Democratic control of public enterprise in the united states: a history of regulation and liberalisation in the electricity sector♦ Jerrold Oppenheim* Theo MacGregor Summary

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Jerrold Oppenheim*

Theo MacGregor**

The system of democratic regulation of privately-owned utilities that has evolved in the United States over the past century includes five main elements: participation; transparency; a standard of justice and reasonableness; protection against confiscation of utility assets; and prices that are related to costs. After setting these elements forth and explaining how they are balanced, we describe how the system failed in a series of relatively small but highly visible experiments with deregulation in California and elsewhere in the US. Finally, we outline the history of how democratic regulation evolved in the US and how democracy is reversing the failed experiment with deregulation in California.

Excerpted from an article published in Transfer, the Quarterly of the European Trade Union Institute, in Summer 2002.

Democracy in action

Democratic regulation in the United States has been good not only for democracy but also for prices. It has actually brought prices to the point where they are just about the lowest in the world for an electricity system that is extremely reliable. Table 1 shows electricity prices in the United States (at the bottom) compared with electricity prices across the world, all expressed in dollars.

Table 1 Electricity prices in selected countries compared with USA



per kWh




to U.S.






Australia (1997)



Brazil (1998)









France (1998)


























US Energy Information Administration


These low prices for reliable service were not achieved overnight. The system of democratic regulation that evolved to achieve this record in the United States is the result of generations of hard political work over the past hundred years or so.

In the 1980s, in the portion of New York State known as Long Island, near New York City, public participation won the deprivatisation of a formerly privately owned electric company called Long Island Lighting Company. That company had become very unpopular because it built a nuclear power plant despite overwhelming public opposition. Long Island is a long, skinny island that has only one road of any size that goes down the middle of it. After nuclear accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, people at the far end of the island were really afraid of the idea of a nuclear power plant being built on their island. If anything went wrong, people would have to leave in a hurry. If you have ever seen pictures of a New York traffic jam at rush-hour, you can imagine the terror of people having to leave Long Island on that one highway if anything went wrong at the power plant. So, they did not want the plant built.
The utility decided to build it anyway. The county in which the plant was located was governed (and still is today) by what we would call the right wing of American politics. Nonetheless, the government officials in that county, and the businesses in that county, even hired one of us and our colleague, Greg Palast, to help them fight the utility. The county government was dead-set against having that plant built or operated.
They won. First the regulators excluded about $2 billion of expenditure on the plant from electricity prices when costs went way above estimates. That penalty was not enough to stop this utility. The county went to court and actually won a settlement of $400 million against the utility for lying to the regulator about what that plant would cost. The penalty for not telling the truth was almost half a billion dollars. Almost two decades later, Enron attempted to thwart the US requirement for transparency of information in a similar way. Discovery of Enron deceptions brought that corporation from $101 billion in revenue to bankruptcy almost overnight.
The nuclear plant was never commissioned. Ultimately, in order to make sure that this plant did not operate, and to make sure that these utility operators would no longer plague Long Island,. the utility was dismantled. Most of this formerly private utility was turned over to a public authority. Rates were reduced by about 12%, and the three counties that had been served by the old private electric company are now served by a public power authority.
Thus under democratic regulation, the public can win; the public interest can be protected; the environment can be protected; consumers and workers can be protected.
Who wins where democratic regulation is lacking? Power producers, marketers, and their backers – financiers who depend on the stream of fees from a constant churn of privatisations, mergers, acquisitions, and sales.

The five elements of democratic regulation

The system of democratic regulation that has emerged in the US is based on five principles, the most important of which are transparency and participation. Democratic regulation is impossible without them.

First, participation: One of us represents a low-income consumer group (an NGO) in a current case before the New York State regulators to set the price of electricity sold by Consolidated Edison (Con Ed) in New York City. The list of formal active participants in that case is eight pages long. This is not an unusual case and eight pages does not even include a complete list of all the people in the case. The list of participants, called intervenors, just goes on for pages and pages. It includes a group that represents poor people; a group representing retail stores; a group interested in housing; a university; the municipal electric utilities; the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers; the Utility Workers Union of America; an environmental group, the Natural Resources Defense Council; a group interested in energy efficiency; the Attorney General, the chief law-enforcement officer in the state; and a member of the state legislature. There is a state-funded consumer advocate. There is also a privately funded consumer advocate, which hired one of us. Anybody who has a stake in the outcome and who wants to participate is allowed to do that. The result is that everyone can have a voice.
This voice is not mere consultation. A participant’s point of view can be presented in court if it has not been adequately considered by the regulator. In every US jurisdiction (i.e., the 50 states, 2 cities, and federal agencies), any party to a utility regulatory proceeding who has what is called ‘standing’ has the right to appeal (often called ‘judicial review’). To have standing (and, usually, party status) one must have an interest in the outcome. Obviously, utilities qualify since it is their money at stake. By the same token, ratepayers also always qualify since they also have a financial interest, or such concerns as service quality, environmental emissions, or consideration for low-income families. In many jurisdictions, it is enough to be an organised proponent of a non-economic interest, such as a trade union or an environmental NGO, where that non-economic interest could be affected by the regulatory decision. It is a fundamental part of the American system of checks and balances that governmental actions are accountable in court to those affected by them.
The impact of the right of appeal is profound. The fact that a regulatory decision can be successfully appealed by a utility customer, or ratepayer, who is a party to the regulatory proceeding puts boundaries around the regulatory decisions that can be made. This does not mean that utilities do not retain the lion's share of the influence or that decisions are not affected by politics, of course, but it does mean that ratepayers who are well-prepared in a regulatory proceeding will be listened to and can win their point.
Second, transparency of information. Every utility in the United States must file a document as thick as a dictionary that is loaded with all kinds of information. Every cost and every investment has to be described in this book, and this is available publicly for anyone who wants it. All costs and investments must be recorded in a standard format, called the Uniform System of Accounts – no Enron-style secret, off-balance-sheet shenanigans are allowed. And that is just the beginning; this is what you get without asking. In addition to that, in litigation before the regulator, an intervenor is allowed to ask all kinds of questions in a procedure called ‘discovery’. A participant can discover anything about the operation of the utility that relates to proposed prices, service quality, environmental emissions, safety, or other operations. Participants can then ask further questions, based on the information received. Executives from the companies have to show up at hearings, swear to tell the truth, and then answer any relevant question that any participant wants to ask.
Third, all prices must be just and reasonable. When prices are set, that is the standard that must be achieved. While prices set by the regulators must be adequate to recover a utility’s prudently incurred costs, including a fair rate of return, they must not allow the utility to earn excess profits or favor one group of customers at the expense of any other group. Costs and profits on which prices are based must be set out on the public record and prices are reviewable in the courts by anybody in the case who feels that the prices are not just and reasonable. That is not simply a formality. Parties have gone to court and overturned prices set by the regulators because a judge found that the regulator made a mistake, and that the results were not just. Over a century of regulation, the qualitative standard of ‘just and reasonable’ has taken on specific rules. Two such rules are that a utility cannot base its prices on costs it did not actually incur or on investments that were not prudently made.
Fourth, protection for the utility. The privately owned utility has a right to keep its property without arbitrary confiscation. In the early days of regulation, as the agreement evolved by which privately owned utilities agreed to public participation, transparency, and just and reasonable prices, utilities were provided the opportunity to earn a fair return on their shareholders’ investments. A fair return would often mean far less than an ordinary business might be able to achieve, but this was justified by the low risk of the monopoly franchises that the utilities retained. The opportunity to earn a reasonable return is no guarantee against bankruptcy brought on by unwise decisions, though, as Public Service Co. of New Hampshire (PSNH) learned when it invested far more than was prudent in a large, nuclear power plant.
Combining the two principles together of just and reasonable prices with freedom from arbitrary confiscation yields a central American legal regulatory principle, that of ‘balance’: regulators must balance the interests of consumers (ratepayers and customers) on the one hand, against the interests of the owners of the utility (usually shareholders) on the other.
Fifth, prices must be related to costs. They cannot just be set willy-nilly. Prices do not have to track costs exactly, but there must be a demonstrable relationship between them. Altogether, a utility’s revenues are limited by the regulators to the total costs, including a reasonable return on investment prudently incurred, required to provide service. Investments in plant deemed by the regulator excess to that necessary are disallowed. More than once, utilities have been told they could not recover a return of or a return on billions of dollars of investment in plant that was held to be unnecessary or imprudently costly.
Democratic regulation

When a monopoly is privatised, it is still a monopoly. To protect the public, that monopoly must be regulated. That understanding is the basis for the success of democratic regulation in the United States over the last century.

Fortunately, at least in electricity, places like California are the dramatic exception. The fact is that the US is not deregulating on the whole, and California is now dismantling its deregulation experiment. What is important to understand about California and other US states is that both the creation of and the destruction of the deregulation experiment were carried out in a democratic way with participation by all interests and in a transparent manner. So what has happened now in California is that the wholesale spot market has been abolished -- it no longer exists. About half of the production output is still owned by utilities and regulated by the state, and the other half is now being purchased by the state, no longer by the utilities. And the state has actually enacted a statute to create a public power authority. That power authority can build plants, which would displace high-priced power from private generators. Retail markets have been eliminated for all but the very largest customers.
There are 50 states in the United States. Twenty-six of them never adopted deregulation. Many of the others have adopted it, but to take effect some time in the future, and of those, three have already repealed their statutes. In addition to California’s decision for the state to purchase power, public power has been expanded slightly in New York State with further expansion under consideration. Many other states, though nominally having opted to deregulate, have decided to put off the decision point. So there is only a handful of states out of the 50 that are plunging full speed ahead, and they are experiencing volatile prices and a lack of functional markets.
The evolution of democratic regulation in the US

You might wonder how the US got to this point of deregulation experiments amidst regulatory success. History teaches us both the origin of deregulatory fervor in the United States, but also how such errors are corrected democratically. The chart below shows the price of electricity for industrial and residential (domestic) customers over time, starting in 1960. The prices are indexed, set at 1.0 in 1960, so you can see what happened over the years. Until about 1970, rates changed very little. Then residential prices roughly tripled, due to nuclear power cost overruns and two large oil price shocks, but industrial prices quadrupled. And that did not happen ‘just because’. The lines begin to diverge in the early 1970s, when the current wave of consumer activism on utility issues began in the United States.

Figure 5 U.S. Electricity Prices

Prices that were achieved in the United States were the result of regulation and the diligent efforts of people who really cared, working in the regulatory process in order to set prices in a way that was fair. Consequently, it was determined that a fair price for residential customers, relative to industrial customers at least, was much lower than it had been.

If you go back to the 1980s and make the same comparison (at the bottom of the graph), you see that industrial prices have come down a bit, relative to residential prices. That, in fact, reflects a shift in political power in the United States between the 1970s and the 1980s.
The price increases of the 1970s were primarily caused by very expensive nuclear power in the United States, and large increases in the price of oil. What drove deregulation is that industrial customers, having experienced these increases, set out to undo them. And they thought that deregulation was going to achieve that for them.
In many ways, the current taste of deregulation brought the US back to the early days of electricity, when unregulated financial abuses inflated prices as a result of monopoly power and also milked investors by overstating the value of utility assets.
Figure 6 Historical overview of electricity regulation in the USA
1930’s: PUHCA
1978: PURPA
1980’s, early 1990’s: IRP
The utility industry in the US began back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, mostly with private ownership of utilities. There were many small power companies throughout the United States, all unregulated. However, during the early 1900s, the utility companies were beginning to make profits that people thought were unseemly. At the same time as this was happening, there were some populist and progressive groups who were agitating for the plants and electric companies to be government-owned so that the public could control profits and prices. On the other side, the telephone industry was consolidated by American Telephone & Telegraph Co. (AT&T) and the electricity industry organised itself as the National Electric Light Association, or NELA.
Understandably the private companies were not particularly keen on the government taking over their businesses. So, in one of the most time-honored of democratic traditions, they made a deal: utilities would allow themselves to be price-regulated by state regulators, if they could maintain their businesses and earn a respectable profit on them. The US thus retained privately owned electricity and telephone companies, but they were to be regulated by each state and ultimately also by the federal government.
By 1914, then, the basic principles of regulation by the states of private utility companies were set, including public participation in price-setting. Not many people took advantage of these principles at first – the next wave of activism would not come until the 1970s -- but the basic principle of public participation was established.
In order to achieve effective regulation, utilities were required to share information about their costs not only to their regulators but also to any members of the public who chose to participate in the price-setting process. Utilities were not allowed to claim that sharing confidential, proprietary information would hurt their business. That was part of the deal: to share all of the information about their costs. Some public filings from utilities to state regulators are stacks of paper one meter high. Regulatory staff go through every page, every line, to see if the amount of money that was being spent by the utility was prudently spent and was in the best interest of its customers, the ratepayers.
This worked pretty well in the early part of the twentieth century, particularly since expanding economies of scale continued to reduce costs and prices. But during the 1920s, stocks in these privately owned companies were manipulated in a manner that foreshadowed Enron. Electric companies formed holding companies upon holding companies and sold shares in companies that did not have physical assets to support them. State regulation was often evaded by the formation of holding companies that consolidated many small companies across several states. In the 1920s, until the stock market crashed, such utility holding companies managed to operate without much public control.
The mismanagement and exploitation of operating subsidiaries of holding companies through excessive service charges, excessive common stock dividends, and upstream loans cost ratepayers millions. The combined capital assets of 151 firms were written up by $1.4 billion to inflate earnings (paid by ratepayers), and to justify dividends. Some holding companies had provided services to operating companies at such inflated prices that they exacted profits ranging from 50% to over 300% of the actual cost of the services. The appearance of even larger profits was created by unsound accounting methods such as inadequate depreciation of physical assets and counting as income the sale of properties to controlled subsidiaries at amounts higher than their market value (SEC 1995). The collapse of just one of the holding company pyramids brought losses to security holders of nearly $800 million, wiping out 600 000 shareholders and 500 000 bondholders (De Bedts 1965).
In response, in the early 1930s, Congress passed the Public Utilities Holding Company Act (PUHCA), restricting how much a holding company could control. One of the provisions was that a holding company could not control power plants and power distribution companies that were located in different states that were not contiguous. The Federal Power Act created what is now the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to close the regulatory loopholes the holding companies had exploited. And the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) was given the task of watching over holding company securities to require financial disclosures and prevent the “stock watering” that had deceived investors. The result was the break-up of the largest holding companies, more control on those that remained, and lower prices.
In this way, the principles of democratic regulation -- transparency of information available to the public and public participation -- became institutionalised on the national level at the FERC and the SEC.
Between the 1930s and 1971, power prices continued to decline. There were several reasons. One was continued economies of scale: as plants grew bigger, the price per unit of output became lower. There were also new technology developments that brought prices down. This gave regulators a pretty easy job and public participation was low. Utilities still had to file all their reports; and regulators made sure that prices were based on costs; but there really was not much activism until after the 1973 oil price shock.
Also, during the 1970s, there were large run-ups in the cost of nuclear power plants. Environmental advocates became very active in the 1970s against nuclear power. In large part, this was because there was no place to put the waste. There were also fears of accidents such as those at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. In addition, the US never adopted a standard nuclear power plant design. So each nuclear power plant was uniquely designed with its own technology and systems. Each plant had to have everything fabricated to fit that plant, with parts that would not fit any other plant. Thus, as a result of safety concerns and the lack of a standardised plant design, the costs of construction escalated beyond imagination. A plant in New Hampshire that was supposed to cost about $300 million when it was first estimated ended up costing $6 billion before it was finished – about 25 cents per kilowatthour as compared to the two or three cents then prevailing.
As the cost of oil-fired and nuclear power began to rise dramatically, activists mobilised and became heavily involved in the regulatory process. Environmental activists were particularly concerned about nuclear radiation as well as the environmental and national security costs of oil. Organisations campaigning for those on low incomes became alarmed about the increasing inability of low-income families to afford to heat their homes. Consumer advocates, including politicians, also became concerned about price levels. Prices did go up in the 1970s, but as the chart above shows, consumer activists succeeded in placing much of the increase on the shoulders of the large industrial customers demanding the extra power plants. And aggressive steps, such as those on Long Island (see above), were taken to control prices.
At the same time, new cost-saving, environmentally cleaner technologies such as cogeneration were under development, although for the most part shunned by electricity utilities. In reaction to a public desire that utilities move away from the construction of costly, dangerous plants, the federal government enacted the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act, or PURPA, in 1978 to foster non-utility construction of generation plant, particularly to encourage the development of the new technologies, including renewable resources. PURPA required that utility companies go out for bid to supply the new power that was demanded by growth. Instead of planning and building their own plants, they had to put out a request for power. If a utility could contract for power from a plant that would cost less over time than the plant the utility would otherwise build, it had to purchase power from that new plant. Preference was given to certain types of cogeneration and renewable technologies that were environmentally cleaner.
Although PURPA bidding introduced a certain level of marketplace discipline to power plant construction, it was far from deregulation of the industry. The purchase of power from independent power plants was strictly overseen by regulators, who compared the purchase cost to a utility’s cost to build a comparable plant. Regulators rejected a number of those contracts where the cost of the proposed contract was higher than that of a comparable utility company plant and was, therefore, not in the public interest.
As regulators and intervenors struggled to figure out the lowest-cost power option for utilities, it became obvious that in some cases the least-cost option was not a power plant at all. A process called Integrated Resource Planning (IRP) was developed in many states to compare the relative costs of saving electricity to building a plant. If conserving electricity and becoming more efficient was less costly than buying power even from an independent producer, or than the utility company's building its own plants, the utilities were obliged to ‘buy conservation’ instead. They had to put programs in place that would provide new energy-efficient technologies to their customers and lower the demand on the system. They would really be buying savings instead of power. This was also the first time that regulators looked closely at some of the environmental costs of producing power.
Increases in consumer protections were another result of the activism of the 1970s. For example, as a result of regulatory participation by low-income campaigners, social pricing was instituted for the first time in many states to help people pay their bills and keep their houses warm. Social pricing often takes the form of direct subsidies or bill discounts. In a few states, bills are capped at a certain percentage of a family’s income.
Monopoly requires regulation

The principal lesson to be learned from US utility regulation is that private ownership of essential resources such as electricity systems requires regulation. It may look like a market where there are two or three providers, but they are not actually competing.

Electricity is essential – consumers cannot respond to price increases by using something else, stockpiling it for later use when it is on sale at a low price, or going without. This fact puts electricity customers at the mercy of electricity providers. Electricity is capital-intensive, so producers work hard to avoid risking their capital in low-priced markets. California-style price manipulation is the common result.
In such an economic circumstance – what is called a ‘natural monopoly’ – there must be regulation to protect social interests. Regulation through democratic participation based on transparency of information has worked for nearly a century to provide reliable power at reasonable prices in the United States.

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#*# for more than 30 years legal counsel and advisor for state governments, consumer organisations, labour unions, environmental interests, industrial customers, and utilities.

#**# formerly director of the Electric Power Division of the Massachusetts Department of Telecommunications and Energy (DTE), the state’s utility regulator; currently head of MacGregor Energy Consultancy.

Mr. Oppenheim and Ms. MacGregor, together with Greg Palast, are authors of a book on this topic, Democracy and Regulation, set for publication by Pluto Press in December 2002.
1 Energy prices in the New York City zone fell from 8.5 cents on the Friday before September 11, 2001 (i.e. Sept. 7) to 4.1 cents the following Friday.

2 At least one supplier, New Energy Ventures, declined to provide power there (Krasner 1997).

3 Ironically, however, share prices shot up 40% in the first week of trading alone, indicating the sale price was set too low by £963 million for National Power and PowerGen alone (Whitfield 2001: 168).

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