ABBACUS report highlights benefits of retail electric markets

On Tuesday the Distributed Energy Financial Group released its 2015 report, Annual Baseline Assessment of Choice in Canada and the United States (ABACCUS). The report provides an excellent overview of the current state of retail electricity markets in the 18 jurisdictions in the U.S. and Canada that permit at least some degree of retail competition. The overall result will not surprise anyone who follows the electricity industry or is a KP reader: for the eighth year in a row, Texas tops the rankings by a wide margin, with Alberta second and Pennsylvania third. And the general trend is promising, both in terms of market experimentation and regulatory institutional change to reduce barriers:

In nearly every jurisdiction in North America, REPs continue to expand their presence, increase the number of offerings, and increase the variety of offerings in the residential marketplace. These positive developments are primarily in response to market opportunities, but the activities of regulators to facilitate retail choices should not be glossed over. Regulators have reduced barriers to entry, facilitated the speed and ease of market transactions, and raised public awareness about the opportunities for retail choice. Numerous states have invested in advanced metering infrastructure, providing lower-cost access to detailed consumption data. These data are essential to offer time-differentiated prices, to track the costs to serve an individual consumer (rather than relying on an estimated load profile) and to offer new products and services, including prepaid service, high-usage alerts, or targeted price-risk management offers. Combining advanced mobile communications with advanced metering data has also facilitated new products and services.

The report is also extremely clear and well-written, so if you are interested in learning more about retail electricity markets and regulatory policy, and what the current trends are in the distribution and retail segments of the industry, read this report. Its appendices also provide state-by-state (province-by-province) summaries with extensive detail.

The report’s policy recommendations are in keeping with the idea that market processes provide opportunities for producers and consumers to benefit through experimentation and trial-and-error learning, and that product differentiation through innovation is the most potent form of dynamic competition for creating meaningful consumer benefits. Note in particular that their recommendations focus on default service, suggesting to

Reform default service in the near term … Allow competitive suppliers to provide default service instead of the incumbent utilities … Limit residential default service pricing to basic (“plain vanilla”) service and let the market offer other choices … Adopt a plan to phase out default service. The plan must reflect the realities of each jurisdiction. No two plans would be the same as each jurisdiction must be mindful of past decisions.

I am thrilled to see these recommendations, because incumbent default service can be a costly obstacle and entry barrier for small, new potential entrants. In fact, my Independent Review article from last fall lays out the precise economic argument for how incumbent default service can be an entry barrier and why regulatory policy should “quarantine the monopoly”:

Incumbent vertical market power in deregulating markets can be anticompetitive, as seen in the current process of retail electricity restructuring. This paper uses the AT&T antitrust case’s Bell Doctrine precedent of “quarantine the monopoly” as a case study in incumbent vertical market power in a regulated industry. It then extends the Bell Doctrine by presenting an experimentation-based theory of competition, and applies this extended framework to analyzing the changing retail electricity industry. The general failure to quarantine the monopoly wires segment and its regulated monopolist from the potentially competitive downstream retail market contributes to the slow pace and lackluster performance of retail electricity markets for residential customers.

In the case of Texas, default service was indeed transitional, as intended, and was not provided by the incumbent.

The issue of incumbent default service as an entry barrier may be part of the upcoming “utility of the future” discussion that will take place in Illinois, according to this Retail Energy X story:

If the Illinois Commerce Commission opens a “utility of the future” proceeding, the structure of default service, including its potential elimination, would likely be discussed in such proceeding, ICC Commissioner Ann McCabe said during a media call discussing the Annual Baseline Assessment of Choice in Canada and the United States.

Asked about the ABACCUS recommendation to end default service, McCabe said, “That’s subject to discussion. If we pursue some kind of ‘utility of the future’ initiative, that will be one of the questions likely to be addressed.”