Electricity Restructuring and Regulation in the Provinces: Ontario and Beyond
Competitive electricity markets are artificial markets with extensive rules for all participants arising from the complex interconnections of the electricity network. Governments or regulatory agencies oversee the market design process and the operation and maintenance of the market, so market design is necessarily a political process. The conceptual design of the market must recognise the political forces that will operate on the market design process so that the political process will not thwart the intended outcome of the market as it has in some jurisdictions including Ontario. The limited ability of consumers to understand changes in the electricity sector in the short run poses a real constraint on what can be achieved politically. Letting the market set the price means that governments cannot ensure any particular future price level and both theory and experience tell us that prices may increase after restructuring (California, Ontario, Alberta). This makes it difficult to sell restructuring to consumers who will be interested in the price they pay and not much interested in abstractions like efficiency. Another challenge for electricity restructuring is that the starting points differ from one jurisdiction to another and the starting points matter. The problems are different if you begin with a crown monopoly than if you have investor-owned utilities; if expected prices are higher than recent prices rather than lower; if governments have been deeply involved in the electricity sector rather than distant from it; if the public has experience with stable electricity prices rather than fluctuating prices. Finally, the situation in neighbouring jurisdictions matters as well. Restructuring in a low-price jurisdiction surrounded by high prices will increase the prospect of price increases at home, while a high-price island is more likely to see its prices decline. If workable competition will be difficult to achieve at home, strong interties to neighbouring jurisdictions can improve competitive performance if the market is appropriately designed. Air pollution, like electricity, moves across borders, so one must assess and evaluate the pollution implications of competition and make any appropriate adjustments to the market design.
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