Friday, September 21, 2007

Regulation and New Technology

Over and over, people ask me questions like:
If the technology's there, why don't we have more wind (or solar)power?
Why do we have to use so much coal when we could use renewable energy?
Why aren't there smart meters installed everywhere?
Why don't we have a smart grid?
Why are my rates going up so suddenly?
Why? Why? Why?

Well, one of the most important things to remember is that, for the most part, our utilities live/work/play in a regulated environment -- particularly at the transmission and distribution level. Even in deregulated states, the movement is reversing towards re-regulation of electricity. The business model of a regulated utility is to invest in something and be allowed a reasonable rate of return on that investment by the regulator, the public utility commission (PUC). For the most part, utilities don't much care what they invest in, as long as they can be assured of a predictable rate of return.

So, if you don't like coal, believe strongly in renewable energy, and want smart grids communicating with a smart meter in every home, start lobbying regulators to compel utilities to invest in these things. The utility has to have a regulated rate of return for its shareholders (just about everyone who owns a basic mutual fund or has a pension) and as long as the PUC allows the utilities a regulated rate of return on the investment in renewable energy, smart grids/meters, it will happen.

The problem with the utility industry today is that it is facing increasingly difficult problems from all sides--demand for CO2 controls, deteriorating infrastructure, rising costs due to increased international demand for raw materials, competition for skilled workers, shareholders demanding their dividend checks, PUC's regulating every breath they take, and consumers who want cheap, reliable, electricity that's always available at the flip of a switch. It's a viscious circle of competing interests including the state PUC, the utility, and a generally disengaged consumer base...consumers who rarely pay attention to their electricity unless, of course, they've just experienced a loss of service or their rates are escalating abnormally.

But, it is precisely at this time of increasing challenges that consumers need to wake up and pay attention to that magical thing called electricity that lights their world at the flip of a switch. it is up to all of us to think about what we want, what we need, and what we are willing to pay for in terms of electricity. This is no time to point fingers and ask why not??? It is a time to come together, become informed and engaged in the debate about the direction of our energy future.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Price of Deregulation - 4 cents a kWh

In David Cay Johnston’s article in The New York Times (9/4/2007), “A New Push to Regulate Power Costs,” he writes about the fact that many states are rolling back their deregulatory initiatives. He says, “The main reason, he says, is price.

Ah, price. That magic number that is at the nexus of supply and demand. The problem with price in electricity markets is that it is not determined by supply and demand as in a free, deregulated market—even in those states where they was, supposedly, deregulation. In fact, we’ve long argued that deregulatory initiatives, as they were designed and implemented, had nothing to do with what most people understand as “deregulation” at all. Johnston points out that retail price controls, artificially induced competition on the wholesale side, and same old-same old metering does not a free market make. As Peter Van Doren of the Cato Institute says, “Just calling something a market does not make it a market.”

According to a study, quoted in the NYT article, conducted by the former Washington state utility regulator, rates in deregulated states run about 4 cents a kWh higher than in regulated states. Although each situation is different, there are several reasons that the cost of power in “deregulated” states has been going up so dramatically:

- Because many of these same states have tougher emissions regulations, they embraced cleaner-than-coal gas-fired power plants and have, therefore, been the victims of the escalating cost of natural gas for fuel
- As pointed out in the article, they artificially reduced prices during competition through “mandated” controls
- They did not put in place tools (smart metering) with which consumers can see/react to their electricity usage
- They have deregulated the wholesale market but not the retail market, so there’s a gap that suppliers can take advantage of
- They forced their utilities to divest their generation assets and allowed stranded cost recovery. Initially, the utilities got through that okay in terms of financial health, but now there are serious costs looming (fuel, transmission, global warming) and unless the regulator wants to see the utilities go belly-up, rates have to rise

Real markets only work when consumers have information on which to make decisions. Today, at the residential and small user level, there is no way to respond to higher prices (which would moderate load which would moderate prices). Only 15% of the country has an “advanced meter” on their home or business and these were mostly designed for the utility to shed meter readers (these meters can be read remotely). The really advanced meters—two-way communication devices that help the utility understand and control load and usage patterns—have not been widely adopted except for a few areas of the country. With no ability to respond to rising prices—say, changing the thermostat—consumers cry foul and turn to the regulators to keep their prices down.

Plus, keep in mind that when experts talk about prices being reduced to consumers through competition, they mean that the “average” prices across all consumers will decline. 90% of all consumers can pay a higher rate while 10% pay a lower rate—because they buy the most electricity and, like all bulk purchasers, enjoy the steepest discounts.

What Johnston doesn’t mention is the role that electricity storage—or rather, the lack of it—plays in the marketplace. Electricity is not like other commodities, at least not today, because we don’t have a way of storing it in the same way that wheat, corn, or even natural gas and oil can be stored. This product is unique in that sense. Electricity is produced for immediate, “on-demand” use, so the market for electricity is not like other markets. Also, the transmission system has not been upgraded to enable power to be easily moved in response to market signals (as opposed to emergency transfers). Because there are still so many “constraints” and “transmission loading relief” requests, any benefits from electricity markets is squelched. A robust system of electricity storage would allow a more responsive and “real” electricity market to emerge.