Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Deregulated vs. Regulated Energy Prices

In Texas in 1999, Senate Bill 7 created a deregulated electricity market within the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). Some areas opted not to join into the fun of a deregulated market, where consumers could choose their retail electricity provider of choice. Examples of these ares are the city of Austin (Austin Energy) and the city of San Antonio (CPS).

So since 1999, I wondered: if the economic 'free' market is supposed to be optimal and drive prices lower for the consumer, why aren't prices in the deregulated market lower than those at Austin Energy and CPS Energy?

Today, the winter charge for electricity within the Austin Energy domain is near 8.5 cents/kWh if using 1000 kWh per month. The summer rate this year was near 9.4 cents/kWh. If I look on the Texas Public Utility Commission's website for finding a retail electric provider (Power To Choose) in Round Rock, Texas (just north of Austin) in the Oncor region, I notice for the fixed rates (I will not consider variable rate electricity) the price varies between 10.2 - 14.1 cents/kWh. This is approximately 1.5 cents/kWh more than Austin Energy averaged over the year. Note that the price a consumer pays is due to costs for (1) electricity generation, (2) transmission, and (3) retail electric providers (REP) who administer the service. The ERCOT deregulated market makes it such that no one company can perform more than one of those functions.

One major reason for this discrepancy is how electricity is priced in the deregulated market.

Assume the following:
1. Company A is in the deregulated market in ERCOT, and Company B is a city municipality within ERCOT but not engaged in the deregulated market (like Austin Energy).

2. Both Company A and B have identical power generation capacity and mix at: 33% natural gas combined cycle, 33% pulverized coal, and 33% nuclear.

The deregulated market prices electricity at the 'marginal price' (i.e. the cost to generate the last bit of electricity). Also, all coal and nuclear power runs almost continuously with the natural gas units cranking up and down to follow the rise and fall of electric demand. Assume the case now with high natural gas prices, it is the most expensive.

Say nuclear power costs 1.7 cents/kWh, coal costs 3.5 cents/kWh, and natural gas generation costs 5.0 cents/kWh.

For 1000 kWh of generation the deregulated cost of energy is:

= (nuclear electricity)*price + (coal electricity)*price + (natural gas electricity)*price
= 333 kWh*5.0 cents/kWh +333 kWh*5.0 cents/kWh + 333 kWh*5.0 cents/kWh
= $50.00

For 1000 kWh of generation the municipality cost of energy is:

= (nuclear electricity)*price + (coal electricity)*price + (natural gas electricity)*price
= 333 kWh*1.7 cents/kWh +333 kWh*3.5 cents/kWh + 333 kWh*5.0 cents/kWh
= $34.00

So using THE EXACT SAME GENERATION units, the municipality is inherently cheaper. Of course, municipalities can be less efficient running their organization than competitive companies and end up charging more. But, competitive REPs also need to pay for marketing their product, which incurs costs. Thus, municipalities can afford to be less efficient in their general operation and organization up to the point that they make up for marginal price differences and marketing costs from REPs. There are also other factors, but the basic price structure for charging for generated electricity is perhaps the most influential.

Of course, since the deregulated market was created after lots of infrastructure existed already, it is not truly a 'free' market system since some companies started with a tremendous amount of assets. But that is a discussion for another day ...

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