The real threat to electrification are the rapidly escalating costs in the distribution system, not some anomaly in rate design related to net energy metering. As I have written here several times, rooftop solar if anything has saved ratepayers money so far, just as energy efficiency has done so. PG&E’s 2023 GRC is asking for a 66% increase in distribution rates by 2026 and average rates will approach 40 cents/kWh. We need to be asking why are these increases happening and what can we do to make electricity affordable for everyone.
Perhaps most importantly, the premise that there’s a “least cost” choice put forward by economists at the Energy Institute at Haas among others implies that there’s some centralized social welfare function. This is a mythological construct created for the convenience of economists (of which I’m one) to point to an “efficient” solution. Other societal objectives beyond economic efficiency include equitably allocating cost responsibility based on economic means, managing and sharing risks under uncertainty, and limiting political power that comes from economic assets. Efficiency itself is limited in what it tells us due to the multitude of market imperfections. The “theory of the second best” states that in an economic sector with uncorrected market failures, actions to correct market failures in another related sector with the intent of increasing economic efficiency may actually decrease overall economic efficiency. In the utility world for example, shareholders are protected from financial losses so revenue shortfalls are allocated to customers even as their demands fall. This blunts the risk incentive that is central to economic efficiency. Claiming that adding a fixed charge will “improve” efficiency has little basis without a complete, fundamental assessment of the sector’s market functionality.
The real actors here are individual customers who are making individual decisions in our current economic resource allocation system, and not a central entity dictating choices to each of us. Different customers have different preferences in what they value and what they fear. Rooftop installations have been driven to a large extent by a dread of utility mismanagement that makes expectations about future rates much more uncertain.
The single most important trait of a market economy is the discipline imposed by appropriately assigning risk burden to the decision make and not pricing design. The latter is the tail wagging the dog. Market distortions are universally caused by separating consequences from decisions. And right now the only ability customers have to exercise control over their electricity bills is to somehow exit the system. If we take away that means of discipline we will never be able to control electricity rates in a way that will lead to effective electrification.
The movie Don’t Look Up has been getting “two thumbs up” from a certain political segment for speaking to truth in their view. An existential threat from a comet is used metaphorically to describe the resistance to the import of climate change risk. After watching the film I have a somewhat different take away that speaks a different truth to those viewers who found the message resonating most. Instead of blaming our political system, we should have a different take away that we can act on collectively.
Don’t Look Up reveals several errors and blind spots in the scientific and activist communities in communicating with the public and influencing decision making. The first is a mistaken belief that the public is actually interested in scientific study beyond parlor room tricks. The second is believing that people will act solely based on shrill warnings from scientists acting as high priests. The third (which isn’t addressed in the film) is failing to fully acknowledge what people see that they may lose by responding to these calls for change. Instead these communities should reconsider what they focus on and how they communicate.
The movie opens with the first error–the astronomers’ long winded attempt to explain all of the analysis that went into their prediction. Most people don’t see how science has any direct influence on their lives–how is digging up dinosaurs or discovering the outer bounds of the universe relevant to every day living? It’s a failure of our education system, but we can’t correct to help now. Over the last several years the message on climate change has changed to highlight the apparent effects on storms and heat waves, but someone living in Kansas doesn’t see how rising sea levels will affect them. A long explanation about the mechanics and methods just loses John Q. Public (although there is a small cadre that is fascinated) and they tune out. It’s hard to be disciplined with a simple message when you find the deeper complexity interesting, but that’s what it will take.
Shrill warnings have never been well received, no matter the call. We see that today with the resistance to measures to suppress the COVID-19 pandemic. James Hansen at NASA first raised the alarm about climate change in the 1980s but he was largely ignored due to his righteousness and arrogance in public. He made a serious error in stepping well outside of his expertise to assert particular solutions. The public has always looked to who they view as credible, regardless of their credentials, for guidance. Academics have too often assumed that they deserve this respect simply because they have “the” credential. That much of the public views science as mysterious with little more basis than religion does not help the cause. Instead, finding the right messengers is key to being successful.
Finally, and importantly overlooked in the film, a call to action of this magnitude requires widespread changes in behaviors and investments. People generally have worked hard to achieve what they have and are risk averse to such changes that may severely erode their financial well-being. For example, as many as 1 in 5 private sector jobs are tied to automobiles and fossil fuel production. One might extoll the economic benefits of switching to renewable electricity but workers and investors in these sectors are uncertain about their futures with no clear pathways to share in this new prosperity. Without addressing a truly valid means of resolving these risks beyond the tired “retraining” shibboleth, this core and its sympathizers will resist meaningful change.
Effecting these solutions likely require sacrifice from those who benefit from these changes. Pointing to benefit-cost analyses that rely on a “faux” hypothetical transaction to justify these solutions really is no better than the wealthy asserting asserting that they deserve to keep most of their financial gains simply because that’s how the market works. Compensating owners of these assets and making what appears to be inefficient decisions to maintain impacted communities may seem unfair for a variety of reasons, but we need to overcome our biases embedded in our favored solutions to move forward.
Maven’s Notebook posted a summary of presentations to the California Water Commission by Richard McCann of M.Cubed, Steve Hatchett of Era Economics, and David Sunding of the Brattle Group. Many of my slides are included.
The Commission is developing a framework that might be used to identify how shares of conveyance costs might be funded by the state of California. The Commission previously awarded almost $3 billion in bond financing for a dozen projects under the Proposition 1B Water Storage Investment Program (WSIP). That process used a prescribed method including a Technical Guide that determined the eligible public benefits for financing by the state. M.Cubed supported the application by Irvine Ranch Water District and Rio Bravo-Rosedale Water Storage District for the Kern Fan water bank.
Rising polarization is taking place because there is now a fundamental disagreement across our society concerning who has the property rights to different resources.
While Kahn is correct about property rights being at the core of the dispute, he glosses over the real issue by going off to discuss game theory and bargaining. That real issue is how different groups in society gained those property rights, whether its entitlement to jobs or use of natural resources or control of social mores. Much of these property rights were gained through coercion of some form, such as slavery, land grabs or paternalistic social structures. Resolving these requires agreeing first on basic societal morality and ethics, and then turning to how to resolve the redistribution of those rights, rather than just plunging straight into bargaining.
Danielle Allen writes eloquently in the December issue of the Atlantic Monthly in the “The Road from Serfdom” about how too many Americans rightfully feel disenfranchised today and many of the reasons why they feel that way. Her description of how we got here is well worth the read. However, she misattributes the roles of economists (and lawyers) and errors in their recent prognostications on how economic progress would unfold.
Allen blames much of the current economic woes on the rise of economists in policymaking. She talks about how economists superseded lawyers in that role, implying that lawyers were somehow better connected to society. The real transformation happened several decades earlier when lawyers took over from the broader set of general citizenry. Just as she identifies how economists (of which I am one) are trained to think in one fashion, lawyers are similarly taught to think in another way that tends to focus on identifying constraints and relying on precedent. Lawyers are also taught that the available solutions require directives through laws and contentious conflict resolution. Lawyers are rarely instructed in how actual institutions work, contrary to Allen’s assertion–lawyers usually learn that as on-the-job training. In fact, it is economists who developed institutional economics that studies the role of such organizations. Economists arrived to propose solutions that could work through incentives and choice and negotiated solutions. So we traded one set of technocrats for another set. Perhaps we have not done well by either set, but we also should not ignore why we chose those professions guide us.
The mistakes that economists made were not as simplistic as Allen describes. She points to a claim that economists did not understand how disruption would impact specific communities and what two decades of disruption would look like in those communities. As contrary examples, I wrote here about how climate change will impact communities, and about how we need to compensate coal mining communities as part of our reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and even the shaky foundations of benefit-cost analysis. Instead economists did not foresee two important transformations since the 1970s. (Economists made a similar mistake after the fall of the Berlin Wall, failing to acknowledge that markets need well functioning institutions and laws to facilitate beneficial transactions.) The first was that agglomeration of knowledge industries (technological and financial) would be so geographically intensive and that these industries would accrue so much wealth. The second was that Americans would become so much less mobile, both geographically and socially. There are many social and policy factors that have led to these trends, but these stories are much more complex than Allen describes. No one could have foreseen these unprecedented changes that have shattered the lives of too many people that have remained behind in communities emptied of economic purpose.
That said, identifying the rise of the ideologies of Nobel Prize winners Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman (who were economists) as a key source of our conundrum is accurate. Allen does not discuss the parallel rise of the fantasies of Ayn Rand that fueled the mythologies of Hayek and Friedman. Rand’s work was a surprising path for spreading those ideologies, particularly given how bad her writing was. We now have a core of elites who believe that they somehow are “self made” with no outside help and even overcoming the “parasites” of society. That will be a difficult self image to overcome.
In an opinion article published on Utility Dive, Kenneth Costello argues that adopting a carbon tax would be a mistake. As he says, “(i)nstead of a carbon tax, why not give more consideration to adaptive strategies, which can evolve over time in response to new information?” His arguments make several key errors and underestimate the political will required to deliver his preferred option.
We need not rely on the social cost of carbon (SCC) to set a tax. Instead of using a benefit-cost approach implied by the SCC, we can use a cost-effectiveness approach by setting the tax to achieve an expected amount of greenhouse gases reduction. This is really no different than how we conduct most of our private transactions–we don’t directly weigh the monetary benefits of buying a new car against its costs–we decide what type of car that we want and then spend the money to buy that car. We may not achieve the mythical “positive net benefits” using such a strategy, but the the truth is that benefit-cost analysis is problematic in the context of climate change, as Martin Weitzmann among others pointed out.
We have a good idea of how increased prices that would result from a carbon tax impact demand, contrary to Costello’s assertion. We have seen that over and over with changes in gasoline and electricity prices in the last half century. (One paper found that the early CAFE standards did not affect automobile fleet fuel economy until gas prices fell in 1984.) We can adaptively manage a carbon tax (which also can be implemented as a global trade tariff framework) to steer toward our emissions reduction target.
Costello instead proposes that we focus solely on climate adaptation by hardening our infrastructure and other measures. This illustrates a lack of understanding of the breadth of the expected impacts and the inability of a large segment of the world’s population to undertake such mitigation without a large wealth transfer. Further, such adaptation focuses largely on the direct impacts to humans and ignores the farther ranging ones on our global environment. Those latter effects, such as ocean acidification and melting of the tundra, can lead to catastrophic outcomes that cannot be readily adapted to, no matter what is spent. And there other effects that that we may not even know about. Focusing so narrowly on what might be adaptive strategies will lead to a gross underestimation of the costs to adapt.
Finally, Costello overestimates the political barriers to implementing and managing a carbon tax and overestimates the political will to implement adaptation strategies. Contrary to his assertion, environmental groups such as EDF and NRDC have been at the forefront of using prices and taxes to regulate environmental pollutants. (I have worked for several of them on such proposals.) Yes, politicians want to avoid taxes, but that reflects the more general problem of wanting to avoid any hard choices. And we only need to look at the state of the U.S. infrastructure to see how difficult it is to persuade the political system to make the investments that Costello recommends. This will be a tough road either way, but the carbon tax option cannot be simply dismissed based on Costello’s analysis.
Greta Thunberg’sspeech at the UN has sparked a discussion about our deeper responsibilities to our future generations. When we made the huge effort to fight World War II, did we ask “how much will this cost?” We face the same existential threat and should make the same commitment. We can do this cost effectively, and avoid making most stupid decisions, but asking whether this effort is worth it is now beyond question. We will have to consider how to compensate those who have invested their money or their livelihoods in activities that we now recognize as damaging to the climate, and that will be an added cost to the rest of us. (And we may see this as unfair.) But we really have no choice.
J. Frank Bullit posted on “Fox and Hounds” a sentiment that reflects the core of opposition to such actions:
What if the alarmists are wrong, yet there is no counter to the demands of enacting economic and energy policies we might regret?”
So our energy costs might be a bit more than it would have otherwise, but we get a cleaner environment in exchange. And even now, renewable energy sources are competing well on a dollar to dollar basis.
On the other hand, if the “alarmists” are correct, the consequences have a significant probability of being catastrophic to our civilization, as well as our environment. We all have insurance on our houses for events that we see as highly unlikely. We pay that extra cost on our house to gain assurance that we will recover our investments if such unlikely events occur. These are costs that we are willing to accept because we know that the “alarmists” have a point about the risks of house fires. We should be taking the same attitude towards climate change assessments. It’s not possible to prove that there is norisk, or even that the risk is tiny. And the data trends are sufficiently consistent with the forecasts to date that the probabilities weigh more towards a likelihood than not.
Unless opponents can show that the consequences of the alarmists being wrong are worse than the climate change threat, we have to act to mitigate that risk in much the same way as we do when we buy house insurance. (And by the way, we don’t have another “house” to move to…)
Severin Borenstein at UC Berkeley argues against the “try everything” approach to searching for solutions to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. But he is confusing situations with relatively small incremental consequences (even the California WaterFix is “small” compared to potential climate change impacts.)
Instead, when facing a potentially large catastrophic outcome for which the probability distribution is completely unknown, we need a different analytic approach than a simple cost-benefit analysis based on an “expected” outcome.
Rob Lempert at Rand Corp writes about “robust decisionmaking” under “deep” uncertainty which best fits the situation.
We need to be looking for what decision pathways lead us to the situations create the most vulnerability, not for which one has the “optimal outcome.” Policymakers and stakeholders looking desperately for any solution intuitively get the notion of robust decisionmaking, but are not receiving much guidance about how to best pursue this alternative approach. Economists need to lead the conversation that changes the current misleading perspective.
Finally, a real world example of how benefit-cost analysis should be used in practice. Alberta takes the revenues that represent a portion of the society wide benefits and distributes those to the losers from the policy change. Economists have almost always ignored the problem of how to compensate losers in changes in social policy, and of course those who keep losing increasingly oppose any more policies. Instead of dreaming up ways to invest carbon market revenues in whiz bang solutions, we first need to focus on who’s being left behind so they are not resentful, and become a key political impediment to doing the right thing.
Severin Borenstein’s post raises an important issue that economists have ignore for too long. I posted the following comment there:
We gave politicians the tool of benefit-cost analysis which they have used to justify their policy objectives, but we completely failed to drive home the requirement that those parties who are on the losing end need to be compensated as well. I looked in my edition of Ned Gramlich’s book on Benefit-Cost Analysis (who taught my course), and the word “compensation” is not even in the index! Working on environmental regulations, I regularly see agency staff derive large positive ratios for the “general public” and then completely dismiss the concerns of particular groups that will be carrying all the burdens of delivering those benefits. If we’re going to teach benefit-cost analysis, we need to emphasize the “cost” side as much as the “benefit” that politicians love to extol.