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The Electric Gini: Income Redistribution through Energy Prices

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  • Arik Levinson
  • Emilson Silva

Abstract

Efficient electricity pricing involves two-part tariffs: a volumetric price equal to the marginal cost of producing an additional kilowatt hour (kWh) and a fixed fee to cover any remaining fixed costs. In this paper we explore how US electricity regulators depart from this simple two-part tariff to address concerns about income inequality. We first show that in theory, price setters concerned about inequality will charge lower fixed monthly fees and higher per-kWh prices, and increasing block prices to target higher users with even higher prices. Then we use a new dataset of 1,300 utilities across the US to show that these theoretical predictions are borne out in practice. Utilities whose ratepayers have more unequal incomes levy more redistributive tariffs, charging less to low users and more to high users. To quantify these comparisons, we develop a new measure of the redistributive extent of utility tariffs that we call the “electric Gini.” Utilities with higher electric Ginis (more redistributive tariffs) shift costs from households that use relatively little electricity to households that use more. But because electricity use is only loosely correlated with income, that redistribution does not meaningfully shift costs from households with low incomes to those with high incomes.

Suggested Citation

  • Arik Levinson & Emilson Silva, 2019. "The Electric Gini: Income Redistribution through Energy Prices," NBER Working Papers 26385, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:26385
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    1. Arik Levinson, 2019. "Energy Efficiency Standards Are More Regressive Than Energy Taxes: Theory and Evidence," Journal of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists, University of Chicago Press, vol. 6(S1), pages 7-36.
    2. Zhang, Zibin & Cai, Wenxin & Feng, Xiangzhao, 2017. "How do urban households in China respond to increasing block pricing in electricity? Evidence from a fuzzy regression discontinuity approach," Energy Policy, Elsevier, vol. 105(C), pages 161-172.
    3. Severin Borenstein & Lucas W. Davis, 2012. "The Equity and Efficiency of Two-Part Tariffs in U.S. Natural Gas Markets," Journal of Law and Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 55(1), pages 75-128.
    4. Koichiro Ito, 2014. "Do Consumers Respond to Marginal or Average Price? Evidence from Nonlinear Electricity Pricing," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 104(2), pages 537-563, February.
    5. Martin S. Feldstein, 1972. "Equity and Efficiency in Public Sector Pricing: The Optimal Two-Part Tariff," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 86(2), pages 175-187.
    6. Jacobson, Arne & Milman, Anita D. & Kammen, Daniel M., 2005. "Letting the (energy) Gini out of the bottle: Lorenz curves of cumulative electricity consumption and Gini coefficients as metrics of energy distribution and equity," Energy Policy, Elsevier, vol. 33(14), pages 1825-1832, September.
    7. Fabian Feger & Doina Radulescu & Doina Maria Radulescu, 2018. "Redistribution through Income Taxation and Public Utility Pricing in the Presence of Energy Efficiency Considerations," CESifo Working Paper Series 7195, CESifo.
    8. Severin Borenstein, 2012. "The Redistributional Impact of Nonlinear Electricity Pricing," American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, American Economic Association, vol. 4(3), pages 56-90, August.
    9. Severin Borenstein & James B. Bushnell, 2018. "Do Two Electricity Pricing Wrongs Make a Right? Cost Recovery, Externalities, and Efficiency," NBER Working Papers 24756, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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    Cited by:

    1. Alberini, Anna & Khymych, Olha & Ščasný, Milan, 2020. "Responsiveness to energy price changes when salience is high: Residential natural gas demand in Ukraine," Energy Policy, Elsevier, vol. 144(C).
    2. Scott P. Burger & Christopher R. Knittel & Ignacio J. Pérez-Arriaga & Ian Schneider & Frederik vom Scheidt, 2019. "The Efficiency and Distributional Effects of Alternative Residential Electricity Rate Designs," NBER Working Papers 25570, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    3. Feger, Fabian & Radulescu, Doina, 2020. "When environmental and redistribution concerns collide: The case of electricity pricing," Energy Economics, Elsevier, vol. 90(C).

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    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • Q41 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Energy - - - Demand and Supply; Prices
    • Q48 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Energy - - - Government Policy

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