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Deregulation in the electric industry


Electricity is the principal force that powers modern society. It lights buildings and streets, runs computers and telephones, drives trains and subways, and operates all variety of motors and machines. Yet most people, despite their great dependence on electrical power, hardly give it a thought. They flip a switch, turn a key, or pick up a phone and expect the power to be there without fail. The almost-century old structure of the American electric utility industry is in need of change. Almost all interested parties accept the fact that technological change and altered views of the nature of government intervention have made the idea of increased competition attractive (Johnson 35). But just how should the competitive market be structured? Some participants want complete deregulation so they can derive the fullest benefits of competition quickly. Others argue that the unfettered free market, however, will cause hardship and inequities (36). Stability in electrical power has traditionally depended on a system highly regulated by federal and state government. In recent years, however, many leaders in government and industry alike have pushed for deregulating the system to make it more responsive to changes in business and technology and more open to the forces of free-market competition (Craven C5). Deregulation has been successful in reducing costs and promoting innovation in airlines, natural gas, telecommunications and other industries. The electric industry is next. Initial steps to deregulate electrical power are now being taken in the United States and Canada. Today the subject is being actively debated in board-rooms and state-houses across the Continent. Everyone is wondering what deregulation will do to the industry. People do not know how it will affect businesses and consumers, and they are debating whether to move fast or slow with deregulation. The "open access" rule of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission went into effect on July 9, 1996. Known as Order 888, it applies only to wholesale transactions. It requires public utilities that own, operate, or control transmission lines to charge other firms the same transmission rates they charge themselves, under comparable terms and conditions of service (Encarta "Deregulation"). This will open control of the market, and it will prevent utilities from denying transmission grid access through prohibitively high rates. Public utilities, municipal utilities, and rural cooperatives are the only customers that are able to purchase wholesale power for resale. Office buildings provide the power to their end users, but the tenants, building owners, and managers do not meet the "obligation to serve" definition that would enable BOMA members to purchase wholesale marker power (Craven C5). FERC has since stated that it has no intention of moving further and mandating open access for retail sales, as it believes that to be beyond its jurisdiction (Gendy 48). FERC is clearly leaving retail deregulation to the states and the United States Congress. As a sign of its importance, several electricity competition bills were introduced in both the House and the Senate this year. Additionally, the House Subcommittee on Energy and Power held over twenty hearings in Washington, DC, and around the country (50). Although the 105th Congress adjourned without a federal deregulation mandate, the debate is well underway and congressional leaders have stated that electricity deregulation will rate high on their list for action in 1999 (52). On one hand, restructuring of the electric utility industry in the coming years means that deregulation may occur in terms of prices and entry of competitors into the market. On the other hand, government intervention of some areas of the business is likely to continue to ensure maintenance of socially desirable functions (Williams 23). Some make the assumption that restructuring is the same as deregulating, but this is not true. As much as some utility executives may protest deregulation of prices, many parties agree that traditional regulation appears flawed. In the prosperous years, when new construction of power plants reduced the average cost of electricity, regulation that set rates based on the value of the new equipment worked fine because rates generally decreased. In the 1970s and later, utility construction became more and more costly, and the high rates were a result of those higher costs (Williams 26). Regulatory rules encouraged utilities to complete long-delayed power plants even if the demand for power was not likely to warrant such big plants or because poor management caused costs to escalate. Even as states and the federal government debate bills for restructuring the utility industry, technological innovation could change the entire nature of the electric supply business. For about a hundred years, the structure of the regulated industry has included large, central power-plants that generated electricity for distribution to homes and businesses. These plants had customers linked to utility companies through a network of wires (Gendy 48). This structure may change as new technologies allow decentralized and disconnected users to get power just like they used to (Craven C5). Fuel cells making electricity and water, micro-turbines using natural gas, photovoltaic cells and energy storage systems which allow people to obtain electricity from the sun may allow people to isolate or remove themselves from the electric power grid. They may also connect with their neighbors and other businesses to create similar synergies that utilities obtained by interconnecting their transmission systems (Washington Post H04). With the flourishing of smart electronic technologies used for communications, monitoring, and energy efficiency, this scenario becomes more feasible (Williams 22). We may see this in the near future. More than any other topic raised during the electricity deregulation debate, the stranded cost issue has the potential to sink the entire reform effort. This does not have to be the main issue (Craven C5). Calls for stranded cost compensation are unjustified. There is no evidence supporting the thought that a literal "regulatory compact or contract" of any sort exists to justify a multibillion-dollar bailout of utilities. The world will not end if stranded cost recovery is limited or denied. New firms will come up to provide the service in place of the few utilities that might fail. Entrepreneurism and innovation will be shown in an environment free of the monopolistic methods of the past. Customers, who for so long have been forced to pay the high costs associated with inefficient and uncompetitive markets, finally will be given the choice to shop for electricity as they would any other commodity in the free market (Kuttner A21). In the end, however, the federal role in this process by necessity must be somewhat constrained. They can't have the power to change the whole system themselves. Although Congress rightly can exercise its constitutional authority to protect the public interest in the free, unhampered flow of interstate commerce, it cannot prevent the states from determining how much, if any, compensation is appropriate. Federal legislators should encourage the states to proceed cautiously, with the interests of every American consumer in mind as they examine the claims made by their in-state utilities for compensation with the interest. This compensation would be given at the expense of a competitive future. Congress should not shy away from exercising its authority under the Commerce Clause to ensure that state-by-state stranded cost determinations will not prohibit the development of a competitive national marketplace. By working together, federal and state regulators can ensure that the stranded cost recovery process will not become an obstacle to the free market future for electricity. Works Cited "A Primer on How to Deal with the Power of Choice." Washington Post 17 October 1999: H04. Craven, Eric. "Educating consumers about utility deregulation and purchasing." Kansas City Star 12 March 1998: C5. Deregulation. Computer Software. Microsoft Encarta. Microsoft. 1998. Eastern Maine Electric Co-op. "" Internet source. 1997. Electric Potential Inc. "" Internet source. 1996. Gendy, Matthew. "Deregulation in America: Positive?" Newsweek 17 November 1995: 47-53. Johnson, Nick. "U.S. and International Deregulation." U.S. News and World Report 4 August 1995: 34-36. Kuttner, Robert. "Is This an Age of Deregulation of Reregulation?" Washington Post 2 November 1999: A21 Williams, Terry. "Electric Deregulation." Time 23 April 1996: 21-27.

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