Misconceptions About Water Pricing

Throughout the United States, water management has been approached primarily as an engineering problem, rather than an economic one. Water supply managers are reluctant to use price increases as water conservation tools, instead relying on non-price demand management techniques, such as requirements for the adoption of specific technologies and restrictions on particular uses. In my March 3rd post, “As Reservoirs Fall, Prices Should Rise,” I wrote about how — in principle — price can be used by water managers as an effective and efficient instrument to manage this scarce resource.

In a white paper, “Managing Water Demand: Price vs. Non-Price Conservation Programs,” published by the Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research, Professor Sheila Olmstead of Yale University and I analyzed the relative merits of price and non-price approaches to water conservation. We reviewed well over a hundred studies, and found strong and consistent empirical evidence that using prices to manage water demand is more cost-effective than implementing non-price conservation programs.

Despite such empirical evidence regarding the higher costs of non-price approaches to water conservation, many constituencies continue to prefer them. Professor Olmstead and I believe that this reliance on inefficient command-and-control approaches to water management may be due — in part — to several common and influential misconceptions regarding the use of water pricing.

One misconception is that “because water prices are low, price cannot be used to manage demand.” This misconception that low prices somehow obviate the use of price as an incentive for water conservation may stem from economists’ definition of a price response in the range observed for water demand as “inelastic.” There is a critical distinction between the technical term “inelastic demand” and the phrase “unresponsive to price”. Inelastic demand will decrease by less than one percent for every one percent increase in price. In contrast, if demand is truly unresponsive to price, the same quantity of water will be demanded at any price. This may be true in theory for a subsistence quantity of drinking water, but it has not been observed for water demand in general in 50 years of published empirical analysis.

A second misconception is that “water customers are unaware of prices, and therefore price cannot be used to manage demand.” If this were true, the hundreds of statistical studies estimating the price elasticity of water demand would have found that effect to be zero. But this is not the case. Instead, consumers behave as if they are aware of water prices. The hundreds of studies we reviewed cover many decades of water demand research in cities that bill water customers monthly, every two months, quarterly, or annually; and in which bills provide everything from no information about prices, to very detailed information. Our conclusion is that water suppliers need not change billing frequency or format to achieve water demand reductions from price increases, but providing more information may boost the impact of price changes.

A third misconception is that “increasing-block pricing provides an incentive for water conservation.” Under increasing-block prices (IBPs), the price of a unit of water increases with the quantity consumed, based on a quantity threshold or set of thresholds. Many water utilities that have implemented IBPs consider them part of their approach to water conservation; and many state agencies and other entities recommend them as water conservation tools. But analysis indicates that increasing-block prices, per se, have no impact on the quantity of water demanded, controlling for price levels.

A fourth and final misconception is that “where water price increases are implemented, water demand will always fall.” Price elasticity estimates measure the reduction in demand to be expected from a one percent increase in the marginal price of water, all else constant. Individual water utilities may increase prices and see demand rise subsequently due to population growth, changes in weather or climate, increases in average household income, or other factors. In these cases, a price increase can reduce the rate of growth in water demand to a level below what would have been observed if prices had remained constant.

Raising water prices (as with the elimination of any subsidy) can be politically difficult. This is probably one of the primary reasons why water demand management through non-price techniques is the overwhelmingly dominant approach in the United States. But the cost-effectiveness advantages of price-based approaches are clear, and there may be some political advantage to be gained by demonstrating these potential cost savings.


Green Jobs

The January 12, 2009 issue of The New Yorker includes a well-written and in some ways inspiring article by Elizabeth Kolbert, profiling Van Jones, founder and president of Green for All. In the article, “Greening the Ghetto: Can a Remedy Serve for Both Global Warming and Poverty,” Kolbert includes the following passage:

When I presented Jones’s arguments to Robert Stavins, a professor of business and government at Harvard who studies the economics of environmental regulation, he offered the following analogy: “Let’s say I want to have a dinner party. It’s important that I cook dinner, and I’d also like to take a shower before the guests arrive. You might think, Well, it would be really efficient for me to cook dinner in the shower. But it turns out that if I try that I’m not going to get very clean and it’s not going to be a very good dinner. And that is an illustration of the fact that it is not always best to try to address two challenges with what in the policy world we call a single policy instrument.”

That brief quote generated a considerable amount of commentary in the blogosphere, much of it negative, and some of it downright hostile. This surprised me, because I didn’t consider the proposition to be controversial, and I had chosen my words carefully, simply stating that “it is not always best to try to address two challenges with … a single policy instrument.” Two activities — each with a sensible purpose — can be very effective if done separately, but sometimes combining them means that one does a poor job with one, the other, or even both.

In the policy world, such dual-purpose policy instruments are sometimes a good, even great idea (gas taxes are an example), but other times, they are not. Whether trying to kill two birds with one stone makes sense depends upon the proximity of the birds, the weapon being used, and the accuracy of the stoner. In the real world of important policy challenges — such as environmental degradation and economic recession — these are empirical questions and need to be examined case by case, which was my point in the brief quote. Since my further explanation of this point in the green jobs context (in an interview that lasted 30 to 60 minutes — I don’t recall) did not find its way into Ms. Kolbert’s article (no fault of hers — she had plenty of sources, plenty of material, and limited space), let me provide that explanation here.

In 1990, when Congress sought to cut sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions from coal-fired power plants by 50% to reduce acid rain, Senator Robert Byrd (West Virginia) argued against the proposal for a national cap-and-trade system, because it would displace Appalachian coal mining jobs through reduced demand for high-sulfur coal. He recommended instead a national requirement for all plants to install scrubbers, which would have increased costs nationally by $1 billion per year in perpetuity.

Fortunately, Senator Ted Kennedy (Massachusetts) recognized that these two problems (acid rain and displaced miners) called for two separate policy instruments. Simultaneous with the passage of the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990, which established the path-breaking SO2 allowance trading program, Congress passed a job training and compensation initiative for Appalachian coal miners, at a one-time cost of $250 million. Acid rain was cut by 50%, $1 billion per year was saved for the economy, and sensible and meaningful aid was provided to the displaced miners. Two different policies were used to address two different purposes. Sometimes that is the wisest course.

What about two current challenges: concern about the environment, in particular global climate change, on the one hand, and the need to turn around the economy, on the other hand? Can “green jobs” be the answer to both?

Will an economic stimulus package — properly designed — lead to job creation in the short term? Yes, but to some degree this will be by moving forward in time the date of job creation, as opposed to creating additional jobs in the long run. Of course, at a time of recession and increasing unemployment, that can be a sensible thing to do. So, by expanding economic activity, an economic stimulus package can surely create jobs — green or otherwise — in the short term.

But will a stimulus package — such as subsidies for renewable energy — create net jobs from the change in the nature of economic activity? The key question here is whether the encouraged economic activities in green sectors are more labor-intensive than the discouraged economic activities in other sectors, such as with a shift to renewables from fossil fuels.

This is considerably less clear, but there are cases where it is likely to be valid. Solar rooftop installation, for example, is labor-intensive. And the greatest consistency between economic stimulus and greening the economy is within the energy-efficiency realm, in particular, activities such as the weatherization of homes and businesses. Such projects are highly labor-intensive, can be done quickly, and will save energy. And, importantly, they will reduce the long-term cost of meeting climate objectives.

But some other areas, such as new green infrastructure, will happen much more slowly — partly because of NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) problems — and so are less consistent with the purpose of economic stimulus. An example of the challenge is presented by the current interest in expanding and improving our national electricity grid.

A more interlinked and better grid is needed for increased reliance on renewable energy sources, which will be needed to address climate change. First, greater use of renewable resources will require an expanded grid just to transmit electricity from the Great Plains, for example, to cities with high demand for power. And, second, this will also require the use of a so-called “smart grid,” so that greater reliance on intermittent sources of electricity, such as from wind farms, can be balanced with cuts in consumer demand when power is scarce.

But the timing of grid expansion — important for the use of renewables and achieving climate goals — is not coincident with the appropriate timing of the economic stimulus. As was reported in an article by Matthew Wald in the New York Times (“Hurdles (Not Financial Ones) Await Electric Grid Update,” January 7, 2009, p. A11), the CEO of the American Transmission Company — which operates in four midwestern states — said that the firm’s most recent major project, a 200-mile transmission line from Minnesota to Wisconsin, took 2 years to build, but 8 years prior to that to win the necessary permits!

Likewise, an article by Peter Behr in Climate Wire (“Green Power Express line gets derailed by patchwork grid rules,” Feburary 12, 2009, p. 1) focuses on the dilemma facing ITC Holdings, the nation’s largest independent electric transmission company, which has been seeking permission from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to build a line to bring wind power from the Great Plains to the Midwest and East. The company’s chairman and CEO, Joseph Welch, indicates that a greater hurdle than the necessary money or “even the ever-present citizen opposition to new transmission projects” is a set of rules for interstate transmission lines that effectively prohibits projects that are not immediately required to maintain the grid’s reliability. A project intended to provide future green power does not meet the test.

These are just two examples of the unpleasant reality of the pace of investment and change in this important category of green infrastructure frequently talked about in the context of quick economic stimulus. Surely, economic recovery, increased reliance on renewable sources of energy, and a smarter, inter-connected grid are all important. But that does not mean they are best addressed with a single policy instrument – the economic stimulus package.

So, the strongest support for “green job creation” is with regard to economic expansion, as opposed to changes in the economy. Of course, the key economic question remains whether even more jobs would be created with a different sort of expansion. In any event, while we are expanding economic activity through the economic stimulus package, it makes sense to reduce any tendency to lock in new capital stock that would make it more difficult and costly to achieve long-term environmental goals. But that is very different from claiming that all substitution of green activities for brown activities creates jobs in the long-term.

As the government uses economic stimulus to expand economic activity, it can and should tilt the expansion in a green direction. But rather than a “broad-brush green painting of the stimulus,” this may call for some careful, selective, and well thought-through “green tinting.”

Addressing the worst economic recession in generations calls for the most effective economic stimulus package that can be devised, not a stimulus package that is diminished in effectiveness through excessive bells and whistles meant to address a myriad of other (legitimate) social concerns. And, likewise, getting serious about global climate change will require the enactment and implementation of meaningful, dedicated climate policies, most likely a comprehensive national CO2 cap-and-trade system. These are two serious but different policy problems, and they call for two serious, carefully-crafted policy responses.

After I wrote this brief essay, someone brought to my attention an article posted at Slate by Michael Levi, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations(“Barking Up the Wrong Tree: Why ‘Green Jobs’ May Not Save the Economy or the Environment,” March 4, 2009). I found Levi’s assessment to be sensible and compelling, but I may be biased by two realities: one is that he and I are fundamentally in agreement; and the other is that we have been professionally affiliated, because he is the co-author of a paper (“Policies for Developing Country Engagement” ) which is part of the Harvard Project on International Climate Agreements, a global research and outreach initiative which I direct. Rather than summarize or repeat any of Michael Levi’s article, I urge you to read it in its entirety at the Slate web address above.


As Reservoirs Fall, Prices Should Rise

Last week, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency and warned of possible mandatory water rationing as the state struggled through its third consecutive year of drought. This well-intentioned response to the latest water crisis should not come as a surprise.

Whenever prolonged droughts take place — anywhere in the United States — public officials can be expected to give impassioned speeches, declare emergencies, and impose mandatory restrictions on water use. Citizens are frequently prohibited from watering lawns, and businesses are told to prepare emergency plans to cut their usage. A day after the restrictions are announced, the granting of special exemptions typically begins (as in Maryland a few years ago, when car washes were allowed to remain open even if they were not meeting conservation requirements).

The droughts eventually pass, and when they do, water users go back to business as usual, treating water as if it were not a scarce resource. Water conservation efforts become a thing of the past, until the next drought, until the next unnecessary crisis. Isn’t there a better way?

The answer is yes — if we are willing to treat water as a valuable resource and price it accordingly, so that people have incentives to use the resource wisely, especially in times of need.

In 1776, Adam Smith described in The Wealth of Nations the apparent paradox that water is absolutely vital to human existence but is sold for no more than a pittance. More than two hundred years later, I can refill an eight-ounce glass 2,500 times with water from the tap for less than the cost of a single can of soda. Under these conditions, it is hardly surprising that we have so little incentive to conserve our scarce water supplies.

Throughout the United States, water is under-priced. Efficient use of water will take place only when the price reflects the actual additional cost of making that water available. Lest one fear that higher water rates would mean that Americans would go thirsty, take note: On average, each of us uses 183 gallons of water a day for drinking, cooking, washing, flushing, cleaning, and watering, but less than 5% of that is for drinking and cooking combined. There is plenty of margin for change if people are given the right price signals.

Fifty years of economic analyses have demonstrated that water demand is responsive to price changes, both in the short term, as individuals and firms respond by making do with less, and in the long term, as they adopt more efficient devices in the home and workplace. For example, when Boulder, Colorado moved from unmetered to metered systems, water use dropped by 40% on a sustained basis.

But prices are typically set well below the social costs of the water supplies, since historical average costs are employed, rather than true additional (marginal) costs of new supplies. Although water scarcity typically develops gradually across seasons of low rainfall and low accumulations of snow pack, pronounced droughts are usually felt in the summer months of greatest demand. The economically sensible approach is to charge more at these times, but such “seasonal pricing” is practiced by less than 2% of utilities across the country.

A reasonable objection to jacking up the price of water is that it would hurt the poor. But we can take a page from the play book of electric utilities who subsidize the first kilowatt-hours of electricity use with very low “life-line rates.” Indeed, the first increment of water use can be made available free of charge. What matters is that the right incentives are provided for higher levels of usage.

Other innovative possibilities exist. For instance, we have learned that the generation of electricity can be separated from its transmission and distribution — and that generation is a competitive business. Similarly, the supply of water to municipal systems can also be made more competitive, and hence more efficient. The Western states have been the first to innovate with water markets because of their greater scarcity concerns.

An example much in the news in recent years in California involved the sale of water conserved by Imperial Valley farmers to the water authorities in Los Angeles and San Diego, following a blueprint pioneered 20 years ago by Thomas Graff, then a staff attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund and now a living legend in the environmental community. These markets can address water shortages in droughts without mandatory restrictions on use or rationing, and without the need to construct new, expensive, and environmentally damaging dams and reservoirs.

Droughts, like so many public policy dilemmas, present both challenges and opportunities. Inevitably, citizens and businesses do their best to cope with mandatory restrictions. And with equal inevitability, once droughts have passed and the restraints are lifted, they return to their previous habits of water use and abuse.

The next water “crisis” when it comes will therefore present an opportunity to refuse to return to business as usual when the drought has passed. Instead, the affected areas can introduce progressive water pricing reforms that will send the correct signals to individuals and businesses about the true value of this precious resource. In my next post, I will focus on some specifics of implementing better water pricing, drawing on work I’ve done with Professor Sheila Olmstead of Yale University.