How Will Raising the Cap on Electricity Prices Affect You? How Do You Think?

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When Texas Public Utility tentatively voted to increase the ceiling on the wholesale price of electricity by 50 percent by August 1, public reaction was swift.

It sounded like this: chirp ... cheep ... when you wish ... chirp ... cheep ... upon a star.

Which was surprising. Stereotypically, you'd think any state official willing to tack the words "50 percent increase" to the words "electricity prices" would be legging it for the Oklahoma border while stalwart Texans loaded up their pickups for a trip to Austin. ("Ma, fetch my shotgun, we're goin' to exercise our constitutionally protected rights to assemble and seek redress o' ... dang it, woman! Not that one, the other one. That 12-gauge's my 10th Amendment gun.")

Of course, being professionals, we here at Unfair Park do not engage in crude stereotypes (except during working hours, which is what makes us professionals). So we called PUC Commissioner Kenneth Anderson to talk about this potential price increase, how it will meet its goal of encouraging electric generators to build more power plants and what it will mean for you, the consumer.

I had three basic questions for Anderson:

1. What's this gonna cost me?

2. The wholesale price of electricity hits the cap only a handful of occasions a year, for fairly short periods during times extreme weather. That being the case, how will raising this cap encourage power companies to undertake the enormous expense of adding plants that will be infrequently used?

3. Seriously, what's this gonna cost me?

The short answer to questions 1 and 3, Anderson says, is this: It's complicated.

Not that Anderson wasn't helpful, but asking an expert to explain the power market in layman's terms is like a saying to a theoretical physicist: "Hey, doc, what's up with this string-theory biz? Gimme the scoop now, and none of that fancy math talk."

The effect on consumers of a steep increase in the price cap will be varied and gradual, says Anderson, who voted against boosting it this August. Electricity retail companies buy futures contracts to hedge against price shocks in the "real-time" spot market, which fluctuates in intervals of a few minutes. (Even lowly consumers get in on the hedging a bit by signing up for long-term fixed contracts with electric retailers.) Futures contracts are traded, and tons of money can be made by either side of a deal depending on spot market prices. Place the right bet, and a good hedger can make dough without ever burning a lump of coal or selling a watt.

Put all that activity together, and "this is why there's a disconnect between those [wholesale market] prices and what consumers actually experience," Anderson says.

Still, the buck starts somewhere, and the PUC's vote last week already has begun to cause ripples in the whole complex structure. Reuter's reported this week that the state's "forward electricity prices" -- the cost of those futures contracts -- have already risen in response to the PUC's action. Faced with the risk of a big jump in spot market prices if the cap on wholesale electricity goes up, big purchasers of power need to hedge their bets. Says Reuters:

ERCOT [Electric Reliability Council of Texas] North power for this summer is trading around $66 per megawatt-hour. For summer 2013, the price is about $92 per MWh and summer 2014 is about $107 per MWh, according to GDF Suez.

That compares to 2011 when ERCOT North power averaged $78 per MWh in July, then jumped to an average of more than $225 per MWh in August when ERCOT was forced to declare emergencies on a half dozen days to avoid rolling power outages.

Those sub-$100 prices on average help explain how raising the price cap on electricity from the present $3,000 per megawatt-hour to $4,500 by August 1 will lure generators to build more plants capable of firing up quickly. Operators of so-called "peaker" plants can make a boatload of money operating only a few days a week, for short periods when spot prices soar. Upping the cap means they're gonna need a bigger boat. Check out this post at saveonenergy.com for one viewpoint on who's going to be filling that boat with bucks. (Hint: Find a mirror.)

"I expect there will be some influence on residential prices, but it'll be over time," Anderson says.

Of course, Texas' hunger for electricity is rapidly growing. The state needs plants that can start up quickly and efficiently, Anderson says, like"combined cycle," gas-fired plants. He expects to see the number of combined cycle units grow in the future -- supplanting coal and bringing cleaner air and less waste.

That is, of course, a good thing -- and the good things in life are not, despite what you might have heard, free.


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15 comments
jfpo
jfpo

"Place the right bet..." This, in a nutshell is what drives the price and availability of a necessary utility. God bless Texas. God bless the free market.

Hans Brix
Hans Brix

Presently you can lock in a 12-month contract for 7.5 cents per kWh, or 36 months at 9.2 cents.  Prices have been extremely low from a historical standpoint for a couple of years now, but they will rise at some point, and the cap increase will surely contribute to this.  If you have not locked in a long-term FIXED-RATE contract, see powertochoose.org and save some money.

dallasdano
dallasdano

What this means is that power providers will run fewer plants to allow them to grab the peak rate for longer periods of tme.

All this is going to do is screw the average consumer.

Public utilities need to be just that, public.  When you have to turn a fat-cat profit for your executives and shareholders, just who do you think is going to get screwed?

Rixtex
Rixtex

You cannot artificially restrict pricing and not expect consumers to use less. The lower the price, the more they will use. It's kind of Economics 101.

Anon
Anon

Sounds like the market is functioning really well. Price-setting feedstock plummets (nat gas), prices to consumers goes up.God bless deregulation. 

Paul
Paul

Electricity deregulation was not wanted by consumers, was not accepted by consumers and was not meant to benefit consumers.

BTW, even peaking plants are not turned on and off like light bulbs.  They are started and run for an extended period of time.  The amount of power that is generated by them is variable.

Additionally, in 2011 according to the EIA more electricity was generated in OK by nat gas and sold for a lower price than in TX.

"Lucy!!!! .... you got some 'splaining to do!!!!"

NotTheSuburbs
NotTheSuburbs

It sounds to me like an incentive to shut down plants for "maintenance" and create artificial shortages in order to reap windfall profits.  Wouldn't it make more sense to create a floor for prices rather than raise the ceiling?

Better still, re-regulate electricity (and state colleges too while we're at it). 

 

Montemalone
Montemalone

I thought they way it worked was ALL generators got the same amount.i.e., if demand peaked and Skroo-Yoo Electric stepped in with a bid of $4500, and the power was added to the grid, then everybody generating got paid 4500 until demand dropped and Skroo-Yoo was no longer feeding power.

Paul
Paul

Why should I buy electricity from a company that has no generating capacity?

Some of these resellers have more outs in the contract that it makes the "locked in" rate tenuous at best.

Jay
Jay

Right, re-regulate electrical prices, so the consumer's best interest will be protected, just like the Texas Department of Insurance protects consumers from those greedy insurance companies. How's that working out for us? Highest insurance rates in the country.

As long as Rick Perry gets to appoint the commissioners, it doesn't matter whether electricity is regulated or not, Perry's appointees will vote the way Perry tells them to vote, based of course on what the businesses that contribute money to Perry tell him they want the commission to do. Look, business and individuals don't contribute money to politicians because they think alike or share goals, they contribute money to buy influence and obtain friendly legislation, lax regulation, jobs for family members, grants, appointments and really whatever the hell they want....if the contribution is high enough. Re-regulation won't help.

State-wide elections of PUC and TDI commissioners is what we need.

 

Anon
Anon

Our insurance rates are high because we have to pay for all the healthcare those illegals get for free! I'm trying to figure out a way to blame the racket that is title insurance on illegals but I'm coming up short. Anyways, it has nothing to do with the crook that has been elected governor an unfathomable number of times. 

Jay
Jay

You can buy real property without title insurance.

Montemalone
Montemalone

GOD is PUNISHING Texas with tornados and fires and floods because of Illegal meskins taking away jobs from godfearinmarekins.

cynical old bastard
cynical old bastard

 What do illegals have to do with some of the highest homeowners insurance rates in the country?

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