Less Than Revolutionary Finance

I’ve gotten some good natured pushback on the idea of buying oneself out of corporate servitude.  The objection seems to come in two general forms.

  1. 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.
  2. 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?

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Buy Yourself Out

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 slave: someone over 40 who makes more than $100,000 but still has a boss.
— Nassim Taleb

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.

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US EIA on the Economics of Coal: No Comment

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]

This stands in contrast to the footnotes for the same table in their 2011 Annual Coal Report, and many prior years:

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]

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HSBC is too big to jail

HSBC spent years laundering money for terrorist groups and drug cartels, with the complicity of top executives, and they will not be prosecuted, because they’re too important to the global economy, or some such bollocks.  Instead the bank will be fined the equivalent of one month’s worth of profits.  The plutocrats are above the law.  This story doesn’t end well.  For any of us.

Could utility ratepayers be paid to accept fuel price risk?

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:

  1. Traditional fossil fuel-based power, that exposes rate payers to the full range of future price fluctuations.
  2. 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.
  3. Fossil fuel-based power that is aggressively hedged, in order to protect rate-payers against future fuel price fluctuations.
  4. 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.

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Renewable Energy Policy by Paul Komor

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.

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Hot Air About Cheap Natural Gas

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.