Two months after the Texas power grid froze up during a historic deep freeze, two months after legislative hearings and firings and finger pointings, on a mild day in mid April, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, of ERCOT, again sounded alarms last week that electricity was in tight supply. How can this happen?
ERCOT’s excuses rang hollow and included an uncooperative cold front that increased power demand more than anticipated, and the fact that a quarter of power plants were unavailable because of maintenance ahead of the summer heat.
ERCOT’s solution to the risk of outtages was to temporarily jack up the prices generators could charge, in hopes that they would send more electrons onto the grid. The first screen shot below show the price boost, to $2,000 per megawatt hour ($2 per kilowatt hour), at 5:25 pm. Again, there were no blackouts at this time, and electricity demand did not outstrip supply.
ERCOT justifies this high transient price on the basis that high prices will incentivize power generators to invest in new plants, or at least crank up the ones they already own. But a funny thing happened when prices hit $2,000 the other day — there was no supply response. More power did not arrive on the market. Indeed, it takes years to build new generators. Mere hours or even a week of price gouging consumers are not enough to encourage new investment.
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Maybe that’s because generators appreciate the huge Catch-22 in effect here. Higher prices should bring more generation into the market. But when it does, the extra capacity will end up driving down the price. If anything, there is a massive financial incentive for generation companies to withhold generation.
This isn’t mere conjecture. It has happened before in Texas when GDF Suez gamed in 2013. Did it happen on April 13?
We can’t yet say. There can be many manifestations of collusion. Generator companies can signal each other in the market what they intend to do. “Joe” plans to run today, but “Sally” is off. “Deidre” will be off Tuesday, but “Bob” will run. “Rick” will not fire up for the weekend, so that “Louis” wins in the futures markets. If bridge games can be rigged with codes and signals, electricity markets can be rigged.
Suppose the ERCOT market was forced into corner on April 13. It may have been done by generation companies deliberately holding back power to drive the price up. Those units running at the height of the crisis could book great profits. Under this hypothetical scenario, perhaps some participants bought futures on the commodities exchanges to profit from the planned withholding. This practice is called cross market manipulation, and it is prohibited under federal laws.
How would we look for it? For Tuesday, April 13, ERCOT published a list of generation plants that were available to produce electricity. Under ERCOT’s Orwellian doublespeak, it is called the RUC list, for Reliability Unit Commitment. These are units (i.e. power plants) that were available for this event, but, irrationally, their owners had decided to forgo the profits of turning the plants on, perhaps in order to profit elsewhere from either futures contracts, or real-time or day-head ERCOT price and dispatch signals. So ERCOT had to order them online for RUC for capacity.
Generators have in the past lobbied and won the stipulation that when their plants are ordered on-line for RUC capacity that they receive the highest price available, i.e. the price cap. So a generator that gets RUC’ed online for capacity receives $2,000 per megawatt hour instead of, let’s say, the $35 per megawatt hour it actually costs to run these plants.
This sets up misincentives, like the kind of electric power short squeeze that Enron’s traders could have only dreamt of two decades ago. This about it: if a power producer operates a lot of plants, and knows he can drive the price up to $2,000 per mwh by keeping a few of them offline on a mild April afternoon and triggering the price cap, he’s incentivized to do so.
Among the losers in this scenario — first are the average Texans who would prefer not to overpay for power, and who want nothing more than for the lights to go on when they flip the switch. Second are the small, struggling retail power providers who are already on the brink of financial disaster from February. Third are the regulators like the Public Utilities Commission and the Independent Market Monitor who have lost the respect of market participants for failing to enact common sense oversight.
ERCOT’s data shows that the number of power plants deliberately staying offline on April 13 after their their warnings would have been plenty to ease the supply shortage and keep the price down.
Texas grid regulators owe it to the state to determine whether any of these market participants had ulterior motives that informed their decisions to keep power offline. A quick inquiry into whether market manipulation occurred would investigate whether any parties trading on commodities exchanges had prior knowledge of the operation of these listed generators in much the same way that the Securities and Exchange Commission finds insider trading.
The SEC, the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, the FBI, the U.S. Department of Justice, local district attorneys and the Texas Rangers could clear the air quickly. State investigations may actually drive those with knowledge of wrongdoing to speak. Why? There is no white collar wing in the Texas prison system.
The game of withholding power to drive up prices is not new to Texas nor to other markets. Enron taught California the lesson in 2000-2001. It is a taught in MBA programs. It is the outcome predicted by John Nash in his Nobel work “Non-Cooperative Games.”
But there’s more. As the green ERCOT map below shows, at 6:05 PM, the crisis had passed. Statewide, the market was clearing at less than $100 per megawatt hour, and the market was in balance. But ERCOT applied something they call “Real-Time Price Adders” — boosting power prices by hundreds of dollars per MWH in some areas. But why? The generators were already by then producing enough electricity at the lower price. This is just like the lumber store continuing to price gouge homeowners for batteries and plywood even after a hurricane heads out to sea and evaporates.
Even before last week’s hijinx, Texans have paid $28 billion more for power this year than they would have under an old fashioned regulated market. Don’t expect them to stand for it.