After meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy today, PM Naoto Kan commented that Japan needs to debate whether Japan’s current electric utility system should exist in its current form. At present, the government grants monopolies to regional utilities, which are private corporations listed on the stock market.
Admittedly, I had not thought much about this issue until this crisis came along, but now I am trying to learn more. Countries take different approaches to who owns the power utilities. For instance, the US has investor-owned utilities that provide around 38% of generating capacity, with the rest a mix of public and cooperative-owned entities.
I don’t have an opinion one way or the other at this point, but I can see how the different ownership structures can skew incentives. If you are trying to provide returns to shareholders, you might be more inclined to promote more electricity usage, as Tepco has done by offering discounts to people who use “all-electric” homes with electricity-powered stoves and baths, etc. On the other hand, both privately owned and public utilities can cultivate the types of entrenched, bureaucratic management teams that lead to the types of massive cover-ups and bungling incompetence we have seen at Tepco.
(Disclosure: I own a small investment in Tepco. Take nothing I say as investment advice)