The U.S. Electricity Industry After 20 Years of Restructuring
Prior to the 1990s, most electricity customers in the U.S. were served by regulated, vertically-integrated, monopoly utilities that handled electricity generation, transmission, local distribution and billing/collections. Regulators set retail electricity prices to allow the utility to recover its prudently incurred costs, a process known as cost-of-service regulation. During the 1990s, this model was disrupted in many states by "electricity restructuring," a term used to describe legal changes that allowed both non-utility generators to sell electricity to utilities — displacing the utility generation function — and/or "retail service providers" to buy electricity from generators and sell to end-use customers — displacing the utility procurement and billing functions. We review the original economic arguments for electricity restructuring, the potential winners and losers from these changes, and what has actually happened in the subsequent years. We argue that the greatest political motivation for restructuring was rent shifting, not efficiency improvements, and that this explanation is supported by observed waxing and waning of political enthusiasm for electricity reform. While electricity restructuring has brought significant efficiency improvements in generation, it has generally been viewed as a disappointment because the price-reduction promises made by some advocates were based on politically-unsustainable rent transfers. In reality, the electricity rate changes since restructuring have been driven more by exogenous factors — such as generation technology advances and natural gas price fluctuations — than by the effects of restructuring. We argue that a similar dynamic underpins the current political momentum behind distributed generation (primarily rooftop solar PV) which remains costly from a societal viewpoint, but privately economic due to the rent transfers it enables.
Forthcoming in Annual Reviews, Doi: 10.1146/annureveconomics-080614-115630. The authors thank Walter Graf for excellent research assistance and participants in the October 2014 Energy Institute at Haas policy briefing for helpful comments. Bushnell’s work was supported in part by the National Science Foundation under award 1229008. Bushnell serves on the Market Surveillance Committee to the California Independent System Operator (CAISO). The MSC is an independent advisory committee to the CAISO’s Board of Governors. The authors are not aware of any other affiliations, memberships, funding, or financial holdings that might be perceived as affecting the objectivity of this review. The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Severin Borenstein & James Bushnell, 2015. "The US Electricity Industry After 20 Years of Restructuring," Annual Review of Economics, Annual Reviews, vol. 7(1), pages 437-463, 08. citation courtesy of