Underlying economics of polarization

Matthew Kahn, USC economics professor, writes about a new book, Why We’re Polarized,

Rising polarization is taking place because there is now a fundamental disagreement across our society concerning who has the property rights to different resources.

While Kahn is correct about property rights being at the core of the dispute, he glosses over the real issue by going off to discuss game theory and bargaining. That real issue is how different groups in society gained those property rights, whether its entitlement to jobs or use of natural resources or control of social mores. Much of these property rights were gained through coercion of some form, such as slavery, land grabs or paternalistic social structures. Resolving these requires agreeing first on basic societal morality and ethics, and then turning to how to resolve the redistribution of those rights, rather than just plunging straight into bargaining.

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.

CCAs don’t undermine their mission by taking a share of Diablo Canyon

Northern California community choice aggregators (CCAs) are considering whether to accept an offer from PG&E to allocate a proportionate share of its “large carbon-free” generation as a credit against the power charge indifference adjustment (PCIA) exit fee.  The allocation would include a share of Diablo Canyon power. The allocation for 2019 and 2020; an extension of this allocation is being discussed on the PCIA rulemaking.

The proposal faces opposition from anti-nuclear and local community activists who point to the policy adopted by many CCAs not to accept any nuclear power in their portfolios. However, this opposition is misguided for several reasons, some of which are discussed in this East Bay Community Energy staff report.

  • The CCAs already receive and pay for nuclear generation as part of the mix of “unspecified” power that the CCAs buy through the California Independent System Operator (CAISO). The entire cost of Diablo Canyon is included in the Total Portfolio Cost used to calculate the PCIA. The CCAs receive a “market value” credit against this generation, but the excess cost of recovering the investment in Diablo Canyon (for which PG&E is receiving double payment based on calculations I made in 1996) is recovered through the PCIA. The CCAs can either continue to pay for Diablo through the PCIA without receiving any direct benefits, or they can at least gain some benefits and potentially lower their overall costs. (CCAs need to be looking at their TOTAL generation costs, not just their individual portfolio, when resource planning.)
  • Diablo Canyon is already scheduled to close Unit 1 in 2024 and Unit 2 in 2025 after a contentious proceeding. This allocation is unlikely to change this decision as PG&E has said that the relicensed plant would cost in excess of $100 per megawatt-hour, well in excess of its going market value. I have written extensively here about how costly nuclear power has been and has yet to show that it can reduce those costs. Unless the situation changes significantly, Diablo Canyon will close then.
  • Given that Diablo is already scheduled for closure, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) is unlikely to revisit this decision. But even so, a decision to either reopen A.16-08-006 or to open a new rulemaking or application would probably take close to a year, so the proceeding probably would not open until almost 2021. The actual proceeding would take up to a year, so now we are to 2022 before an actual decision. PG&E would have to take up to a year to plan the closure at that point, which then takes us to 2023. So at best the plant closes a year earlier than currently scheduled. In addition, PG&E still receives the full payments for its investments and there is likely no capital additions avoided by the early closure, so the cost savings would be minimal.

Commentary on the “The Road from Serfdom”

Danielle Allen writes eloquently in the December issue of the Atlantic Monthly in the “The Road from Serfdom” about how too many Americans rightfully feel disenfranchised today and many of the reasons why they feel that way. Her description of how we got here is well worth the read. However, she misattributes the roles of economists (and lawyers) and errors in their recent prognostications on how economic progress would unfold.

Allen blames much of the current economic woes on the rise of economists in policymaking. She talks about how economists superseded lawyers in that role, implying that lawyers were somehow better connected to society. The real transformation happened several decades earlier when lawyers took over from the broader set of general citizenry. Just as she identifies how economists (of which I am one) are trained to think in one fashion, lawyers are similarly taught to think in another way that tends to focus on identifying constraints and relying on precedent. Lawyers are also taught that the available solutions require directives through laws and contentious conflict resolution. Lawyers are rarely instructed in how actual institutions work, contrary to Allen’s assertion–lawyers usually learn that as on-the-job training. In fact, it is economists who developed institutional economics that studies the role of such organizations. Economists arrived to propose solutions that could work through incentives and choice and negotiated solutions. So we traded one set of technocrats for another set. Perhaps we have not done well by either set, but we also should not ignore why we chose those professions guide us.

The mistakes that economists made were not as simplistic as Allen describes. She points to a claim that economists did not understand how disruption would impact specific communities and what two decades of disruption would look like in those communities. As contrary examples, I wrote here about how climate change will impact communities, and about how we need to compensate coal mining communities as part of our reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and even the shaky foundations of benefit-cost analysis.  Instead economists did not foresee two important transformations since the 1970s. (Economists made a similar mistake after the fall of the Berlin Wall, failing to acknowledge that markets need well functioning institutions and laws to facilitate beneficial transactions.)  The first was that agglomeration of knowledge industries (technological and financial) would be so geographically intensive and that these industries would accrue so much wealth. The second was that Americans would become so much less mobile, both geographically and socially. There are many social and policy factors that have led to these trends, but these stories are much more complex than Allen describes. No one could have foreseen these unprecedented changes that have shattered the lives of too many people that have remained behind in communities emptied of economic purpose.

That said, identifying the rise of the ideologies of Nobel Prize winners Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman (who were economists) as a key source of our conundrum is accurate. Allen does not discuss the parallel rise of the fantasies of Ayn Rand that fueled the mythologies of Hayek and Friedman. Rand’s work was a surprising path for spreading those ideologies, particularly given how bad her writing was. We now have a core of elites who believe that they somehow are “self made” with no outside help and even overcoming the “parasites” of society. That will be a difficult self image to overcome.

“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.

 

Technology and a running breakthrough

On one weekend in October, Kip Kipchoge ran the first sub-two hour marathon, and Brigid Kosgei broke the women’s record. These races, and a spate of others, were won with versions of the Nike Vaporfly that apparently adds at least a carbon fiber plate and returns 4% to 5% more energy to a runner’s stride. (I have a particular interest in this sport, having set a some school records and trained with an Olympic medalist.) The media reaction has generally been to call for some sort of limitation on the use or development of the shoes.

I view these shoes as just another technological innovation on the continuum in track & field that stretches back to the first spiked shoes to starting blocks in the 1930s (Jesse Owens dug holes in the track) to fiberglass poles (that work much like these shoes) to synthetic tracks (which catalyzed the world record onslaught in Mexico City). We can’t imagine the sport today without these innovations. Of course, there also has been the unwelcome use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs – think steroids) that threaten athletes’ health. The question is how should we decide what innovations are acceptable and which go to far or give an unfair advantage.

I propose that we use two criteria (which are consistent with the IAAF’s current rule):

  1. Is the innovation widely available at an affordable cost? While some of the past innovations had limited availability, that usually was for a short period. Most were available to all competitors as a specific competition and spread from there.
  2. Can the innovation create physical harm, either immediately or at a future date? PEDs are the most salient example of an innovation that fails this test. In the case of PEDs, that certain individuals decide to take on the health risk forces other athletes to take on the same risks if they want to be competitive.

Swimming faced a similar existential question when the LZR suits a decade ago. FINA effectively banned that innovation, on the basis that the suits added undue buoyancy.

The Vaporfly doesn’t appear to add any outside aid–it just makes the shoe more effective at returning the energy put into it. It’s just a step further in the long trail of new tracks and shoes that have made runners faster. At the heart of improving athletic performance is new technology, sometimes in new products and sometimes in new training methods. So on that basis the new shoe should be allowed.

But the other key question remains–will the technology be widely available at a reasonable cost? Nike holds the patent and has not announced whether it will license it to other manufacturers. If Nike decides that it will only allow runners that sign agreements with the company can wear the shoes, then the shoes should not be allowed. Such exclusivity clauses can lead to damaging the sport in other ways, such as narrowing the sponsorship base.

This issue highlights a larger problem in our world economy–the rise of the dominance by intellectual property owners. Patent and copyright laws are a core cause of the undue accumulation of wealth that has characterized the last four decades. It’s not clear why Walt Disney’s great grandchildren should still be benefiting from Fantasia 80 years later. Drug patents block important innovations, and may even be suppressing research and development. Does such longevity really incent innovation?

Nike’s control of this new running technology, while in a seemingly frivolous pursuit, highlights this issue as a society-wide problem.

Two parts to these questions: First, do you think that this technology breakthrough should be barred from running competition, and why? Second, do you think that current intellectual property protections are too strict and lead to undue accumulations of wealth? Let us know your thoughts and add any useful references.

 

 

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.

Microgrids could cost 10% of undergrounding PG&E’s wires

One proposed solution to reducing wildfire risk is for PG&E to put its grid underground. There are a number of problems with undergrounding including increased maintenance costs, seismic and flooding risks, and problems with excessive heat (including exploding underground vaults). But ignoring those issues, the costs could be exorbitant-greater than anyone has really considered. An alternative is shifting rural service to microgrids. A high-level estimate shows that using microgrids instead could cost less than 10% of undergrounding the lines in regions at risk. The CPUC is considering a policy shift to promote this type of solution and has new rulemaking on promoting microgrids.

We can put this in context by estimating costs from PG&E’s data provided in its 2020 General Rate Case, and comparing that to its total revenue requirements. That will give us an estimate of the rate increase needed to fund this effort.

PG&E has about 107,000 miles of distribution voltage wires and 18,500 in transmission lines. PG&E listed 25,000 miles of distribution lines being in wildfire risk zones. The the risk is proportionate for transmission this is another 4,300 miles. PG&E has estimated that it would cost $3 million per mile to underground (and ignoring the higher maintenance and replacement costs). And undergrounding transmission can cost as much as $80 million per mile. Using estimates provided to the CAISO and picking the midpoint cost adder of four to ten times for undergrounding, we can estimate $25 million per mile for transmission is reasonable. Based on these estimates it would cost $75 billion to underground distribution and $108 billion for transmission, for a total cost of $183 billion. Using PG&E’s current cost of capital, that translates into annual revenue requirement of $9.1 billion.

PG&E’s overall annual revenue requirement are currently about $14 billion and PG&E has asked for increases that could add another $3 billion. Adding $9.1 billion would add two-thirds (~67%) to PG&E’s overall rates that include both distribution and generation. It would double distribution rates.

This begs two questions:

  1. Is this worth doing to protect properties in the affected urban-wildlands interface (UWI)?
  2. Is there a less expensive option that can achieve the same objective?

On the first question, if we look the assessed property value in the 15 counties most likely to be at risk (which includes substantial amounts of land outside the UWI), the total assessed value is $462 billion. In other words, we would be spending 16% of the value of the property being protected. The annual revenue required would increase property taxed by over 250%, going from 0.77% to 2.0%.

Which turns us to the second question. If we assume that the load share is proportionate to the share of lines at risk, PG&E serves about 18,500 GWh in those areas. The equivalent cost per unit for undergrounding would be $480 per MWh.

The average cost for a microgrid in California based on a 2018 CEC study is $3.5 million per megawatt. That translates to $60 per MWh for a typical load factor. In other words a microgrid could cost one-eighth of undergrounding. The total equivalent cost compared to the undergrounding scenario would be $13 billion. This translates to an 8% increase in PG&E rates.

To what extent should we pursue undergrounding lines versus shifting to microgrid alternatives in the WUI areas? Should we encourage energy independence for these customers if they are on microgrids? How should we share these costs–should locals pay or should they be spread over the entire customer base? Who should own these microgrids: PG&E or CCAs or a local government?

 

 

 

 

End the fiction of regulatory oversight of California’s generation

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M.Cubed is the only firm willing to sign the non-disclosure agreements (NDA) that allow us to review the investor-owned utilities’ (IOUs) generation portfolio data on behalf of outside intervenors, such as the community choice aggregators (CCAs). Even the direct access (DA) customers who constitute about a quarter of California’s industrial load are represented by a firm that is unwilling to sign the NDAs. This situation places departed load customers, and in fact all customers, at a distinct disadvantage when trying to regulate the actions of the IOUs. It is simply impossible for a single small firm to scrutinize all of the filings and data from the IOUs. (Not to mention that one, SDG&E, gets a complete free pass for now as that it has no CCAs.)

This situation has arisen because the NDAs require that the “reviewing representatives” not be in a position to advise market participants, such as CCAs or energy service providers (ESPs) that sell to DA customers, on procurement decisions. This is an outgrowth of AB 57 in 2002, a state law passed to bring IOUs back into the generation market after the collapse of restructuring in 2001. That law was intended to the balance of power to the IOUs away from generators for procurement purposes. Now it puts the IOUs at a competitive advantage against other load serving entities (LSEs) such as CCAs and ESPs, and even bundled customers.

This imbalance has arisen for several insurmountable reasons:

  • No firm can build its business on serving only to review IOU filings without offering other procurement consulting services to clients.
  • It is difficult to build expertise for reviewing IOU filings without participating in procurement services for other LSEs or resource providers. (I am uniquely situated by the consulting work I did for the CEC on assessing generation technology costs for over a decade.)
  • CPUC staff similarly lacks the expertise for many of the same reasons, and are relatively ineffective at these reviews. The CPUC is further limited by its ability to recruit sufficient qualified staff for a variety of reasons.

If California wants to rein in the misbehavior by IOUs (such as what I’ve documented on past procurement and shareholder returns earlier), then we have two options to address this problem going forward:

  1. Transform at least the power generation management side of the IOUs into publicly owned entities with more transparent management review.
  2. End the annual review and setting of PCIA and CTC rates by establishing one-time prepayment amounts. By prepaying or setting a fixed annual amount, the impact of accounting maneuvers are diminished substantially, and since IOUs can no longer shift portfolio management risks to departed load customers, the IOUs more directly face the competitive pressures that should make them more efficient managers.

Moving forward on Flood-MAR with pilots

The progress on implementing floodwater managed aquifer recharge programs (Flood-MAR) reminds me of the economist’s joke, “sure it works in practice, but does it work in theory?” A lot of focus seems to be on trying to refine the technical understanding of recharge, without going with what we already know about aquifer replenishment from decades of applications.

The Department of Water Resources Flood-MAR program recently held a public forum to discuss its research program. I presented a poster (shown above) on the findings of a series of studies we conducted for Sustainable Conservation on the economic and financial considerations for establishing these programs. (I posted about this last February.)

My conclusion from the presentations and the other publications we’ve followed is that the next step is to set up pilots using different institutional set ups and economic incentives. The scientists and engineers can further refine their findings, but we generally know where the soils are better for percolation versus others, and we know that crop productivity won’t fall too much where fields are flooded. The real issues fall into five categories, of which we’ve delved into four in our Floodwater Recharge Memos.

Benefits Diagrams_Page_5

The first is identifying the beneficiaries and the potential magnitude of those benefits. As can be seen in the flow chart above, there many more potential beneficiaries than just the local groundwater users. Some of these benefits require forecast informed reservoir operations (FIRO) to realize those gains through reduced flood control space, increased water supply storage and greater summertime hydropower output. Flood-MAR programs can provide the needed margin of error to lower the risk from FIRO.

FloodMAR Poster - Financing

The second is finding the funding mechanisms to compensate growers or to build dedicated recharge basins. We prepared a list of potential financing mechanisms linked to the potential beneficiaries. (This list grew out of another study that we prepared for the Delta Protection Commission on feasible options for beneficiary-pays financing.)

FloodMAR Poster Incentives

The third is determining what type of market incentive transactions mechanisms would work best at attracting the most preferred operations and acreage. I have explored the issues of establishing unusual new markets for a couple of decades, including for water rights transfer and air quality permit trading. It is not a simple case of “declaring markets exist” and then walking away. Managing institutions have important roles in setting up, running and funding any market, and most particularly for those that manage what were “public goods” that individuals and firms were able to use for free. The table above lists the most important considerations in establishing those markets.

The fourth assessing what type of infrastructure investment will produce the most cost-effective recharge. Construction costs (which we evaluated) is one aspect, and impacts on agricultural operations and financial feasibility are other considerations. The chart at the top summarizes the results from comparing several case studies. These will vary by situation, but remarkably, these options appear to cost substantially less than any surface storage projects currently being proposed.

The final institutional issue to be addressed, but not the least important, is determining the extent of rights over floodwaters and aquifers. California state law and regulations are just beginning to grapple with these issues. Certain areas are beginning to assert protection of their existing rights. This issue probably represents the single biggest impediment to these programs before attracting growers to participate.

All of these issues can be addressed in a range of pilot programs which use different variables to test which are likely to be more successful. Scientists and engineers can use these pilots to test for the impacts of different types of water diversion and application. Statistical regression analysis can provide us much of what we know without having to understand the hydrological dynamics. Legal rights can be assessed by providing temporary permits that might be modified as we learn more from the pilots.

Is it time to move forward with local pilot programs? Do we know enough that we can demonstrate the likely benefits? What other aspects should we explore before moving to widespread adoption and implementation?