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Economic Currents

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Is Monopoly a Barrier to Hawai’i’s Ascent?

In 2012 Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize winning economist and Columbia University Business School Professor visited Hawaii to give the Stephen and Marylyn Pauley Seminar in Sustainability. Stiglitz discussed sustainability within the context of our depressed national economy and ongoing struggles with debt and unemployment. For our economy to fully recover, we need more investment, and Stiglitz argued that investments ought to be in education, technology, and green infrastructure, with solar, wind and an improved electricity grid being obvious choices.

Stiglitz then discussed Hawai'i’s local economy (around the 50 minute mark in the linked video). He saw monopolies in inter-island transfer, electricity, and shipping as key obstacles to Hawai’i’s sustainable growth. Of the three, he pointed to the second, Hawaiian Electric Industries electricity monopoly (HECO, MECO and HELCO) as the most important.

To be fair, Stiglitz has no unique insight into Hawai’i’s circumstances. Our unique geography makes it difficult to tell how much unavoidable costs or market control factor into our unusually high prices for electricity and other goods and services. What’s clear is that, at least in the case of electricity, the old regulatory model is being challenged by the rapid growth of renewable energy.


Regulatory Challenges

Historically, for electricity and many other utilities, there can be economies of scale, meaning it can be less costly for one company to produce than many companies. Think of large power plants and the impracticality of having many different electric lines running to each house. Similar situations arise for water, cable TV and phone services. The obvious problem with monopolies is that, left to their own devices, they'll maximize profits by charging prices that far exceed costs. As a result, local governments typically regulate utility prices, as they do here in Hawaii.

Regulation is tricky, however. Monopolies have no incentive to be forthcoming about their actual costs. And they have little incentive to innovate or find creative cost-cutting measures, if lower costs simply cause the public utility commission to commensurately lower regulated prices. Some argue that regulators, starved of resources or the right incentives, might serve the monopoly's interest instead of the public's. 


Green Energy Challenges the Status Quo

Today, rapidly improving technology and a push toward green energy are challenging our electric utility monopoly. Economies of scale in generation no longer exist. Even without state and federal subsidies, rooftop solar and wind are becoming competitive with traditional carbon-based fuels, even on the mainland where electricity prices are less than one third those in Hawai'i. And Hawai’i’s geography suits renewables better than most places on the mainland.

A key technical challenge for renewables is their intermittency, which makes it more difficult to match demand with naturally varying supply. Another is our existing grid, which is designed for centralized generation, not a distributed network with tens or hundreds of thousands of rooftop power sources.

Engineers are working hard on the technical challenges, and so far have managed to accommodate more solar and wind power than many had thought possible on our antiquated grid. Experiments with variable time-of-day pricing might help match intermittent supply and demand. Others are dreaming up new ways to store energy or distribute it further, like the costly and controversial inter-island cable

The political and regulatory challenge is facilitating access by these competing energy sources to a monopoly-controlled grid. Competition is good for consumers and economic efficiency. But, as Stiglitz noted, competition kills profits, so Hawaiian Electric has no incentive to facilitate grid access.


Revenue Decoupling

Thus far, the political solution to the grid-access problem is revenue decoupling. The idea, implemented in Hawaii over four years ago, is to allow the regulated monopoly to raise prices to compensate for sales lost to competing generation like solar. Revenue decoupling is the key reason electricity prices have continued to rise in Hawai’i over the last four years, even as generation costs have stabilized. Those higher prices have compensated Hawaiian Electric for roughly 200 megawatts of PV solar that have been installed on Oahu since decoupling in 2010.

Decoupling aligns the financial interests of Hawaiian Electric and competing solar interests, allowing both to profit from expansion of solar, wind and improved efficiency. The losers are commercial, industrial and residential consumers of generated electricity, who, for one reason or another, haven't installed solar. For a number of reasons we will discuss in subsequent posts, decoupling may not be a sustainable model over the long run.


Continuing Dialogue

On April 15, 2014 Vice President Al Gore will deliver another Stephen and Marylyn Pauley Seminar in Sustainability. Surrounding the Seminar will be a larger event with many local and national experts that will consider various sustainability issues in Hawai'i, including one session dedicated to our ongoing challenges and opportunities with electricity.

In anticipation of this event, UHERO will develop a number of posts that dig into some of the economic issues surrounding Hawai'i's push toward renewable energy, and over-arching challenges with managing the grid and regulating prices.

If you're confused by a lot of the jargon and complex details, you're not alone. Our hope is to add some clarity to the debate, aided with lots of nifty graphs and charts of available data. On issues that still confuse us, we'll use this blog to highlight key questions and ambiguities. We'll do our best to answer your questions, too.

---Michael Roberts


UHERO blog posts are intended to stimulate discussion and critical comment. They views expressed are those of the individual authors. 

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