Tag Archives: climate change

Upfront solar subsidy more cost effective than per kilowatt-hour

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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.

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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?

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

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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

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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)

A counter to UC’s skepticism about CCAs

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Kevin Novan from UC Davis wrote an article in the University of California Giannini Foundation’s Agriculture and Resource Economics Update entitled “Should Communities Get into the Power Marketing Business?” Novan was skeptical of the gains from community choice aggregation (CCA), concluding that continued centrally planned procurement was preferable. Other UC-affiliated energy economists have also expressed skepticism, including Catherine Wolfram, Severin Borenstein, and Maximilian Auffhammer.

At the heart of this issue is the question of whether the gains of “perfect” coordination outweigh the losses from rent-seeking and increased risks from centralized decision making. I don’t consider myself an Austrian economist, but I’m becoming a fan of the principle that the overall outcomes of many decentralized decisions is likely to be better than a single “all eggs in one basket” decision. We pretend that the “central” planner is somehow omniscient and prudently minimizes risks. But after three decades of regulatory practice, I see that the regulators are not particularly competent at choosing the best course of action and have difficulty understanding key concepts in risk mitigation.By distributing decision making, we better capture a range of risk tolerances and bring more information to the market place. There are further social gains from dispersed political decision making that brings accountability much closer to home and increases transparency. Of course, there’s a limit on how far decentralization should go–each household can’t effectively negotiate separate power contracts. But we gain much more information by adding a number of generation service providers or “load serving entities” (LSE) to the market.

I found several shortcomings with with Novan’s article that would change the tenor. I take each in turn:

  • He wrote “it remains to be seen whether local governments will make prudent decisions…” However, he did not provide the background which explains at least in part why the CCAs have arisen in the first place. Largely over the last 40 years, the utilities have made imprudent procurement and planning decisions. Whether those have been pushed on the utilities by the CPUC and Legislature or whether the IOUs have some responsibility, the fact is that neither institution sees real consequences for these decisions, neither financially or politically. In fact, the one time that a CPUC commissioner attempted to deliver consequences to the IOUs, she was fired and replaced by a former utility CEO. The appropriate comparison for local government decision making is to the current baseline record, not an academic hypothetical that will never exist. And by the way, government enterprise agencies, including municipal utilities, have a relatively good record as demonstrated as by lower electricity rates and relatively well managed, almost invisible capital intensive water and sanitation utilities. The current CCAs have a more extensive portfolio risk management system than PG&E—my calculation of PG&E’s implicit risk hedge in its renewables portfolio is an astounding 3.3 cents per kilowatt-hour.
  • Novan complains that CCAs have “dual objectives.” In fact they have “triple objectives,” the added one to encourage local economic development (sometimes through lower rates). I suggest reading the mission statements of the CCAs that have been created, including the local Valley Clean Energy Authority .
  • It’s not clear that “purchasing locally produced renewable energy will likely lead to more expensive renewable output” for at least two reasons. The first is that local power can avoid further transmission investment. The current CAISO transmission access charges range from $11 to $39 per megawatt-hour and is forecasted to continue to rise significantly (indicating transmission marginal costs are much above average costs). In a commentary on a UC Energy Institute blog, it was revealed that the Sunrise line may have cost as much as $80 per MWH for power from the desert. This wipes out much of the difference between utility scale and DG solar power. Building locally avoids yet more expensive transmission investment to the southeast desert. [I worked on the DRECP for the CEC.] In addition, local power can avoid distribution investment and will be reflected in the IOU’s distribution resource plans (DRP). And second, the scale economies for solar PV plants largely disappears after about 10 MW. So larger plants don’t necessarily mean cheaper, (especially if they have to implement more extensive environmental mitigation.) [I prepared the Cost of Generation model and report for the CEC from 2001-2013.]
  • It’s not necessary that more renewable capacity is needed for local generation. The average line losses in the CAISO system are about 6%, and those are greater from the far desert region. Whether increased productivity overcomes that difference is an empirical question that I haven’t seen answered satisfactorily yet.
  • Novan left unstated his premise defining “greener” renewables, but I presume that it’s based almost entirely on GHG emissions. However, local power is likely “greener” because it avoids other environmental impacts as well. Local renewables are much more likely to be built on brownfields and even rooftops so there’s not added footprints. In contrast there is growing opposition to new plants in the desert region. The second advantage is the avoidance of added transmission corridors. One only needs to look at the Sunrise and Tehachipi lines to see how those consequences can slow down the process. Local DG can avoid distribution investment that has consequences as well. Further, local power provides local system support that can displace local natural gas generation. In fact, one of the key issues for Southern California is the need to maintain in-basin generation to support imports of renewables across the LA Basin interface. [I assessed the need for local generation in the LA Basin in the face of various environmental regulations for the CEC.]

I was on the City of Davis Community Choice Energy Advisory Committee, and I am testifying on behalf of the California CCAs on the setting of the PCIA in several dockets. I have a Ph.D. from Berkeley’s ARE program and have worked on energy, environmental and water issues for about 30 years.

 

 

 

 

CCAs add renewables while utilities stand pat

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California’s community choice aggegrators (CCAs) are on track to meet their state-mandated renewable portfolio standard obligations. PG&E, SCE and SDG&E have not signed significant new renewable power capacity since 2015, while CCAs have been building new projects. To achieve zero carbon electricity by 2050 will require aggressive plans to procure new renewables soon.