Archive for the 'Energy' Category

Mar 04 2013

Monopoly prices – to regulate or not to regulate, that is the question!

Competitively Priced Electricity Costs More, Studies Show – New York Times

The problem with monopolies, as our AP students have learned, is that a monopolistic firm, left to its own accord, will most likely choose to produce at an output level that is much lower and provide their product at a price that is much higher than would result from a purely competitive industry.Regulated Monopoly A monopolist will produce where its price is greater than its marginal cost, indicating an under-allocation of resources towards the product. By restricting output and raising its price, the monopolist is assured maximum profits, but at the cost to society of less overall consumer surplus or welfare.

Unfortunately, in some industries, because of the wide range of output over which economies of scale are experienced, it sometimes makes the most sense for only one firm to participate. Such markets are called “natural monopolies” and some examples are cable television, utilities, natural gas, and other industries that have large economies of scale. (click graph to see full-sized)

Government regulators face a dilemma in dealing with natural monopolistic industries such as the electricity industry. A electricity company with a monopoly in a particular market will base its price and output decision on the profit maximization rule that all unregulated firms will; they’ll produce at the level where their marginal revenue is equal to their marginal cost. The problem is, for a monopolist its marginal revenue is less than the price it has to charge, which means that at the profit maximizing level of output (where MR=MC), marginal cost will be less than price: evidence of allocative inefficiency (i.e. not enough electricity will be produced and the price will be too high for some consumers to afford).

Here arises the need for government regulation. A government concerned with getting the right amount of electricity to the right number of people (allocative efficiency) may choose to set a price ceiling for electricity at the level where the price equals the firm’s marginal cost. This, however, will likely be below the firm’s average total cost (remember, ATC declines over a WIDE RANGE of output), a scenario which would result in losses for the firm, and may lead it to shut down altogether. So what most governments have done in the past is set a price ceiling where the price is equal to the firm’s average total cost, meaning the firm will “break even”, earning only a “normal profit”; essentially just enough to keep the firm in business; this is known as the “fair-return price”.

Below AP Economics teacher Jacob Clifford illustrates and explains this regulatory dilemma. Watch the video and see how he shows the effect of the two price control options on the firm’s output and the price in the market.


The article above examines the differences in the price of electricity in states which regulate their electricity prices and states that have adopted “market” or unregulated pricing, in which firms are free to produce at the MR=MC level:

“The difference in prices charged to industrial companies in market states compared with those in regulated ones nearly tripled from 1999 to last July, according to the analysis of Energy Department data by Marilyn Showalter, who runs Power in the Public Interest, a group that favors traditional rate regulation.

The price spread grew from 1.09 cents per kilowatt-hour to 3.09 cents, her analysis showed. It also showed that in 2006 alone industrial customers paid $7.2 billion more for electricity in market states than if they had paid the average prices in regulated states.”

The idea of deregulation of electricity markets was that removing price ceilings would lead to greater economic profits for the firms, which would subsequently attract new firms into the market. More competitive markets should then drive prices down towards the socially-optimal price, benefiting consumers and producers by forcing them to be more productively efficient in order to compete (remember “Economic Darwinism”?). It appears, however, that higher prices have not, as hoped, led to lower prices:

“Since 1999, prices for industrial customers in deregulated states have risen from 18 percent above the national average to 37 percent above,” said Mrs. Showalter, an energy lawyer and former Washington State utility regulator.

In regulated states, prices fell from 7 percent below the national average to 12 percent below, she calculated…

In market states, electricity customers of all kinds, from homeowners to electricity-hungry aluminum plants, pay $48 billion more each year for power than they would have paid in states with the traditional system of government boards setting electric rates…”

That $48 billion represents higher costs of production for other firms that require large inputs of energy in their own production, higher electricity bills for cash-strapped households, and greater profits and shareholder dividends for the powerful firms that provide the power. On the bright side, higher prices for electricity should lead to more careful and conservative use of power, reducing Americans’ impact on global warming (since the vast majority of the country’s power is generated using fossil fuels).

Here arises another question? Should we be opposed to higher profits for powerful electricity firms if their profits result in much needed energy conservation and a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions? An environmental economist might argue that if customers are to pay higher prices for their energy, it might as well be in the form of a carbon tax, which rather than increasing profits for a monopolistic firm would generate revenue for the government. In theory tax revenue could be used to subsidize or otherwise promote the development and use of “green energies”.

Whether customers paying higher prices for traditionally under-priced electricity is a good or bad thing depends on your views of conservation. But whether higher profits for a powerful electricity company are more desirable than increased tax revenue for the government are beneficial for society or not seems clear. If we’re paying higher prices, the resulting revenue is more likely to be put towards socially desirable uses if it’s in the government’s hands rather than in the pockets of shareholders of fossil fuel burning electricity monopolies.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why do governments regulate the prices in industries such as natural gas and electricity?
  2. Why would a state government think that de-regulation of the electricity industry might eventually result in lower prices in the long-run?
  3. Why, in reality, did the price of electricity in unregulated electricity markets ultimately increase so much that consumers in the market states paid billions of dollars more than in regulated states?
  4. What industries besides that for electricity share characteristics that might qualify them as “natural monopolies”? Which of the industries you identified should be regulated by government, and WHY?

262 responses so far

Nov 09 2012

Economic arguments for and against a carbon tax

Reuters – Long-shot carbon tax suddenly part of fiscal cliff debate

The article above suggests that during Barack Obama’s second term as president of the United States, the country may begin to seriously consider imposing a tax on carbon dioxide emissions. The justification for such a tax, points out the article, is two-fold:

The aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, which devastated parts of the U.S. East Coast last week, has raised fresh questions about the links between climate change and extreme weather events, which also makes the idea of a carbon tax more appealing.

A carbon tax is a mechanism to charge emitters of greenhouse gases, such as power plants and oil refiners, for each ton of carbon dioxide they emit.

Prospects for such a tax as a way to address pollution and climate are probably dim in a still deeply-divided Congress, but some analysts say the measure would be more attractive if positioned as a source of new revenue.

In fact, a recent report by the Congressional Research Service, suggesting a $20 per ton tax on carbon emissions could halve the U.S. budget deficit over time.

Such a tax would generate about $88 billion in 2012, rising to $144 billion by 2020, the report said, slashing U.S. debt by between 12 and 50 percent within a decade, depending on how high the deficit climbs, the report said.

America’s government budget has been in deficit every year since 2000, meaning the government spends more than it collects in taxes. Fears over the growing national debt and the impact it will have on future economic growth potential have led many in the US government to look for new ways to earn tax revenue for the government, even some ways that have bene considered taboo until now.

In my year 1 IB Economics course this week we have been learning about and evaluating taxes and subsidies in the markets for various goods. Generally, we learn that government intervention in free markets worsens the overall allocation of resources in the market economy, imposes more costs on society than benefits, and therefore leads to a loss of total welfare. For example, a tax on American beef in Switzerland helps keep the price of imported meat high, benefiting Swiss farmers, but overall the higher price of meet and the reduced quantity and variety available to consumers harms many in society to the benefit of the few cattle farmers. Such a tax, it can be argued, creates a loss of total welfare in society, as the tax’s cost outweighs its benefit.

But not ALL indirect taxes (those placed on the production and consumption of particular goods) reduce total welfare in society. A tax on a good that is over-consumed by the free market may actually improve total welfare as the higher cost to producers leads to a reduced supply, higher price, and a reduction in the quantity demanded in the market. A cigarette tax is the classic example. Without taxes on cigarettes, more people would smoke, creating more harmful effects for society, such as the ills of second-hand smoke, higher rates of lung cancer, greater demand for health care and the higher prices that this increased demand create for all of society, even non-smokers. Cigarette taxes are so widely employed by government and accepted by society that there is no debate whatsoever about their use.

But taxes on other goods that create ills for society are highly controversial, and for good reason. Perhaps one of the most debated and divisive tax proposals of recent years has been on the emission of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas emitted during the burning of fossil fuels. The main emitters of CO2 in the United States are the country’s electricity generating firms, which burn coal, gas and oil more than any other industry in the country. CO2 emissions are measured in tons, and a CO2 tax would apply to each ton of the gas emitted by fossil fuel consuming firms.

Arguments against a carbon tax

The primary argument against a tax on CO2 emissions is that it would drive up the costs of energy production, leading to higher energy costs for the nation’s households and firms. This boost in prices would increase costs to producers of all other goods and services in the economy, effectively reducing the supply in several key sectors of the US economy, leading to falling national output, more inflation and greater unemployment. American industry would become less competitive with other nation’s producers, leading to more factories closing down and moving overseas, taking American jobs with them.

Such a conclusion requires that a CO2 tax would, in fact, lead to significant decreases in the amount of energy demanded by the nation’s households and firms. In other words, it assumes a relatively elastic demand for electricity. It also assumes that as the price of fossil fuel generated electricity rises, there will be few alternative forms of electricity for firms to switch to. This leads us to the arguments for a carbon tax.

Arguments for a carbon tax

Energy is an essential good that consumers (whether they be households or firms) demand in large quantities regardless of the price. A carbon tax, which increases the cost and decreases the supply of fossil fuel energy, will not significantly reduce the amount of fossil fuel energy consumed in the United States; at least not in the short run, during which there will be very few substitutes for fossil fuel energy available to consumers.

However, one outcome that proponents of the tax hope for is an increase in the demand for alternative energies, such as wind and solar, which do not require the burning of fossil fuels. Such alternatives are not currently price-competitive with fossil fuels, but a carbon tax would make them more competitive, increasing demand for alternative energies and leading to a greater percentage of America’s total energy production coming from wind and solar.

The graphs below show the desired outcome of a CO2 tax on the markets for fossil fuel energy and renewable energies.

Notice that the tax does not lead to a significant decrease in the quantity of fossil fuel energy consumed in the short run. Businesses in the US will face higher costs, but energy costs are a relatively small proportion of most US industries’ total costs. (The biggest cost faced by US firms, not surprisingly, is labor costs). But the highly inelastic demand assures that fossil fuel energy prices will rise, leading to greater interest from consumers in alternative energies. In the graph on the right, we see an increase in the demand for renewables, leading to a greater quantity being produced.

But what might the long-run impact of a carbon tax be on the US energy sector? As we can see in the graph on the right above, greater demand for renewables will drive their prices up, which over time will increase the appeal of renewable energies to the country’s electricity producing giants. Slowly, the number of renewable energy producers will grow, as old coal or gas burning electricity plants are decommissioned and new wind or solar plants are installed. The supply of renewable energies should rise while the supply of fossil fuel energy should decrease. The result is an ever growing percentage of America’s total energy production generated using wind, solar, or other renewable sources of power. The graphs below show the possible long run impact of a carbon tax in the fossil fuel and renewable energy sectors.

Here we can see that in the long-run, the prices of renewable energies and fossil fuel energies will become closer as the supply of energy produced using wind and solar grows, making it more price-competitive and therefore reducing the demand for fossil fuel energies.Presumably, if the outcomes described above come to pass, the proposed carbon tax could lead to meaningful reductions in America’s greenhouse gas emissions over the long run, as the composition of the nation’s energy production slowly transitions away from non-renewable fossil fuels to renewable, non-polluting energy sources.

But what about the other reason the government is considering a carbon tax now? Remember those fears over the national debt and deficit? How effective would a carbon tax be at raising revenue to help the government balance its budget? To determine this, we must look again at the first graph we drew, only examine the impact of the tax on government, not just the market for fossil fuel energy.

In the graph above, we see that the tax creates a large chunk of tax revenue for the government, “about $88 billion in 2012, rising to $144 billion by 2020”. These figures seem optimistic, especially if the previous outcome in which the demand for fossil fuel energies falls in the long run comes to pass. But for now, at least from this Economics teacher’s perspective, a tax on carbon is a good first step towards both reducing American’s dependence on fossil fuels and generating desperately needed government revenues.

26 responses so far

Nov 01 2012

“Cap & Trade” – An introduction market-based approaches to pollution reduction

Inside Obama’s Green Budget –

Some say that Global Warming may be the greatest market failure of all. This podcast was originally broadcast in January of 2007 while George Bush was still in office. The commentator claims that global warming is “nothing but one giant market failure”, arguing that the United States therefore must get serious about tackling the problem.

The allocation of resources towards carbon emitting industries has almost undoubtedly contributed to the warming of the planet over the last half century. Only recently have governments begun taking active measures to reduce the impact of industry on the environment through greater regulation of polluting industries, employing corrective taxes in some instances and market-based approaches to pollution reduction in others.

US President Barack Obama, unlike his predecessor, appears to be serious about correcting the “market failure” represented by global warming:

Obama’s budget, announced Thursday, looks to fund a host of new energy programs, from carbon sequestration to electric transmission upgrades. It would also provide the EPA with a $10.5 billion budget for 2010, a 34% increase over the likely 2009 budget. Nineteen million dollars of that would be used to upgrade greenhouse gas reporting measures.

The Interior Department would get $12 billion for 2010. The agency would use part of the money to asses the availability of alternative energy resources throughout the country.

Funding comes from elaborate carbon “cap and trade” program, which puts a price on emitting pollution and is the core of Obama’s plans. Starting in 2012, the government would sell permits giving businesses the right to emit pollution, generating $646 billion in revenue through 2019.

During those years, the number of available permits would gradually decline, forcing businesses to buy the increasingly scarce, and costly, rights to pollute on an open market. Obama hopes that the rising cost of permits will encourage businesses to invest in clean technologies as a cheaper alternative to meeting pollution mandates, helping to cut greenhouse gas production to 14% below 2005 levels by 2020.

Below is a diagram that illustrates precisely how the Obama cap and trade plan is meant to work. Notice that between 2012 and 2020 the cost to firms of emitting pollution will increase dramatically, while at the same time the total amount of carbon emissions in the US economy will fall due to regular reductions in the number of permits issued to industry.


The Obama cap and trade scheme is not the first experiment with such a market based approach to externality reduction:

Europe established such a market in 2005. But some E.U. governments allocated too many credits at the outset, causing the value of some permits to fall by half and making it relatively easy for large polluters to simply buy credits rather than cut emissions. Overall emissions grew in 2005 and 2006. In 2008, E.U. emissions dropped 3%; 40% of that drop was attributed to the carbon trading scheme.

Europe’s cap and trade program took a few years before it began having any noticeable impact on the emission of carbon by European industry. While unpopular among the firms who are forced to pay to pollute, the fall in emissions in Europe shows that a market for carbon may be effective in forcing firms “internalize” the costs of carbon emissions, which until now have been born by society and the environment in the form of the negative effects of global warming.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why do you think tradeable pollution permits are more politically viable than a direct tax on firms’ carbon emissions?
  2. Why did Europe’s carbon emission permit market fail to reduce emissions over its first couple of years of implementation?
  3. Is making firms pay to pollute a good idea in the middle of a recession? Do you think that we should even be worrying about the environment when millions of people are losing their jobs and entire industries are struggling to survive?

60 responses so far

Sep 29 2010

Price controls in the Chinese Petrol market – or why you may have to wait in line to fill your gas tank!

China rations diesel as record oil hits supplies | Markets | Reuters

In the fall of 2007 I was living in Shanghai, China. At the time, oil prices were hitting record levels world wide, leading to rising petrol prices for drivers in most places.  However, at the time,  I began witnesing an unusual site on my taxi rides into the city of Shanghai: as our taxi passed petrol station after petrol station, I observed dozens of blue trucks (the ubiquitous medium of transporting good from Shanghai’s factories to her ports) spilling out of gas station parking lots into the road, apparently queued, waiting for a spot at the pump. I had never seen such long lines at any of the petrol stations around Shanghai before, and I began to wonder as to the reasons for these crazy long lines!

Well, an article at the time helped solve the riddle of the long lines. As it turns out, there was a simple explanation rooted in the principles of supply and demand that any first semester AP or IB economics student would understand! The Chinese government had been forced to ration petrol (limiting the amount that a driver can buy at one go) due to the shortages resulting from the government’s price controls in the petrol market.

Truck drivers reported long queues at petrol stations along a national highway linking Fujian and Zhejiang provinces, with each truck getting 100 yuan ($13) worth of diesel, or around 20 litres, per visit at a state-run station and 40 litres at a private kiosk…

“What’s wrong with the oil market? Our drivers had to queue the whole night for only a small amount of fill, slowing the traffic by almost one day,” said Gao Meili, who manages a logistics company.

China is a major importer of oil. With an economy growing around 12% in 2007, much of the country’s growth depended on the availability of crude oil at reasonable prices, which China’s oil refining firms turn into diesel and petrol, needed to get Chinese manufactured products from factory to port and from port to overseas consumers.

The problem with the oil market in China, however, was that as “Chinese refiners cannot pass the souring crude costs on to consumers.” Oil is an input needed to make a finished product, diesel. As the price of oil rose in 2007 (it reached a record of $92 per barrel in October of that year), the resource costs to petrol and diesel producers also rose, shifting the supply of petrol and diesel to the left, putting upward pressure on the equilibrium price.   As a first semester AP or IB student knows, resource costs are a determinant of supply, and as oil (the main resource in the production of petrol and diesel) increased in price, the supply of these important commodities invariably decreased.

In a free market, a decrease in supply leads to an increase in price. Herein lies the answer to the riddle of the long lies at petrol stations in Shanghai: the Chinese petrol and diesel market is not a free market. The government plays an active role in controlling prices paid by consumers for the finished product refiners are producing, petrol fuel:

Beijing fears stoking already high inflation and rigidly caps pump fuel rates to shield users from a 50 percent rally in global oil so far this year.

As the costs to petrol and diesel producers rose in 2007, the government in Beijing took the side of consumers and forbade fuel producers from raising the price they charge consumers.  The Chinese government essentially imposed a price ceiling in the market for petrol. A price ceiling is a maximum price set by a government aimed at helping consumers by keeping essential commodities like fuel affordable. As we have learned this week in AP and IB Economics, price controls such as this end up hurting BOTH producers AND consumers, since they only lead to a dis-equilibrium in the market in which the quantity demanded for a product rises while the quantity supplied by firms falls. The shortage of petrol and diesel resulting from the government’s price control are the perfect explanation for the long lines of blue trucks and motor scooters at all the gas stations in Shanghai during October of 2007.

So why, exactly, does the government’s enforcement of a lower than equilibrium price result in such severe shortages that truck drivers are only allowed to pump 20 litres of petrol per visit and made to wait hours each time they need to refill? Below is a supply and demand diagram that illustrates the situation in the Chinese fuel market in 2007:

In the graph above, the supply of petrol has decreased due to the increasing cost of the main resource that goes into petrol, oil. This decrease in supply means petrol has become more scarce, and correspondingly the equilibrium price should rise. However, due to the government’s intervention in the petrol and diesel markets, the price was not allowed to rise and instead remained at the maximum price of Pc.

At the government-mandated maximum price of Pc, the quantity of fuel demanded by drivers far exceeds the quantity supplied by China’s petrol producers. The result is a shortage of petrol equal to Qd-Qs.

The government’s intention for keeping petrol prices low is clear: to make consumers happy and keep the costs of transportation among China’s manufacturers low so as to not risk a slow-down in economic growth in China. However, the net effect of the price controls is a loss of total welfare in the petrol market. Notice the colored areas in the graph above. These represent the effect on welfare (consumer and producer surplus) of the price control.

  • The total areas of the green, orange and grey shapes represent the total amount of consumer and producer surplus in the petrol market assuming there were NO price controls. At a price of Pe, the quantity demanded and the quantity supplied are equal (at Qe) and the consumer surplus and producer surplus are maximized. The market is efficient at a price of Pe. Neither shortages nor surpluses of petrol exist.
  • However, at a price of Pc (the maximum price set by the government), the amount of petrol actually produced and consumed in the market is only Qs. Clearly, those who are able to buy petrol are better off, because they paid a lower price than they would have to without the price ceiling. But notice that there is a huge shortage of fuel now; many people who are willing and able to buy petrol at Pc simply cannot get the quantity they demand, because firms are simply not producing enough!
  • The total consumer surplus changes to the area below the demand curve and above Pc, but only out to Qs. The green area represents the consumer surplus after the price control. It is not at all obvious whether or not consumers are actually better off with the price ceiling.
  • The total producer surplus clearly shrinks to the orange triangle below Pc and above the supply curve. Petrol producers are definitely worse off due to the government’s action.
  • So how is the market as a whole affected? The black triangle represents the net welfare loss of the government’s price control. Notice that with a price of Pe, the black triangle would be added to consumer and producer surplus, but with a disequilibrium in the market at Pc, the black triangle is welfare lost to society.

Price controls by government’s clearly have an intended purpose of helping either consumers (in the case of a maximum price or price ceiling) or producers (in the case of a minimum price or price floor).  But the effect is always predictable from an economist’s perspective. A price set by a government above or below the equilibrium price will always lead to either a shortage or a surplus of the product in question. In addition, there will always be a loss of total welfare resulting from price controls, meaning that society as a whole is worse off than it would be without government intervention.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why has the supply of petrol decreased?
  2. With a fall in supply of a commodity like petrol, does the demand change, or the quantity demanded? What is the difference?
  3. Define “consumer surplus” and “producer surplus”. Why does a government’s control of prices reduce the total welfare of consumers and producers in a market like petrol?
  4. How would a government subsidy to petrol producers provide a more desirable solution to the high oil prices than the maximum price described in this post? In your notes, sketch a new market diagram for petrol and show the effects on supply, demand, price and quantity of a government subsidy to petrol producers. Does a subsidy create a loss of welfare? Why or why not?

58 responses so far

Nov 12 2008

Amazing innovation in cargo ship technology – WIND powered vessels!

Kite Powered Ship Sets Sail for Greener Futhre –

A German engineer has given an old technology new life to help make trans-oceanic shipping greener and least costly.

A cargo ship pulled by a giant, parachute-shaped kite will leave Germany on Tuesday on a voyage that could herald a new “green” age of commercial sailing on the high seas.

The owners of the MS Beluga, a 462ft cargo vessel, will try to prove that modern steel ships can harness wind power and reduce their reliance on diesel engines.

During the journey from Bremen to Venezuela, the crew will deploy a SkySail, a 160 square metre kite which will fly more than 600ft above the vessel, where winds are stronger and more consistent than at sea level.

Its inventor, Stephan Wrage, a 34-year-old German engineer, claims the kite will significantly reduce carbon emissions, cutting diesel consumption by up to 20 per cent and saving £800 a day in fuel costs. He believes an even bigger kite, up to 5,000 square metres, could result in fuel savings of up to 35 per cent.

Here’s a thought… reduced fuel costs to trans-oceanic shipping companies should shift the supply of such services out, as the marginal cost of shipping falls. Greater supply will mean lower prices to customers demanding such services, moving downward along the demand curve, increasing the equilibrium quantity of trans-oceanic cargo journeys.

Question: Assume all cargo ships in the world eventually incorporate the sail technology, increasing the supply and reducing the price of shipping by an average of 20% and reducing the emission of greenhouse gases of vessels by an average of 20%. What would have to be true about the price elasticity of demand for trans-oceanic shipping in order for a 20% reduction in price to result in an overall reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by cargo ships? Depending on the answer to this question, this “green” technology could actually result in greater emissions of greenhouse gases by cargo ships.


34 responses so far

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