Borenstein, Severin and Bushnell, James “The U.S. Electricity Industry after 20 Years of Restructuring” (Revised May 2015) (Revised version published in the Annual Review of Economics, 7(1), 437-463, August 2015) | WP-252R | Blog Post
Prior to the 1990s, most electricity customers in the U.S. were served by regulated, vertically-integrated, monopoly utilities that handled electricity generation, transmission, local distribution and billing/collections. Regulators set retail electricity prices to allow the utility to recover its prudently incurred costs, a process known as cost-of-service regulation. During the 1990s, this model was disrupted in many states by “electricity restructuring,” a term used to describe legal changes that allowed both non-utility generators to sell electricity to utilities – displacing the utility generation function and/or “retail service providers” to buy electricity from generators and sell to end-use customers – displacing the utility procurement and billing functions. We review the original economic arguments for electricity restructuring, the potential winners and losers from these changes, and what has actually happened in the subsequent years. We argue that the greatest political motivation for restructuring was rent shifting, not efficiency improvements, and that this explanation is supported by observed waxing and waning of political enthusiasm for electricity reform. While electricity restructuring has brought significant efficiency improvements in generation, it has generally been viewed as a disappointment because the price-reduction promises made by some advocates were based on politically-unsustainable rent transfers. In reality, the electricity rate changes since restructuring have been driven more by exogenous factors – such as generation technology advances and natural gas price fluctuations – than by the effects of restructuring. We argue that a similar dynamic underpins the current political momentum behind distributed generation (primarily rooftop solar PV) which remains costly from a societal viewpoint, but privately economic due to the rent transfers it enables.