University of California Energy Institute


Equity Effects of Increasing-Block Electricity Pricing

Severin Borenstein

Utility regulators frequently attempt to use tariff structures to pursue both distributional and efficiency goals. Efficiency necessitates setting prices as close to marginal costs as possible while still allowing the firm to cover its costs. The common distributional goal is to protect low-income customers from high prices. Perhaps nowhere is the conflict between these goals greater than in the use of increasing-block residential utility pricing, in which the marginal price to the customer increases as the customer’s usage rises. Since the 2000-01 California electricity crisis, the state has adopted some of the most steeply increasing-block tariffs in electric utility history, but the distributional and efficiency effects have not been analyzed in detail. Using a novel approach for matching customer bill data with census data on area income distributions, I derive estimates of the income redistribution effected by the increasing-block tariffs used by California regulated electric utilities. I find that the rate structure does redistribute income to lower-income groups, but that the effect is fairly modest, particularly compared to a means-tested program also in use. While the distributional impact of these tariffs do not seem to be large, the efficiency costs may not be great either. Examining the distribution of customer demand quantities, I find preliminary evidence that customers do not respond to the increasing marginal prices they face.

Read the latest campus information on coronavirus (COVID-19) here. →