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 I’m not sure of why MIT is so focused on this issue and continuing to rely on data and projections that are clearly outdated or wrong, but it does have one of the leading departments in nuclear science and engineering.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?
We’re now in the midst of the “third wave” of electricity industry reform in California. The first was in the early 1980s with the rise of independently-owned cogeneration and renewable resources. Mixed with increased energy efficiency, that led to a surplus of power in the late 1990s, which in turn created the push for restructuring and deregulation. Unfortunately, poorly designed markets and other factors precipitated the 2000-01 energy crisis. The rise of renewables and distributed resources is pushing a third wave that may change the industry even more fundamentally.
I wrote a paper in 2002 on how I viewed the history of California’s electricity industry through 2001 and presented this at a conference. (It hasn’t yet been published.) I identify some different factors for why the energy crisis erupted, and what lessons we might learn for this next wave.