Tag Archives: stranded assets

The PCIA is heading California toward another energy crisis

The California ISO Department of Market Monitoring notes in its comments to the CPUC on proposals to address resource adequacy shortages during last August’s rolling blackouts that the number of fixed price contracts are decreasing. In DMM’s opinion, this leaves California’s market exposed to the potential for greater market manipulation. The diminishing tolling agreements and longer term contracts DMM observes is the result of the structure of the power cost indifference adjustment (PCIA) or “exit fee” for departed community choice aggregation (CCA) and direct access (DA) customers. The IOUs are left shedding contracts as their loads fall.

The PCIA is pegged to short run market prices (even more so with the true up feature added in 2019.) The PCIA mechanism works as a price hedge against the short term market values for assets for CCAs and suppresses the incentives for long-term contracts. This discourages CCAs from signing long-term agreements with renewables.

The PCIA acts as an almost perfect hedge on the retail price for departed load customers because an increase in the CAISO and capacity market prices lead to a commensurate decrease in the PCIA, so the overall retail rate remains the same regardless of where the market moves. The IOUs are all so long on their resources, that market price variation has a relatively small impact on their overall rates.

This situation is almost identical to the relationship of the competition transition charge (CTC) implemented during restructuring starting in 1998. Again, energy service providers (ESPs) have little incentive to hedge their portfolios because the CTC was tied directly to the CAISO/PX prices, so the CTC moved inversely with market prices. Only when the CAISO prices exceeded the average cost of the IOUs’ portfolios did the high prices become a problem for ESPs and their customers.

As in 1998, the solution is to have a fixed, upfront exit fee paid by departing customers that is not tied to variations in future market prices. (Commissioner Jesse Knight’s proposal along this line was rejected by the other commissioners.) By doing so, load serving entities (LSEs) will be left to hedging their own portfolios on their own basis. That will lead to LSEs signing more long term agreements of various kinds.

The alternative of forcing CCAs and ESP to sign fixed price contracts under the current PCIA structure forces them to bear the risk burden of both departed and bundled customers, and the IOUs are able to pass through the risks of their long term agreements through the PCIA.

California would be well service by the DMM to point out this inherent structural problem. We should learn from our previous errors.

Getting to the harder question about stranded assets


John Farrell at the Institute for Self-Reliance argues that existing utility fossil-fuel plants should not be given “stranded assets” status. While his argument about “stranded assets” makes sense from a society wide economic sense, it doesn’t conform with the utility regulation world in which “stranded assets” is actually relevant. Having gone through California’s restructuring and competitive transition charge (CTC) (I’m the only person outside of the utilities to conduct a complete accounting of the CTC collection through 2001), it’s all about what’s on the utility’s books and what the regulatory commission agrees is an acceptable transfer of risk. And based on what happened with Diablo Canyon in 1996 (the correct treatment would have recognized that PG&E had collected its entire investment at the regulated rate of return by 1998—I did that calculation too), it’s not promising.

So I suggest focusing on the shareholder/ratepayer risk sharing arrangement and how that should be changed in the face of the oncoming utility 2.0 transformation as a more fruitful path. We have to change the underlying paradigm first. That there are benefits from retiring generation assets is not a hard argument to win—that was the case in 1996 in California. The harder one is that the past regulatory compact should be changed and that it won’t somehow impact future investment in the distribution utility.

Citigroup climate risk study part 2 – stranded assets

The CitiGPS study makes a unique contribution to the climate change risk literature: reducing GHG emissions will lead to stranded investment assets. These assets include both fossil fuel holdings and the equipment that uses those fuels. Protecting those investments is at the heart of much of the resistance to addressing climate change risk.  Removing political barriers is probably the single greatest difficultly in moving to implement policies to mitigate this risk; many policy proposals are at the ready so there’s no lack there. Given the apparent urgency of acting, perhaps it’s time to ask the question whether these asset owners should be compensated by those who will benefit directly, i.e., the rest of us? 

What’s behind the reluctance of political actors to propose this type of solution is the belief in the underlying premise of benefit-cost analysis. Economists have unfortunately perpetuated a misconception on the public that so long as total societal benefits exceed costs, a policy is justified even if those suffering those costs are not compensated for their losses. The basis of this is the Kaldor-Hicks efficiency criterion. In contrast, market transactions are presumed to only occur if both parties gain through Pareto efficiency--one party fully compensates the other one for the transaction. Public policy now casts aside this compensation requirement. Unfortunately this leads to significant redistribution impacts that are too often left unexamined. And of course, the losers resist these policies, with a ferocity that is accentuated by both loss aversion (where potential losses are felt more strongly than gains) and that these losses are usually concentrated among a smaller group of individuals than the spread of the benefits.

Too often public agencies are running over these interests to push for societal benefits without compensating the losers. A recent example that I was involved with was the adoption by the California Air Resources Board of the in-use off-road diesel engine regulations. CARB mandated the premature scrappage of construction equipment that had been purchased to comply with previous regulatory mandates from CARB and the US EPA. CARB claimed societal air quality benefits of $13 billion at the cost of $3 billion to the construction industry. Yet CARB never proposed to pay the owners of the equipment for their lost investments. GHG regulation is proceeding down the same path.

If the benefits truly justify adopting a policy, and GHG reductions certainly appear to meet that criterion, then society should be willing to compensate those who made investments under the previous policy environment that endorsed those investments. Certainly there’s questions about whether those investors truly had property rights in the resources they used, but that issue should be addressed directly, not as an implicit assumption that no such property rights ever existed. (This question about property rights has been raised in regulating California’s water use.) Too often policy proponents conflate a goal of an improved environment with goals to redistribute wealth. By jumping over the property rights question, wealth also can be redistributed implicitly. Societal equity issues are important, but they shouldn’t be achieved through backdoor measures that make all of us worse off. Requiring politicians and bureaucrats to consider the actual cost of their policy proposals will make us all better off, and maybe even remove obstacles to a better environment.