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Pashos: Is cost-of-service regulation relevant in today's world?

February 26, 2014
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Indiana Lawyer Focus

“No task more profoundly tests the capacity of our government ... than its share in securing for society those essential services which are furnished by public utilities. Our whole social structure presupposes ... dependence upon private economic enterprise. To think of contemporary America without the intricate and pervasive systems which furnish light, heat, power, transportation, and communication is to conjure up another world.” (Felix Frankfurter)

For over a century, Indiana’s public utility rates have been established by governmental agencies, acting as a replacement for a competitive marketplace. The “regulatory compact” under which such regulation takes place holds that public utilities should be given exclusive territories in which to provide these important services so as to avoid a duplication of facilities; in return, public utilities should provide adequate and reliable service to all customers in such territories, at reasonable rates determined by the government. Under this regulatory compact, public utilities submit to regulation and give up the potential upside of substantial profits that other competitive enterprises seek, and customers give up the ability to choose their utility providers.

pashos Pashos

The linchpin of regulated ratemaking has been “cost of service” – rates set based on an estimate of the utility’s reasonable and prudent costs of providing utility services to customers going forward, plus a fair return for investors who supply the utility with needed capital. Cost-of-service regulation provides utilities with an opportunity, but not a guarantee, that they will recover their actual costs of providing service along with a fair return for their investors.

The traditional cost-of-service ratemaking model seeks to ensure that investors continue to provide needed capital and customers continue to receive near universal service at reasonable rates. As the U.S. Supreme Court stated, “the rate-making process ... i.e., the fixing of just and reasonable rates, involves a balancing of the investor and the consumer interest.” Federal Power Commission v. Hope Natural Gas Co., 320 U.S. 591 (1944).

Today, public utilities are experiencing significant cost increases, due to issues such as federal environmental and other mandates, and the need to upgrade decades-old infrastructure. These cost pressures, combined with fast-paced technology, market changes and other states’ experimentation with retail deregulation, are causing policymakers and others to ask whether cost-of-service regulation remains relevant or whether deregulation might be a preferable alternative.

Given the very recent history of relatively low and stable natural gas and wholesale power prices, deregulation may appear to be an attractive replacement for cost-of-service regulation. But a more in-depth analysis of other states’ retail deregulation experiences indicates that retail deregulation may present more risk than reward.

A principal motivation behind retail deregulation has been the theory that competition would produce lower prices for consumers. A historical comparison of the electricity prices and price changes in regulated and deregulated states, however, indicates that retail deregulation does not impact electricity prices in any significant way. Rather, the price of electricity is determined by numerous other factors upon which deregulation has little to no impact (for example, fuel proximity and prices, wholesale power prices, construction costs, and government renewable policy requirements). Moreover, the distinct possibility exists that retail deregulation is unlikely to produce price reductions except possibly during periods of low natural gas prices, low wholesale power prices, and generating capacity surpluses. Deregulated Electricity in Texas, supra at 63. Retail Electric Rates in Deregulated and Regulated States: 2012 Update, American Public Power Association, April 2013, available at http://www.publicpower.org/files/PDFs/RKW_Final_-_2012_update.pdf. Kenneth Rose, State Retail Electricity Markets: How Are They Performing So Far?, ElectricityPolicy.com (June 2012). Mathew J. Morey and Laurence D. Kirsch, Retail Rate Impacts of State and Federal Electric Utility Policies, Christensen Associates, The Electricity Journal. Vol. 26, Issue 3 (April 2013).

Even if the price benefits were long term and persuasive, there are risks associated with deregulation that must be considered. These risks include price volatility, reliability of supply, complexity of deregulation, and loss of state jurisdiction.

Electricity is considered to be the most volatile commodity in the world, and natural gas is a volatile commodity, as well. Under regulation, utility customers are largely protected from this price volatility because the utility has “iron in the ground” assets and contracts to hedge against spot market price changes. But in deregulated environments, customers bear more price volatility themselves.

The construction of new-generation assets to ensure the availability of electricity and adequate reserves is a very real issue in deregulated markets. Deregulated markets have struggled to effectively incentivize sufficient construction of new generation, as is illustrated by brownouts and blackouts that have occurred in deregulated markets in Texas and California. Deregulated Electricity in Texas: A History of Retail Competition, Texas Coalition for Affordable Power, December 2012, available at http://tcaptx.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/SB7-Report-2012.pdf. The Western Energy Crisis, the Enron Bankruptcy, and FERC’s Response, available at http://www.ferc.gov/industries/electric/indus-act/wec/chron/chronology.pdf.

Retail deregulation legislation must necessarily address numerous complicated issues, many of which can produce unintended consequences (such as the California energy crisis in the early 2000s). As just a few examples of such issues: How will deregulation take place? Will incumbent utilities be required to divest their generating assets? How will “stranded costs” be calculated? How will stranded costs be recovered from customers? Should incumbent utilities be required to act as a “provider of last resort?” How should incumbent utilities be compensated for acting as a provider of last resort?

Finally, when states embark upon retail deregulation, they cede a significant amount of jurisdiction over generation and generation pricing to the federal government. Once a state deregulates, the construction of generating facilities and the pricing of electricity generation will, for the most part, take place at the federal, wholesale level, leaving states without much ability to oversee the adequacy of generation supply or the pricing of such supply to retail customers, as experienced in Maryland and New Jersey.

While Indiana may want to explore deregulation as an alternative to cost-of-service-based regulation, the complexity and risks associated with deregulation should not be ignored or underestimated. Similarly, Indiana should not ignore or underestimate the continued usefulness and possible beneficial evolution of cost-of-service regulation.•

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Kay Pashos is a partner in the Indianapolis office of Ice Miller LLP. She practices in the area of energy and utilities law, advising and representing energy and utility companies before state and federal regulatory agencies in a variety of cases. The opinions expressed are those of the author.
 

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  1. Indianapolis employers harassment among minorities AFRICAN Americans needs to be discussed the metro Indianapolis area is horrible when it comes to harassing African American employees especially in the local healthcare facilities. Racially profiling in the workplace is an major issue. Please make it better because I'm many civil rights leaders would come here and justify that Indiana is a state the WORKS only applies to Caucasian Americans especially in Hamilton county. Indiana targets African Americans in the workplace so when governor pence is trying to convince people to vote for him this would be awesome publicity for the Presidency Elections.

  2. Wishing Mary Willis only God's best, and superhuman strength, as she attempts to right a ship that too often strays far off course. May she never suffer this personal affect, as some do who attempt to change a broken system: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QojajMsd2nE

  3. Indiana's seatbelt law is not punishable as a crime. It is an infraction. Apparently some of our Circuit judges have deemed settled law inapplicable if it fails to fit their litmus test of political correctness. Extrapolating to redefine terms of behavior in a violation of immigration law to the entire body of criminal law leaves a smorgasbord of opportunity for judicial mischief.

  4. I wonder if $10 diversions for failure to wear seat belts are considered moral turpitude in federal immigration law like they are under Indiana law? Anyone know?

  5. What a fine article, thank you! I can testify firsthand and by detailed legal reports (at end of this note) as to the dire consequences of rejecting this truth from the fine article above: "The inclusion and expansion of this right [to jury] in Indiana’s Constitution is a clear reflection of our state’s intention to emphasize the importance of every Hoosier’s right to make their case in front of a jury of their peers." Over $20? Every Hoosier? Well then how about when your very vocation is on the line? How about instead of a jury of peers, one faces a bevy of political appointees, mini-czars, who care less about due process of the law than the real czars did? Instead of trial by jury, trial by ideological ordeal run by Orwellian agents? Well that is built into more than a few administrative law committees of the Ind S.Ct., and it is now being weaponized, as is revealed in articles posted at this ezine, to root out post moderns heresies like refusal to stand and pledge allegiance to all things politically correct. My career was burned at the stake for not so saluting, but I think I was just one of the early logs. Due, at least in part, to the removal of the jury from bar admission and bar discipline cases, many more fires will soon be lit. Perhaps one awaits you, dear heretic? Oh, at that Ind. article 12 plank about a remedy at law for every damage done ... ah, well, the founders evidently meant only for those damages done not by the government itself, rabid statists that they were. (Yes, that was sarcasm.) My written reports available here: Denied petition for cert (this time around): http://tinyurl.com/zdmawmw Denied petition for cert (from the 2009 denial and five year banishment): http://tinyurl.com/zcypybh Related, not written by me: Amicus brief: http://tinyurl.com/hvh7qgp

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