America’s high national living standards lead us to consider things like abundant access to clean water, comprehensive cellular service, and a reliable electric grid commonplace. Much of the rest of the world regards them as luxuries unavailable to many people.
Consequently, we tend to think about these things only when they don’t work. Cloudy water creates a crisis. A cell phone outage leaves us stranded. Failures in the power market leave us, literally and figuratively, in the dark about what to do.
The critics of how the market allocates the distribution of electric power allege competition would lead to more brown- and blackouts. Despite abundant evidence they are wrong, they don’t trust the competitive market system to keep the lights on. Even now they’re waging a campaign to upend the market structure in places like my home state of Virginia, where competition has overall helped maintain reliable and affordable electricity.
Electricity generators in the United States operate under different structures, dictated by state and the federal governments. Historically, utilities have been integrated vertically, creating geographic monopolies on the production and sale of electric power. Unified ownership of the different parts of the supply chain - generation, transmission, and distribution of power - by a single producer/distributor creates exclusive service territories with captive customers.
Economics teaches that monopolies are bad, even at the state level. Dependence on a single source for anything leaves customers without the freedom to decide what’s best. Competition is the consumer’s friend. Just look at the explosion in services offered by the telephone companies thanks to the competition created by the breakup of Ma Bell.
The explosion in content creation driven by the internet is analogous to what might happen to power generation if competitive pressures were introduced to the generation of electricity in states currently lacking choice. There are nuances of course but, in general, the restructuring of power markets would end the distribution monopolies. Existing utilities would maintain control on distribution networks, but in most cases will be separated from the generation of power.
Currently, there are seven Regional Transmission Organizations (or RTOs) and Independent System Operators (or ISOs) in the United States that run competitive wholesale power markets. They facilitate open access to power transmission and operate the transmission system independently of, and foster competition for, electricity generation among wholesale market participants.
In short, they replace the cost-based regulatory model with a market-based competitive model, functioning as “power pools” from which multiple independent utilities can draw and share reserves to make power cheaper for you and me. Over time, they have evolved to optimize generator output over wide geographic regions - again, generally reducing consumer costs.
According to U.S Energy Information Administration data, between 1997 and 2017, increases in retail electricity prices in states with competitive electric markets and monopoly states were about the same, while customers in monopoly states saw a slightly higher percentage increase in rates. A Retail Energy Supply Association found that customers in states that still have monopoly utilities saw their average energy prices increase nearly 19 percent from 2008 to 2017, while prices fell 7 percent in competitive markets over the same period.
In competitive markets, electricity is purchased at market-determined wholesale prices. Customers, you and me, can choose a provider rather than be required to purchase our electricity from our local utility. The monopoly system, equally or more expensive from a price perspective, is often tainted by political corruption and scandal. In the last year or so, scandals involving utilities seeking to influence legislation or secure taxpayer bailouts led to the toppling of the top lawmaker in both the Ohio and Illinois House of Representatives.
“Pick a year, and you will find some scandal among monopoly utilities. The corruption shows no sign of slowing down. Instead, the breadth, depth, and cost of such scandals only seem to multiply,” the Conservative Energy Network notes.
It’s time to pull the plug on the old system. Competition in the electricity market produces cost savings for customers, improves service and reliability, and encourages innovations leading to environmental benefits. The drive to gain new customers that comes once a restructured, competitive wholesale market for electricity is introduced – and which several states are in the process of creating – empowers customers, reduces costs, and keeps the lights on.
Peter Roff is a former UPI and U.S. News & World Report columnist who is now affiliated with several Washington-D.C.-based public policy organizations. Contact Roff at RoffColumns@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter @PeterRoff