Oil and scarcity, what’s to be done

Rising and volatile oil prices suggest that oil scarcity is a important issue.  So what can be done?

Personally, I think nothing – the price represents scarcity, and unless we think there are asymmetric information issues regarding the stock of fuel then this is fine.  If we do believe these issues exist, then since fuel is a “non-perishable” we will see individuals/communities stockpile – again, there is no reason for government intervention.

Or so I agrue here.

Question on the power price spikes

So some businesses are complaining that the spot price of electricity occasionally spikes when there is a shortage (and that these spikes are inconsistent).  They want government intervention.

My question is, if these spikes are such a concern – why don’t the businesses set up fixed price contracts with electricity retailers in the same way household do.  Also, the retailers are complaining about the wholesale price spike – but couldn’t they also set up contracts on a fixed rate?  Ultimately, knowing that the price can spike heavily in the face of a shortage of power, these businesses are CHOOSING to buy at the spot price (I guess it must be cheaper) – if that is what they choose to do then they should really face the risk of it.

Now if there was something anti-competitive about the setting of wholesale energy prices sure, go ahead and complain.  But if they spike because there is a significant shortage – and this price is just representing the underlying opportunity cost associated with providing that power – then having the spike occur is a GOOD thing.

This is because the price is saying “hey, at the current time there is a severe shortage of power, and unless you can create oodles of value from it you should think about stopping power usage for a short period of time”.  When it is placed in that context the spike seems reasonable, and all the complaining about it seems weird – so what is going on?

FYI:  Good comments from Rauparaha.

We need a new Green party

So I’ve been told by CPW that the Green party has a new policy regarding electricity generation. I will discuss it here, and then explain why I’ve titled the post as such – overall, I do think we need an actual Green party who aren’t just redistributionists in green drag …

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California knows how to ban stuff

The California Energy Commission, in all their wisdom, have decided that the best way to encourage energy conservation is through imposing compulsory energy efficiency standards on TVs – in other words they are banning what they deem to be ‘energy inefficient’ TVs. They are the first state in the US to implement such a measure.

The aim of the intervention is to reduce electricity demand and hence avoid the need to build new power plants to meet this demand. In this sense, the Commission perceive the building of power plants to be a negative externality, presumably as the cost of building is reflected in the per-unit price of electricity for all users.

I take issue with this ‘externality’. For example, if a lot of consumers suddenly started demanding ‘Thierry Henry is God’ t-shirts, such that the price increased, should I feel aggrieved that the action of others is affecting the price I must pay for such a worthy product? No, that is how the market works.

Putting aside my scepticism, let’s assumes that the externality is a genuine one. What might be a superior way of discouraging consumption?

Bans are a blunt tool. From an economic efficiency perspective, you should first try and use prices to incentivise behaviour. High demand for electricity is only ever a problem over relatively short periods. For example, in New Zealand the peaks occur on weekdays in the morning as people wake up and in the evenings as people go home. In hotter climates, the peak typically occurs at the hottest part of the day as air-con works its magic. Hence one might try to charge higher prices at times of high demand to discourage consumption (and hence avoid the need to invest in new power plants). There are electricity meters that are capable of facilitating such differentiated pricing and indeed they are being rolled out in California as we blog.

Under the differentiated pricing scenario, consumers are paying the ‘true’ cost of electricity, so even if they continue to consume at high levels, one should be indifferent to building a new power station as the externality has been internalised.

The obvious perverse incentive that arises from the ban is that consumers will simply purchase their televisions out of state, knowing that they can get a better range of TVs to better suit their individual needs at more cost-effective prices.

It is far more preferable to keep consumer choice open and simply make consumers fully pay for their choice through efficient pricing (assuming that an externality exists in the first instance).

The carbon emission circus is coming to town

Late last week the Government announced that they were running a public consultation on the emissions target for 2020.

The Government already have a long term goal of reducing carbon emissions to 50% of 1990 levels by 2050. Long term goals tend to work quite well for Governments as it gives the public the idea that they are proactively doing something but realistically they will never be held to account if and when they don’t meet the target, as they don’t align all that well with the three year election cycle. But I digress.

This consultation process is part of setting the ‘interim’ goal for the year 2020. Environment Minister Nick Smith has quite correctly identified that setting this target requires a trade-off between our economy, our international reputation and, obviously, the environment.

Ultimately this 2020 goal will be presented in international climate change conferences at the end of the year, including the post-Kyoto Copenhagen Conference. I’m sure we will all be waiting with bated breath to see what the outcome of this Conference will be.

Of far more interest are recent ‘cap and trade’ developments around the world. Obama *just* got his bill passed by the House of Representatives while in Australia the proposed Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) is very much struggling to gain legs.

New Zealand’s version of cap and trade, which will aim to reduce emissions to the 2020 (and subsequently 2050) goal looks set to be determined sometime later this year, although early indications are that it will be somewhat like the Aussie model. To blatantly oversimplify things, the Aussie model is a more politically palatable version of cap and trade, with lots of pressure-group exemptions and handouts to favoured sectors, as compared with the version NZ originally had planned for under the previous Government, which was more of an economically pure ‘you pollute, you pay’ model.

The final design of New Zealand’s scheme will be very interesting indeed…

In defence of the New Zealand wholesale electricity market

Recently the New Zealand electricity sector has been taking a bit of a hammering. According to a Commerce Commission sanctioned report, consumers have been overcharged by $4.3b over a six year period (how’s that for a headline!). More specifically, the report concluded each of the four big generators – Meridian, Contact, Genesis and Mighty River – has been exercising the power the market’s design gives them to command unjustifiably high prices, at least during years when inflows to the hydro lakes are low as they were in 2001, 2003 and 2006.

New Zealand has two markets in electricity – the wholesale market and the retail market. The wholesale market is where generators sell their production to retailers (often the seller and purchaser are one and the same). These prices vary significantly depending on the conditions of that particular period (for example, how dry Southern Lakes are or whether a generation unit is out service).

The second market is the retail market, where retailers sell electricity to consumers. Prices here are typically very stable, with consumers seldom exposed to the vast variation that takes place period-on-period in the wholesale market.

In the long-run, the prices in the wholesale market feed through to the retail market. In other words, if a generator/retailer found themselves short of generation and thus had to buy excess generation on the wholesale spot market at relatively high rates, they would eventually pass through these additional costs to their consumers in the retail market.

The report is essentially saying that generator/retailers were able to use their dominance in the wholesale market to push up prices during periods of constrained supply, which consumers then ultimately had to pay for in the retail market.

The report also says that pricing in the wholesale electricity market is, in the absence of dry periods, typically competitive. A very important point made in the report is that no market is ‘textbook’ perfectly competitive and this is certainly the case in electricity, given its unique characteristics (in particular the need for supply to continuously meet demand).

Indeed, I would say that the wholesale electricity market is working almost exactly as intended. Pricing is commonly competitive except at times of tight supply, when generators are able to reap higher rewards that incentivise continued investment in generation (which is extremely expensive) so that ever-growing demand can be met into the future. And the Commerce Commission determined that the generators’ actions were a “lawful and rational exploitation of the opportunities the market gave them”. I doubt you’d be able to make nearly as impressive a headline out of that though…