To make electricity consumption more cost-effective and less carbon-dependent, states are seeking to stimulate new products and services in the distribution space. Successful stimulation requires effective competition. So Maine and New York are exploring whether to appoint as "smart grid coordinator" (Maine) and as "distribution system platform provider" (New York) an entity independent of the incumbent utility.
But there is a countertrend. Thirty years of utility mergers have consolidated dozens of local distribution companies into a much smaller number of multistate, holding company-controlled systems. When these mergers involve adjacent entities, they remove each merging partner’s most formidable potential rival in the new distribution services markets. The latest example is the proposed coupling of Exelon and PHI Holdings, which would eliminate competition between Baltimore Gas & Electric and Potomac Electric.
Thirty Years, Dozens of Mergers, No Studies
Welcome to the most under-studied question in electricity merger policy. For 30 years, regulatory decisions have focused on preventing mergers from creating or enhancing market power over bulk generation and transmission services. No decision has considered a merger's effects on the nascent markets in distributed energy resources. Only two analogues come to mind. The FCC Staff's epic critique of the withdrawn AT&T and T-Mobile merger (2011) cited T-Mobile's "disruptive" innovations in retail products and pricing as a reason to keep the companies separate. And the California Commission's rejection of the Southern California Edison-San Diego Gas & Electric merger (1991) cited those companies’ "across-the-fence" rivalry: The "loss of SDG&E as a regulatory comparison is an adverse unmitigable impact of the proposed merger," diminishing the Commission's "ability to regulate the merged utility effectively."1 In the dozens of other merger decisions, nearly all approvals, no other systematic assessment of distribution-level competition appears.