I first came across Jeff Goodell’s writing in Rolling Stone, which published Why the City of Miami is Doomed to Drown in 2013. (Interestingly, the article has since been re-named Miami: How Rising Sea Levels Endanger South Florida.) I’ve referred to that article many times as a case study in the creeping reality of sea level rise, and society’s denial of the issues at hand, so I grabbed a copy of The Water Will Come as soon as I heard it existed. Plus, I get a shiver every time I say the title. It’s almost biblical. Like something out of the Book of Revelations. Messianic and mythic, but… also true.
But Goodell’s book begins and ends with Miami, making forays to Venice, the Netherlands, Manhattan, and Lagos in between. It reads like a kind of disaster tourism — the author seeking out people and places in various stages of realization about sea level rise, and presses them into acknowledging what it means for their city, their livelihood, their future. The responses range from denial, to complete freakout, to stoic commitment to place — going down with the ship.
A good High Country News story about the problem of orphaned methane wells in Colorado & Wyoming. Well operators “become bankrupt” and walk away, leaving the public to cover cleanup costs. In theory, operators have to put a bond up to get a permit, but the bond isn’t enough to cover cleanup costs. One operator named Atom recently forfeited a $60K bond on 50 wells, which subsequently cost the public ~$600K to clean up. The same problem exists with reclamation bonds covering coal mines on federal land in Wyoming, except the dollar values are three orders of magnitude larger.
If the bond amounts were much larger, the money vs. time curve of a methane well or coal mine would start to look much more like that of a wind or solar installation, from capital’s point of view. Big reclamation bonds would look like part of a big up front investment, which is then followed by a long trickle of income as the mine or well produces over its lifetime.
You can slosh the costs & profits around through PPAs and other arrangements, but at a basic level, that big up front cost + long trickle of income is the fundamental cashflow time series of renewables too. Even if these different energy investments all add up to the same dollar value, the time distribution matters, because capital often just cares about net present value. (See Dave Roberts’ famous Discount Rates: A Boring Thing You Should Know About With Otters!)
From an extractor’s point of view, pushing the reclamation costs into the future makes them unimportant, because they’re discounted to the present. By the time they loom large, the true remaining value of the well or mine is already negative, with cleanup costs included. And the only rational thing to do at that point is to walk away. That’s what bankruptcy is for. But in this case, the counterparty is the public, and we have no upside risk.
The public takes on the environmental or cleanup costs of the mine or well at the outset, rather than internalizing those costs within the business decision. To put energy investments without those environmental or cleanup costs on equal footing, you’d need to give them up front or ongoing subsidies. And here we’re just talking about the traditional “environmental” costs — not the climate costs.
Half of finance and capital markets is just smuggling money through time. We can pull piles of it back from the future. Or we can exile our debts to the future. From and to those people we don’t think are us. The other half of finance seems to do the same thing with risks, extracting certainty from others, pushing uncertainty onto others, moving uncertainty through time. Trying to keep upside uncertainty, and lose downside uncertainty.
Contingency of Financial Autonomy: Deriving financial autonomy from investments in corporations whose operations are fundamentally destructive creates a morally corrosive dependency — your interests end up being aligned with theirs, because your autonomy depends on them remaining profitable.
Opportunity Costs: Even if investing in corporations doesn’t actually give them financial support, there’s an opportunity cost: the same money could be used to invest in small local businesses or social enterprises. Wouldn’t that be more powerful and potentially transformational?
Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need, to impress people we don’t like.
— Tyler Durden (Fight Club)
A couple of weeks ago I ran a workshop on retirement investing for some other co-op folks. I’ve run this workshop before, but lately I’ve been thinking about it differently. Turns out calling it “retirement” investing can be a turn-off when you’re talking to a bunch of mission driven people who are working on things they love, and think they’ll never want to “retire.” The word can have a connotation of hedonism or idleness. The permanent worthless vacation. Or just sitting around waiting to die. “Early retirement” serves no purpose when the work you do is done primarily because you believe in it. There’s also a sense with “retirement investing” that you can’t touch the money until you’re old. Which is a long-ass time if you’re in your early twenties.
So I’ve started thinking about it as “autonomy investing” instead — becoming financially autonomous quickly, so that you can do the work you’re compelled to do. Without having to worry about whether your political activism will put your job at risk. Without caring if your mission is compatible with the Nonprofit Industrial Complex and their funding metrics. Without having to work a soul-sucking day job that leaves you too fried to spend your evenings and weekends on civic engagement and organizing. Or alternatively… without having to beg investors to pay your living expenses while you work on the early stages of your startup idea.
This is, essentially, the project of buying yourself out of corporate servitude.
At the end of 2013, the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) acknowledged that it does not know whether the vast majority of US coal can be mined profitably. If coal mining isn’t profitable, then barring some grand socialist enterprise the black stuff is probably going to stay in the ground where it belongs.
You might think this kind of revision would have warranted a press release, but the EIA’s change of heart was buried in a fine-print footnote to Table 15 of their 2012 Annual Coal Report, which tallies up all the coal resources and reserves in the US, state by state. The new footnote says:
EIA’s estimated recoverable reserves include the coal in the demonstrated reserve base considered recoverable after excluding coal estimated to be unavailable due to land use restrictions, and after applying assumed mining recovery rates. This estimate does not include any specific economic feasibility criteria. [emphasis added]
EIA’s estimated recoverable reserves include the coal in the demonstrated reserve base considered recoverable after excluding coal estimated to be unavailable due to land use restrictions or currently economically unattractive for mining, and after applying assumed mining recovery rates. [emphasis added]
Rural counties across middle America are turning paved roads back into gravel. The WSJ article is from 2010, and I wonder to what extent this trend has continued. I can’t say that it seems like much of a loss. I suspect that much of the rural pavement was laid down without a good understanding of how much O&M it was committing the local governments to paying for. As state and federal budgets shrink, and counties are left to pay for their own infrastructure, they realize that maybe cheaper gravel and lower speeds are actually a better value proposition.
Risk isn’t free; it’s a traded commodity with a price. Most prudent financial entities with a lot of exposure to the prices of natural resources try to manage unpredictable fluctuations in those prices by trading in risk. Producers worry about prices being too low; consumers need to protect against prices being too high. Risk trading (hedging) allows the two types of parties to share these risks, and so create a more stable market overall. Stable prices are good for business. You can plan around them in the long term, even if they end up being a bit higher on average.
In regulated electricity markets like we have in Colorado, fuel price risk often ends up being borne primarily by the rate payers rather than by the utility companies. In theory, state regulators ought act on behalf of the public (energy consumers) to accurately represent their tolerance of or aversion to risk in the resource planning process. Historically, the implicit assumption has been that the rate paying public is fairly risk tolerant, i.e. very little has been done from a regulatory point of view to avoid the potential detrimental effects of future fuel price volatility. This is a historical accident. Until recently, we didn’t have much choice in the matter. Of all the major sources of power available a century ago when we began electrifying society, only hydroelectric is similar in terms of its capital and operating structure to distributed renewables like wind and solar. All three have relatively large up front capital costs, and low ongoing operating and maintenance expenses. But for most of the time we’ve had electricity, most of that electricity has necessarily been dependent on fossil fuels, and so the question of whether or not customers wanted to take on the risk of future fuel cost fluctuations was immaterial. Fuel was the only option for expanding our electricity supply once we’d tapped the easily accessible hydro — if you wanted lots of power, it simply came with fuel price risks. This is no longer the case. Today, we have options that trade off between cost and risk, but so far as I can tell we haven’t done a good job of talking about the entire spectrum of possibilities. Broadly they seem to fall into four categories:
Traditional fossil fuel-based power, that exposes rate payers to the full range of future price fluctuations.
Capital intensive, fuel-free power like wind, solar, enhanced geothermal and hydro which have a range of prices, that are very predictable over the 20+ year lifetime of the capital investment.
Fossil fuel-based power that is aggressively hedged, in order to protect rate-payers against future fuel price fluctuations.
Fuel-free power with predictable future costs, combined with someone else’s fuel cost risks, which rate-payers would be paid to take on.
The first two options are the most commonly discussed. The third — hedged fossil fuels — is becoming somewhat more common, with some public utility commissions requiring the utilities they regulate to dampen fuel cost fluctuations. However, they generally do not require the utilities to hedge to the point where the risk profile of the fossil fuel option is similar to that of fuel-free power sources. This is what makes the fourth option interesting.
I just finished reading Renewable Energy Policy by Paul Komor (2004). It’s a little book, giving a simplified overview of the electricity industry in the US and Europe, and the ways in which various jurisdictions have attempted to incentivize the development of renewable electricity generation. The book’s not that old, but the renewable energy industry has changed dramatically in the last decade, so it seems due for an update. There’s an order of magnitude more capacity built out now than ten years ago. Costs have dropped significantly for PV, but not for wind (according to this LBNL report and the associated slides). We’ve got a much longer baseline on which to evaluate the feed-in tariffs and renewable portfolio standards being used in EU member countries and US states. I wonder if any of his conclusions or preferences have been altered as a result? In particular, Komor is clearly not a fan of feed-in tariffs, suggesting that while they are effective, they are not efficient — i.e. you end up paying a higher than necessary price for the renewable capacity that gets built. This German report suggests otherwise, based on the costs of wind capacity built across Europe. Are the Germans just biased toward feed-in tariffs because they’ve committed so many resources to them? NREL also seems to be relatively supportive of feed-in tariff based policies, but maybe this is because the design of such policies has advanced in the last decade, better accounting for declines in the cost of renewables over time, and differentiating between resources of different quality and utility.
When people compare the cost of gas-fired electricity and renewables, they usually don’t price fuel cost risks, and at this point that’s really just not intellectually honest. Risk-adjusted price comparisons are very difficult because nobody will sell a 30 year fixed price gas supply contract, and that’s what you’d need to buy to actually know how much your gas-fired electricity will cost. Even a 10 year futures contract doubles or triples the cost of gas. You can’t buy renewables without their intrinsic fuel-price hedge, and that hedge is valuable. The question shouldn’t be “Is wind the absolute cheapest option right now?” it should be “Given that wind will cost $60/MWh, are we willing to live with that energy cost in order not to have to worry about future price fluctuations?” And I think the answer should clearly be yes, even before you start pricing carbon.