Tag Archives: electricity

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 I’m not sure of why MIT is so focused on this issue and continuing to rely on data and projections that are clearly outdated or wrong, but it does have one of the leading departments in nuclear science and engineering.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

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.

Should California just buy PG&E?

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Governor Gavin Newsom asked Warren Buffet to use Berkshire-Hathaway to buy PG&E. Berkshire-Hathaway has been acquiring utilities throughout the West including PacifiCorp and Nevada Power. However, other than deep pockets, it’s not clear what Buffet has to offer in this situation.

PG&E’s stock fell as low as $3.80 per share on Tuesday, closing at $5.03. The total market value, including the natural gas utility, is now $2.66 billion. The invested book value on the other hand is about $26 billion.

Not sure why California doesn’t just buy the company for, say, $5B instead of appealing to an out of state private owner. Several state legislators, including a key state senator, Bill Dodd, have expressed support for some sort of state acquisition. Then the state can either parse it out to public utilities, set up a cooperative or bid out the franchises to multiple operators or owners. Ratepayers/taxpayers will have to pay most of the wildfire liabilities anyway, so why not remove the high-cost (and apparently incompetent) middleman?

VCEA offers PG&E $300 million for Yolo County

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Valley Clean Energy Alliance made its official offer to PG&E to acquire the Yolo County distribution system for $300 million. The offer is being submitted in PG&E’s bankruptcy proceeding. This offer is substantially higher than the $108 million that Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) offered in 2005, and not far below the $400 million that PG&E countered with.

San Francisco offered $2.5 billion for PG&E’s system, and San Jose announced that it also will make a bid. Municipalities believe that the bankruptcy court will be more receptive to accepting the offers as a means of raising cash for the bankrupt utility.

PG&E fails to provide safety support in Davis

This article on a local webnews site, the Davis Vanguard, describes how PG&E was slow to respond and has since failed to communicate with homeowners about subsequent measures to be taken. Note that in this case, the power lines run down an easement through the backyards of these houses. 

What should strict liability look like for wildfire costs?

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Governor Newsom, the Assembly Speaker and Senate Pro Tem have publicly opposed eliminating the strict liability doctrine applicable to utilities for allocating responsibility for wildfire costs.

Maintaining inverse condemnation better assures wildfire victims that they will receive at least some compensation for their damages. However, there needs to be a limit on the types of damages that can be collected if the utilities are allowed to pass through those costs to ratepayers will little review.

Punitive damages are intended to incent the bad actor to fix the problem. But if that bad actor–the electric utility in this case–is shielded from most or all of the punitive damages, then they will have no incentive to change their behavior. Why should they if what they are doing now is costless?

Only if utility shareholders must bear 100% of all punitive damages and the proportion of damages attributable to negligence should the remaining costs be passed through to ratepayers in this situation. Only in this way can California derive the benefits of privately-owned utilities. If these conditions are unacceptable to shareholders, then the only alternative is public ownership so that ratepayers can reap both the benefits and risks of asset ownership.

 

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.