Category Archives: Risks of climate change

Even if we don’t know if the magnitude is large, can we afford to be wrong?

Electric vehicles as the next smartphone

In 2006 a cell phone was portable phone that could send text messages. It was convenient but not transformative. No one seriously thought about dropping their landlines.

And then the iPhone arrived. Almost overnight consumers began to use it like their computer. They emailed, took pictures and sent them to their friends, then searched the web, then played complex games and watched videos. Social media exploded and multiple means of communicating and sharing proliferated. Landlines (and cable) started to disappear, and personal computer sales slowed. (And as a funny side effect, the younger generation seemed to quit talking on the phone.) The cell phone went from a means of one-on-one communication to a multi-faceted electronic tool that has become our pocket computer.

The U.S. population owning a smartphone has gone from 35% to 85% in the last decade. We could achieve similar penetration rates for electric vehicles (EVs) if we rethink and repackage how we market EVs to become our indispensable “energy management tool.” EVs can offer much more than conventional cars and we need to facilitate and market these advantages to sell them much faster.

EV pickups with spectacular features are about to be offered. These EVs may be a game changer for a different reason than what those focused on transportation policy think of–they offer households the opportunity for near complete energy independence. These pick ups have both enough storage capacity to power a house for several days and are designed to supply power to many other uses, not just driving. Combined with solar panels installed both at home and in business lots, the trucks can carry energy back and forth between locations. This has an added benefit of increasing reliability (local distribution outages are 15 times more likely than system levels ones) and resilience in the face of increasing extreme events.

This all can happen because cars are parked 90-95% of the time. That offers power source reliability in the same range as conventional generation, and the dispersion created by a portfolio of smaller sources further enhances that availability. Another important fact is that the total power capacity for autos on California’s road is over 2,000 gigawatts. Compared to California’s peak load of about 63 gigawatts, this is more than 30 times more capacity than we need. If we simply get to 20% penetration of EVs of which half have interconnective control abilities, we’ll have three times more capacity than we would need to meet our highest demands. There are other energy management issues, but solving them are feasible when we realize there will not be a real physical constraint.

Further, used EV batteries can be used as stationary storage, either in home or at renewable generation to mitigate transmission investments. EVs can transport energy between work and home from solar panels.

The difference between these EVs and the current models is akin to the difference between flip phones and smart phones. One is a single function device and the we use the latter to manage our lives. The marketing of EVs should shift course to emphasize these added benefits that are not possible with a conventional vehicle. The barriers are not technological, but only regulatory (from battery warranties and utility interconnection rules).

As part of this EV marketing focus, automakers should follow two strategies, both drawn from smart phones. The first is that EV pick ups should be leased as a means of keeping model features current. It facilitates rolling out industry standards quickly (like installing the latest Android update) and adding other yet-more attractive features. It also allows for more environmentally-friendly disposal of obsolete EVs. Materials can be more easily recycled and batteries no longer usable for driving (generally below 70% capacity) can be repurposed for stand-alone storage.

The second is to offer add on services. Smart phone companies have media streaming, data management and all sorts of other features beyond simple communication. Automakers can offer demand management to lower, or even eliminate, utility bills and appliance and space conditioning management placed onboard so a homeowner need not install a separate system that is not easily updated.

AB1139 would undermine California’s efforts on climate change

Assembly Bill 1139 is offered as a supposed solution to unaffordable electricity rates for Californians. Unfortunately, the bill would undermine the state’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by crippling several key initiatives that rely on wider deployment of rooftop solar and other distributed energy resources.

  • It will make complying with the Title 24 building code requiring solar panel on new houses prohibitively expensive. The new code pushes new houses to net zero electricity usage. AB 1139 would create a conflict with existing state laws and regulations.
  • The state’s initiative to increase housing and improve affordability will be dealt a blow if new homeowners have to pay for panels that won’t save them money.
  • It will make transportation electrification and the Governor’s executive order aiming for 100% new EVs by 2035 much more expensive because it will make it much less economic to use EVs for grid charging and will reduce the amount of direct solar panel charging.
  • Rooftop solar was installed as a long-term resource based on a contractual commitment by the utilities to maintain pricing terms for at least the life of the panels. Undermining that investment will undermine the incentive for consumers to participate in any state-directed conservation program to reduce energy or water use.

If the State Legislature wants to reduce ratepayer costs by revising contractual agreements, the more direct solution is to direct renegotiation of RPS PPAs. For PG&E, these contracts represent more than $1 billion a year in excess costs, which dwarfs any of the actual, if any, subsidies to NEM customers. The fact is that solar rooftops displaced the very expensive renewables that the IOUs signed, and probably led to a cancellation of auctions around 2015 that would have just further encumbered us.

The bill would force net energy metered (NEM) customers to pay twice for their power, once for the solar panels and again for the poor portfolio management decisions by the utilities. The utilities claim that $3 billion is being transferred from customers without solar to NEM customers. In SDG&E’s service territory, the claim is that the subsidy costs other ratepayers $230 per year, which translates to $1,438 per year for each NEM customer. But based on an average usage of 500 kWh per month, that implies each NEM customer is receiving a subsidy of $0.24/kWh compared to an average rate of $0.27 per kWh. In simple terms, SDG&E is claiming that rooftop solar saves almost nothing in avoided energy purchases and system investment. This contrasts with the presumption that energy efficiency improvements save utilities in avoided energy purchases and system investments. The math only works if one agrees with the utilities’ premise that they are entitled to sell power to serve an entire customer’s demand–in other words, solar rooftops shouldn’t exist.

Finally, this initiative would squash a key motivator that has driven enthusiasm in the public for growing environmental awareness. The message from the state would be that we can only rely on corporate America to solve our climate problems and that we can no longer take individual responsibility. That may be the biggest threat to achieving our climate management goals.

Drawing too many conclusions about electric vehicles from an obsolete data set

The Energy Institute at Haas at the University of California published a study allegedly showing that electric vehicles are driven about only one-third of the average standard car in California. I responded with a response on the blog.

Catherine Wolfram writes, “But, we do not see any detectable changes in our results from 2014 to 2017, and some of the same factors were at play over this time period. This makes us think that newer data might not be dramatically different, but we don’t know.“

A recent study likely is delivering a biased estimate of future EV use. The timing of this study reminds me of trying to analyze cell phone use in the mid-2000s. Now household land lines are largely obsolete, and we use phones even more than we did then. The period used for the analysis was during a dramatically changing period more akin to solar panel evolution just before and after 2010, before panels were ubiquitous. We can see this evolution here for example. Comparing the Nissan Leaf, we can see that the range has increased 50% between the 2018 and 2021 models.

The primary reason why this data set is seeing such low mileage is because is almost certain that the vast majority of the households in the survey also have a standard ICE vehicle that they use for their extended trips. There were few or no remote fast charge stations during that time and even Tesla’s had limited range in comparison. In addition, it’s almost certain that EV households were concentrated in urban households that have a comparatively low VMT. (Otherwise, why do studies show that these same neighborhoods have low GHG emissions on average?) Only about one-third of VMT is associated with commuting, another third with errands and tasks and a third with travel. There were few if any SUV EVs that would be more likely to be used for errands, and EVs have been smaller vehicles until recently.

As for copurchased solar panel installation, these earlier studies found that 40% or more of EV owners have solar panels, and solar rooftop penetration has grown faster than EV adoption since these were done.

I’m also not sure that the paper has captured fully workplace and parking structure charging. The logistical challenges of gaining LCFS credits could be substantial enough for employers and municipalities to not bother. This assumption requires a closer analysis of which entities are actually claiming these credits.

A necessary refinement is to compare this data to the typical VMT for these types of households, and to compare the mileage for model types. Smaller commuter models average less annual VMT according to the California Energy Commission’s vehicle VMT data set derived from the DMV registration file and the Air Resources Board’s EMFAC model. The Energy Institute analysis arrives at the same findings that EV studies in the mid 1990s found with less robust technology. That should be a flag that something is amiss in the results.

Vegetation maintenance the new “CFL” for wildfire management

PG&E has been aggressively cutting down trees as part of its attempt to mitigate wildfire risk, but those efforts may be creating their own risks. Previously, PG&E has been accused of just focusing numeric targets over effective vegetation management. This situation is reminiscent of how the utilities pursued energy efficiency prior to 2013 with a seemingly single-minded focus on compact fluorescent lights (CFLs). And that focus did not end well, including leading to both environmental degradation and unearned incentives for utilities.

CFLs represented about 20% of the residential energy efficiency program spending in 2009. CFLs were easy for the utilities–they just delivered steeply discounted, or even free, CFLs to stores and they got to count each bulb as an “energy savings.” By 2013, the CPUC ordered the utilities to ramp down spending on CFLs as a new cost-effective technology emerged (LEDs) and the problem of disposing of mercury in the ballasts of CFLs became apparent. But more importantly, it turned out that CFLs were just sitting in closets, creating much fewer savings than estimated. (It didn’t help that CFLs turned out to have a much shorter life than initially estimated as well.) Even so, the utilities were able claim incentives from the California Public Utilities Commission. Ultimately, it became apparent that CFLs were largely a mistake in the state’s energy efficiency portfolio.

Vegetation management seems to be the same “easy number counting” solution that the utilities, particularly PG&E, have adopted. The adverse consequences will be significant and it won’t solve the problem in the long. Its one advantage is that it allows the utilities to maintain their status quo position at the center of the utility network.

Other alternatives include system hardening such as undergrounding or building microgrids in rural communities to allow utilities to deenergize the grid while maintaining local power. The latter option appears to be the most cost effective solution, but it is also the most threatening to the current position of the incumbent utility by giving customers more independence.

Calculating the risk reduction benefits of closing Germany’s nuclear plants

Max Aufhammer at the Energy Institute at Haas posted a discussion of this recent paper reviewing the benefits and costs of the closure of much of the German nuclear fleet after the Fukushima accident in 2011.

Quickly reading the paper, I don’t see how the risk of a nuclear accident is computed, but it looks like the value per MWH was taken from a different paper. So I did a quick back of the envelope calculation for the benefit of the avoided consequences of an accident. This paper estimates a risk of an accident once every 3,704 reactor-operating years (which is very close to a calculation I made a few years ago). (There are other estimates showing significant risk as well.) For 10 German reactors, this translates to 0.27% per year.

However, this is not a one-off risk, but rather a cumulative risk over time, as noted in the referenced study. This is akin to the seismic risk on the Hayward Fault that threatens the Delta levees, and is estimated at 62% over the next 30 years. For the the German plants, this cumulative probability over 30 years is 8.4%. Using the Fukushima damages noted in the paper, this represents $25 to $63 billion. Assuming an average annual output of 7,884 GWH, the benefit from risk reduction ranges from $11 to $27 per MWH.

The paper appears to make a further error in using only the short-run nuclear fuel costs of $10 per MWH as representing the avoided costs created by closing the plants. Additional avoided costs include avoided capital additions that accrue with refueling and plant labor and O&M costs. For Diablo Canyon, I calculated in PG&E’s 2019 ERRA proceeding that these costs were close to an additional $20 per MWH. I don’t know the values for the German plants, but clearly they should be significant.

“Making the perfect the enemy of the better” for a carbon tax

In an opinion article published on Utility Dive, Kenneth Costello argues that adopting a carbon tax would be a mistake. As he says, “(i)nstead of a carbon tax, why not give more consideration to adaptive strategies, which can evolve over time in response to new information?” His arguments make several key errors and underestimate the political will required to deliver his preferred option.

We need not rely on the social cost of carbon (SCC) to set a tax. Instead of using a benefit-cost approach implied by the SCC, we can use a cost-effectiveness approach by setting the tax to achieve an expected amount of greenhouse gases reduction. This is really no different than how we conduct most of our private transactions–we don’t directly weigh the monetary benefits of buying a new car against its costs–we decide what type of car that we want and then spend the money to buy that car. We may not achieve the mythical “positive net benefits” using such a strategy, but the the truth is that benefit-cost analysis is problematic in the context of climate change, as Martin Weitzmann among others pointed out.

We have a good idea of how increased prices that would result from a carbon tax impact demand, contrary to Costello’s assertion. We have seen that over and over with changes in gasoline and electricity prices in the last half century. (One paper found that the early CAFE standards did not affect automobile fleet fuel economy until gas prices fell in 1984.) We can adaptively manage a carbon tax (which also can be implemented as a global trade tariff framework) to steer toward our emissions reduction target.

Costello instead proposes that we focus solely on climate adaptation by hardening our infrastructure and other measures. This illustrates a lack of understanding of the breadth of the expected impacts and the inability of a large segment of the world’s population to undertake such mitigation without a large wealth transfer. Further, such adaptation focuses largely on the direct impacts to humans and ignores the farther ranging ones on our global environment. Those latter effects, such as ocean acidification and melting of the tundra, can lead to catastrophic outcomes that cannot be readily adapted to, no matter what is spent. And there other effects that that we may not even know about. Focusing so narrowly on what might be adaptive strategies will lead to a gross underestimation of the costs to adapt.

Finally, Costello overestimates the political barriers to implementing and managing a carbon tax and overestimates the political will to implement adaptation strategies. Contrary to his assertion, environmental groups such as EDF and NRDC have been at the forefront of using prices and taxes to regulate environmental pollutants. (I have worked for several of them on such proposals.) Yes, politicians want to avoid taxes, but that reflects the more general problem of wanting to avoid any hard choices. And we only need to look at the state of the U.S. infrastructure to see how difficult it is to persuade the political system to make the investments that Costello recommends. This will be a tough road either way, but the carbon tax option cannot be simply dismissed based on Costello’s analysis.

 

Nuclear vs. storage: which is in our future?

Two articles with contrasting views of the future showed up in Utility Dive this week. The first was an opinion piece by an MIT professor referencing a study he coauthored comparing the costs of an electricity network where renewables supply more than 40% of generation compared to using advanced nuclear power. However, the report’s analysis relied on two key assumptions:

  1. Current battery storage costs are about $300/kW-hr and will remain static into the future.
  2. Current nuclear technology costs about $76 per MWh and advanced nuclear technology can achieve costs of $50 per MWh.

The second article immediately refuted the first assumption in the MIT study. A report from BloombergNEF found that average battery storage prices fell to $156/kW-hr in 2019, and projected further decreases to $100/kW-hr by 2024.

The reason that this price drop is so important is that, as the MIT study pointed out, renewables will be producing excess power at certain times and underproducing during other peak periods. MIT assumes that system operators will have to curtail renewable generation during low load periods and run gas plants to fill in at the peaks. (MIT pointed to California curtailing about 190 GWh in April. However, that added only 0.1% to the CAISO’s total generation cost.) But if storage is so cheap, along with inexpensive solar and wind, additional renewable capacity can be built to store power for the early evening peaks. This could enable us to free ourselves from having to plan for system peak periods and focus largely on energy production.

MIT’s second assumption is not validated by recent experience. As I posted earlier, the about to be completed Vogtle nuclear plant will cost ratepayers in Georgia and South Carolina about $100 per MWh–more than 30% more than the assumption used by MIT. PG&E withdrew its relicensing request for Diablo Canyon because the utility projected the cost to be $100 to $120 per MWh. Another recent study found nuclear costs worldwide exceeded $100/MWh and it takes an average of a decade finish a plant.

Another group at MIT issued a report earlier intended to revive interest in using nuclear power. I’m not sure of why MIT is so focused on this issue and continuing to rely on data and projections that are clearly outdated or wrong, but it does have one of the leading departments in nuclear science and engineering. It’s sad to see that such a prestigious institution is allowing its economic self interest to cloud its vision of the future.

What do you see in the future of relying on renewables? Is it economically feasible to build excess renewable capacity that can supply enough storage to run the system the rest of the day? How would the costs of this system compare to nuclear power at actual current costs? Will advanced nuclear power drop costs by 50%? Let us know your thoughts and add any useful references.

Our responsibility to our children

UN-CLIMATE-ENVIRONMENT-GRETA THUNBERG

Greta Thunberg’s speech at the UN has sparked a discussion about our deeper responsibilities to our future generations. When we made the huge effort to fight World War II, did we ask “how much will this cost?” We face the same existential threat and should make the same commitment. We can do this cost effectively, and avoid making most stupid decisions, but asking whether this effort is worth it is now beyond question. We will have to consider how to compensate those who have invested their money or their livelihoods in activities that we now recognize as damaging to the climate, and that will be an added cost to the rest of us. (And we may see this as unfair.) But we really have no choice.

J. Frank Bullit posted on “Fox and Hounds” a sentiment that reflects the core of opposition to such actions:

What if the alarmists are wrong, yet there is no counter to the demands of enacting economic and energy policies we might regret?”

So our energy costs might be a bit more than it would have otherwise, but we get a cleaner environment in exchange. And even now, renewable energy sources are competing well on a dollar to dollar basis.

On the other hand, if the “alarmists” are correct, the consequences have a significant probability of being catastrophic to our civilization, as well as our environment. We all have insurance on our houses for events that we see as highly unlikely. We pay that extra cost on our house to gain assurance that we will recover our investments if such unlikely events occur. These are costs that we are willing to accept because we know that the “alarmists” have a point about the risks of house fires. We should be taking the same attitude towards climate change assessments. It’s not possible to prove that there is no risk, or even that the risk is tiny. And the data trends are sufficiently consistent with the forecasts to date that the probabilities weigh more towards a likelihood than not.

Unless opponents can show that the consequences of the alarmists being wrong are worse than the climate change threat, we have to act to mitigate that risk in much the same way as we do when we buy house insurance. (And by the way, we don’t have another “house” to move to…)

U. of Chicago misses mark on evaluating RPS costs

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The U. of Chicago just released a working paper “Do Renewable Portfolio Standards Deliver?” that purports to assess the added costs of renewable portfolio standards adopted by states. The paper has two obvious problems that make the results largely useless for policy development purposes.

First, it’s entirely retrospective and then tries to make conclusions about future actions. The paper ignores that the high initial costs for renewables was driven down by a combination of RPS and other policies (e.g. net energy metering or NEM), and on a going forward basis, the renewables are now cost competitive with conventional resources. As a result, the going forward cost of GHG reductions is much smaller than the historic costs. In fact, the much more interesting question is “what would be the average cost of GHG reductions by moving from the current low penetration rate of renewables to substantially higher levels across the entire U.S., e.g., 50%, 60% etc. to 100%?” The high initial investment costs are then highly diluted by the now cost effective renewables.

Second, the abstract makes this bizarre statement “(t)hese cost estimates significantly exceed the marginal operational costs of renewables and likely reflect costs that renewables impose on the generation system…” Um, the marginal “operational” costs of renewables generally is pretty damn close to zero! Are the authors trying to make the bizarre claim (that I’ve addressed previously) that renewables should be priced at their “marginal operational costs”? This seems to reflect an remarkable naivete on the part of the authors. Based on this incorrect attribution, the authors cannot make any assumptions about what might be causing the rate difference.

Further, the authors appear to attribute the entire difference in rates to imposing an RPS standard. The fact is that these 29 states generally have also been much more active in other efforts to promote renewables, including for customers through NEM and DER rates, and to reduce demand. All of these efforts reduce load, which means that fixed costs are spread over a fewer amount of kilowatt-hours, which then causes rates to rise. The real comparison should be the differences in annual customer bills after accounting for changes in annual demand.

The authors also try to assign stranded cost recovery as a cost of GHG recovery. This is a questionable assignment since these are sunk costs which economists typically ignore. If we are to account for lost investment due to obsolescence of an older technology, economists are going to have go back and redo a whole lot of benefit-cost analyses! The authors would have to explain the special treatment of these costs.

Why do economists keep producing these papers in which they assume the world is static and that the future will be just like the past, even when the evidence of a rapidly changing scene is embedded in the data they are using?

Moving beyond the easy stuff: Mandates or pricing carbon?

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Meredith Fowlie at the Energy Institute at Haas posted a thought provoking (for economists) blog on whether economists should continue promoting pricing carbon emissions.

I see, however, that this question should be answered in the context of an evolving regulatory and technological process.

Originally, I argued for a broader role for cap & trade in the 2008 CARB AB32 Scoping Plan on behalf of EDF. Since then, I’ve come to believe that a carbon tax is probably preferable over cap & trade when we turn to economy wide strategies for administrative reasons. (California’s CATP is burdensome and loophole ridden.) That said, one of my prime objections at the time to the Scoping Plan was the high expense of mandated measures, and that it left the most expensive tasks to be solved by “the market” without giving the market the opportunity to gain the more efficient reductions.

Fast forward to today, and we face an interesting situation because the cost of renewables and supporting technologies have plummeted. It is possible that within the next five years solar, wind and storage will be less expensive than new fossil generation. (The rest of the nation is benefiting from California initial, if mismanaged, investment.) That makes the effective carbon price negative in the electricity sector. In this situation, I view RPS mandates as correcting a market failure where short term and long term prices do not and cannot converge due to a combination of capital investment requirements and regulatory interventions. The mandates will accelerate the retirement of fossil generation that is not being retired currently due to mispricing in the market. As it is, many areas of the country are on their way to nearly 100% renewable (or GHG-free) by 2040 or earlier.

But this and other mandates to date have not been consumer-facing. Renewables are filtered through the electric utility. Building and vehicle efficiency standards are imposed only on new products and the price changes get lost in all of the other features. Other measures are focused on industry-specific technologies and practices. The direct costs are all well hidden and consumers generally haven’t yet been asked to change their behavior or substantially change what they buy.

But that all would seem to change if we are to take the next step of gaining the much deeper GHG reductions that are required to achieve the more ambitious goals. Consumers will be asked to get out of their gas-fueled cars and choose either EVs or other transportation alternatives. And even more importantly, the heating, cooling, water heating and cooking in the existing building stock will have to be changed out and electrified. (Even the most optimistic forecasts for biogas supplies are only 40% of current fossil gas use.) Consumers will be presented more directly with the costs for those measures. Will they prefer to be told to take specific actions, to receive subsidies in return for higher taxes, or to be given more choice in return for higher direct energy use prices?