With the first compliance period in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) coming to a close in December, it seems an appropriate time to look back at what we can learn from the country’s first market-based program aimed at reducing emissions of carbon dioxide from power plants. A report released Tuesday by the Analysis Group analyzed the economic impacts of RGGI – how the program impacted electricity prices, power producers’ costs, and consumers’ electric bills, and what effect the millions in quarterly auction proceeds has had, and will have, on the region’s economy.

The report does not try to predict what will happen or should happen to RGGI to update it for 2012 and beyond. Instead, it takes the last three years as a snapshot, and models the impacts that the allowances sold and money spent by the states through the last 3 years will have over the next 10 years.

Overall, the 10 states took in $912 million from the auctions, which, when invested by the states in various programs and initiatives, added $1.6 billion in net present value to the region's economy, even when taking into account the nearly $1.6 billion loss in income that power producers face with more efficient energy usage reducing prices and consumption. The report also found that the first three years of RGGI have created over 16,000 new “job years” – from employing people to conduct energy efficiency audits or install efficiency measures,  to maintaining workers in state-funded programs that might have been cut had a state not used RGGI funds to close budget gaps.

The study found that, although the cost of the allowances was largely passed along to consumers, RGGI only increased consumers’ bills by an average of 0.7% over the last 3 years. The study predicts that, over time, RGGI will lower consumers’ bills, because the states invested a substantial amount of the allowance proceeds on energy efficiency programs.  By 2021, consumers of electricity in the 10-state region will enjoy a net savings of nearly $1.1 billion on their electricity bills, and, due to efficiency programs focused on insulation and heating efficiency, another $174 million in savings from avoided expense on natural gas and heating oil. 

The analysis I found the most interesting concerns how state decisions to spend RGGI proceeds affected local economies. The Memorandum of Understanding that set up RGGI required that the states invest at least 25% of the proceeds for “public benefit,” but left the rest up to each state. As a result, there was a divergent approach to spending that, according to today's report, resulted in significant differences in returns.

New England states spent 86% of their RGGI funds on energy efficiency, and only 3% on direct  assistance to low-income consumers. Because the investment in energy efficiency introduced funds into the economy twice – both when the state paid into the efficiency program, and when consumers paid less for electricity, leaving them free to spend elsewhere in the economy – the overall macroeconomic impact of RGGI in New England was almost $900 million, even though those states only took in $275 million in allowance funds.

In comparison, the states in the PJM regional transmission organization (New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland), spent 41% of their funds on direct bill assistance and only 13% on energy efficiency.  The direct bill assistance also freed consumers to spend money elsewhere in the economy, but the analysis found that, without the multiplier effect of energy efficiency, the returns for these states were not as great.   As a result, although these three states received more money from allowance sales than New England -- $310 million – the net positive impact of RGGI was only $341 million.

It’s not much of a surprise that the investment of auction proceeds in energy efficiency is one of the big success stories of the first three years of RGGI. Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see whether the report’s conclusions regarding the relative impact of spending on energy efficiency as compared to low-income assistance will influence how states spend their auction proceeds going forward.