In this third part of a trilogy of shows about how to decarbonize grid power, former utility regulator Travis Kavulla offers his thoughts on how wholesale electricity markets can use competition to deliver clean electricity. Following our discussion about reforming wholesale markets in Episode #90, and our exploration of how state policies can directly choose clean power in Episode #97, Travis offers some deep thoughts on the respective roles of FERC and state regulators, proposed reforms to PURPA, FERC’s showdown with PJM, the politicization of FERC, the recent battle in Ohio over HB6 (bailing out its nukes and coal plants), and other regulatory battles du jour. So much power market wonkery in such a small package!
As more distributed energy resources arrive unbidden onto the power grid, they are increasingly requiring us not to just think about new utility business models, but to radically rethink what a utility might look like. What if millions of distributed resources become the dominant resources, and the grid assumes a subordinate role as a residual supplier of energy? What if the control of the system is also decentralized, through the actions of millions of devices? What if the roles of transmission system operators and the distribution system are diminished as their responsibilities are distributed across all those devices? And how will utilities, power market operators, regulators, legislators, and local officials deal with a radical shift in their roles and responsibilities? These are the questions that our guest in this episode—an 18-year veteran of wholesale power market design at the California ISO—thinks about, and he shares those deep thoughts with us in this wonky yet heady discussion.
What are community choice aggregations, or CCAs, and why are they suddenly playing such a huge role in wholesale power markets? Since the first one launched in California in 2010, it was followed by Sonoma Clean Power in 2014, Lancaster Choice Energy in 2015, and both CleanPowerSF and Peninsula Clean Energy in San Mateo County in 2016. And now, in 2018, CCAs have taken a major share of power procurement in California, which is growing rapidly: There are now 16 CCAs across 18 counties in California, which currently provide about 12% of the state’s electricity, and by the middle of next year, they are expected to serve 40% of utility customers in California. They’re also spreading beyond California, to five other states, with another eight expected to launch in 2018 alone.
And while that’s great for local control of power procurement, it’s also causing concern: As customers have defected from investor owned utilities to CCAs in California, utility investment in large wind and solar plants in the states has crashed. And the state regulator is now worrying about whether future power procurement will be adequate, and whether CCAs will have sufficient oversight. But there is more to the story, and our guest in this episode is well equipped to address the many questions swirling around the role of CCAs in power markets, having been one of the people responsible for launching them!
Utility regulators are playing an increasingly important role in steering the energy transition of the power grid. However, many regulators aren’t equipped to sort through arguments put forward by competing interests, because they often need to consider highly technical questions that only a power system engineer, or a market design expert could properly evaluate. Some regulators are simply political appointees who may or may not have the appropriate technical expertise, while others are elected by the public, who in turn may not be able to evaluate the technical expertise of the people they are electing. As a result, it is quite common for regulators to depend on the guidance of the companies they are supposed to regulate, and for those companies to seek as much leverage or control over their regulators as they can get—a problem known as regulatory capture.
In this episode we’ll delve into the problem of regulatory capture, and what might be done about it, with the help of Gary Wolfram, a professor and the Director of Economics and Political Economy at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan. He has published extensively on public policy and taxpayer rights, on the role of government in capitalist market economies, and on the governance and incentive structures of utilities…and we promise that this interview will be a lot more accessible and interesting than this dry description may make it sound!