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Yves here. This post provides a useful, high level description of how the EU electricity markets work, according to some definition of “work”. As Varoufakis makes clear, this scheme is so complex and riddled with internal inconsistencies that only an economist could love it.

The post is mainly about the malfunctioning electricity market. But it also mentions in passing, and unfavorably, the market for greenhouse gas permits. This pretends to be a prohibition scheme (companies are not supposed to emit more than the totally allowed via permits) but yours truly has been reading intermittently since this market started of massive gaming by traders. And programs like this don’t add up to much unless there is serious monitoring, fines, and the ability to force plant closure of recidivist violators. Again, readers please correct me, but I certainly haven’t encountered stories of EU companies being hit with even nuisance-level fines.

However, in the end, Varoufakis falls for this idea at the end by advocating a sounder market approach, a carbon tax. But this is still the wrong approach for combatting an existential threat (at least from the perspective of human civilization and a lot of flora and fauna). As we wrote in 2019:

There is yet another reason why carbon taxes and pricing are not good ways to combat climate change. Economist Martin Weitzman developed a framework for how to deal with externalities like pollution. Andrew Haldane’s summary:

In making these choices [between taxation and prohibition], economists have often drawn on Martin Weitzman’s classic public goods framework from the early 1970s.13 Under this framework, the optimal amount of pollution control is found by equating the marginal social benefits of pollution-control and the marginal private costs of this control. With no uncertainty about either costs or benefits, a policymaker would be indifferent between taxation and restrictions when striking this cost/benefit balance.

In the real world, there is considerable uncertainty about both costs and benefits. Weitzman’s framework tells us how to choose between pollution-control instruments in this setting. If the marginal social benefits foregone of the wrong choice are large, relative to the private costs incurred, then quantitative restrictions are optimal. Why? Because fixing quantities to achieve pollution control, while letting prices vary, does not have large private costs. When the
marginal social benefit curve is steeper than the marginal private cost curve, restrictions dominate.

The results flip when the marginal cost/benefit trade-offs are reversed. If the private costs of the wrong choice are high, relative to the social benefits foregone, fixing these costs through taxation is likely to deliver the better welfare outcome. When the marginal social benefit curve is flatter than the marginal private cost curve, taxation dominates. So the choice of taxation versus prohibition in controlling pollution is ultimately an empirical issue.

Needless to say, with more and more scientists calling climate change an emergency, limits and prohibitions are the proper tools.

By Yanis Varoufakis, an economist, member of the Greek Parliament, and former Finance Minister of Greece. Originally published at Project Syndicate; cross posted from his website

The European Union’s power sector is a good example of what market fundamentalism has done to electricity networks the world over. With the end of cheap natural gas, retail consumers and businesses are paying the price for their governments’ embrace of a shoddy theory.

ATHENS – The blades of the wind turbines on the mountain range opposite my window are turning especially energetically today. Last night’s storm has abated but high winds continue, contributing extra kilowatts to the electricity grid at precisely zero additional cost (or marginal cost, in the language of the economists). But the people struggling to make ends meet during a dreadful cost-of-living crisis must pay for these kilowatts as if they were produced by the most expensive liquefied natural gas transported to Greece’s shores from Texas. This absurdity, which prevails well beyond Greece and Europe, must end.

The absurdity stems from the delusion that states can simulate a competitive, and thus efficient, electricity market. Because only one electricity cable enters our homes or businesses, leaving matters to the market would lead to a perfect monopoly – an outcome that nobody wants. But governments decided that they could simulate a competitive market to replace the public utilities that used to generate and distribute power. They can’t.

The European Union’s power sector is a good example of what market fundamentalism has done to electricity networks the world over. The EU obliged its member states to split the electricity grid from the power-generating stations and privatize the power stations to create new firms, which would compete with one another to provide electricity to a new company owning the grid. This company, in turn, would lease its cables to another host of companies that would buy the electricity wholesale and compete among themselves for the retail business of homes and firms. Competition among producers would minimize the wholesale price, while competition among retailers would ensure that final consumers benefit from low prices and high-quality service.

Alas, none of this could be made to work in theory, let alone in practice.

The simulated market faced contradictory imperatives: to ensure a minimum amount of electricity within the grid at every point in time, and to channel investment into green energy. The solution proposed by market fundamentalists was twofold: create another market for permissions to emit greenhouse gases, and introduce marginal-cost pricing, which meant that the wholesale price of every kilowatt should equal that of the costliest kilowatt.

The emission-permit market was meant to motivate electricity producers to shift to less polluting fuels. Unlike a fixed tax, the cost of emitting a ton of carbon dioxide would be determined by the market. In theory, the more industry relied on terrible fuels like lignite, the larger the demand for the EU-issued emission permits. This would drive up their price, strengthening the incentive to switch to natural gas and, ultimately, to renewables.

Marginal-cost pricing was intended to ensure the minimum level of electricity supply, by preventing low-cost producers from undercutting higher-cost power companies. The prices would give low-cost producers enough profits and reasons to invest in cheaper, less polluting energy sources.

To see what the regulators had in mind, consider a hydroelectric power station and a lignite-fired one. The fixed cost of building the hydroelectric station is large but the marginal cost is zero: once water turns its turbine, the next kilowatt the station produces costs nothing. In contrast, the lignite-fired power station is much cheaper to build, but the marginal cost is positive, reflecting the fixed amount of costly lignite per kilowatt produced.

By fixing the price of every kilowatt produced hydroelectrically to be no less than the marginal cost of producing a kilowatt using lignite, the EU wanted to reward the hydroelectric company with a fat profit, which, regulators hoped, would be invested in additional renewable-energy capacity. Meanwhile, the lignite-fueled power station would have next to no profits (as the price would just about cover its marginal costs) and a growing bill for the permits it needed to buy in order to pollute.

But reality was less forgiving than the theory. As the pandemic wreaked havoc on global supply chains, the price of natural gas rose, before trebling after Russia invaded Ukraine. Suddenly, the most polluting fuel (lignite) was not the most expensive, motivating more long-term investment in fossil fuels and infrastructure for LNG. Marginal-cost pricing helped power companies extract huge rents from outraged retail consumers, who realized they were paying much more than the average cost of electricity. Not surprisingly, publics, seeing no benefits – to them or to the environment – from the blades rotating above their heads and spoiling their scenery, turned against wind turbines.

The rise in natural gas prices has exposed the endemic failures that occur when a simulated market is grafted onto a natural monopoly. We have seen it all: How easily producers could collude in fixing the wholesale price. How their obscene profits, especially from renewables, turned citizens against the green transition. How the simulated market regime impeded common procurement that would have alleviated poorer countries’ energy costs. How the retail electricity market became a casino with companies speculating on future electricity prices, profiting during the good times, and demanding state bailouts when their bets turn bad.

It’s time to wind down simulated electricity markets. What we need, instead, are public energy networks in which electricity prices represent average costs plus a small mark-up. We need a carbon tax, whose proceeds must compensate poorer citizens. We need a large-scale Manhattan Project-like investment in the green technologies of the future (such as green hydrogen and large-scale offshore floating windfarms). And, lastly, we need municipally-owned local networks of existing renewables (solar, wind, and batteries) that turn communities into owners, managers, and beneficiaries of the power they need.

This entry was posted in Banana republic, Doomsday scenarios, Economic fundamentals, Energy markets, Europe, Free markets and their discontents, Guest Post, Politics, Regulations and regulators, The dismal science on by Yves Smith.