Restructured Electricity Markets:

California Market Design Enabled Exercise of Market Power

GAO-02-828: Published: Jun 21, 2002. Publicly Released: Jul 17, 2002.

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James E. Wells, Jr
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Historically, utility monopolies have generated electricity and sold it to customers at prices set by state regulators. Today, private companies in 24 states compete to sell electricity at market prices determined by supply and demand. California is part of a broader western market in which electricity is routinely bought and sold across state and national boundaries. GAO found evidence that wholesale electricity suppliers exercised market power by raising prices above competitive levels during the summer of 2000 and at other times after the restructuring. Neither GAO's analysis nor other studies addressed whether market power exercised in California violated federal or other laws. The design of California's electricity market enabled individual wholesale electricity suppliers to exercise market power. Once prices rose, the design was ineffective in returning prices to competitive levels. Prominent experts on market design and industry experts generally agree that two principal market designs flaws increased wholesale suppliers' incentive and ability to raise prices above competitive levels: (1) retail prices were frozen and (2) the California Public Utilities Commission generally prohibited or discouraged long-term contracts between utilities and wholesale suppliers.

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