This issue of how to organize electricity generation and supply is a pressing and controversial one across the globe, from Turkey to Nigeria to India to the USA, and it is at the top of the political agenda in the UK, where the cost of electricity is a hot issue. I heard the government’s energy minister, Ed Davey, interviewed the other day and he was talking about all sorts of complicated measures he had in mind to make the energy market work, including a state-funded network of advisors, state rebates for the most vulnerable and so on. And of course his central idea is about switching between providers - but that is absurd because the big energy companies offer more or less the same prices and because what is the best deal when you sign up will, possibly within a few hours, be a poor deal - and yet typically you are locked into it. Or, if not, then you have to engage in constant market scanning and switching. This is an aspect of the paradox of choice, discussed in the book (p.75).
All these absurd gyrations arise from the refusal to acknowledge a basic truth - electricity supply is a textbook natural monopoly and, as such, the most efficient way to run it is through state provision. That refusal exists as much in the opposition Labour Party, which has proposed a price freeze, as in the government. It's pointless to blame the electricity companies - the scope they have to compete in the way that, say, supermarkets do is virtually nil, even if they were minded to (and why should they be - as Adam Smith observed long ago, markets do not work on the basis of charity or, as we might nowadays say, social responsibility and we should not expect them to). That comparison is an instructive one: no one thinks that to make the supermarkets be competitive we have to have community advisors, rebates for the poor, complicated rules about switching, statutory requirements to offer the best deal and a government regulator because (whatever one thinks of supermarkets) all that consumers have to do if they are not satisfied is do their next shop somewhere else. With many caveats it more or less works as a market.
This week, the big six electricity suppliers were called to the British parliament, accused of price fixing, because they all more or less simultaneously announce more or less similar price rises. Their defence was that their price rises were because almost all their costs – the wholesale electricity price and taxes – are beyond their control. But if we turn that round, it also means that they cannot compete on price. So what else might they compete on? In most markets it would be product quality and product innovation, but that too is impossible: electricity is just electricity, so there is no way of offering ‘really good electricity’. For the same reason, they can’t even compete on brand image: no one would think there was something especially worthwhile about electricity from, say, E-On as opposed to EDF, would they?
So electricity (like other utilities such as gas and water) simply does not and cannot a function as a competitive market. By pretending otherwise we have to bear all the costs of an entirely ineffective regulatory system in order to pay both in supply and - as mentioned in my previous post - in generation often state owned companies of other countries to deliver the chimerical benefits of privatization and competition.
Thus, to use an over-used phrase, there is a huge elephant in the room that no mainstream British politician will talk about: the whole thing needs to be re-nationalised. And, curiously, given politicians unwillingness to talk about it, this is supported by 69% of the British electorate.