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Op-Ed: PREPA privatization will not create competitive market, will lead to more dysfunction

Creating a competitive free market for electricity in Puerto Rico was a recurring theme of the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee hearing held April 9th on the rebuilding and privatization of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA).

But the discussion of what a
competitive electricity market would look like remained vague, along with
details of any benefits this would bring to the island’s electricity customers.

To position the privatization
process underway as establishing a competitive market, as some have alleged, is
completely misleading. The privatization contemplated by Puerto Rico’s Act 120-2018 will establish a set of
long-term contracts for power generation and a single concession for the
operation of PREPA’s transmission and distribution assets. Prices for power
will be established by contract, not by a market.

In such a situation, if PREPA
were to remain an owner of generation (which is not contemplated by Act 120),
oversight would be needed to ensure that the utility was not preferentially
utilizing its own units at the expense of independent generators, but this kind
of oversight would not require a market.

In the mainland U.S., the term
“competitive electricity market” can refer to either/both: (1) wholesale
electricity markets in which generators bid their generation into a market and
lowest-cost plants are dispatched first; and/or (2) retail choice, in which
electricity consumers choose between competing power suppliers who buy
generation in a wholesale market.

Establishing an energy market
at the wholesale and/or retail level in Puerto Rico would add an extra layer of
administrative complexity and expense onto an already broken system while doing
nothing to meet Puerto Rico’s energy policy goals nor bring down
high electricity rates.

Regarding retail choice, as we said in a joint statement to the Puerto Rico Energy Bureau last month, “States’ experiences with retail suppliers of electricity to residential customers overwhelmingly demonstrate that many energy service companies engage in predatory pricing, misleading offers and inadequate protections, especially when marketing to low-income customers.” 

There is absolutely no evidence that implementing retail choice would bring down electricity rates in Puerto Rico.

The idea of implementing an
energy market at the wholesale level also makes little sense for Puerto Rico
(even setting aside the above-mentioned issue of the long-term privatization contracts).
In the mainland U.S., wholesale electricity markets were established to take
advantage of the economic efficiencies arising from integrating multiple
utility generation systems into a single market.

This allowed for economic
dispatch of generating units across a broad geographic region, resulting in
lower costs. However, this geographic advantage is not applicable to Puerto
Rico, which would be more than 10 times smaller than even the smallest
electricity market in the United States and which has no ability to integrate
into a broader market.

Our statement to the Puerto
Rico Energy Bureau explains in detail why we believe a wholesale energy market
would not be necessary for improving the efficiency of Puerto Rico’s generation
fleet nor for incentivizing new generation — and therefore, would not be an
effective mechanism for lowering costs.

In Texas — proposed at the
hearing as a potential model for Puerto Rico because of its competitive
electricity market — prices are indeed much lower than in Puerto Rico. This
stems in large part from the state’s power generation mix: Texas built new
transmission lines specifically to bring to market low-cost wind from western
and north Texas. It is hard to imagine a comparable phenomenon occurring in
Puerto Rico.

Moreover, making it easier for
electricity customers to self-generate their own power — a goal of Puerto
Rico’s newly passed electricity policy — does not require the establishment of
a wholesale electricity market. Indeed, wholesale energy markets in the United
States evolved to manage dispatch of centralized power plants over large
geographic regions — not to promote decentralized generation.

If Puerto Rico wants to look to
the United States for guidance on how to meet its energy policy goals, the most
well-suited example would not be Texas but rather Hawaii. Hawaii has neither a
wholesale electricity market nor retail choice, but one in three homes generate
their own power via rooftop solar.

Puerto Rico could similarly
transform its electrical system and move toward decentralized energy without
the added expense and administrative burden of either a wholesale market or
retail choice.

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This story was written by our staff based on a press release.

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