Tag Archives: incentive based regulation

Moving beyond the easy stuff: Mandates or pricing carbon?


Meredith Fowlie at the Energy Institute at Haas posted a thought provoking (for economists) blog on whether economists should continue promoting pricing carbon emissions.

I see, however, that this question should be answered in the context of an evolving regulatory and technological process.

Originally, I argued for a broader role for cap & trade in the 2008 CARB AB32 Scoping Plan on behalf of EDF. Since then, I’ve come to believe that a carbon tax is probably preferable over cap & trade when we turn to economy wide strategies for administrative reasons. (California’s CATP is burdensome and loophole ridden.) That said, one of my prime objections at the time to the Scoping Plan was the high expense of mandated measures, and that it left the most expensive tasks to be solved by “the market” without giving the market the opportunity to gain the more efficient reductions.

Fast forward to today, and we face an interesting situation because the cost of renewables and supporting technologies have plummeted. It is possible that within the next five years solar, wind and storage will be less expensive than new fossil generation. (The rest of the nation is benefiting from California initial, if mismanaged, investment.) That makes the effective carbon price negative in the electricity sector. In this situation, I view RPS mandates as correcting a market failure where short term and long term prices do not and cannot converge due to a combination of capital investment requirements and regulatory interventions. The mandates will accelerate the retirement of fossil generation that is not being retired currently due to mispricing in the market. As it is, many areas of the country are on their way to nearly 100% renewable (or GHG-free) by 2040 or earlier.

But this and other mandates to date have not been consumer-facing. Renewables are filtered through the electric utility. Building and vehicle efficiency standards are imposed only on new products and the price changes get lost in all of the other features. Other measures are focused on industry-specific technologies and practices. The direct costs are all well hidden and consumers generally haven’t yet been asked to change their behavior or substantially change what they buy.

But that all would seem to change if we are to take the next step of gaining the much deeper GHG reductions that are required to achieve the more ambitious goals. Consumers will be asked to get out of their gas-fueled cars and choose either EVs or other transportation alternatives. And even more importantly, the heating, cooling, water heating and cooking in the existing building stock will have to be changed out and electrified. (Even the most optimistic forecasts for biogas supplies are only 40% of current fossil gas use.) Consumers will be presented more directly with the costs for those measures. Will they prefer to be told to take specific actions, to receive subsidies in return for higher taxes, or to be given more choice in return for higher direct energy use prices?


Using floods to replenish groundwater


M.Cubed produced four reports for Sustainable Conservation on using floodwaters to recharge aquifers in California’s Central Valley. The first is on expected costs. The next three are a set on the benefits, participation incentives and financing options for using floodwaters in wetter years to replenish groundwater aquifers. We found that costs would range around $100 per acre-foot, and beneficiaries include not only local farmers, but also downstream communities with lower flood control costs, upstream water users with more space for storage instead of flood control, increased hydropower generation, and more streamside habitat. We discussed several different approaches to incentives based on our experience in a range of market-based regulatory settings and the water transfer market.

With the PPIC’s release of Water and the Future of the San Joaquin Valley, which forecasts a loss of 500,000 acres of agricultural production due to reduced groundwater pumping under the State Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), local solutions that mitigate groundwater restrictions should be moving to the fore.

Don Cameron at Terranova Ranch started doing this deliberately earlier this decade, and working with Phil Bachand and UC Davis, more study has shown the effectiveness, and the lack of risk to crops, from this strategy. The Department of Water Resources has implemented the Flood-MAR program to explore this alternative further. The Flood-MAR whitepaper explores many of these issues, but its list of beneficiaries is incomplete, and the program appears to not yet moved on to how to effectively implement these programs integrated with the local SGMA plans. Our white papers could be useful starting points for that discussion.

(Image Source: Chico Enterprise-Record)




Reaganomics for fuel economy?


I chuckled when I saw this article extolling how CAFE fuel economy standards should be replaced with “clean tax cuts.” One proponent said, “If you want more of something, tax it less.”

But apparently, these incentives work only one direction. “It’s very common, historically, for companies to not meet the targets and just pay the fines,” said Josiah Neeley, a senior fellow for the R Street Institute. However, the auto companies were not happy with a proposal to increase the penalty 155%.  Does that mean that the penalty got large enough to incent greater compliance?

What type of regulation when?


I like this taxonomy of what type of regulatory/liability framework to use in which situation posted in Environmental Economics. (Reminds me of a market-type structure I created for my 1996 paper on environmental commodity markets.) However, I think the two choices on the right side could be changed:

  • Lower right corner to “incentive-based regulation”: The damages are clear and can be valued, but engaging in market transactions is costly. For example, energy efficiency has a clear value with significant spill over benefits, but the costs of gaining information about net gains is costly for individuals. So setting an incentive standard for manufacturers or in energy rates is more cost effective.
  • Upper right corner to “command and control regulation”: The damages are known and significant, but quantifying them economically, or even physically, is difficult. There are no opportunities for market transactions, but society wants to act. In this case, the regulators would set bounds on behavior or performance.

Another market mechanism saving the environment

EDF posted a blog about the resuscitation of U.S. fisheries and how two-thirds of those fisheries are now sustainable thanks to changes in management practices. At the core of those programs are market-based incentives with individual transferable quotas (ITQ). Fishermen are allocated a certain amount of catch within a season and they can trade those quotas among themselves. The overall cap maintains the sustainability of the fishery while individual fishermen can catch an amount that best meets their own objectives and constraints.

A second element that’s often part of these programs is a buyout program to reduce the size of the overall fleet. This reduces the risk for the boats that remain in the fleet while compensating those who exit for their losses.

These are examples of successful “cap and trade” programs. These lessons are applicable to managing water rights and reducing GHG emissions.

Cap & trade and market design

Bob Sussman at Brookings writes favorably about the resurrection of cap and trade for GHG regulation as a viable policy option with the Chinese planning to implement a program and the US EPA Clean Power Plan encouraging market trading mechanisms in two forms of compliance. Yet as I read this (and also think about proposals to increase water trading to solve California’s ongoing drought), I can see an important missing element in these discussions–how can these markets be designed to gain success?

In 1996, I wrote “Environmental Commodities Markets: ‘Messy’ Versus ‘Ideal’ Worlds” that explored the issues of market design and political realities. As I’ve written recently, we are not always good at fully compensating the losers in environmental policy making, and these groups tend to oppose policies that are beneficial for society as a result. And market incentive proponents seem to always propose some variation on one of two market designs: 1) everyone for themselves in searching for and settling transactions or 2) a giant periodic auction.

In reality, carefully designing market institutions that work for participants is key to the success of those markets. Daniel Bromley wrote about how just “declaring markets” in Russia and Eastern Europe did not instantly transform those economies, much to our chagrin. The RECLAIM emissions market has woefully underperformed because SCAQMD didn’t think through how transactions could be facilitated (and that failure prompted my article.) Frank Wolak and Jonathan Kolstad confirmed my own FERC testimony that the disfunction of the RECLAIM market led to higher electricity prices in the California crisis of 2000-01.

For a presentation a few years ago, I prepared this typology of market structure that looks at the search and match mechanisms and the price revelation and settlement mechanisms. This presentation focused on water transfer markets in California, but it’s also applicable to emission markets. Markets range from brokered/negotiated real estate to dealer/posted-price groceries. Even the New York Stock Exchange, which is a dealer/auction probably works differently than how most people think. There are differences in efficiency and ease of use, often trading off. As we move forward, we need more discussion about these nuts and bolts issues if we want truly successful outcomes.

Market Typologies

Reexamining growth and risk sharing for utilities

Severin Borenstein at the Energy Institute at Haas blogged about the debate over moving to residential fixed charges, and it has started a lively discussion. I added my comment on the issue, which I repost here.

The question of recovery of “fixed” costs through a fixed monthly charge raises a more fundamental question: Should we revisit the question of whether utilities should be at risk for recovery of their investments? As is stands now if a utility overinvests in local distribution it faces almost no risk in recovering those costs. As we’ve seen recently demand has trended well below forecasts since 2006 and there’s no indication that the trend will reverse soon. I’ve testified in both the PG&E and SCE rate cases about how this has led to substantial stranded capacity. Up to now the utilities have done little to correct their investment forecasting methods and continue to ask for authority to make substantial “traditional” investment. Shareholders suffer few consequences from having too much distribution investment–this creates a one-sided incentive and it’s no surprise that they add yet more poles and wire. Imposing a fixed charge instead of including it as a variable charge only reinforces that incentive. At least a variable charge gives them some incentive to avoid a mismatch of revenues and costs in the short run, and they need to think about price effects in the long run. But that’s not perfect.

When demand was always growing, the issue of risk-sharing seemed secondary, but now it should be moving front and center. This will only become more salient as we move towards ZNE buildings. What mechanism can we give the utilities so that they more properly balance their investment decisions? Is it time to reconsider the model of transferring risk from shareholders to ratepayers? What are the business models that might best align utility incentives with where we want to go?

The lesson of the last three decades has been that moving away from direct regulation and providing other outside incentives has been more effective. Probably the biggest single innovation that has been most effective has been imposing more risk on the providers in the market.

California has devoted as many resources as any state to trying to get the regulatory structure right–and to most of its participants, it’s not working at the moment. Thus the discussion of whether fixed charges are appropriate need to be in the context of what is the appropriate risk sharing that utility shareholders should bear.

This is not a one-side discussion about how groups of ratepayers should share the relative risk among themselves for the total utility revenue requirement. That’s exactly the argument that the utilities want us to have. We need to move the argument to the larger question of how should the revenue requirement risk be shared between ratepayers and shareholders. The answer to that question then informs us about what portion of the costs might be considered unavoidable revenue responsibility for the ratepayers (or billpayers as I recently heard at the CAISO Symposium) and what portion shareholders will need to work at recovering in the future. As such the discussion has two sides to it now and revenue requirements aren’t a simple given handed down from on high.