The northern California community choice aggregators (CCAs) are considering a offer from PG&E to allocate to each CCA a proportionate share of parts of its portfolio, including the Diablo Canyon nuclear generation station. Many CCA boards are hearing from anti-nuclear activists to deny this offer, both for moral reasons and the belief that such a rejection will somehow pressure PG&E financially. The first set of concern is beyond my professional expertise, but their reasoning on the economic and regulatory issues is incorrect.
CCAs buy a substantial portion of their generation (the majority for many of them) from the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) energy markets. PG&E schedules Diablo Canyon into those CAISO markets and under the current CAISO tariffs, nuclear generation is a “must take” resource that the CAISO can’t turn back. So the entire output of Diablo Canyon is scheduled into the CAISO market (without any bidding process), PG&E is paid the market clearing price (MCP) for that Diablo power, and the CCAs buy that mix of nuclear power at the MCP. There is no discretion for either the CAISO or the CCAs in taking excess power from Diablo. There is no “lifeline” for Diablo that the CCAs have any control over under current legal and regulatory parameters.
CCAs already pay for a proportionate share of Diablo Canyon equal to the CCAs share of overall load. That payment is broken into two parts (and maybe a third): 1) the purchase of energy from the CAISO at the MCP and 2) the stranded capital and operating costs above the MCP in the PCIA. (CCAs also may be paying for a share of the resource adequacy, but I haven’t thought through that one.) Thus, if the CCAs receive credit for the energy that they are already paying for, the energy portion essentially comes as “free”. In addition, because CCAs currently pay for the remaining share of Diablo costs, but get no energy credit for that in the PCIA calculation, then that credit is in the PCIA is also “free”. In addition, the CCAs gain credit for Diablo’s GHG-free generation (as recognized in the Air Resources Board GHG allowance program) as LSE’s for no extra cost, or for “free.” The bottom line is when the CCAs gain credit for products that they are already paying for, receipt of those products is for “free.”
Accepting this deal will not solve ALL of the CCAs problems, but that’s a false goal. That was never the intent. It does however give the CCAs a respite to get through the period until Diablo retires. One needs to recognize that this provides some of the needed relief.
Finally, there’s never any certainty over any large deal. Uncertainty should not freeze decision making. The uncertainty about the PCIA going forward is equally large and perhaps offsetting. The risks should be identified, discussed, considered and addressed to the extent possible. But that’s different than simply nixing the deal without addressing the other large risk. Naively believing that Diablo can be closed in short order (especially with the COVID crisis) is not a true risk management strategy.
From these points, we can come to these conclusions:
Whether the CCAs accept or reject the nuclear offer has NO impact on PG&E’s revenue stream. The decisions that the CCAs face are entirely about whether the CCAs can lower their costs and gain some additional GHG reduction credits that they are already paying for (in other words, reduce their subsidies of bundled customers.) Nothing that the CCAs decide will affect the closure date of Diablo. If the CCAs reject the allocations, it will simply be business as usual to the full closures in 2025. Any other interpretation doesn’t reflect the current regulatory environment at the CPUC which are unlikely to change (and even that is unknown) until enough commissioners’ five-year terms roll over.
The system can only be changed by legislative and regulatory action. That means that the CCAs must make the most prudent financial decisions within the current context rather than making a purely symbolic gesture that is financially adverse and will do nothing to change the BAU practice. A wise decision would consider what is the true impact of the action on
Finally, early closure of Diablo will NOT remove the invested capital cost from PG&E’s ratebase, which is what drives the PCIA. After the plant is closed, activists will ALSO have to show that the INVESTMENT in the plant was imprudent and should not have been allowed. Given the long history on decisions and settlements in Diablo investment costs and the inclusion of recovery of Diablo costs in both AB1890 and AB1X at the beginning and end of the energy crisis, that is an impossible task. Only a constitutional amendment through the initiative process could possibly lead to such an action, and even that would have to survive a court challenge that probably would push past 2024.
I want to finish with what I think is a very important point that has been overlooked by the activists: The effort to close Diablo Canyon has won. Activists might not like the timeline of that victory, but it is a victory nevertheless that looked unachievable prior to 2016. It’s worthwhile considering whether the added effort for what will be for a variety of reasons little gain is an important question to answer.
Note that Diablo Canyon is already scheduled for closure in 2024 and 2025. A proceeding 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 wouldn’t open until almost 2021. The actual proceeding would take up to a year, so now we’re 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’s likely no capital additions avoided by the early closure, so the cost savings would be minimal.
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:
Current battery storage costs are about $300/kW-hr and will remain static into the future.
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.
I listened to PG&E’s CEO Bill Johnson and his staff apologize for its mishandling of the public safety power shutoffs (PSPS) that affected over 700,000 “customers” (what other industry calls meters “customers”?) yesterday. And as I listened, I thought of the many times that PG&E has fumbled (or even acted maliciously) over the years. Here’s my partial list (and I’m leaving out the faux pas that I’ve experienced in regulatory proceedings):
Failing to turn off power locally in 2017 and 2018 under hazardous weather conditions, which led to the Wine Country and Camp fires.
Signing too many power purchase agreements with renewables in the 2009 to 2014 period that were for too long of terms (e.g., 20 years instead of 10 years). PG&E is unable to take advantage of the dramatic cost decreases created by California’s bold investments. For a comparison, PG&E’s renewable portfolio costs about 20% more than SCE’s. (I am one of a few that has access to the confidential portfolio data for both utilities.)
Failing to act on the opportunity to sell part of its overstuffed renewable portfolio to the CCAs that emerged from 2010 to 2016. Those sales could have benefited everyone by decreasing PG&E’s obligations and providing the CCAs with existing firm resources. That opportunity has now largely passed.
The gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno in 2010 caused by PG&E’s failure to keep proper records for decades. PG&E was convicted of a felony for its negligence.
Overinvesting in obsolete distribution infrastructure after 2009 by failing to recognize that electricity demand had flattened and that customers were switching en masse to solar rooftops. (I repeatedly filed testimony starting in 2010 pointing out this error.)
Deploying an Advanced Meter Infrastructure (AMI) system starting in 2004 using SmartMeters that claimed that it would provide much more control of PG&E’s distribution system, and deliver positive benefits to ratepayers. Savings have largely failed to materialize, and PG&E’s inability to use its AMI to more narrowly target its PSPS illustrates how AMI has failed to deliver.
Acquiring and building three unneeded natural gas plants starting in 2006. Several merchant-owned plants constructed in the early 2000s are already on the verge of retiring because of the flattening in demand.
If PG&E had ended the transition period, it would have been immediately free to sign longer term contracts with merchant generators, thereby taking away the incentive for those generators to manipulate the market. The subsequent energy crisis most likely would have not occurred, or been much more isolated to Southern California.
PG&E’s CEO in 1998 made a speech to the shareholders stating that it was PG&E’s intent to extend the transition period as far as possible, to March 2001 at least. (We cited this speech from a transcript in the 1999 GRC case.)
Offering rebuttal in the 1999 GRC that instead confirmed the ORA’s analysis that the optimal size of a utility is closer to 500,000 customers rather than 4 million plus. Commissioner Bilas wrote a draft decision confirming this finding, but restructuring derailed the vote on the case.
Being caught by the CPUC in diverting $495 million from maintenance spending to shareholders from 1992 to 1997. PG&E was fined $29 million.
Forcing the CPUC in 1996 to adopt the “competitive transition charge” which was tied to the fluctuating CAISO day-ahead market price instead of using Commissioner Knight’s up front pay out for stranded assets. The CTC led to the “transition period” which facilitated the ability of merchant generators to manipulate the market price.
Two settlement agreements allow PG&E to fully recover its costs in Diablo Canyon by January 1, 1998 based on its authorized rate of return from 1986 to 1998, but also allows it to put into ratebase about half of its “remaining” construction costs as a prelude to restructuring.
Getting caught in 1990 telling FERC that PG&E was short resources and needed to build more, while telling the CPUC that it had a long term surplus and that it needed to curtail its payments to third-party qualifying facilities (QF) generators.
In the early 1980s, failing to set up a rationale process for signing QF contracts that limited the addition of these resources. In addition, PG&E missed an important pricing calculation mistake in the capacity payment term that led to a double payment to QFs.
In the 1970s, making many construction management mistakes when building the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, including reversing the blueprints, that led to the costs rising from $315 million to over $5 billion. (And Diablo Canyon in 3 of the last 5 years has operated at a loss and should not have been generating for several months each of those years.)
In the 1960s, signing an agreement with Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) to finance the construction of the Rancho Seco nuclear plant that essentially gave SMUD free energy when Rancho Seco wasn’t generating. The result was the mismanagement of the plant, which was so damaged that it was closed in 1989 (in part as a result of analysis conducted by the consulting team that I was on.)
The other two California IOUs are guilty of some of these same errors, and SMUD and Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) also do not have a clean bill of health, but the quantities and magnitudes to don’t match those of PG&E.
That article has several errors and is misleading in others aspects. First, California’s electricity rates are high because of the renewable contracts signed nearly a decade ago when renewables were just evolving and much higher cost. California’s investment was part of the reason that solar and wind costs are now lower than existing coals plants (new study shows 75% of coal plants are uneconomic) and competitive with natural gas. Batteries that increase renewable operations have almost become cost effective. It also claims that reliability has “gone down” when in fact we still have a large reserve margin. The California Independent System Operator in fact found a 23% reserve margin when the target is only 17%. We also have the ability to install batteries quickly to solve that issue. PG&E is installing over 500 MW of batteries right now to replace a large natural gas plant.
For the rest of the U.S., consumers will benefit from these lower costs today. Californians have paid too much for their power to date, due to mismanagement by PG&E and the other utilities, but elsewhere will be able to avoid these foibles.
Over the last year, various states have introduced subsidies and preferences for different electricity resources that have circumvented the independent system operator (ISO) markets that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approved in the 1990s. FERC’s intent was that hourly markets would provide all of the price signals needed to induce appropriate investment. As we’ve found out in California, that hasn’t worked out that way. These markets have difficulty conveying the full price information for all services (in part because many utility-owned generators are subsidized through state rate of return regulation) and the environmental and technological benefits that may be difficult to monetize in an hourly price.
FERC has challenged some of these new rules, and both won and lost in the courts. Now the market monitor in the biggest market in the U.S. that covers the Northeast and Midwest is joining the fight. If the market monitor wins, this will raise the salient question of whether FERC needs to rethink its policy, or will states begin to withdraw from the ISOs to pursue their own policy goals?