Electricity powers the modern economy, and the electricity supply chain is notoriously complex. Power plants must develop stable relationships for fuel procurement, as their long-run profitability hinges on securing a cheap, reliable fuel supply. Electric utilities may also lack the incentive to provide a reliable power supply to all potential customers, which could hamper economic productivity. The physical properties of electricity transmission create inherent challenges in providing power to all regions of the grid, while simultaneously incentivizing economically efficient production decisions. In this dissertation, I study three potential market failures in electricity supply: (i) market power in U.S. coal transportation; (ii) under-electrification of India’s rural poor; and (iii) short-run allocative inefficiencies in Indian electricity dispatch. In each case, my findings are of substantial economic importance due the scale of the electric power industry, which is essential to virtually all economic activity. Climate change only raises the stakes, and alleviating electricity market failures has the potential to increase carbon dioxide emissions and further harm the planet.
In the first chapter, I investigate how market power in the transportation of coal might impact U.S. climate policies. Economists have widely endorsed pricing CO2 emissions to internalize climate change-related externalities. Doing so would significantly affect coal, which is the most carbon-intensive major energy source. However, U.S. coal markets exhibit an additional distortion, as the railroads that transport coal to power plants can exert market power. This upstream distortion can mute the price signal of a corrective tax, due to changes in markups or incomplete tax pass-through. I provide the first empirical estimates of how coal-by-rail markups respond to changes in coal demand. I find that rail carriers reduce coal markups when downstream power plant demand changes, due to a decrease in the price of natural gas (a competing fuel). I estimate markup changes that vary substantially across coal plants, resulting from a combination of heterogeneous transportation market structure and plant-specific demand shocks. Since low natural gas prices and a CO2 emissions tax similarly disadvantage coal, observed decreases in coal markups imply that pass-through of a federal carbon tax to coal power plants may be heterogeneous and incomplete. This could substantially erode the environmental benefits of a price-based climate policy. My results suggest that decreases in coal markups have increased recent climate damages by $2.3 billion, compared to a counterfactual where markups do not change.
In the second chapter, coauthored with Fiona Burlig, we study the impacts of energy access in the developing world. Over 1 billion people still lack electricity access. Developing countries are investing billions of dollars in rural electrification, targeting economic growth and poverty reduction, despite limited empirical evidence. We estimate the effects of rural electrification on economic development in the context of India’s national electrification program, which reached over 400,000 villages. We use a regression discontinuity design and high-resolution geospatial data to identify medium-run economic impacts of electrification. We find a substantial increase in electricity use, but reject effects larger than 0.26 standard deviations across numerous measures of economic development, suggesting that rural electrification may be less beneficial than previously thought.
In the third chapter, coauthored with Fiona Burlig and Akshaya Jha, we examine short-run allocative inefficiencies in Indian electricity supply. Electricity consumption is highly correlated with economic development. Understanding and resolving the drivers of economic inefficiencies in electricity markets is critical to supporting economic growth. We quantify the costs of short-run misallocation in Indian electricity supply. We assemble a novel dataset on daily production from each utility-scale power plant in the country and administrative measures of plant-specific marginal operating costs, and calculate the total variable costs of electricity generation in India to be approximately $29 billion per year. We next construct the “least-cost” counterfactual where we dispatch power plants in order of lowest-to-highest marginal cost. We find that this least-cost dispatch results in total annual operating costs that are roughly $4.7 billion lower than observed dispatch. Once we account for transmission constraints, we find a remaining misallocation wedge of $3.2 billion per year. We find evidence that this wedge results from market design and political economy considerations, but find little evidence of market power.