Helping policymakers with difficult decisions in deep uncertainty

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Severin Borenstein at UC Berkeley argues against the “try everything” approach to searching for solutions to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. But he is confusing situations with relatively small incremental consequences (even the California WaterFix is “small” compared to potential climate change impacts.)

Instead, when facing a potentially large catastrophic outcome for which the probability distribution is completely unknown, we need a different analytic approach than a simple cost-benefit analysis based on an “expected” outcome.

We need to be looking for what decision pathways lead us to the situations create the most vulnerability, not for which one has the “optimal outcome.” Policymakers and stakeholders looking desperately for any solution intuitively get the notion of robust decisionmaking, but are not receiving much guidance about how to best pursue this alternative approach.  Economists need to lead the conversation that changes the current misleading perspective.

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Bob Dunning gets choice on VCEA wrong

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Electricity customers in Davis and Yolo County are in the midst of choosing between the current incumbent electricity utility Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) and the new community choice aggregator (CCA) Valley Clean Energy Alliance (VCE). VCE is a joint powers authority (JPA) of the governments of the Yolo County, and the Cities of Davis and Woodland. (The Cities of Winters and West Sacramento have expressed interest in joining VCE as well.) By state law, customers are initially defaulted to the CCA at the outset before being given multiple chances over a six month period to choose to stay with the incumbent investor-owned utility–PG&E in this case.

Bob Dunning in his Davis Enterprise column August 8 confuses a lack of choice with just changing the starting point of the choice. Regardless of whether VCE or PG&E is the default provider, local customers still have exactly the same choice. But by having VCE start as the default provider, we level the playing field with the long-time giant monopoly utility, PG&E. (And customers can return to PG&E after 12 months if they are dissatisfied.) Why should we continue to give the big guy a continued advantage at the outset?

PG&E has all sorts of shareholder money to spend on improving its image and retaining customers. The utility’s biggest problem is that it is spending an additional 3.3 cents per kilowatt-hour to mismanage risk in its portfolio based on calculations I made in the power cost indifference adjustment (PCIA) rulemaking proceedings. Why stay with a company that has such a poor management record?

Not so bad in our estimate…

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The University of California ARE Update published a short study that found that the drought emergency regulations adopted by the State Water Resources Control Board were only 18% more costly than the most “efficient” standards. In May 2015, the State Water Resources Control Board adopted Resolution No. 2015-0032 which imposed restrictions to reduce water use by local agencies by 4 to 36 percent depending on their circumstances. Northern California agencies were to reduce usage by 16.2 percent on average, while Southern California utilities were to reduce by 22.5 percent. In the end, Northern California utilities far exceeded their target with a 23.3 percent reduction, and Southern California’s just missed theirs with an average of 21.4 percent. M.Cubed conducted the economic study of the regulations, and found that the insurance benefits were likely substantial enough to justify the costs.

The real headline of the study should be “Drought regulations remarkably efficient!” Given that the regulations were developed in just a few months and that they were done on a prospective basis with uncertainties and unknowns (e.g., the price elasticities referenced in the study), missing the mark by only 18% is truly remarkable. In comparison, the California Air Resources Board may have missed the mark by more than 100% in setting out its AB 32 Greenhouse Gas Reduction Scoping Plan in 2008 by relying too heavily on mandated measures such as renewables generation and certain types of energy efficiencies instead of more effective market based measures.

Nevertheless, the study appears to the make mistake of making the classic economist’s joke “sure it works in practice, but does it work in theory?” Consumers are chastised for behavior that doesn’t fit the fitted values for price elasticities. The study compares the mandated and achieved reductions and notes that achieved reductions were more even across agencies than the mandates. Agencies with lower mandates achieved higher reductions, and those with higher mandates fell short on achievements. Instead of questioning the original price elasticity estimates–and such estimates commonly have a wide range and are often situation specific–the report just plows ahead as though these theoretical results should have driven human behavior.

The more interesting question the researchers should have asked given the consistent patterns in achieved versus mandated reductions is what factors caused these agencies to diverge from the mandates. Geography is clearly only part of the reason. It also appears that there is not as much “demand hardening” at the low end of use, and a higher premium put on water uses at the upper end. These factors have implications for how we should modify our price elasticity estimates.

The 20-year cycle in the electricity world

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The electricity industry in California seems to face a new world about every 20 years.

  • In 1960, California was in a boom of building fossil-fueled power plants to supplement the hydropower that had been a prime motive source.
  • In 1980, the state was shifting focus from rapid growth and large central generation stations to increased energy efficiency and bringing in third-party power developers.
  • That set in motion the next wave of change two decades later. Slowing demand plus exorbitant power contract prices lead to restructuring with substantial divestiture of the utilities’ role in generating power. Unfortunately, that effort ended up half-baked due to several obvious flaws, but out of the wreckage emerged a shift to third-party renewable projects. However, the state still didn’t learn its lesson about how to set appropriate contract prices, and again rates skyrocketed.
  • This has now lead to yet another wave, with two paths. The first is the rapid emergence of distributed energy resources such at solar rooftops and garage batteries, and development of complementary technologies in electric vehicles and building electrification. The second is devolution of power resource acquisition to local entities (CCAs).

Looking for pumped storage in all the wrong places

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LADWP is proposing to spend $3 billion on a pumped storage facility at the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River. Yet, LADWP has not been using extensively its aging 1,247 MW Castaic pumped storage plant on the State Water Project in the pumping recovery mode. Instead, LADWP runs it more like a standard hydropower plant, and uses pumping to supplement and extend the peak power generation, rather than using it to store excess day time power. And the SWP’s 759 MW pumped storage plant at the Hyatt-Thermalito powerhouse at Lake Oroville has been not been used effectively for decades.

The more prudent course would seem to be to focus on refurbishing and updating existing facilities, with variable speed pumps for example, to deliver utility scale storage that can capture excess renewable energy generation nearer large load centers. The State Water Contractors should be incented to upgrade these facilities through contracts with the state’s electric utilities. Unfortunately, no direct market mechanism exists to provide a true value for these resources so long at the California Public Utilities Commission and the California Independent System Operator avoid developing full pricing. As it stands, the current pricing scheme socializes and subsidizes a number of electricity services such as transmission, unit commitment decisions, and reliability services.

Reaganomics for fuel economy?

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I chuckled when I saw this article extolling how CAFE fuel economy standards should be replaced with “clean tax cuts.” One proponent said, “If you want more of something, tax it less.”

But apparently, these incentives work only one direction. “It’s very common, historically, for companies to not meet the targets and just pay the fines,” said Josiah Neeley, a senior fellow for the R Street Institute. However, the auto companies were not happy with a proposal to increase the penalty 155%.  Does that mean that the penalty got large enough to incent greater compliance?

Views on a sustainable Davis

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Two board member of the Valley Climate Action Center, Gerry Braun and Richard Bourne wrote two articles on making building energy use in Davis sustainable and resilient. VCAC board members, including myself, had input into these articles. They reflect a vision of getting to a zero-net carbon (ZNC) footprint while being economically viable. Both were published in the Davis Enterprise.