Tag Archives: renewables

A cautionary tale to communities negotiating with energy project developers

The City of Davis signed a lease option agreement on March 24 with a start up solar development company headed by a former CEO of a large renewable firm. How the negotiation process reflected a lack of sufficient knowledge on the part of the City staff is instructive to other cities and counties about the need to be fully informed when a renewable project developer approaches them about land or power deals. In this case the City gave away the potential for gaining tens of millions of dollars.

The agreement was negotiated in a series of closed sessions starting December 17 and approved in a rush under the premise that the project faced an April 15 deadline for submitting its interconnection application to the California Independent System Operator (CAISO). The deal immediately unleashed a storm of outrage from many knowledgeable citizens (several who are appointed city commission members) and the City responded soon after with a press release and “Q&A” that did little to quell the uproar. Two City Councilmembers then wrote an additional defense of the deal. The City’s Utilities Commission voted 5-2 to recommend that the City Council rescind the agreement. A request to “cure and correct” under the Brown Act was then filed April 23 by a group of citizens (including me).

Ashley Feeney, City Assistant City Manager, claimed at the Utilities Commission special meeting April 22 that the BrightNight lease option agreement and term sheet have “favorable terms to the City.”  No doubt it’s favorable to the developer — a low-cost lease option and lease terms at the average rate for agricultural use for a multi-million dollar solar energy project with no strings attached. The staff’s naivete comes through a close reading of the entire agreement.

What are so many people missing that makes this project so favorable to the City as the Council and staff claim? While the process of signing the lease option agreement with the developer was (a) unnecessarily secretive, (b) precluded useful citizen input, and (c) likely violated state law in several ways— at its core, the agreement is simply a bad deal. The City either failed to carry out its due diligence, or was seriously misled by the developer, or both. As a result, the City likely gave away millions of dollars over the next 50 plus years, failed to guarantee any clean energy for the City and failed to protect the City fully at the end of the project life. While the City may desire local renewable power, the agreement lacks any real commitment to advance the City’s climate goals while gaining local benefits.

The agreement (1) underprices both the lease option and the lease prices relative the actual value to the developer, (2) lacks any guarantee of plant power being sold to Davis or VCEA, much less at favorable terms, (3) lacks appropriate protection that sufficient funds will be available to decommission the plant, and (4) forsakes opportunities for more valuable alternative uses for those parcels for at least the next five years.

The first of those misunderstandings was that there was, in fact, no need for the developer to have site control for the CAISO interconnection process.  Whatever developer’s “standard” practice is has no bearing on how and what the City should decide in its own interest. The CAISO interconnection process requires either (1) a $250,000 refundable deposit regardless of site control plus a $150,000 study deposit, if the project is submitting under the Cluster application which is due by April 15, or (2) with site control there is no deposit except the same $150,000 study deposit under the Independent Study Process and no deadline. In this case, the City has essentially gifted the developer $225,000 by providing site control at a steep discount. The developers appears to have exploited the City’s lack of knowledge about the interconnection process by conflating the two processes.

Instead the City should have priced the lease option to reflect the developer’s value, not the City’s. That means that handing over the site control was worth the avoided carrying cost of that deposit each year. With a standard rate of return of at least 10% on real estate investments, that amounts to $25,000 per year, which translates into $106 per acre.  In any case, the minimum opportunity cost to the City is either using it for annual row crop agriculture or reflecting the delay in other uses such as organic waste processing, both of which far exceed the $20 per acre in the lease option.

The City should have specified that the project sell output only to either the City or Valley Clean Energy Authority (VCEA) at a favorable price. The developer is now in the driver’s seat and can solicit bids from the entire range of utilities and load-serving entities such as PG&E, SMUD and other CCAs. This will make the cost of this power more expensive even if Davis or VCEA wins the power output. But now that the agreement has been executed, the City no longer has any leverage in either the lease terms or an energy sale to VCEA, because it cannot force the developer into an agreement.

The City could have specified that the output be wheeled to City accounts through PG&E’s RES-BCT tariff that is available to public agencies. A wholesale solar power contract for the project is unlikely to be much more than 5 cents per kilowatt-hour. In contrast, if the project was structured to take advantage of the the power savings under RES-BCT would amount to over 8 cents per kilowatt-hour—at least 60% higher. (At least 35 megawatts is still available for subscription.) This benefit amounts to over $1.2 million per year at current PG&E rates, compared to an expected annual lease payment under the current lease agreement ranging from $40,000 to $80,000. The gain in value over 50 years could be $52 million in nominal dollars or $21 million in net present value. That delivers an equivalent to a lease rate of $5,000 per acre, not $340 or less.

Even if the City did not use the power output, it should have negotiated a lease price based on either (1) the value of rezoned commercial and industrial land since the developer would have to get that zoning designation to develop its project elsewhere, or (2) the highest agricultural value (not the average for the county). For agricultural land, the value a City commissioner and orchard farmer has calculated is $1,688 to $2,250 per acre, or four to five times higher than the rate that the City negotiated based on a naïve calculation.

Further, the term sheet specifies that the developer pay the property taxes. However, the value of the parcels will not increase if the project is built prior to the 2025 because of the solar property exclusion in state law. The County will receive a short term boost in sales tax revenues from plant construction, but the City will not receive any share of that since its outside City boundaries. The City could have negotiated an in-lieu payment from the developer based on the added property value.

While the lease agreement pays lip service to the developer’s responsibility for decommissioning and disposing of the project at the end of its useful life, the term sheet has no provision prohibiting the developer from declaring bankruptcy for its limited liability corporation (LLC) and just walking away. Since the project will have no income at the end its life, and the entity owning the plant is legally separate from primary development firm (or its successor), the obvious step is to simply dissolve the LLC through a bankruptcy.  Such a step would leave the plant for the City to dispose of at significant expense (likely more than $1 million at today’s prices.)  This will wipe out half of the current lease revenues. That is the route that PG&E Corporation took in 2001 when its subsidiary, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, declared bankruptcy in 2001, leaving the bill of the energy crisis to ratepayers instead of shareholders. The City failed to require a surety bond that would cover those costs. Such bonds or other endowments are typical for projects of this type.

An additional consideration that appears to have been ignored is that The City has been looking at other higher value uses of the site such as organics waste disposal or habitat preservation and restoration. These have been under study at several City Commissions, but now those efforts have been aborted.

Finally, some of have defended maintaining the agreement because abrogating it could expose the City to significant legal liability. The developer at this time cannot sue for more than its demonstrated losses, and since it does not yet have a power purchase agreement, it has no future income stream to point to. At most, the liability is the $150,000 deposit with the CAISO  plus a few thousand dollars expended preparing and submitting the interconnection application (which in fact can be remediated with a $250,000 refundable deposit).

The agreement still faces several hurdles including whether the process violated California’s Brown Act, approval with any Yolo County zoning changes, conformance between the agreement and CAISO interconnection requirements, and winning with an RFO bid.

Even if the City believes that it is compelled to go forward with this agreement, it should admit that it made a series of serious mistakes and needs to review its practices and processes that caused this mess. Unfortunately, it does not seem that the City could have done any worse in these negotiations.

Richard McCann testified at the California Public Utilities Commission on behalf of Santa Clara and San Joaquin counties about their RES-BCT projects, and analyzed solar net metering arrangements for agricultural and mobilehome park clients. He evaluated the fiscal impacts of solar projects on San Luis Obispo, San Benito and Inyo counties, and projected the costs of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan for the California Energy Commission. He is a member of the Natural Resources Commission, former member of the Utilities Commission, and was recently recognized with  the City’s 2020 Environmental Recognition Award for serving on the Technical Advisory Subcommittee of the Community Choice Energy Advisory Committee, leading to formation of Valley Clean Energy.

CCAs don’t undermine their mission by taking a share of Diablo Canyon

Northern California community choice aggregators (CCAs) are considering whether to accept an offer from PG&E to allocate a proportionate share of its “large carbon-free” generation as a credit against the power charge indifference adjustment (PCIA) exit fee.  The allocation would include a share of Diablo Canyon power. The allocation for 2019 and 2020; an extension of this allocation is being discussed on the PCIA rulemaking.

The proposal faces opposition from anti-nuclear and local community activists who point to the policy adopted by many CCAs not to accept any nuclear power in their portfolios. However, this opposition is misguided for several reasons, some of which are discussed in this East Bay Community Energy staff report.

  • The CCAs already receive and pay for nuclear generation as part of the mix of “unspecified” power that the CCAs buy through the California Independent System Operator (CAISO). The entire cost of Diablo Canyon is included in the Total Portfolio Cost used to calculate the PCIA. The CCAs receive a “market value” credit against this generation, but the excess cost of recovering the investment in Diablo Canyon (for which PG&E is receiving double payment based on calculations I made in 1996) is recovered through the PCIA. The CCAs can either continue to pay for Diablo through the PCIA without receiving any direct benefits, or they can at least gain some benefits and potentially lower their overall costs. (CCAs need to be looking at their TOTAL generation costs, not just their individual portfolio, when resource planning.)
  • Diablo Canyon is already scheduled to close Unit 1 in 2024 and Unit 2 in 2025 after a contentious proceeding. This allocation is unlikely to change this decision as PG&E has said that the relicensed plant would cost in excess of $100 per megawatt-hour, well in excess of its going market value. I have written extensively here about how costly nuclear power has been and has yet to show that it can reduce those costs. Unless the situation changes significantly, Diablo Canyon will close then.
  • Given that Diablo is already scheduled for closure, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) is unlikely to revisit this decision. But even so, a decision 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 would not open until almost 2021. The actual proceeding would take up to a year, so now we are 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 is likely no capital additions avoided by the early closure, so the cost savings would be minimal.

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.

PG&E has cost California over $3 billion by mismanaging its RPS portfolio

CCA Savings

When community choice aggregators take up serving PG&E customers, PG&E saves the cost of having to procure power for the departed load. Instead the CCAs bear that cost for that power. The savings to PG&E’s bundled customers are not fully reflected when calculating the exit fee (known as the power charge indifference adjustment or PCIA) for those CCAs. As a result, the exit fee does not reflect the true value that CCAs provide to PG&E and its bundled customers.

The chart above shows the realized and potential savings to PG&E from the departure of CCA customers. The realized part is the avoided costs of procuring resources to meet that load, shown in yellow. The second part is the foregone sales opportunity if PG&E had sold a portion of its portfolio to the CCAs at the going price when they departed. In 2019, these combined savings could have reached $3.2 billion if PG&E had acted prudently.

Many local governments launched CCAs to address their climate goals, and CCAs issued multiple requests for offers of RPS energy.  However, PG&E failed to respond to this opportunity to sell excess renewable energy no longer needed to serve their customers.  By deciding to hold these unneeded resources in a declining market, PG&E accumulated additional losses every year.  Indeed, the assigned Judge on the exit-fee proceeding at the CPUC concluded that PG&E must benefit from “holding back the RECs [renewable energy credits] for some reason.”

This willingness to hold onto an unneeded resource that loses value every year is contrary to prudent management.  However, shareholders, are shielded entirely from contract that are too costly, and only pay penalties for failing to meet RPS targets.  Instead, ratepayers—both bundled and CCA—pay all of the excessive costs, and shareholders only have a strong incentive to over-procure using those ratepayer dollars to avoid any possibility of reduced shareholder profits.  Holding these contracts also inflates the exit-fee departed customers must pay, making it harder for alternatives like public power and distributed generation to PG&E to thrive.

When Sonoma Clean Power launched in 2014, the average price of RPS energy was $128/MWh.  It has declined every year, and now sits at $57/MWh.  PG&E’s decision to not sell excess energy at 2014 prices, and to protect shareholders at the expense of ratepayers has cost customers over $3 billion dollars in the last 6 years as shown in the green columns below.  As RPS prices continue to decline, and the amount of customer departing increases, this figure will continue to increase every year.  Indeed, it surpassed $1.1 billion for 2019 alone.

PGAE Mismanagement Costs

Further, the hedging value of the RPS resources that PG&E listed as key attribute of holding these PPAs instead of disposing of them has diminished dramatically since PG&E pushed that as its strategy in its 2014 Bundled Procurement Plan. As shown in the chart above, the hedge value fell $1.3 billion from 2014 to 2019, from a high of $961 million to a burden of $343 million. PG&E’s hedge now adds $33/MWH to the cost of its renewables portfolio.

In comparison, Southern California Edison’s renewables portfolio costs just under $20/MWH less than PG&E’s. SCE did not rush into signing PPAs like PG&E and did not sign them for as long of terms as PG&E.

 

PG&E apologizes, yet again

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(Image: ABC 7 News)

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.
  • Failing to install distribution shut off equipment that was installed by San Diego Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison after the 2007 wildfires in Southern  California.
  • 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.
  • Failing to act in May 2000 to end the “competitive transition” period of California’s restructuring by agreeing to the market valuation of its hydropower system.
  • 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.

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.

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 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)