Marginal Cost Pricing in a World without Perfect Competition: Implications for Electricity Markets with High Shares of Low Marginal Cost Resources

Bethany Frew, Michael Milligan, Kara Clark, Aaron Bloom

Research output: NRELTechnical Report


A common approach to regulating electricity is through auction-based competitive wholesale markets. The goal of this approach is to provide a reliable supply of power at the lowest reasonable cost to the consumer. This necessitates market structures and operating rules that ensure revenue sufficiency for all generators needed for resource adequacy purposes. Wholesale electricity markets employ marginal-cost pricing to provide cost-effective dispatch such that resources are compensated for their operational costs. However, marginal-cost pricing alone cannot guarantee cost recovery outside of perfect competition, and electricity markets have at least six attributes that preclude them from functioning as perfectly competitive markets. These attributes include market power, externalities, public good attributes, lack of storage, wholesale price caps, and ineffective demand curve. Until (and unless) these failures are ameliorated, some form of corrective action(s) will be necessary to improve market efficiency so that prices can correctly reflect the needed level of system reliability. Many of these options necessarily involve some form of administrative or out-of-market actions, such as scarcity pricing, capacity payments, bilateral or other out-of-market contracts, or some hybrid combination. A key focus with these options is to create a connection between the electricity market and long-term reliability/loss-of-load expectation targets, which are inherently disconnected in the native markets because of the aforementioned market failures. The addition of variable generation resources can exacerbate revenue sufficiency and resource adequacy concerns caused by these underlying market failures. Because variable generation resources have near-zero marginal costs, they effectively suppress energy prices and reduce the capacity factors of conventional generators through the merit-order effect in the simplest case of a convex market; non-convexities can also suppress prices.
Original languageAmerican English
Number of pages50
StatePublished - 2017

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/TP-6A20-69076


  • electricity markets
  • marginal cost pricing
  • regulating electricity
  • resource adequacy
  • variable generation


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