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As TXU ( TXU) heads to the world of private companies, the utility space will likely be re-energized by talk of more deals, either in private-equity buyouts or public-company mergers. Such chatter will inevitably occur today, and given the industry's stable nature, the "what-if" exercise is worth considering. However, the complexities of the electric power business make big deals challenging, if not downright difficult.
Utilities have a great profile for private-equity firms: stable cash flow, predictable demand and a captive customer base, to name just three. But they also entail a significant amount of regulatory risk. Although deregulation of the power business has helped lessen some onerous regulation, most electric-power companies' core businesses remain highly regulated, primarily by state public utilities commissions and, at least to some extent, by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. If you wonder what that means, just ask Constellation Energy ( CEG) and FPL Group ( FPL). In October, the two companies walked away from a merger that had been in the works for nearly two years because of regulatory hassles. In addition, Exelon ( EXC) and Public Service Enterprise Group ( PEG) canceled their proposed merger for similar reasons. Of course, some deals have been completed -- such as Duke Energy ( DUK) and Cinergy -- but plenty of uncertainty exists when it comes to public utility mergers. However, private equity's entrance into the mix may present new opportunities. It is too early to determine what type of hurdles the TXU deal will face from regulators, but objections are already being assuaged. The new TXU said this morning that it will lower consumer power rates and significantly reduce its plan to build new coal-fired generation plants. In addition, the private version of TXU is courting heavy hitters for its board, including former Secretary of State James Baker, former EPA Commissioner William Reilly and former Commerce Secretary Donald Evans. Furthermore, the press release announcing the deal talks up the new company's commitment to the environment and sustainable energy.