Power outages in Texas

From an email I sent my principles of economics students:

Since we can’t have classes this week and the midterm is postponed a week, I felt chatty and wanted to share at least a few thoughts about why so many people are without power.

tl;dr: see the graph below. Prices are fixed. Supply shifts left, demand shifts right = instant shortages. This is not an easy problem to solve.

Issue #1 is that bad weather events increase demand – demand shifts to the right. Issue #2 is that energy prices are really sticky. We’ll be getting to this in March, but in energy markets we sign contracts with our energy providers that lock in the price of electricity for 1-2 years at a time. When demand increases, the price doesn’t! Further, some contracts allow us to smooth the bill out over 12 months, so if I need extra $12 of electricity today, I don’t actually pay for it today: I’ll pay for it by having a $1 higher electricity bill over a 12 month period. That does two things. a) It means that energy demand curves are really vertical, a small change in price doesn’t change my electricity consumption much; and b) when demand increases, prices don’t. That ruins the market price signal that tells you and me to conserve electricity. Issue #3 of course is that it is really amazingly expensive to increase electric capacity. That means that energy supply curves are also really vertical. Even if energy firms COULD raise prices, they can’t increase the quantity supplied in the short run. In the longer run, we have time to build more plants and add capacity, but in the short run we’re stuck with what we have. 

The graph above shows the marginal cost of different types of energy. Some are energy that is easy to turn on and off, but expensive (eg. oil). Some are energy that is really, really hard to turn on and off at will (eg. nuclear) but very cheap. And producing more energy than you need is bad. So you build enough cheap stuff that you know for 100% positive will always be needed, and then you build expensive stuff to handle changes in demand. That’s the short version, anyway. It means that producing a little extra electricity is really expensive and there is a hard limit to much extra we can produce – eventually supply curves are completely vertical!

My friends on the right tend to send blame towards green energy. And they have a point! Renewables are temperamental – with too many clouds solar doesn’t do anything, and frozen blades can’t turn wind energy turbines. The impact of the storm is to shift energy supply curves to the left, and the more the grid relies on renewables, the bigger that shift is. The basic problem renewables have had is that it’s really difficult to STORE their energy for future use. If we could create really large energy reservoirs, we could store Texas’ abundant solar and wind energy for a literally-rainy day. 

So we have supply curves shifting left at the same time demand curves are shifting right and prices can’t move … the final result is massive shortages! Now what could be done about that?

My friends on the left tend to blame deregulation. Sadly, not one of them is spelling out exactly what regulation they think would solve this problem. Let me be generous to them and imagine they mean the following: if the government ran (rather than regulated) the energy grid, they would build a greater capacity than we typically use. 

And they have a point. Energy is like the opposite of the hotel industry. In the hotel industry, you don’t build the hotel based on AVERAGE, normal operations. In Stephenville, you build a hotel large enough to accommodate people who come for graduation. The cost of having unused rooms is fairly low – you still need to keep the room cool in case someone needs it, and you want to hire someone to dust it, but it just sits there most of the time. Then you rake in big money when demand suddenly increases. The energy industry is the opposite: it is very expensive to build capacity and it is also expensive to maintain it. Whether you are a private firm or a government, the money to maintain unused generators has to come from somewhere.

How do we afford that? In the market, energy prices are actually set a little bit higher than equilibrium so that supply > demand. That ensures we have plenty of electricity to handle normal, typical demand fluctuations. We pay for that excess capacity during the normal part of the year so that when temperatures are particularly high or extra low, the grid can handle it.

The government has a different problem, though. If electricity is publicly-run, they will tend to set the price lower than the market would and make up the differences with taxes. That further divorces energy use from the price paid. We would have a higher quantity demanded at all times (wasteful). Add in that governments generally do a bad job running businesses (wasteful) and in order to have that excess capacity we would have to be willing to pay higher taxes (and lower energy bills) for many years to make up for the extra expense. Most governments, like most markets, will therefore tend to undersupply for an emergency because the voters don’t want to pay higher taxes and there is no such thing as a free lunch. So it’s not 100% clear that this would solve the problem. Europe has power outages that affect millions too. 

Why? Healy and Malhotra: Governments respond to incentives, and voters give the wrong incentives: “Do voters effectively hold elected officials accountable for policy decisions? Using data on natural disasters, government spending, and election returns, we show that voters reward the incumbent presidential party for delivering disaster relief spending, but not for investing in disaster preparedness spending. These inconsistencies distort the incentives of public officials, leading the government to underinvest in disaster preparedness, thereby causing substantial public welfare losses. We estimate that $1 spent on preparedness is worth about $15 in terms of the future damage it mitigates. By estimating both the determinants of policy decisions and the consequences of those policies, we provide more complete evidence about citizen competence and government accountability.”

Bottom line: there isn’t an easy solution to weather events that happen once in a hundred years, whether it’s floods or hurricanes or … whatever this white, powdery substance is that’s blanketing my lawn. The basic problem is scarcity in a market where price signals don’t work (by design) at a time when supply shifts left and demand shifts right. To the extent climate change means more frequent extreme events, this will be a growing problem.

Electricity in Quebec before Nationalization (1919 to 1939)

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that  I am generally skeptical of “accepted wisdom” on many topics. “Accepted wisdom” is a construction of a stylized fact by a party with intense preferences that is gradually able to remove nuances over time to solidify its preferred narrative. The example I gave a few weeks ago concerned antitrust laws. There are many more. One of those concerns a research agenda that I laid claim to in a recent article in Atlantic Economic Journal (co-authored with my dear friend Germain Belzile): the nationalization of electricity in Quebec.

My home province of Quebec is basically one giant network of rivers well-suited for the production of hydro-electricity – a potential that was noticed in the late 19th century and led to a rapid expansion of the network. Historians (and some economists) have depicted the early electrical industry in Quebec as a “trust” (a cartel) that gouged consumers and could only be resolved, as witnessed by the neighboring province of Ontario, by nationalization (which occurred in two waves – one in 1944 and one in 1962).

In the article I published with Belzile, I argue that this narration is largely incorrect. First, before nationalization prices in Quebec were falling and were low by North American standards (see figures below). Second, production was expanding rapidly. This is in spite of the fact that taxes imposed on the electrical industry grew rapidly over time from less than 10% of total expenditures to close to 30%.  Moreover, we point out that looking at residential prices is bound to yield bad comparisons (if we can call those made above as “bad”) if there is price discrimination. The industry price discriminated and offered incredibly low prices for industrial customers (large power) than in Ontario or anywhere else in Canada  (in spite of the taxes it was operating under and the fact that Ontario subsidized its own).

We also point out that there was a dynamics of interventionism problem. The neighboring province of Ontario (more populous and richer than Quebec) nationalized its industry and set prices well below the market level which is an implicit subsidy. However, at the subsidized rate, Ontario could not supply its own demand and had to buy at the market price in Quebec. Its over-equilibrium quantity of energy demanded was transferred on the freer Quebec market, thus increasing prices on that market.

We also argue that there was wide heterogeneity of rates in Quebec that relate to the structure of municipal regulation (the level at which electricity was regulated pre-1935). The price differences depended on the political games involving rent-seeking firms and politicians (best exemplified by the case of Quebec City). Cities with high prices were places where the electrical market was heavily politicized and franchises (i.e. the contracts fixing rate schedules over long periods of time to recoup capital investment) were short and subject to holdups.

This latter point is meant for us (me and Germain) to stake a claim on future research to document the nationalization and regulation process at the municipal level and see what the effects on prices and outputs were. In a certain way, I am trying to establish a research agenda extending the skepticism of “accepted wisdom” that has emerged with the economic history of antitrust in the United States to the case of electricity trusts in Quebec. This first article is, I believe, a promising start for such an inclusion.





Oil Again: Keep an eye on OPEC members

OPEC’s decision earlier this week is being interpreted as something that will lead to an “oversupply” of oil. Prices of the commodity seem to be going down already. There are several political implications, and perhaps the most interesting countries to watch are the OPEC members themselves.

Many oil-rich countries end up affected by the so-called “resource curse”. Due to cronyism and other types of interventionism, they distort the economy and focus too much on that one special resource they have.

As a result, whenever the artificial bubble of that sector is hit, the effects are disastrous. Many of these countries need to develop – and that’s across the board, not just the resource sector. This is bad enough, but there’s more. If you consider the corruption of cronyism, it’s not necessarily the case that the country will be well when things go well in that sector.

OPEC reminds us that the state is not a unitary actor in world politics. Their collective decision to supranationally plan the supply and price of most of the world’s oil has deep consequences, some of which are negative for their own people.

In order to understand this, you have to look inside that “black box” of the state and look at the winners and losers of this foreign policy decision. The ruling elites and the cronies want to remain in charge and extract as much as they possibly can from each decision.

However, this may undermine their own position in the long run. This is because those on the losing side, the have-nots, often get very annoyed and do something about this, especially when the state apparatus is weak and lacks legitimacy. In fact, many of the conflicts related to the “resource curse” today include something of this component as part of their root causes.

If OPEC has been used as a tool of crony capitalism, the effectiveness of this move for those running the show is partial, and even questionable in the long term – it might turn out to be a shot in the foot. And it certainly doesn’t help the poor, the local population, the ones who would benefit from a very different approach.

Energy Primer for Libertarians (or anyone else)

One of these days Brandon’s going to kick me off this blog for posting notes that aren’t “on liberty.” But maybe he’s not looking. I’ll take a chance.

This piece is about energy and on second thought, it is relevant to libertarians. We need to know what we’re talking about when we enter into controversies on current topics like energy. Insights into how markets work are crucial, of course, but not sufficient. We should arm ourselves with a few facts and Lord knows, maybe even a little understanding of basic physics.

I base my remarks on an excellent chart produced by (gasp!) a government agency, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. It appears here but if it’s illegible please find a better copy here.  Blame Brandon for squeezing our posts into a narrow column!Image

We see energy sources on the left. A couple of facts stand out. At the top, notice that solar and wind are negligible. The yellow line representing solar may be thinner than a single pixel on your monitor and therefore invisible. Geothermal is on the radar, but barely; same for biomass (wood chips, organic leftovers, corn used for ethanol instead of feeding people) that can either be burned or processed into methane or ethanol. Our three main sources are, and will be for the foreseeable future, petroleum, coal and natural gas.

At the top center we see electricity generation. We don’t consume electricity directly except maybe for executing criminals. We use it to power devices in the four broad categories shown on the right: residential, commercial, industrial, transportation.

Notice the fat grey line coming out of the electricity generation box called “rejected energy.” It tells us that about two thirds of the energy coming into power plants goes up in smoke or steam or other waste heat rather than electricity. That sounds like a terrible loss and indeed, there is always room for efficiency improvements at the margin. But, boys and girls, there’s something called the Second Law of Thermodynamics which puts an iron limit on how much energy in a particular situation is available to do useful work. In other words, a certain amount of the “waste” represented by that fat gray line is inevitable. It would be great if the good people at LLL could supply that calculation, but I suspect that reliable estimates of the necessary data would be difficult to come by.

Look at the residential box on the right. It only represents 11% of energy consumption meaning that relative to the big picture, home energy efficiency measures like insulation, solar panels, etc. can never do much for the big picture. I say this too keep things in perspective, not to deny the possibilities for cost-effective marginal improvements in many homes.

If your monitor resolution allows it, you’ll see a tiny orange line running from electricity generation to transportation. That means electric vehicles are, and for some time will be, utterly insignificant, though again, marginally beneficial in very special situations.

Another fat gray line comes out of transportation. When you burn gasoline, most of the energy goes out the tailpipe or the radiator; only a little ends up as kinetic energy and even that ends up as waste heat when you apply the brakes. (In the long run, it all ends up as waste heat. Look up “heat death” on Wikipedia.)

The overall message of this chart is: if we want to maintain anything like our present industrial civilization with its abundant heat/cooling, light, transportation, etc., we’d better keep the present main sources going – petroleum, coal, natural gas, nuclear because renewable energy sources are advancing only slowly and in many cases (wind and ethanol, especially), uneconomically. The stakes couldn’t be higher – significant losses of energy, more than anything short of nuclear war, will make life nastier, more brutish, and shorter.

How to decide which energy R&D projects deserve scarce resources? Solyndra, anyone? No, central planning of energy is just as much a disaster as any other form of central planning or maybe more so. Energy is a highly specialized field. A biomass expert, for example, may be ignorant of nuclear fusion. A transformer guy may know nothing of transmission line losses. I suspect there are dozens or hundreds of subspecialties within the biomass field. Knowledge, as Hayek taught us, is dispersed and often tacit. We need to let all these specialists use their particular knowledge and facilities to experiment around the edges, comparing present or expected future marginal costs and benefits. Other than an occasional nice chart like you see here, the Energy Department just gets in the way. (To see a boondoggle that dwarfs Solydra, google “national ignition facility.”)

Speaking of costs and benefits, one of these days I’ll comment on the strange notion that energy accounting – a perfectly legitimate engineering practice – should be used to judge the economic value of energy projects. Tallies of income/expenses and assets/liabilities, should, say proponents, be carried out not in dollars but in energy units (joules or BTUs.) Why is this wrong? Because the economic value of a joule depends on time and place and most critically, people’s ability to make good use of it. In fact, natural resources aren’t resources at all until and unless someone figures out how to make good use of them.  More generally, value never inheres in physical objects and materials but only in the minds of people who believe those objects and materials can help satisfy wants, theirs or others’.

Postscript: The oceans store unimaginable amounts of thermal energy. You can calculate this yourself: using your favorite system of units, just multiply the volume of water by its mass density by its specific heat at constant pressure. You’ll discover that if we were willing to lower the ocean temperature by a thousandth of a degree per year, we would have abundant energy from now till Kingdom Come. Try this idea on a “progressive” friend sometime, keeping the answer momentarily in your back pocket: the Second Law forbids it. Stated differently, even with perfect technology, you would have to put more energy into the conversion process than the usable energy end product.

Celebrating Chevron’s Profits

Recently there was a bad fire at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, CA, as you probably know.  The refinery will be offline for an unknown period, probably months.  Upon reading this, and knowing that the CA government prohibits “imports” of gasoline from other states, I knew the retail price would jump.  I made a mental note to fill up my Thunderbird next morning.  Too late – regular had jumped from $3.85 to $4.01.  This morning it was $4.06, and $4.13 by afternoon.

My reaction?  I’m delighted that the market is doing its job of balancing supply, which has suddenly dropped, with demand.  But predictably, ignorant fools have jumped on this situation, as in this letter in this morning’s San Francisco Chronicle:

Please ask Chevron to explain why the cost of gasoline will go up because of an accident at their plant.

Don’t they have insurance to cover the loss of their equipment? Is Chevron going to recoup the lost income (deducted from the billions of dollars in profit that they make every year) from us?

If the accident was determined to be due to Chevron’s negligence, are they going to compensate all of their neighbors “inconvenienced” by this?

But most of all, please ask all the other oil companies why their costs are going up because of a fire at a Chevron refinery.

If the other companies are not suffering a financial loss from this devastating environmental disaster in the Bay Area, why are prices expected to rise at Exxon-Mobil, Royal Shell Dutch, BP (Arco, lest anyone forget) and any other company I might be too angry to remember at this moment?

I might have to hold my breath until you find out the answers to these questions or until the air clears, whichever comes first. I’ll let you guess which one that will be.

Chevron probably doesn’t carry insurance because they are big enough to be self-insured, and the risks may be too large and uncertain for an insurance company to estimate.  But insurance is irrelevant to retail pricing.  The basic problem is the all too common myth on which this letter is based: that cost determines price.  The myth is that suppliers add up their costs and then tack on as much profit as they think they can get away with.  As anyone who has studied economics should know, supply and demand jointly determine price in a competitive market such as gasoline.  Set your price too high and you lose customers and your profit declines.  Set it too low and your margin declines, and you may sell out your supplies.  The sweet spot varies constantly with shifting supply and, to a lesser extent, shifting demand.

Of course, profits benefit Chevron’s shareholders.  But they are vastly more valuable to Chevron’s customers because they are the driving force (putting aside government interference) that tells Chevron what kind of products we want, where they are offered, how they are delivered, etc.

Of course, government interference is substantial and shouldn’t be set aside.  Politicians worried about rising gas prices could help out by lifting the prohibition on imports.

Hurray for profits!

The Gulf Spill and the Hidden Vice of Capitalism

Here is one aspect of the Gulf spill no one seems to be talking about. It concerns the same thing that conservatives commentators, libertarian journals, and economists seldom take into consideration: Persons in the upper management of large corporations are not necessarily very intelligent and few are well-educated. That is the hidden vice of capitalism. For once, I am speaking as an expert. (Go ahead, check my vita linked to this blog (pdf) and then, re-check the facts on Google. Make my day!)

The BP-caused oil spill – going on for more of a month as I write – is also a public relations disaster for the corporation. As I said earlier (“The Louisiana Oil Disaster?” Posted 5/21/10), we are still missing the moving photographs of thousands of dead, soiled aquatic birds. There is in and around Plaquemines parish a group of stake-holders that is becoming increasingly vocal: The fishermen. I heard some on NPR on 5/25/10 complaining that BP has mostly ignored their wishes to “volunteer” to help. It sounded true and it sounded incredible to me.

Whatever happens, BP is going to be on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars, possibly for more than a billion dollars. The fishermen whose livelihood and whose future appears to be threatened by BP’s negligence number in the hundreds. I doubt that there are a thousand of them altogether. At the risk of sounding cynical, I will say that they are the only easily identifiable group of human victims who tug at ordinary Americans’ hearts. It’s easy to imagine that most Louisiana fishermen don’t have a doctorate in solar energy science, for instance; it’s easy to recognize that few can readily switch to another occupation. That they may want to transmit their legacy to their children is also understandable from an emotional standpoint. Finally, the tens of millions of American who fish recreationally will have no trouble grasping that the Louisiana fishermen may love their occupation and the lifestyle that goes with it. I am skeptical myself about the extensiveness of the damage. I don’t hope it will become Obama’s Katrina. Yet my heart goes out to those unknown fishermen deprived of both livelihood and, it seems right now, of a future. Continue reading