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.
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!
We should begin levying a modest carbon tax, in the range of $5 to $25/ton of CO2e.
The tax must be applied to the fossil fuels used in electricity generation (coal and natural gas). Ideally it should also be applied to gasoline, diesel, natural gas used outside the power sector, and fugitive methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, but those are less important for the moment.
New electricity generation resources must be allowed to compete economically with the operation of existing carbon-intensive facilities, and fuel costs must not be blindly passed through to consumers without either rigorous regulatory oversight, or utilities sharing fuel price risk.
Carbon tax revenues should be spent on emissions mitigation, providing reliable, low-cost financing for energy efficiency measures and a standard-offer contract with modest performance-based returns for new renewable generation.
Over time the carbon price should be increased and applied uniformly across all segments of the economy, with the eventual integration of consumption based emissions footprinting for imported goods.
NRDC blogs about a new study on federal use of discount rates in calculation of carbon costs, which suggests we grossly underestimate the present value of reducing emissions. Did you even know that the feds had put an internal price on CO2? They behave as if it costs $21/ton to emit. But that’s based on a discount rate of around 3%, which is the highest rate OMB suggests using for inter-generational costs. Part II of the very detailed NRDC post is here.
Lawrence Berkeley National Labs has put out a report on the state of the wind energy industry, as of the end of 2011. I didn’t realize that the price trend had been so uneven over the last decade. The cost of wind power was dropping in the early 2000s, and then rebounded, peaking in 2008/2009 due to shortages in the turbine supply chain, before again dropping in the last year or two. I started looking into these prices because I’m reading a Renewable Energy Policy by Paul Komor (2004) and the prices he quotes ($40-$50/MWh) seem low, relative to the numbers from Xcel’s ERP and the recent bids I saw in Michigan (more like $60/MWh), but the book was written right at the wind price bottom. I’m also shocked at how wide the spread in costs is, even in just the last couple of years. California is paying $100/MWh for huge projects, and in the wind belt some projects are coming in more like $25/MWh. That’s got to be largely policy driven, and it indicates we’ve got a woefully inefficient market for wind.
Prices affect parking less than San Francisco expected, in its ongoing SFPark experiment, fully implementing dynamic parking prices with target occupancy rates. Apparently people are willing to pay quite a bit more to be right next to their destination, instead of even one block away. Either that, or they don’t realize how much parking prices vary block by block. Perhaps each of the parking kiosks should have a prominent street-facing display, readable by drivers, advertizing the price they charge per hour?