The use of wholesale market purchases by Western U.S. electric utilities

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Load Serving Entities (LSEs) can procure electricity from their owned generation or purchase it on bilateral or centrally organized markets. Electric utility procurement decisions have important implications for resource adequacy, which is gaining attention especially in the Western U.S. However, there is little or no research on trends of utility procurement practices, and the role that wholesale market transactions can have for resource adequacy and other applications. This paper leverages information from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration, Berkeley Lab's Resource Planning Portal, and structured interviews with regulatory and utility staff. We find that use of market transactions to meet electric energy needs has been increasing across U.S. LSEs. The reasons for this trend include a general stagnation in building owned resources, a preference towards contracting renewable energy resources to meet RPS targets, and the lower relative cost of wholesale market electricity. Among market transactions across different time scales, short-term transactions were prevalent in Western U.S. LSEs until the 2008 recession, and thereafter declined to about a quarter of total purchases. In contrast, long-term market transactions have become more prevalent and resource planning reports project the share of these transactions in the procurement mix may continue to increase. Results suggest resource adequacy obligations may drive preferences for asset ownership more than a profit incentive. We also recommend improving the planning to procurement connection by reflecting in planning assumptions the operational constraints of market transactions. These results provide insights on key issues in electric utility procurement that could improve overall market efficiency, respond to rapidly changing industry conditions, and identify practices that LSEs and regulators should consider incorporating into their long-term transmission and capacity planning processes.

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