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Monday, May 16, 2011

A call for government inaction

A recent S&P report suggests that the US electric utility industry would be better off if the US government picked consistent inaction over inconsistent intervention in the energy sector.

The report, “U.S. Electric Utilities Seek Clear Direction From Washington On Energy Policy,” suggests major uncertainty for US utilities until more coherence is achieved. (I haven’t seen the report because it seems to be only for RatingsDirect subscribers unless you want to pay $500.)

Energy policy is of course one of the messiest examples of government intervention in the entire country, with national, state and municipal policies that include direct regulation, taxation, subsidies and land use. A consistent policy is essential for industry to make long-term capital investments, whether it’s a 10 year search for oil or gas, a 20 year lifespan for solar panels or a 30-40 year lifespan for a power plant.

A posting by Mimi Barker on RiskCenter summarizes the problem:
Standard & Poor's Ratings Services believes that U.S. electric utilities and their bondholders would benefit from a clearly articulated, comprehensive, and consistent U.S. energy policy.

Any energy policy evolves from a complex and intertwined system of legislative bodies, executive departments, and courts, not all of which are federal, that influences how the private sector develops energy resources and allocates capital. So when we say energy policy, perhaps what we mean is political leadership that coalesces and shapes public opinion in a way that supports long-term investment in energy assets.

"In some ways, overall regulatory risk in the sector has moved slightly from the states to the national stage as big-picture issues--with big price tags--like climate change, economic stimulus, and the reliability of the transmission grid threaten to overtake the mundane matters of rate cases and earned returns as the key factors supporting credit ratings," said Standard & Poor's credit analyst Todd Shipman.
Sheila McNulty on the FT offers another quote from the report:
Making resource decisions and committing a utility’s balance sheet to support those decisions has never been more complicated or littered with more potential pitfalls, and diminishing credit quality is a result.
And, as she notes, industry is starting to feel the confusion.
John Rowe, chairman and chief executive of Exelon, the power producer, spoke about this issue in a recent speech when he said US energy policy has been driven by a mess of mandates and power subsidies for nuclear, cleaner coal, gas, wind solar and other renewables – a constant urge to pick winners and losers. In his words: “Congress needs to slow down. We are already doing enough to give all of these things a chance.”
We have a fundamental collision between the political world — where the goal is a 15 second soundbite on tonight’s new and long term is an election 2 years away — and the long-term time horizons of all companies in the energy sector.

In the US, we’ve come to take a steady reliable supply of electricity as a given, something that distinguishes us from, say, rural India. The mismanagement of California’s electricity deregulation shows us that policy that can make the system less reliable and more expensive. And the recent contraction of Japanese industrial production due to electricity shortages shows us the broader economic impact of an unreliable energy infrastructure.

It would be nice if that would be enough to make the politicians pick stable rules and then butt out, but of course that’s not going to happen. This is one of those rare cases where I wish we had a Lee Kuan Yew.

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