make them either cheaper or more valuable (or some combination of the two).

In this sense the Nobel Prize award to Jean Tirole (pdf, very good summary of his work) this week was timely, because one of the areas of economics to which he has contributed is the economics of two-sided platform markets. Alex Tabarrok wrote an excellent summary of Tirole’s platform economics work. As Alex observes,

Antitrust and regulation of two-sided markets is challenging because the two sets of prices [that the platform firm charges to the two parties] may look discriminatory or unfair even when they are welfare enhancing. … Platform markets mean that pricing at marginal cost can no longer be considered optimal in every market and pricing above marginal cost can no longer be considered as an indication of monopoly power.

One aspect of platform firms is that they connect distinct users in a network. Platform firms are network firms. Not all network firms/industries operate or think of their business models as platform firms, though. That will change.

What role does a network firm provide? It’s connection, facilitating exchange between two parties. This idea is not novel, not original in the digital age. Go back in economic history to the beginnings of canals, say, or rail networks. Transportation is a quintessential non-digital network platform industry. I think you can characterize all network infrastructure industries as having some aspects of platform or two-sided markets; rail networks bring together transportation providers and passengers/freight, postal networks bring together correspondents, pipeline networks bring together buyers and sellers of oil or natural gas, electric wires networks bring together generators and consumers.

What’s novel in the digital age is that by changing transaction costs, the technology changes the transactional boundary of the firm and reduces the economic impetus for vertical integration. A digital platform firm, like Google or Uber, is not vertically integrated upstream or downstream in any of the value chains that its platform enables (although some of Google’s acquisitions are changing that somewhat), whereas historically, railroads and gas companies and electric companies started out vertically integrated. Rail network owners were vertically integrated upstream into train ownership and transportation provision, and electric utilities were integrated upstream into generation. In network infrastructure industries, the platform is physical, and firms bundled the network service into their offering. But they have not been seen or thought of as platforms in the sense that we are coming to understand as such firms and industries emerge; I suspect that’s because of the economic benefit and the historical path dependence of the vertical integration.

Another distinguishing feature of platforms and two-sided markets is that the cost-revenue relationship is not uni-directional, a point summarized well in this Harvard Business Review article overview from 2006:

Two-sided networks can be found in many industries, sharing the space with traditional product and service offerings. However, two-sided networks differ from other offerings in a fundamental way. In the traditional value chain, value moves from left to right: To the left of the company is cost; to the right is revenue. In two-sided networks, cost and revenue are both to the left and the right, because the platform has a distinct group of users on each side. The platform incurs costs in serving both groups and can collect revenue from each, although one side is often subsidized, as we’ll see.

In this sense, I still think that the electricity network and its transactions has platform characteristics — the wires firm incurs costs to deliver energy from generators to consumers, and those costs arise in serving both distinct groups.

As I apply these concepts to the electricity industry, I think digital technologies have two platform-related types of effects. The first is the reduction in transaction costs that were a big part of the economic drive for vertical integration in the first place — digital technologies make distributed digital sensing, monitoring, and measurement of energy flow and system status possible in ways that were inconceivable or impossibly costly before the invention of the transistor.

The second is the ability that digital technologies create for the network firm to handle more diverse and heterogenous types of agents in a two-sided market. For example, digital sensors and automated digital switches make it possible to automate rules for the interconnection of distributed generation, electric vehicles, microgrids, and other diverse users into the distribution grid in ways that can be mutually beneficial in a two-sided market sense. The old electro-mechanical sensors could not do that.

This is the sense in which I think a lot of tech entrepreneurs talk about “unscaling the electricity industry”:

If we want secure, clean and affordable energy, we can’t continue down this path. Instead, we need to grow in a very different way, one more akin to the Silicon Valley playbook of unscaling an industry by aggregating individual users onto platforms.

Digitally-enabled distributed resources are becoming increasingly economical at smaller scales, and some of these types of resources — microgrids, electric vehicles — can either be producers or consumers, each having associated costs and revenues and with their identities changing depending on whether they are selling excess energy or buying it.

This is a substantive, meaningful sense in which the distribution wires firm can, and should, operate as a platform and think about platform strategies as the utility business model evolves. An electric distribution platform facilitates exchange in two-sided electricity and energy service markets, charging a fee for doing so. In the near term, much of that facilitation takes the form of distribution, of the transportation and delivery. As distributed resources proliferate, the platform firm must rethink how it creates value, and reaps revenues, by facilitating beneficial exchange in two-sided markets.


2 thoughts on “Platform economics and “unscaling” the electricity industry

  1. ‘What role does a network firm provide? It’s connection, facilitating exchange between two parties. This idea is not novel, not original in the digital age.’

    Exactly. What Uber has done is apply the model of the ‘freight forwarder’–where a middleman finds available space for a shipper on a truck or ship that’s going in the desired direction, i.e., where the user is–to passengers.

    I had this brought home to me a few years ago when the owner of a trucking firm I used frequently, called me to tell me he’d sold his firm. He thanked me for all the business I’d given him, which (unspoken by him) created value he’d just cashed in on.

    Then, a few months later he called me again, to tell me he’d started a travel agency.

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