The Utility Death Spiral: Beyond The Rhetoric


by Lynne Kiesling

Unless you follow the electricity industry you may not be aware of the past year’s discussion of the impending “utility death spiral”, ably summarized in this Clean Energy Group post:

There have been several reports out recently predicting that solar + storage systems will soon reach cost parity with grid-purchased electricity, thus presenting the first serious challenge to the centralized utility model. Customers, the theory goes, will soon be able to cut the cord that has bound them to traditional utilities, opting instead to self-generate using cheap PV, with batteries to regulate the intermittent output and carry them through cloudy spells. The plummeting cost of solar panels, plus the imminent increased production and decreased cost of electric vehicle batteries that can be used in stationary applications, have combined to create a technological perfect storm. As grid power costs rise and self-generation costs fall, a tipping point will arrive – within a decade, some analysts are predicting – at which time, it will become economically advantageous for millions of Americans to generate their own power. The “death spiral” for utilities occurs because the more people self-generate, the more utilities will be forced to seek rate increases on a shrinking rate base… thus driving even more customers off the grid.

A January 2013 analysis from the Edison Electric Institute, Disruptive Challenges: Financial Implications and Strategic Responses to a Changing Retail Electric Business, precipitated this conversation. Focusing on the financial market implications for regulated utilities of distributed resources (DER) and technology-enabled demand-side management (an archaic term that I dislike intensely), or DSM, the report notes that:

The financial risks created by disruptive challenges include declining utility revenues, increasing costs, and lower profitability potential, particularly over the long term. As DER and DSM programs continue to capture “market share,” for example, utility revenues will be reduced. Adding the higher costs to integrate DER, increasing subsidies for DSM and direct metering of DER will result in the potential for a squeeze on profitability and, thus, credit metrics. While the regulatory process is expected to allow for recovery of lost revenues in future rate cases, tariff structures in most states call for non-DER customers to pay for (or absorb) lost revenues. As DER penetration increases, this is a cost recovery structure that will lead to political pressure to undo these cross subsidies and may result in utility stranded cost exposure.

I think the apocalyptic “death spiral” rhetoric is overblown and exaggerated, but this is a worthwhile, and perhaps overdue, conversation to have. As it has unfolded over the past year, though, I do think that some of the more essential questions on the topic are not being asked. Over the next few weeks I’m going to explore some of those questions, as I dive into a related new research project.

The theoretical argument for the possibility of death spiral is straightforward. The vertically-integrated, regulated distribution utility is a regulatory creation, intended to enable a financially sustainable business model for providing reliable basic electricity service to the largest possible number of customers for the least feasible cost, taking account of the economies of scale and scope resulting from the electro-mechanical generation and wires technologies implemented in the early 20th century. From a theoretical/benevolent social planner perspective, the objective is, given a market demand for a specific good/service, to minimize the total cost of providing that good/service subject to a zero economic profit constraint for the firm; this will lead to highest feasible output and total surplus combination (and lowest deadweight loss) consistent with the financial sustainability of the firm.

The regulatory mechanism for implementing this model to achieve this objective is to erect a legal entry barrier into the market for that specific good/service, and to assure the regulated monopolist cost recovery, including its opportunity cost of capital, otherwise known as rate-of-return regulation. In return, the regulated monopolist commits to serve all customers reliably through its vertically-integrated generation, transmission, distribution, and retail functions. The monopolist’s costs and opportunity cost of capital determine its revenue requirement, out of which we can derive flat, averaged retail prices that forecasts suggest will enable the monopolist to earn that amount of revenue.

That’s the regulatory model + business model that has existed with little substantive evolution since the early 20th century, and it did achieve the social policy objectives of the 20th century widespread electrification and low, stable prices, which have enabled follow-on economic growth and well-distributed increased living standards. It’s a regulatory+business model, though, that is premised on a few things:

  1. Defining a market by defining the characteristics of the product/service sold in that market, in this case electricity with a particular physical (volts, amps, hertz) definition and a particular reliability level (paraphrasing Fred Kahn …)
  2. The economies of scale (those big central generators and big wires) and economies of scope (lower total cost when producing two or more products compared to producing those products separately) that exist due to large-scale electro-mechanical technologies
  3. The architectural implications of connecting large-scale electro-mechanical technologies together in a network via a set of centralized control nodes technology -> architecture -> market environment, and in this case large-scale electro-mechanical technologies -> distributed wires network with centralized control points rather than distributed control points throughout the network, including the edge of the network (paraphrasing Larry Lessig …)
  4. The financial implications of having invested so many resources in long-lived physical assets to create that network and its control nodes if demand is growing at a stable rate, and regulators can assure cost recovery, then the regulated monopolist can arrange financing for investments at attractive interest rates, as long as this arrangement is likely to be stable for the 30-to-40-year life of the assets

As long as those conditions are stable, regulatory cost recovery will sustain this business model. And that’s precisely the effect of smart grid technologies, distributed generation technologies, microgrid technologies they violate one or more of those four premises, and can make it not just feasible, but actually beneficial for customers to change their behavior in ways that reduce the regulation-supported revenue of the regulated monopolist.

Digital technologies that enable greater consumer control and more choice of products and services break down the regulatory market boundaries that are required to regulate product quality. Generation innovations, from the combined-cycle gas turbine of the 1980s to small-scale Stirling engines, reduce the economies of scale that have driven the regulation of and investment in the industry for over a century. Wires networks with centralized control built to capitalize on those large-scale technologies may have less value in an environment with smaller-scale generation and digital, automated detection, response, and control. But those generation and wires assets are long-lived, and in a cost-recovery-based busin
ess model, have to be paid for even if they become the destruction in creative destruction. We saw that happen in the restructuring that occurred in the 1990s, with the liberalization of wholesale power markets and the unbundling of generation from the vertically-integrated monopolists in those states; part of the political bargain in restructuring was to compensate them for the “stranded costs” associated with having made those investments based on a regulatory commitment that they would receive cost recovery on them.

Thus the death spiral rhetoric, and the concern that the existing utility business model will not survive. But if my framing of the situation is accurate, then what we should be examining in more detail is the regulatory model, since the utility business model is itself a regulatory creation. This relationship between digital innovation (encompassing smart grid, distributed resources, and microgrids) and regulation is what I’m exploring. How should the regulatory model and the associated utility business model change in light of digital innovation?

Lynne Kiesling is a Distinguished Senior Lecturer in the Department of Economics at Northwestern University. Her economic specialty is industrial organization, regulatory policy and market design in the electricity industry.  In particular, she examines the interaction of market design and innovation in the development of retail markets, products and services and the economics of “smart grid” technologies. She also teaches undergraduate courses in principles of economics, energy economics, environmental economics, and history of economic thought, and she writes about economics as the editor/owner at the website Knowledge Problem, where this post first appeared.


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