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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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.

Is an Energy Transformation Afoot?

SunEdison by mesa.photo on flickr

Almost immediately after we empowered Boulder to form a utility, a spate of articles appeared in the national press talking about the relative costs of coal and renewables, and the trends in those costs.  There was Krugman’s Here Comes Solar Energy Op-Ed in the NY Times, making the case that solar PV is already cheaper than coal-fired power once you remove all the subsidies we provide to both of them, and calling for the Feds to fix regulation to make that clear.  Boulder’s own RMI had a bit of commentary on Krugman’s opinion: it’d be nice if Federal regulations were saner, but even without that fix, it makes sense to build this stuff now, and will only make more sense as time goes on and the balance of system costs (which currently make up 50% or more of the cost of a PV installation) are reduced through best practices, standardization and mass production.

From the industry side, GE’s Jeff Immelt also said that federal regulation was a little beside the point now… and that even without government support GE was going all-in, expecting something like 200GW of solar to be built in China and India by the end of the decade.  That’d be a non-trivial amount of generation, on the order of 10 Three Gorges dams, or as much power as the entire US nuclear generation fleet.  Meanwhile NRG Energy, a nationwide and largely traditional fossil-fuel based independent power producer is planning to spend the overwhelming majority of its capital investment funds over the next few years on solar, mostly small utility projects (20-100MW) and distributed rooftop generation.

In the same vein, Xcel Energy’s recently filed 2011 Electric Resource Plan foresees essentially no new generation facilities being built until close to the end of the decade.  Some of this is attributable to the soft economy, but many people are saying it’s just as much a consequence of energy efficiency, demand side management, and increasing distributed (behind-the-meter) generation coming on line.  Unfortunately, Xcel added a gigawatt of coal generation to its grid last year, and this lack of demand for more energy means the company is now walking away from the transmission lines that would have enabled large-scale solar-thermal with storage in the San Luis Valley.  This means that the only way to shift Xcel’s power mix in the near future will be to accelerate the retirement of existing coal-fired generation, making room for more efficiency, wind, and solar.

The optimistic narrative that falls out of the articles above — that our energy systems are undergoing a transformation — seems plausible, and I hope that it’s true.  Certainly it’s the one that the Boulder Light and Power effort is going to be built around.  It’s comforting to see that we’re not alone on the world stage, and less daunting to imagine our job as facilitating an ongoing transformation, rather than starting one from scratch.

Links for the week of October 15th, 2009

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