Capacity Market Design: Motivation and Challenges in Alberta's Electricity Market

SPP Briefing Paper, Volume 11:12, March 2018

21 Pages Posted: 3 Apr 2018

See all articles by David Brown

David Brown

University of Alberta - Department of Economics

Date Written: March 28, 2018


Alberta’s electricity market is currently undergoing a period of substantial transition. The province should proceed with caution as it switches from an energy-only electricity market to a capacity market by 2021. Many other jurisdictions have already made the changeover and Alberta can learn from their experiences in order to avoid common mistakes and pitfalls that can arise with the deployment of a capacity market.

There were growing concerns that the existing electricity market structure would not attract sufficient investment from conventional generation (e.g., natural gas) due to the increased penetration of zero marginal cost renewable generation. As a result, the Alberta government has chosen to transition to a capacity market. For consumers, a capacity market aims to ensure there is sufficient investment in new generation capacity to “keep the lights on” and reduce price swings in the wholesale market. The capacity market will also help the province meet its goals for attracting investors and transitioning away from its dependence on coal-fired electricity generation.

However, a switchover is not as simple as it sounds.

In an energy-only market, firms are paid solely based on the provision of electricity in hourly wholesale markets. In capacity markets, electricity-generating firms are also paid for providing generation capacity, reflecting the potential to provide electricity at some point in the future. While capacity markets can help ensure there is a reliable supply of electricity, there are several challenges in the implementation of capacity markets. This paper discusses the motivation for the adoption of capacity markets, highlights challenges regulators face when implementing this market design in the context of Alberta, and summarizes the key trade-offs associated with energy-only versus capacity market designs.

Relative to an energy-only market, a capacity market is more complex and requires that regulators specify numerous parameters that are essential to the functioning of the market. An essential, but often controversial component is the formulation of the capacity demand curve. A capacity demand curve for Alberta has to be carefully designed to deal with uncertainties in demand growth, given that Alberta’s electricity demand is closely interconnected with the ups and downs of global crude oil prices.

Consideration must be given to the perspective of outside investors who – as in any area of economic interest – are wary about uncertainty. Political and regulatory uncertainty can undermine the success of a capacity market. This potential for investor hesitancy could result in incumbent firms, familiar with investing in Alberta, seizing a larger share of the market in an already historically concentrated environment. It is critical that policymakers establish a clear and well-defined trajectory for the future of Alberta’s electricity market design as a whole, not just its capacity market.

The capacity market is not a panacea for the potential downfalls of an energy-only market. There are trade-offs associated with both energy-only and capacity market designs. Energy-only markets are arguably more economically efficient with cleaner price signals. However, with political constraints on electricity price-spikes and the expansion of renewables, there is more uncertainty in an energy-only market’s ability to promote investment. A capacity market provides more certainty in terms of generation resource adequacy, but at a potentially higher cost. Despite these tradeoffs, capacity markets are unambiguously more complex. This places a heavy burden on regulators to carefully and correctly set critical capacity market parameters that can have substantive impacts on prices and the associated economic signals.

Suggested Citation

Brown, David, Capacity Market Design: Motivation and Challenges in Alberta's Electricity Market (March 28, 2018). SPP Briefing Paper, Volume 11:12, March 2018, Available at SSRN:

David Brown (Contact Author)

University of Alberta - Department of Economics ( email )

8-14 Tory Building
Edmonton, Alberta T6G 2H4

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