THE OLD ADAGE ABOUT INNOVATION STILL HOLDS TRUE: "You can tell the pioneers by the arrows in their backs." More than 70 municipal utilities have either built or plan to build telecommunications systems with fiber-optic and coaxial cable to compete against local cable television, data communications or telephony providers. Profitability for these ventures has been abysmal, but their customers and regulators are happy. Now large, investor-owned electric utilities are stumbling down the same trail marked with cast-off bandages of these early pioneers.
MIDWEST POWER PRICES. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman James Hoecker announced July 15 that as soon as the staff presents its findings, the FERC will deal with the complaints filed by Cinergy, Steel Dynamics Inc., and others asking for regulatory relief from the late June run-up in Midwest bulk power prices (as high as $7,500 per megawatt-hour), and for a price cap set at $100/MWh. Nevertheless, Hoecker advised that the FERC was in "no hurry," and that the remedies available to it were not entirely clear. Docket No. EL98-53 (Cinergy), filed June 29, 1998; Docket No.
STRANDED COST RECOVERY. The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission allowed Pennsylvania Power & Light Co. to recover $2.9 billion of a requested $4.5 billion in stranded costs, cutting a higher $4-billion allowance proposed earlier by an administrative law judge. The utility petitioned for reconsideration on June 26, after CEO William F. Hecht had called the decision "unacceptable," and noting that the PUC's written order, received June 15, appeared "even more injurious" to the company that the PUC's June 4 bench order.
WHY IS ELECTRICITY COMPETITION NOT WORKING? The principal reason is the failure of Order 888 to accommodate the economic and technological constraints of wholesale power markets.
Soon after Congress passed the Energy Policy Act of 1992, to give authority to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to compel electric utilities under its jurisdiction to wheel power for others, the FERC correctly recognized that piecemeal wheeling orders wouldn't work well without a tariff. A tariff would make the service quickly available to the user without the need for time-consuming negotiation.
TELEPHONE BILLING PRACTICES. Citing the filed-rate doctrine, which bars deviation from published tariffs, a federal appeals court affirmed the dismissal of two class action suits against AT&T Corp. that sought damages for alleged fraud. The suite arose from AT&T's failure to disclose to its residential long-distance telecommunications customers its practice of rounding charges up to the higher full minute.
PIPELINE CONSTRUCTION. Chief Judge D. Brock Hornby of the U.S. District Court in Maine, decided to allow Portland Natural Gas Transmission System access to electric transmission corridors owned by Central Maine Power Co. The access will be used to install a natural gas pipeline.
Portland received FERC approval Sept. 24 for installing and operating a 292-mile, $302-million interstate pipeline. CMP owns about 70 miles of the electric transmission corridor. The preliminary injunction, issued April 10, gives Portland access to property on CMP-owned transmission corridors.
IF CONGRESS SHOULD CONSIDER LEGISLATION TO MANDATE retail wheeling - and even with a date certain - those states that have already opened their markets will still likely ask for reciprocity to guarantee that any competitor seeking entry will welcome competition in its own home territory. Why? Some states are moving more quickly than others. Second, others have indicated they do not intend to open at all.
Arguably, state lawmakers could enact a reciprocal covenant on their own.
TWO YEARS HAVE ELAPSED SINCE CONGRESS PASSED THE Telecommunications Act of 1996 to "provide a pro-competitive, de-regulatory national policy framework designed to accelerate rapidly private sector deployment of advanced telecommunications and information technologies and services to all Americans." %n1%n
Today, however, telephone deregulation has reached an impasse. Few customers enjoy competitive alternatives for local exchange service. Concentration in long-distance markets appears to be increasing.
ENERGY SUPPORT SERVICES. An Illinois appeals court affirmed a 1997 decision by the state commission that had denied authority to Commonwealth Edison to offer "energy support services," such as design, engineering, construction, analysis and management of electrical power equipment and energy systems. The court made this decision despite the utility's argument that no evidence existed to support the commission's finding that ComEd enjoyed a monopolist's advantage over competitors.
TODAY THE ELECTRIC UTILITY INDUSTRY HURTLES TOWARD massive restructuring. This fervor is not surprising as it appears society has become convinced that market forces can work better than a centrally planned, regulated environment. This conviction draws strength from deregulation in other industries, such as the airlines, natural gas production and telecommunications.