Building a new coal or gas plant is a wager that fuel will continue to be available at a reasonable price over the lifetime of the plant, a lifetime measured in decades. Unfortunately, nobody has a particularly good record with long term energy system predictions so this is a fairly risky bet, unless you can get somebody to sign a long term fuel contract with a known price. That doesn’t really get rid of the risk, it just shifts it onto your fuel supplier. They take on the risk that they won’t make as much money as they could have, if they’d been able to sell the fuel at (higher) market rates. If the consumer is worried about rising prices, and the producer is worried about falling prices, then sometimes this can be a mutually beneficial arrangement. This is called “hedging”.
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!
PEAK COAL REPORT: U.S. COAL “RESERVES” ARE INCORRECTLY CALCULATED, SUPPOSED 200-YEAR SUPPLY COULD RUN OUT IN 20 YEARS OR LESS
Federal Estimates Overstate Reserves by Including Coal That Cannot Be Mined Profitably; Production Already Down in All Major Coal Mining States… And Utility Consumers Are Facing Rising Energy Bill Prices.
WASHINGTON, D.C. – October 30, 2013 – America does not have 200 years in coal “reserves” since much of the coal that is now left in the ground cannot be mined profitably, according to a major new report from the Boulder, CO-based nonprofit Clean Energy Action (CEA). The CEA analysis shows that the U.S. appears to have reached its “peak coal” point in 2008 and now faces a rocky future over the next 10-20 years of rising coal production costs, potentially more bankruptcies among coal mining companies, and higher fuel bills for utility consumers.
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.