by Richard T. Stuebi
In the 1990’s, electricity deregulation was the next big thing. By separating generation and retailing from the natural monopoly wires businesses (transmission and distribution), competition could be spawned in wholesale and retail electricity markets, thereby unleashing long-repressed efficiencies and innovation in the production and sale of electricity products and services. Deregulation had previously produced major benefits in a number of other economic sectors, such as natural gas, telecommunications and airlines — why not electricity?
Seizing on such optimism, a number of states — including California, Texas, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Illinois, Ohio — took significant steps to “deregulate” their electricity sectors. I use quotes because, in many of these cases, important regulatory constraints remained in place.
In theory, deregulation ought to have aided the emergence of clean technologies in the electricity sector. Alas, as a general statement, such promising hopes have not come to pass.
Of all the states that implemented deregulation, only Texas, arguably, has achieved some degree of success with their electricity deregulation initiative. For the other states, the results of deregulation have been generally disappointing: a lack of true competition, the potential for collusion, few new entrants, little innovation, and (most visibly) increasing energy prices.
Now, not all of the ails experienced in these states can be traced to bad deregulation. For instance, increasing natural gas prices caused by secular shifts in its supply-demand balance would have inevitably led to higher electricity prices in many states, deregulation or not.
Nevertheless, hindsight is always 20-20, and in the case of electricity deregulation, the failure of deregulation has become pretty clear: many of the approaches that were pursued to create competitive marketplaces were fundamentally flawed.
In the past several years, regulators in many states around the country have been busily working to clean up the messes produced by wayward deregulation efforts. California was the first to attempt electricity deregulation in 1998 — and was the first to try to “stuff the genie back into the bottle” in 2002.
Just a few weeks ago, Illinois has been the latest to reverse course, with a broad electricity reform legislation that combines an aggressive renewable portfolio standard, a significant commitment to energy efficiency, and the creation of a state-run energy procurement authority to obtain competitive generation prices and enable low-cost financing of new generation capacity.
Now the road show (some would say “circus”) associated with deregulation clean-up moves to Ohio.
Ohio passed its deregulation bill in 1999, and for various reasons, it failed to produce any meaningful competition among generation suppliers or among retailers. When natural gas prices soared in 2004, wholesale electricity prices in Ohio also went skyward — even though the costs of Ohio generation didn’t rise materially, given that virtually all generation in Ohio is coal (87%) or nuclear (12%) based — because the neighboring power markets in Pennsylvania and New Jersey are generally set by natural gas generation. In short, Ohio customers faced far-higher electricity prices, but no competitive options. Other than Ohio’s utilities, who now operated unregulated monopolies, everyone was highly dissatisfied with deregulation.
Band-aids in the form of “rate stabilization plans” were quickly applied a few years ago, but these plans expire at the end of 2008. Thus, Ohio needs to take another bite at the apple, now, in order to set its post-2008 electricity market rules and structures.
The Strickland Administration is due to release its comprehensive plan for electricity by the end of August. Although under tight wraps, this plan is said to include (among other things) an advanced energy portfolio standard that will create a market for new renewable energy projects in Ohio. Hopefully, the portfolio standard will include a section for increasing energy efficiency requirements as well. In the likelihood of a carbon-constrained world — and given Ohio’s (1) inefficient consumption infrastructure and (2) undiversified generation mix — a portfolio standard seems more than just prudent, but essential.
In the meanwhile, many other parties are offering their proposals for how to move forward. FirstEnergy (NYSE: FE) recently filed a proposal with the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio in which it proposes a rolling set of auctions to acquire a variety of tranches of generation, including renewable energy, to supply its retail customers.
In Ohio, it’s bound to be a busy autumn for electricity regulation. Stay tuned. And, in support of cleantech, keep your fingers crossed that Ohio finally gets a portfolio standard, which 25 other states already have. If Ohio moves promptly, it still has a chance of being 3rd quartile!