Price is not the only economic variable to consider in deciding what kind of generation a utility should build. Different kinds of power have different risks associated with them. This is important even if we set aside for the moment the climate risk associated with fossil fuels (e.g. the risk that Miami is going to sink beneath the waves forever within the lifetime of some people now reading this). It’s true even if we ignore the public health consequences of extracting and burning coal and natural gas. As former Colorado PUC chair Ron Binz has pointed out, risk should be an important variable in our planning decisions even within a purely financial, capitalistic framing of the utility resource planning process.
Utility financial risk comes largely from future fuel price uncertainty. Most utility resource planning decisions are made on the basis of expected future prices, without too much thought given to how well constrained those prices are. This is problematic, because building a new power plant is a long-term commitment to buying fuel, and while the guaranteed profits from building the plant go to the utility, the fuel bill goes to the customers. There’s a split incentive between a utility making a long-term commitment to buying fuel, and the customers that end up actually paying for it. Most PUCs also seem to assume that utility customers are pretty risk-tolerant — that we don’t have much desire to insulate ourselves from future fuel price fluctuations. It’s not clear to me how they justify this assumption.
What would happen if we forced the utilities to internalize fuel price risks? The textbook approach to managing financial risk from variable commodity prices is hedging, often with futures contracts (for an intro to futures check out this series on Khan Academy), but they only work as long as there are parties willing to take both sides of the bet. In theory producers want to protect themselves from falling prices, and consumers want to protect themselves from rising prices. Mark Bolinger at Lawrence Berkeley National Labs took a look at all this in a paper I just came across, entitled Wind Power as a Cost-effective Long-term Hedge Against Natural Gas Prices. He found that more than a couple of years into the future and the liquidity of the natural gas futures market dries up. In theory you could hedge 10 years out on the NYMEX exchange, but basically nobody does. Even at 2 years it’s slim!
Geothermal energy is the Earth’s own internal heat. It’s a huge potential resource, but so far it’s seen only very limited use. Traditional geothermal power can only work where there are naturally existing hydrothermal systems that bring the heat of the interior to the surface. A new technique called enhanced (or engineered) geothermal systems (EGS) may make geothermal power much more widely available. If it can be scaled up commercially, EGS will enable us to create hydrothermal systems anywhere there’s hot rock not too deeply buried — which includes a large swath of Colorado. This is potentially significant in the context of creating a zero-carbon electrical system because like hydroelectricity, and unlike wind and solar, geothermal power can be dispatchable: you can turn it on and off at will. This makes it a great complement to intermittent renewable power, as it can be used to fill in the gaps then the wind’s not blowing or the sun’s not shining. It remains to be seen whether it’s technically feasible, and if so at what price, and on what timeline, but it’s certainly worth investigating.
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is at it again, trying to roll back state renewable energy standards nationwide. The argument behind their model bill, entitled the Electricity Freedom Act, is that renewable energy is simply too expensive. The Skeptical Science blog offers a good short debunking of this claim, based on the cost of electricity in states with aggressive renewable energy goals, and how those costs have changed over the last decade. And this is before any social cost of carbon or other more traditional pollutants is incorporated into the price of fossil fuel based electricity.
States with a larger proportion of renewable electricity generation do not have detectably higher electric rates.
Deploying renewable energy sources has not caused electricity prices to increase in those states any faster than in states which continue to rely on fossil fuels.
Although renewable sources receive larger direct government subsidies per unit of electricity generation, fossil fuels receive larger net subsidies, and have received far higher total historical subsidies.
When including indirect subsidies such as the social cost of carbon via climate change, fossil fuels are far more heavily subsidized than renewable energy.
Therefore, transitioning to renewable energy sources, including with renewable electricity standards, has not caused significant electricity rate increases, and overall will likely save money as compared to continuing to rely on fossil fuels, particularly expensive coal.