Tag Archives: climate change

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 I’m not sure of why MIT is so focused on this issue and continuing to rely on data and projections that are clearly outdated or wrong, but it does have one of the leading departments in nuclear science and engineering.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…)

Upfront solar subsidy more cost effective than per kilowatt-hour

Solar_panels_on_house_roof_winter_view

This paper from the American Economic Review found that consumers use a discount rate in excess of 15% in valuing residential solar power credits, compared to a social-wide discount rate of 3%.  The implication is that a government can incent the same amount of solar investment through an upfront credit for as little as half the cost of a per kilowatt-hour ongoing subsidy.

The California Solar Initiative had two different incentive methods, the Performance Based Incentive (PBI) which was paid out over 5 years and the Expected Performance-Based Buydowns (EPBB) paid out upfront. The former was preferred by policy makers but the latter was more popular with homeowners. Now we know the degree of difference in the preference.

U. of Chicago misses mark on evaluating RPS costs

08_us_net_electricity_generation_by_fuel_source_1080_604_80

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?

figure-1

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?

The two problems to be addressed head on by nuclear power advocates

6e0c32214e80ee9f4fbabf2e4ffe6fcd

Nuclear power advocates bring up the technology as a supposedly necessary part of a zero-GHG portfolio to address climate change. They insist that the “next generation” technology will be a winner if it is allowed to be developed.

Nevertheless, nuclear has two significant problems beyond whatever is in the next generation technology:

  1. Construction cost overruns are the single biggest liability that has been killing the technology. While most large engineering projects have contingencies for 25-30% overruns, almost all nuclear plants have overruns that are multiples of the original cost estimates. This has been driving the most experienced engineering/construction firms into bankruptcies. Until that problem is resolved, all energy providers should be very leery of making commitments to a technology that takes at least 7 years to build.
  2. We still haven’t addressed waste disposal and storage over the course of decades, much less millennia. No other energy technology presents such a degree of catastrophic failure from a single source. Again, this liability needs to be addressed head on and not ignored or dismissed if the technology is to be pursued.

The Business Roundtable takes the wrong lesson from California’s energy costs

solar-panel-price-drop-global-solar-installations-bnef

The California Business Roundtable authored an article in the San Francisco Chronicle claiming that the we only need to look to California’s energy prices to see what would happen with the “Green New Deal” proposed by the Congressional Democrats.

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.

(Graphic: BNEF)