What is the true price for renewable energy power?

The renewable energy market has been in upheaval since the collapse of the financing sector in 2008. The withdrawal of easy money and uncertainty over federal tax policy has increased perceived risk.  Large firms have been shedding renewables subsidiaries and promising newcomers have dropped high-profile projects. Waste Management just sold Wheelabrator, exiting the waste-to-energy market. Brightsource suspended its Hidden HIlls solar thermal project. Much of this activity is driven by the perception that wholesale electricity market prices are falling and the underlying fundamentals will lead to further declines.

This perception is misplaced, however. Short run electricity market prices are falling as natural gas becomes cheaper, and more importantly, fossil fuel generation is squeezed out by increasing renewables and falling demand. However, the electricity marketplace hasn’t yet adjusted to the fact that natural gas generation is no longer the only marginal generation resource. In California, the renewables portfolio standard (RPS) makes at least 33% of the marginal generation from renewable resources. When capital costs are correctly figured in, and more long-term contracts are offered to match those deferred resources, power purchase agreement (PPA) prices for the right types of resources should increase, not decrease.

The problem is that the industry hasn’t been able to adjust its procurement model to reflect this new reality. I think this is coming from a combination of utilities continuing to maintain their monopsony (single buyer) position, risk averse regulatory agencies still relying on an obsolete procurement regulatory process, and those agencies enforcing the monopsony power of the utilities in the name of protecting ratepayers. This may not change until there is public acknowledgement that this situation exists. The difficulty is finding the right stakeholders with enough sway to raise the issue.

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