A Decoupling Update

So, it’s been quite a while since our last long policy post, focusing on utility revenue decoupling in connection with Xcel’s current rate case (14AL-0660E) before the Colorado PUC.  That’s because we’ve been busy actually intervening in the case!

A Climate Intervention

We filed our motion to intervene in early August.  As you might already know, in order to be granted leave to intervene, you have to demonstrate that your interests aren’t already adequately represented by the other parties in the case.  Incredibly, CEA’s main interest — ensuring that Colorado’s electricity system is consistent with stabilizing the Earth’s climate — was not explicitly mentioned by any of the other parties!

In our petition we highlighted our mission:

…to educate the public and support a shift in public policy toward a zero carbon economy.  CEA brings a unique perspective on the economics of utility regulation and business models related to mitigating the large and growing risks associated with anthropogenic climate change.  In addition, CEA has an interest in transitioning away from fuel-based electric generation in order to mitigate the purely economic risk associated with inherently unpredictable future fuel costs.

…and we were granted intervention.  So far as we know, this is the first time that concern over climate change has been used as the primary interest justifying intervention at the PUC in Colorado.  In and of itself, this is a win.

A Long and Winding Road

Throughout the late summer, we spent many hours poring over the thousands of pages of direct testimony.  Especially Xcel’s decoupling proposal, but also (with the help of some awesome interns), the details of the company’s as-of-yet undepreciated generation facilities — trying to figure out how much the system might be worth, and so how much it might cost to just buy it out and shut it down (were we, as a society, so inclined).

Early on in the process, the PUC asked all the parties to submit briefs explaining why we thought it was appropriate to consider decoupling in the rate case, whether it represented a collateral attack on decisions that had already been made in the DSM strategic issues docket, and how it would interact with the existing DSM programs.  We pulled together a response, as did the other intervening parties, and kept working on our answer testimony — a much longer response to Xcel’s overall proposal.  The general consensus among the parties that filed briefs, including CEA, SWEEP, WRA, and The Alliance for Solar Choice (TASC, a solar industry group representing big installers like Solar City) was that decoupling was not an attempt to roll back previous PUC decisions related to DSM — and that addressing it in a rate case was appropriate.  Only the Colorado Healthcare Electric Coordinating Council (CHECC, a coalition of large healthcare facilities and energy consumers) told the PUC that decoupling ought to be considered an attack on previous DSM policies.

The PUC staff unfortunately came back with a reply brief that disagreed and suggested, among other things, that maybe it would be better if we just went with a straight fixed/variable rate design to address utility fixed cost recovery.  Never mind the fact that this kind of rate would destroy most of the incentives customers have to use energy efficiently.

And then we waited.

With baited breath each Wednesday morning we tuned in to the Commissioners’ Weekly Meeting, streaming live over the interwebs from the Windowless Room in Denver.  We watched regardless of whether anything related to our dear little 14AL-0660E was on their agenda.  Just in case they tried to sneak it by.  Weeks passed.  And then a month.  The deadline for submitting our answer testimony approached.

Finally on October 29th, six weeks after submitting our brief, the commissioners finally brought up the issue of decoupling at their weekly meeting and in a couple of minutes, indicated that they’d be severing it from the proceeding, with little explanation as to why.  However, because there were no details, and the order isn’t official until it’s issued in writing… we continued working on our answer testimony.  The final order came out on November 5th, and prohibited submission of testimony related to decoupling.  Answer testimony was due on November 7th.

Where to From Here?

Xcel might come back to the PUC with another decoupling proposal before the next Electric Resource Plan (in fall of 2015) .  Or they might not.  This means that a good chunk of the work that we’ve been doing since this summer will have to come to light in a different way.  So for the next few posts, we’re going to explore some of the issues that came up in the preparation of our answer testimony, including:

  • Decoupling and Distributed Energy:
    How would decoupling interact with distributed energy resources like rooftop solar?  What are the implications for utilities as the costs of those resources continue their precipitous decline?
  • Decoupling and Demand Side Management:
    How would revenue decoupling interact with demand side management programs in general — both utility and privately or locally funded — and what particular issues with Xcel’s DSM programs could decoupling address?  What issues can’t it help address?
  • Can Revenue Decoupling Scale?
    Why doesn’t revenue decoupling as a policy really scale up to the point of  taking existing generation facilities offline, or preventing new facilities from being built?
  • Decoupling as a First Step:
    Even if it can’t scale, why might decoupling still serve as a useful starting point for the decarbonization process? Can it give us a little bit of breathing room while we start the real negotiation? Or is it just another layer of financial protection for utilities who want to delay change as long as possible?
  • Realism and Equity in Carbon Budgets for Colorado:
    What is the true scope of the decarbonization challenge, in the context of the carbon budgets recently published by the IPCC in their Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), but localized to Colorado so we can actually wrap our heads around it.  Why is this conversation so hard?

Learn more about utility revenue decoupling on our resource page…

Featured image of binders (full of PUC filings…) courtesy of  Christian Schnettelker on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons Attribution License.

Utilities Decoupling to Cover Their… Assets

Last month, Xcel Energy subsidiary Public Service Company of Colorado (PSCo) filed a rate case at the Colorado Public Utilities Commission (Docket: 14AL-0660E).  A lot of the case — the part that’s gotten most of the press — is about PSCo recovering the costs of retiring and retrofitting coal plants as agreed to under the Clean Air Clean Jobs Act (CACJA) of 2010.  However, there’s a piece of the case that could have much wider implications.  Way down deep in the last piece of direct testimony, PSCo witness Scott B. Brockett:

…provides support and recommendations regarding the initiation of a decoupling mechanism for residential and small commercial customers.

This recommendation has captivated all of us here at CEA because it could open the door to Xcel adopting a radically different business model, and becoming much more of an energy services utility (PDF), fit for the 21st century.

To explain why, we’re going to have to delve a ways into the weeds of the energy wonkosphere.

Continue reading Utilities Decoupling to Cover Their… Assets

Facing the Risk in Fossil Fueled Electricity

I recently wrote about how our risk tolerance/aversion powerfully affects our estimation of the social cost of carbon, but obviously that’s not the only place that risk shows up in our energy systems.  Fossil fuel based electricity is also exposed to a much more prosaic kind of risk: the possibility that fuel prices will increase over time.

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”.

Continue reading Facing the Risk in Fossil Fueled Electricity

Geology and Markets, not EPA, Waging War on Coal

With the release of the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed rules limiting carbon pollution from the nation’s electricity sector, you’ve no doubt been hearing a lot of industry outrage about “Obama’s War on Coal.”

Don’t believe it.

Despite the passionate rhetoric from both sides of the climate divide, the proposed rules are very moderate — almost remedial.  The rules grade the states on a curve, giving each a tailored emissions target meant to be attainable without undue hardship.  For states that have already taken action to curb greenhouse gasses, and have more reductions in the works, they will be easy to meet.  California, Oregon, Washington, and Colorado, are all several steps ahead of the proposed federal requirements — former Colorado Governor Bill Ritter told Colorado Public Radio that he expects the state to meet the proposed federal emissions target for 2030 in 2020, a decade ahead of schedule.  This isn’t to say that Colorado has particularly clean power — our state has the 10th most carbon intensive electricity in the country, with about 63% of it coming from coal — but we’ve at least started the work of transitioning.

Furthermore, many heavily coal dependent states that have so far chosen to ignore the imperatives of climate change (e.g. Wyoming, West Virginia, Kentucky) must only attain single-digit percentage reductions, and would be permitted to remain largely coal dependent all the way up to 2030.  Roger Pielke Jr. and others have pointed out that in isolation, the new rules would be expected to reduce the amount of coal we burn by only about 15%, relative to 2012 by 2020.  By 2030, we might see an 18% reduction in coal use compared to 2012.  Especially when you compare these numbers to the 25% reduction in coal use that took place between 2005 and 2012, and the far more aggressive climate goals that even Republicans were advocating for just two presidential elections ago, it becomes hard to paint the regulations as extreme.  Instead, they look more like a binding codification of plans that already exist on the ground, and a gentle kick in the pants for regulatory laggards to get on board with at least a very basic level of emissions mitigation.

So, in isolation, there’s a limited amount to get either excited or angry about here.  Thankfully, the EPA’s rules will not be operating in isolation!

Continue reading Geology and Markets, not EPA, Waging War on Coal

The Myth of Price

Our society’s prevailing economic zeitgeist assumes that everything has a price, and that both costs and prices can be objectively calculated, or at least agreed upon by parties involved in the transaction.  There are some big problems with this proposition.

Externalized costs are involuntary transactions — those on the receiving end of the externalities have not agreed to the deal.  Putting a price on carbon can theoretically remedy this failure in the context of climate change.  In practice it’s much more complicated, because our energy markets are not particularly efficient (as we pointed out in our Colorado carbon fee proposal, and as the ACEEE has documented well), and because there are many subsidies (some explicit, others structural) that confound the integration of externalized costs into our energy prices.

The global pricing of energy and climate externalities is obviously a huge challenge that we need to address, and despite our ongoing failure to reduce emissions, there’s been a pretty robust discussion about externalities.  As our understanding of climate change and its potentially catastrophic economic consequences have matured, our estimates of these costs have been revised, usually upwards.  We acknowledge the fact that these costs exist, even if we’re politically unwilling to do much about them.

Unfortunately — and surprisingly to most people — it turns out that understanding how the climate is going to change and what the economic impacts of those changes will be is not enough information to calculate the social cost of carbon. Continue reading The Myth of Price

In Good Company: A Look at Global Coal Reserve Revisions

In my last post, I recounted some of the indications that have surfaced over the last decade that US coal reserves might not be as large as we think.  The work done by the USGS assessing our reserves, and more recently comments from the coal industry themselves cast doubt on the common refrain that the US is “the Saudi Arabia of coal” and the idea that we have a couple of centuries worth of the fuel just laying around, waiting to be burned.  As it turns out, the US isn’t alone in having potentially unreliable reserve numbers.  Over the decades, many other major coal producing nations have also dramatically revised their reserve estimates.

Internationally the main reserve compilations are done by the UN’s World Energy Council (WEC) and to some degree also the German equivalent of the USGS, known as the BGR. Virtually all global (publicly viewable) statistics on fossil fuel reserves are traceable back to one of those two agencies. For instance, the coal reserve numbers in the International Energy Agency’s (IEA’s) 2011 World Energy Outlook came from the BGR; the numbers in BP’s most recent Statistical Review of Energy came from the WEC.

Of course, both the WEC and the BGR are largely dependent on numbers reported by national agencies (like the USGS, the EIA and the SEC in the case of the US), who compile data directly from state and regional geologic survey and mining agencies, fossil fuel consumers, producers, and the markets that they make up.

Looking back through the years at internationally reported coal reserve numbers, it’s surprisingly common to see big discontinuous revisions.  Below are a few examples from the WEC Resource Surveys going back to 1950, including some of the world’s largest supposed coal reserve holders.  In all cases, the magnitude of the large reserve revisions is much greater than annual coal production can explain.

Continue reading In Good Company: A Look at Global Coal Reserve Revisions

A Long Time Coming: Revising US Coal Reserves

In my previous post I highlighted the recent, quiet admission by the US EIA (in a fine-print footnote to Table 15 of their 2012 Annual Coal Report) that they do not know what fraction of our nation’s large store of coal resources might be economically accessible, and thus potentially classified as reserves.

CEA has long highlighted indications that a revision like this might be in the works, including in our most recent round of coal reports issued last fall (see: Warning: Faulty Reporting of US Coal Reserves).  But we’re not the only ones.  Plenty of other people have pointed out the same thing over the years.  Including…

Continue reading A Long Time Coming: Revising US Coal Reserves

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]

Continue reading US EIA on the Economics of Coal: No Comment

Now We’re Hedging With Wind

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!

Average Volume and Open Interest in NYMEX Gas Futures Contracts

Continue reading Now We’re Hedging With Wind

Kevin Anderson and Getting to 2°C

Reading the the Copenhagen accords of 2009, it would seem that virtually the entire world has signed up to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at levels that will keep warming below 2°C, consistent with the scientific understanding of the climate system, and on an equitable basis globally.  Unfortunately, virtually nobody is considering policies that actually lead to that outcome.  Among others, the International Energy Agency (IEA) notes that our current emissions trajectory is consistent with 6°C of warming by the end of the century, which is considered by many to be inconsistent with an organized global civilization.  In fact, even if we implemented all the “reasonable” policies we’ve talked about so far (which we’re not doing) the outcome looks a lot more like 4°C than 2°C.

Yet almost nobody is willing to either give up on 2°C publicly, or — maybe more constructively — start a serious discussion about what scientifically grounded, equitable policies that are actually likely to result in less than 2°C of warming look like.  Almost nobody, but not quite.

For the last several years Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows of the Tyndall Center for Climate Research in the UK have been trying to publicize this massive disconnect, and get policymakers and the public to acknowledge that in reality there are only radical futures to choose from — either a radical alteration of the climate, or the radical emissions reductions required to avoid it.  There is no status quo option.  Anderson and Bows are critical of both the scientific establishment for playing down this disconnect, and leaders for refusing to acknowledge in public what some of them understand very well in private.

This conversation isn’t going to go away any time soon.  Some selections:

Here’s an hour-long invited talk by Anderson at the Cabot Institute from 2012:

Continue reading Kevin Anderson and Getting to 2°C