Who are you going to believe – politicians trying to win votes or the director of the Programme on Energy and Sustainable Development and Holbrook working professor of commodity price studies with the department of economics at Stanford University?
Frank Wolak is the latter and he’s not impressed with the LabourGreen power plan:
This desire to “reboot” the electricity supply industry is understandable, but it is almost certainly not the best course of action. As a participant in many electricity industry restructuring processes around the world, one important lesson that I have learned is that all reforms start with significant unintended defects that can only be eliminated through a rigorous ongoing analysis of market outcomes and targeted regulatory reforms.
Many features of the current industry structure are consistent with international best-practice and a number of positive changes have been implemented since I completed my report for the Commerce Commission in 2009.
Continuing these efforts to identify and fix flaws in the existing market is likely to provide greater long-term benefits than undertaking a major restructuring of the industry. . .
He thinks major change is needed, but not the LabourGreen one.
His suggestion is to establish a regulator for the industry with a statutory mandate to protect electricity consumers from economic harm.
There are a number of legal rights that a regulator must have.
First, the regulator must have the ability to request any information from market participants necessary to carry out its statutory mandate, receive this information in a timely manner, and have the authority to impose financial penalties on market participants that fail to provide the requested information in a timely manner.
The regulator should also be allowed to require that all of the firms that it regulates prepare balance sheets and income statements using a standardised accounting system designed by the regulator. These accounting systems will allow the regulator to carry out the very important task of setting prices for monopoly services such as transmission access and distribution network access.
The regulator should be required to set prospectively the price of these monopoly services to allow the firm the opportunity to recover the prudently incurred cost of providing these services.
This does not mean that the firm is guaranteed full cost recovery regardless of how it incurs these costs. Because its price is prospectively set by the regulator, the firm’s revenues are independent of any actions it takes, so it has the opportunity to recover these costs if it incurs them in a manner consistent with what the regulator deemed to be reasonable when the price was set.
The final right of the regulator is to set the market rules governing the operation of the wholesale and retail markets.
Rather than allowing market participants to determine the terms and conditions governing participation in these markets, the regulator must set these market rules to protect the electricity consumers from economic harm. Market participants and other interested parties can provide input to this process, but ultimately the regulator must set these market rules because of the enormous impact they have on wholesale and retail electricity prices paid by consumers.
An essential feature of this redesigned regulatory process is an ongoing market monitoring process where the regulator uses data compiled from market participants and data submitted to and produced by the market operator to undertake market performance analyses. Although this market monitoring process is extremely data and human resource intensive, it is necessary for the regulator to anticipate significant market performance problems and take action to ensure a small problem does not become a large problem that harms consumers.
Another role of the regulator is to provide transparent information to customers on the components of retail electricity prices. . .
This is very different from the LabourGreen plan which Wolak described as:
“a sham that might make me feel a bit better”, but was the wrong weapon to attack “runaway” retail electricity tariffs, which he says are the real problem in current market arrangements. . .
Wolak says the NZ Power policy, which would unpick a 25-year-old experiment in electricity market design in favour of a centrally planned model, “may not even solve the problem, which is runaway retail prices.” . . .
“It may look good, but it’s got lots of challenges,” said Wolak of the Labour-Greens policy. “You’re throwing the entire baby out just to get rid of the bathwater and you’re going to start over, as if you have all these problems.
“My argument is that some of the changes since 2009 are pushing in the right direction,” said Wolak, whose 2009 report for the commission found evidence of electricity generators wielding market power at different times, to maximise the value of their generation efforts.
From that, officials calculated $4.3 billion of “excess charges”, which then Energy Minister Gerry Brownlee acted on by shaking up the national retail market, which is now more competitive, with high levels of customer churn. . .
However, Wolak believes moving to a cost-based, single buyer model could be a disaster.
“If what they are going to try and do is say ‘we are recovering costs and allowing you a fair return’, then oh my god, it’s just a can of worms that you wouldn’t believe that’s going to get opened,” Wolak said of Labour’s plan to calculate rates at every power station in the country on a cost-plus return basis.
“They are going about it in a kind of bass-ackwards (sic) way and saying ‘we’re going to say what each guy’s price can be in terms of generators selling’. That’s just a nightmare.”
“What’s simplest is to say we’re going to make this thing as competitive as possible.” . . .