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Economy

The Republican Fed Up With Free Markets in Electricity

A conversation with the most interesting man on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Broken power lines.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

It’s not every day that a top regulator calls into question the last few decades of policy in the area they help oversee. But that’s exactly what Mark Christie, a commissioner on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the interstate power regulator, did earlier this year.

In a paper enticingly titled “It’s Time To Reconsider Single-Clearing Price Mechanisms in U.S. Energy Markets,” Christie gave a history of deregulation in the electricity markets and suggested it may have been a mistake.

While criticisms of deregulation are by no means new, that they were coming from a FERC commissioner was noteworthy — a Republican no less. While there is not yet a full-scale effort to reverse deregulation in the electricity markets, which has been going on since the 1990s, there is a rising tide of skepticism of how electricity markets do — and don’t — reward reliability, let alone the effect they have on consumer prices.

Christie’s criticisms have a conservative bent, as you’d expect from someone who was nominated by former President Donald Trump to the bipartisan commission. He is very concerned about existing generation going offline and has called activist drives against natural gas pipelines and other transportation infrastructure for the fossil-fuel-emitting power sources a “national campaign of legal warfare…[that] has prevented the construction of vitally needed natural gas transportation infrastructure.”

Since renewables have become, at times, among the world’s cheapest sources of energy and thus quite competitive in deregulated markets with fossil fuels (especially when subsidized), this kind of skepticism is a growing issue in the Republican Party, which has deep ties to oil and gas companies. The Texas state legislature, for instance, responded to Winter Storm Uri, which almost destroyed Texas’ electricity grid in 2021, with its own version of central planning: billions in low cost loans for the construction of new gas-fired power plants. Former Texas Governor Rick Perry, as secretary of energy in the Trump administration, even proposed to FERC a plan to explicitly subsidize coal and nuclear plants, citing reliability concerns. (FERC rejected it.) Some regions that didn’t embrace deregulation, like the Southeast and Southwest, also have some of the most carbon-intensive grids.

But Christie is not so much a critic of renewable resources like wind and solar, per se, as he is very focused on the benefits to the grid of ample “dispatchable” resources, i.e. power sources that can power up and down on demand.

This doesn’t have to mean uncritical acceptance of existing fossil fuel infrastructure. The idea that markets don’t reward reliability enough can help explain the poor winterization for fossil fuel generation that was so disastrous during Winter Storm Uri. And in California, the recognition that renewables alone can’t power the grid 24 hours a day has led to a massive investment in energy storage, which can help approximate the on-demand nature of natural gas or coal without the carbon pollution.

But Christie is primarily interested in the question of just how the planning is done for a system that links together electric generation and consumers. He criticized the deregulated system in much of the country where power is generated by companies separate from the utilities that ultimately sell and distribute that power to customers and where states have less of a role in overall planning, despite ultimately approving electricity rates.

Instead, these markets for power are mediated through a system where utilities pay independent generators a single price for their power at a given time that is arrived at through bidding, often in the context of sprawling multi-state regional transmission organizations like PJM Interconnection, which covers a large swath of the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic region, or the New England Independent System Operator. He says this set-up doesn’t do enough to incentivize dispatchable power, which only comes online when demand spikes, thus making the system overall less reliable, while still showing little evidence that costs have gone down for consumers.

Every year, grid operators and their regulators — including Christie — warn of reliability issues. What Christie argues is that these reliability issues may be endemic to the deregulated system.

Here is where there could be common ground between advocates for an energy transition and conservative deregulation skeptics like Christie. While the combination of deregulation and subsidies has been great for getting solar and wind from zero to around 13 percent of the nation’s utility-scale electricity generation, any truly decarbonized grid will likely require intensive government supervision and planning. Ultimately, political authorities who are guiding the grid to be less carbon-intensive will be responsible for keeping the lights on no matter how cold, warm, sunny, or windy it happens to be. And that may not be something today’s electricity “markets” are up for.

I spoke with Christie in late June about how FERC gave us the electricity market we have today, why states might be better managers than markets, and what he’s worried about this summer. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What happened to our energy markets in the 1990s and 2000s where you think things started to go wrong?

In the late ‘90s, we had this big push called deregulation. And as I pointed out in the article, it really wasn’t “deregulation” in the sense that in the ‘70s, you know, the trucking and airlines and railroads were deregulated where you remove government price regulation and you let the market set the prices. That’s not what happened. It really was just a change of the price-setting construct and the regulatory construct.

It took what had been the most common form of regulation of utilities, where utilities are considered to be natural monopolies, and said we’re going to restructure these utilities and we’re going to let the generation part compete in these regional markets.

And, you know, from an economic standpoint, okay, so far so good. But there’s been a lot of questioning as to whether there’s really true competition. Many parts of the country also just didn’t do it.

I think there’s a serious question whether that’s benefiting consumers more than the cost of service model where state regulators set the prices.

So if I’m an electricity consumer in one of the markets that’s more or less deregulated, how might reliability become an issue in my own home?

First of all, when you’re in one of these areas that are deregulated, essentially you’re paying the gas price. If it goes up, that’s what you’re going to pay. If it goes down, it looks really good.

But from the reliability standpoint, the question is whether these markets are procuring enough resources to make sure you have the power to keep your lights on 24/7. That is the big question to a consumer in a so-called deregulated state: Are these markets, which are now the main vehicle for buying generation resources, are they getting enough generation resources to make sure that your lights stay on, your heat stays on, and your air conditioning stays on?

Do you think there’s evidence that these deregulated markets are doing a worse job at that kind of procurement?

Well, let’s take, for example, PJM, which came out with an announcement in February that said they were going to lose in the next five years over 40 gigawatts. A gig is 1,000 megawatts, so that’s a lot of power, that’s a lot of generating resources. And the independent market monitor actually has told me it is closer to 50 gigawatts. So all these units are going to retire and they’re going to retire largely for economic reasons. They’re not getting sufficient compensation to stay open.

The essence of restructuring was that generating units are going to have to make their money in the market. They’re not going to get funding through what's called the “rate base,” which is the regulated, traditional cost-of-service model. They have to get it in the markets and theoretically, that sounds good.

But in reality, if they can’t get enough money to pay their cost, they’re going to retire and then you don’t have those resources. Particularly in the RTOs [regional transmission organizations, i.e. the multi-state electricity markets], you’re seeing these markets result in premature retirements of generating resources. And so, now, why is that? It’s more of a problem in the RTOS than non-RTOS because in the non-RTOS, they procure resources under the supervision of a state regulator through what’s called an integrated resource plan or IRP.

The reason I think the advantage and reliability is with the non-RTOS is that those utilities have to prove to a state regulator that their resource plan makes sense, that they’re planning to buy generating resources. Whether they’re buying wind or solar or gas, whatever, they have to go to a state regulator and say, “Here’s our plan” and then seek approval from that regulator. And if they’re shutting down units, the state regulator can say, “Wait a minute, you’re shutting down units that a few years ago you told us were needed for reliability, and now you’re telling us you want to shut them down.” So the state regulator can actually say , “No, you’re not going to shut that unit down. You’re going to keep running it.”

That’s why I think you have more accountability in the non-RTOS because the state regulators can tell the utility, “you need more resources, go build it or buy it,” or “you already have resources, you’re not going to shut them down, we’re not going to let you.”

You don’t have that in an RTO. In an RTO, it’s all done through the market. The market decides, to the extent it has a mind. You know, it’s all the result of market operations. It’s not anybody saying whether it’s a good idea or not for a certain unit to shut down.

I find it interesting that a lot of the criticism of the deregulated system — and a lot of places that are not deregulated — come from more conservative states that would generally not think of themselves as having this kind of strong state role in economic policy. What’s different about electricity? Why do you think the politics of this line up differently than it would on other issues?

I don’t know. That’s an interesting question. I haven’t even thought about it in those terms.

I think it goes back to when deregulation took place in the mid-to-late ‘90s. Other than Texas, which went all the way, the states that probably went farthest on it were in the Northeast. Part of the reason why is because they already had very high consumer prices. I think deregulation was definitely sold as a way to reduce prices to consumers. It hasn’t worked out that way.

Whereas you look at the Southeast, which never went in for deregulation. The Southeastern states, which are still non-RTO states, had relatively very low rates, so they didn’t see a problem to be fixed.

The other big trend since the 1990s and 2000s is the explosive growth of renewables, especially wind and solar. Is there something about deregulated electricity markets, the RTO system, that makes those types of resources economically more favorable than they would be under a different system?

Well, if you’re getting a very high subsidy, like wind and solar are getting, it means you can bid into the energy markets effectively at zero. So if you can bid in at zero offering, you’re virtually guaranteed to be a winner. In a non-RTO state, a state that's doing it through an integrated resource plan, the state regulator reviews the plan. That's why I think an IRP approach is better actually for implementing wind and solar because you can implement and deploy wind and solar as part of an integrated plan that includes enough balancing resources to make sure you keep the lights on.

To me an Integrated Resource Plan is a holistic process, where you can look at all the resources at your disposal: wind, solar, gas, as well as the demand side. And you can balance them all in a way that you think, “Okay, this balance is appropriate for us for the next three years, or four years, or five years.” Because you’re typically doing an IRP every three to five years anyway. And so I think it’s a good way to make sure you balance these resources.

In a market there’s no balancing. In a market it’s just winners and losers. And so wind and solar are almost always going to win because they have such massive subsidies that they’re going to get to offer in at a bid price of zero. The problem with that is they’re not going to get paid zero. They’re going to get paid the highest price [that all electricity suppliers get]. So they offer in at zero, but they get paid the highest price, which is going to be a gas price. It’s probably going to be the last gas unit to clear, that’s usually the one that’s the highest price unit. And yet because of the single clearing price mechanism, everybody gets that price. So you can offer it at zero to guarantee you clear, but then you’re going to get the highest price, usually a gas combustion turbine peaker.

Do you think we would see as much wind and solar on the grid if it weren’t for the fact that a lot of the resources are benefiting from the pricing mechanism you describe?

I don’t think you can draw that conclusion because there are non-RTO states that have what’s called a mandatory RPS, mandatory renewable portfolio standard. And so you can get there through a mandatory RPS and a cost to service model just as you can end up in a market. And actually, again, I think you can get there in a more balanced way to make sure that the reliability is not being threatened in the meantime.

To get back to what we’re talking about in the beginning, my understanding is that FERC, where you are now, played a large role in encouraging deregulation in the formation of RTOs. Is this something that your staff or other commissioners disagree with you about? How do you see the role you’re playing, where you’re doing public advocacy and reshaping this conversation around deregulation?

First of all, we always have to give the standard disclaimer, you never talk about a pending case. But FERC was really the driving force behind a lot of this deregulation. So obviously, they decided that that’s what they wanted to push, and they did. And so I think it’s appropriate as a FERC regulator to raise questions. I think raising questions about the status quo is an important thing that we do and should do. Ultimately, you advocate for what you think it ought to be and if the votes come eventually, it might take several years, but it’s important.

One of the things I try to do is, I put the consumer at the center of everything I do. It is absolutely my priority. And I think that it should be every regulator’s priority, particularly in the electric area because most consumers in America — in fact, almost all consumers in America — are captive customers. By captive. I mean, they don’t get to choose their electric supplier.

Like, where do you live, Matthew?

I live in New York City.

You don’t get to choose, right? You’re getting electricity from ConEd. And you don’t have any choice. So you’re a captive customer. And most consumers in America are captive customers. We tried this retail choice in a few states that didn’t work. You know, they’re still doing it. I’m not going to say whether it’s working or not, but I know we tried it in Virginia, and it didn’t work at all because of a lot of reasons.

I always put customers first and say, “Look, these customers are captive. We have to protect them. We have to protect the captive customers by making sure they’re not getting overcharged.” So that’s why I care about these issues. And that’s why I wrote this article. I think that customers in a lot of ways in America are not getting treated fairly. They’re getting overcharged and I think they’re not getting what they should be getting. And so I think a big part of it is some of this stuff that FERC's been pushing for the last 25 years.

Our time is running out. So I will leave with a question that is topical: It’s already been quite hot in Texas, but outside of Texas and in FERC-land, where are you concerned about reliability issues this summer?

Well, I’m concerned about everywhere. It’s not a flippant remark. I read very closely the reliability reports that we get from NERC and we have reliability challenges in many, many places. It’s not just in the RTOs. I think we have reliability challenges in the South. Fortunately, the West this year, which has been a problem the last couple of years, is actually looking pretty good because all the rain last winter — even flooding — really was great for hydropower.

I’m from California, and I think it’s the first time in my adult life that I remember stories about dams being 100 percent, if not more than 100 percent, full.

The rains and snowfall were so needed. It’s filled up reservoirs that have been really dry for years. And from an electrical standpoint, it’s been really good for hydro. So they’re looking at really good hydro availability this summer in ways they haven't been for the last several years. So the West actually, because of all the rain and the greater available of hydro, I think is in fairly good shape.

There’s a problem in California with the duck curve, the problem is still there. If you have such a high solar content, when the sun goes down, obviously the solar stops generating and so what do you do you know for the next four to five hours? Because the air conditioners are still running, it’s still hot, but that solar production has just dropped off the table. So they’ve been patching with some battery storage and some gas backup.

But I’m worried about everywhere. I watch very closely the reports that come out of the RTOs and you can’t be shutting down dispatchable resources at the rate we’re doing when you’re not replacing them one to one with wind or solar. The arithmetic doesn’t work and it’s going to catch up to us at some point.

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Matthew Zeitlin profile image

Matthew Zeitlin

Matthew is a correspondent at Heatmap. Previously he was an economics reporter at Grid, where he covered macroeconomics and energy, and a business reporter at BuzzFeed News, where he covered finance. He has written for The New York Times, the Guardian, Barron's, and New York Magazine. Read More

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