National Energy Policy, Blackouts and Sustainable Energy Programs

On August 14th, blackouts crippled the Canadian province of Ontario and the eastern United States, making it the largest power failure in American history: over 50 million people and more than 9,300 square miles were affected.

On August 14th, blackouts crippled the Canadian province of Ontario and the eastern United States, making it the largest power failure in American history: over 50 million people and more than 9,300 square miles were affected. Then, on August 28, London was plunged into darkness. One month later, Italy's entire electrical grid shut down. These highly visible blackouts have called into question a global trend in the electric power industry. Whatever one calls it-"de-regulation", "competition" or "liberalization"-the notion, at its core, is that certain elements of the electric supply industry can better meet national energy goals if existing monopolies are weakened and some levels of competition is introduced.

An international consensus has been built around the idea that sustainable energy policy should be based on three pillars: 1) competitive markets (where markets are possible) are superior to monopolies; 2) adequate private capital must be available to build infrastructure; and 3) governments must institute sound regulatory and energy policies. Indeed, virtually all Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (oecd) member-countries allow competition in their electric utility markets. At the same time, the efficacy of these changes is now being called into question as states reevaluate their security situations and infrastructure vulnerability in the wake of 9/11 and the recent blackouts.

The importance of identifying a successful sustainable energy strategy at the international level is illuminated-pardon the pun-by the fact that, at present, only a third of the world's population has adequate electric supply, a third is inadequately supplied, and a third has no electric service. In this context, international aid agencies and multilateral lending agencies have been advancing the competitive market, private capital/regulation model as the answer to the world's energy needs. This leads naturally to the question: Does implementing this model run the risk of increased blackouts?

In all likelihood, the cause of the recent blackouts will be shown to have been a unique and timely (or untimely) combination of physical events and operational decisions unrelated to changes in grid ownership structures or regulatory policies in the affected countries. However, the blackouts did occur in states that have introduced some form of competition in their electricity markets: the interconnected eastern United States and Ontario grid, the uk and Italy. How the issue of "liberalization" or "competition" was approached on opposite sides of the Atlantic may be instructive in determining why the lights recently went out.

Blackouts and Competition in the United States

The U.S. electric system was predominantly built by private capital exercising local monopolistic policies. Competition was only gradually implemented for wholesale purchasers, and was more limited on the retail end (no federal law or directive ever required retail competition). While electric rates in the United States have ranked among the lowest in the world, and the electric system has been among the most modern and reliable, the nation has witnessed deep regional variation in both costs and rate levels for the various classes of customers. This is partly due to jurisdictional issues: Wholesale electricity rates and tariffs for transmission service for wholesale customers are regulated by the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (ferc); Retail rates paid by residential, commercial and industrial customers are set by state regulatory agencies (usually called public service or public utility commissions).

Initially, local electric companies provided electric generation transmission to load centers as well as local electric power distribution to customers. Later, limited transmission facilities were built connecting neighboring systems so as to access power during emergencies and when it was economically sensible to do so. As the years passed, the amount of wholesale purchases increased as regulators encouraged or required electric power companies to seek the lowest cost supply price rather than to build their own facilities.

With the 1978 Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (purpa), Congress responded to rising electric prices by creating a class of subsidized and independent power producers with the intention of encouraging nontraditional fuels and the entry of non-utility generating companies into the marketplace. State regulators in some states took steps to require attractive rates for the new purpa entrants. They also established binding mechanisms to force local electric companies to buy on the wholesale market rather than generate electricity locally with their own power plants. At the same time, some industrial customers and consumer groups appealed for direct access to cheaper power. Legislatures in some states responded by allowing consumers direct access to competitive electric suppliers under the condition that the incumbent utilities be permitted, or in some cases be required, to sell their electric power plants. Any losses incurred by the electric utilities due to these sales were usually covered by "stranded cost" surcharges on the delivery portions of customer bills or other methods. The consequence for all of this was that "restructuring" was initiated at the state and not at the federal level. (About half of the states have taken some steps to introduce competition at the retail level.)