Real Time Pricing and the Real Live Firm

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Energy economists have long argued the benefits of real time pricing (RTP) of electricity. Their basis for modeling customers' response to short-term fluctuations in electricity prices are based on theories of rational firm behavior, where management strives to minimize operating costs and optimize profit, and labor, capital and energy are potential substitutes in the firm's production function. How well do private firms and public sector institutions' operating conditions, knowledge structures, decision-making practices, and external relationships comport with these assumptions and how might this impact price response? We discuss these issues on the basis of interviews with 29 large (over 2 MW) industrial, commercial, and institutional customers in the Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation service territory that have faced day-ahead electricity market prices since 1998. We look at stories interviewees told about why and how they respond to RTP, why some customers report that they can't, and why even if they can, they don't. Some firms respond as theorized, and we describe their load curtailment strategies. About half of our interviewees reported that they were unable to either shift or forego electricity consumption even when prices are high ($0.50/kWh). Reasons customers gave for why they weren't price-responsive include implicit value placed on reliability, pricing structures, lack of flexibility in adjusting production inputs, just-in-time practices, perceived barriers to onsite generation, and insufficient time. We draw these observations into a framework that could help refine economic theory of dynamic pricing by providing real-world descriptions of how firms behave and why.

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