Dysfunctional gas market cost New England electric customers $3.6 billion

This blog post was co-authored with Levi Marks, Charles Mason and Matthew Zaragoza-Watkins

New England natural gas and electricity prices have undergone dramatic spikes in recent years, spurring talk about the need for a costly new pipeline to meet the region’s needs as demand for gas seemed ready to overtake suppliers’ available capacity to deliver it. For example, during the polar vortex of 2013-14, the gas price at New England’s main gas trading hub regularly exceeded $20/MMBtu (million British Thermal Units, the measure commonly used in the gas industry) and reached a record high of $78/MMBtu on January 22, 2014, compared to the annual average of $5.50/MMBtu.

In an efficient market, we would indeed expect prices to be high during events like the polar vortex. We would also expect pipelines delivering gas to regions like the Boston area – in this case the Algonquin Gas Transmission (AGT) pipeline – to be fully utilized. But this is not what we observed when we analyzed the scheduling patterns on the AGT pipeline from 2013 to 2016.

What 8 million data points told us about artificial shortages

Our research group spent 18 months looking at eight million data points covering the three-year period from mid-2013 to mid-2016. We discovered that during this period, a handful of New England gas utilities owned by two large energy companies routinely scheduled large deliveries, then cancelled orders at the last minute. These scheduling practices created an artificial shortage when in fact there was far more pipeline capacity on the system than it appeared.

As a result, we estimate that New England electricity customers paid $3.6 billion more over this period than they would have if the unused pipeline capacity had been available to deliver gas for electricity generation (for more information on how we calculated this number, visit our methodology page). As for the need for a new pipeline, our analysis shows that energy prices over this period were inflated, which means they should not be used to assess how much, if any, additional pipeline capacity is needed. Both conclusions illustrate why it’s so important (and how valuable it could be) to fix the interface between the gas and electric markets.

Why unused pipeline capacity impacts electricity prices

Although it was natural gas that was supposedly in short supply over this period, electricity prices also experienced large price spikes. That’s due to the way electricity prices are set, and the fact that much of the electricity in New England, as in much of the country, is increasingly generated using natural gas.

About half of the electricity traded in New England’s wholesale electricity market, ISO New England (ISO-NE), comes from gas-fired generators. For any given hour, the wholesale electricity price for all generators in this market is determined by the last (highest) bid needed to meet customer demand (or “clear the market”). This market clearing price is typically (75 percent of the time) set by a natural gas plant, which means their cost for gas and pipeline transportation tends to drive the price of electricity. That cost is largely determined by the spot price of natural gas at Algonquin Citygate, New England’s main gas trading hub, served by the Algonquin Pipeline.

The figure below shows a stylized generation supply curve for ISO-NE. The lower cost resources to the left (typically solar, wind and hydro) are generally used before the higher cost plants to the right (coal, gas, petroleum). The plants situated where demand meets the supply curve set the overall market price in any given hour (bids are submitted a day ahead of time in the day ahead market). This is typically one of the natural gas plants represented by the red dots on the middle part of the curve. A higher spot price for natural gas increases the marginal cost of gas-fired generators, shifting the generation supply curve up as seen in the second panel. This translates into a higher marginal cost of meeting a given level of electricity demand and thus a higher wholesale electricity price P*.

 

Stylized generation supply curve for ISO-NE.

What price do electric generators pay for gas? The secondary market for natural gas

In New England, as in many other markets, gas-fired electricity generators generally procure gas from a secondary market, where sellers are usually natural gas utilities that purchase long-term contracts at regulated prices directly from the pipeline company. The secondary market exists because these long-term contracts allow contract holders to sell any unused capacity at unregulated prices to gas-fired generators or others.

Generators buying in the secondary market for gas do so because they have decided it is more cost-effective to procure natural gas transportation that way than to grapple with rigid, long-term contracts for pipeline capacity that don’t fit their highly variable needs.

While the amount of pipeline capacity available to deliver natural gas to New England is fixed, demand for gas fluctuates significantly with external factors such as temperature, as seen by the price spikes experienced during the polar vortex

On days like these, holders of long-term contracts can pocket the difference between the price that buyers in the secondary market are willing to pay for gas deliveries, as indicated by the Algonquin Citygate spot price, and the regulated price they themselves pay the pipeline for that same capacity. In the case of utilities, revenues from such sales are typically to a large extent refunded back to the ratepayers that paid for those long-term contracts in the first place.

How could pipeline capacity go unused during the polar vortex?

We see four local gas utilities (two owned by Eversource, two by Avangrid) that scheduled far more pipeline capacity the day before gas delivery than they ended up using the next day. Repeatedly, these companies downscheduled their orders only at the end of the gas delivery day–too late for that unused capacity to be made available to the secondary market.

The threshold at which last-minute down-scheduling of gas orders impacts gas and electric prices varies depending on daily demand. As a proxy, we looked at how far the scheduling patterns at delivery “nodes” on the pipeline operated by Eversource and Avangrid-owned utilities deviated from the overall system average.

  • On 434 days during the study period, at least one Eversource node made downward scheduling changes more than two standard deviations larger than the average scheduling change made by all firms on the pipeline.
  • On 351 days, at least one Eversource location had a schedule change more than three standard deviations larger than the average.

The Eversource utilities primarily made large downscheduling changes on cold days, while Avangrid made large scheduling cuts far more often.

  • On 1043 days, at least one Avangrid location made downward scheduling change more than two standard deviations larger than the average.
  • On 1031 days, at least one Avangrid location made a downward change more than three standard deviations larger than the average.

Total unused capacity exceeded 100,000 MMBtu on 37 days in the three-year period we looked at, which is roughly 7% of the pipeline’s total daily capacity and 28% of the typical total daily supply to gas-fired generators. That these large amounts of downscheduled pipeline capacity were not made available to New England’s gas-fired generators raised both the gas price for generators as well as the price of electricity for New England’s electricity customers. We estimate that unused pipeline capacity increased average gas and electricity prices by 38% and 20%, respectively, over the three-year period we study.

While this behavior may have been within the companies’ contractual rights, the significant impacts in both the gas and electricity markets show the need to consider improvements to market design and regulation. The gas transportation market must become more transparent and flexible to better ensure that existing pipeline capacity is optimally utilized and that unbiased price signals in both the gas and electricity markets lead to cost-efficient investment in energy infrastructure.

 

Posted in Energy efficiency, Markets 101| Leave a comment

Why rolling back common-sense rules puts taxpayers on the hook for future disasters

This post was co-authored with Beia Spiller

Since 2000, major flood and hurricane disasters have cost the nation $499.5 billion – that’s more than double what floods cost us from 1980 to 1999 – and doesn’t even reflect damages from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, or Maria. You’d think that at a time when our nation faces greater threats from extreme weather, reducing the economic and social costs of flood disasters would be a top priority.

Instead, President Trump rescinded a requirement that federal agencies take future flood risks into greater consideration for federal projects in or affecting floodplains, setting us up for future fiscal disaster. Given the number and size of this year’s hurricanes, and the devastation they have wrought to millions of Americans, it’s clear that we aren’t doing enough to reduce the costs of these disasters. Yet, President Trump’s action, if uncorrected, will increase the costs to our country. Instead of rolling back common-sense rules meant to protect taxpayers, Congress and the administration should be ensuring that our federal investments can better withstand the impacts of flooding.

Where and how we build helps us better cope with disasters and saves money

The two best ways to minimize flood damage losses are: building outside of floodplains and building structures capable of coping with flooding. Federal agencies should be held accountable for implementing these proven best practices.

According to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), benefits of implementing stronger building codes for natural hazards include savings from lowered insurance rates, increased property values, and reduced losses during floods. When building codes offer enhanced protection against the threats of flood-related disasters, communities recover faster and reduce the fiscal pressure on governments responding to damages.

Furthermore, designing for resiliency can be cost-effective. According to one study evaluating the effectiveness of flood building codes, constructing new buildings to withstand floods by increasing their elevation usually costs less than 1% of the total building cost for each foot they are raised. And, given the risks of flooding over time, these investments were found to pay for themselves in as little as one or two years for those areas with the highest risk of flooding. It’s noteworthy that buildings constructed after Andrew, following the more rigorous codes, withstood Irma.

In light of this, it is ironic that the most hurricane-prone state in the country could retreat from its renowned building code system given that Florida Governor Rick Scott signed into law changes to state’s system that had been adopted after Hurricane Andrew. The changes include reducing inspections and the frequency of code updates, and allowing for fewer votes from the state’s Building Commission to make further code revisions. The latter is seen by many as an opportunity for the Commission, which is dominated by contractors and construction firms, to further weaken the codes that have been seen as some of the best in the country.

From 1978-2016, FEMA paid out more than $59 trillion (in 2016 dollars) for losses associated with significant floods, with 76% of those payments occurring after 2004. Importantly, the average paid loss increased by almost 2.5 times since 1978 (even after accounting for inflation). These moves toward lowered building codes and standards will only ensure more and more costly FEMA payouts, with taxpayers footing the bill. In the long run, these actions are ultimately at odds with administrations preaching fiscal conservatism.

Investing now to save in the future

Instead of taking such unnecessary risks, cities and states should adopt more stringent risk-informed building codes and zoning, so we can start building now for a more reliable, sustainable and resilient infrastructure. Similarly, the administration should enhance flood resilience standards for federal investments, including those made as part of disaster recovery, to reduce the costs of flooding today and in the future. Doing so will improve long-term protection of human health and welfare. If we build smarter now, communities, taxpayers and nature will reap rewards in the future.

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How climate policy can mitigate extreme weather's economic toll

 

This post was co-authored with Maureen Lackner

In the wake of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, Americans are coming together to support communities as they recover from the physical, emotional and economic toll after lives, possessions and livelihoods were washed away. Reestablishing daily routines, including work, school and regular commerce will take time, and for many, life may not return to what was once considered normal. But as we begin rebuilding what can be replaced, it is necessary to first gauge the scale and cost of the damage. It is also time to face the possibility that devastating weather events like Harvey and Irma may become the new normal

Harvey and Irma are among the most expensive hurricanes in U.S. history

Harvey and Irma have brought front and center the high costs of extreme weather-related disasters. While the damage is still being assessed, Harvey’s could cost as much as $200 billion, making it the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history, surpassing Hurricane Katrina ($194 billion in 2017 USD). Estimates of Hurricane Irma’s economic damage are less certain, but the storm will likely also be among the most expensive weather-related disasters in the United States. (And we can’t forget that before reaching Florida, Irma caused damage to many Caribbean islands, which in some cases exceeded their GDP.)

While hurricanes tend to be the most dramatic, other types of severe weather also cause billions of dollars in economic damages. During the first half of 2017 alone, nine weather events including hailstorms, flooding, and tornados racked up $16 billion in damages across several states.

Climate change elevates the risk of severe weather events, and that comes at a cost

Climate change doesn’t cause hurricanes, but sea level rise and warmer temperatures make storms more destructive. Storm surges along the Texas coast where Hurricane Harvey hit are now about 7 inches higher than storm surges a few decades ago as a result of sea level rise, which can make a big difference in flooding. In addition, evaporation intensifies with warmer temperatures, which results in more moisture in the atmosphere and therefore higher rainfall amounts and flooding when storms make landfall. Warmer ocean temperatures also fuel hurricanes, making them more powerful. Hurricane Irma was a classic example of just how powerful a storm can get from increased ocean temperatures.

It is also possible that severe weather-related events overall are becoming more frequent. One recent EDF analysis shows that U.S. counties experienced, on average, a fourfold increase in the frequency of disaster level hurricanes, storms, and floods between 1997 and 2016 than in the 20 years prior. In the Southeast, this increase is even more pronounced; on average, its states experienced close to four-and-a-half times more disaster declarations over the same time period.

In the coming decades, risk of climate change-influenced severe weather will differ from region to region, but one thing is clear: if left unmitigated, the effects of climate change could come at serious economic costs, not just to those who lose homes and livelihoods, but to their insurance companies or to taxpayers. Other aspects of the economy could experience significant pain as well.

In the Southeast alone, higher sea levels resulting in higher storm surges could increase the average annualized cost of storms along the Eastern seaboard and Gulf Coast by $2-3.5 billion by 2030. In some areas, like Texas, where sea levels are rising faster than the global average, these increases even higher. Research published in Science suggests that even if storms themselves do not become more severe, direct annual economic damage could rise by 0.6 to 1.3% of state gross domestic product (GDP) for South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida under median estimates of mean sea level rise. This translates into billions of dollars in additional economic damage every year for each of these states.

Hurricanes and severe storms pose serious risks to U.S. energy infrastructure

During Hurricane Katrina, the extent of the damages suffered by Entergy New Orleans forced the utility into bankruptcy. Hurricane Irma caused power outages in Florida that left over six million people without power.

Beyond these local impacts, these events can cause damage nationwide. Texas is home to about 30% of domestic oil and gas refining capacity, half of which was disrupted by Hurricane Harvey. This shut down 16% of the nation’s total refining capacity, spiked the average national gasoline price approximately 37 cents per gallon, and forced crude exports to drop from 749,000 to 153,000 barrels per day in the week after Harvey. As of September 10, 2017, more than two weeks after Hurricane Harvey made landfall, five Gulf Coast refineries remained closed, representing 11% of total Gulf Coast refining capacity and 5.8% of U.S. refining capacity.

The Trump administration should focus on adaptation and mitigation

In the short term, the Trump administration should maintain existing programs designed to enhance U.S. energy security and disaster response. For starters, the administration should stop dismantling EPA programs expressly designed to help communities respond to damage from storms.

In the long term, we need to build climate resilient communities and infrastructure, through efforts like wetland restoration and smart development. President Trump would also do well to listen to Miami’s Republican Mayor Tomás Regalado, and rethink his approach to climate policy. Instead of rolling back smart policies and regulations, or simply ignoring the impacts of climate change, we need to stop compounding the problem and mitigate the effects of a warmer climate through policy that sets aggressive emissions reduction targets. Such strategies will do much more than just protect our economy's bottom line—it will help ensure the safety, security, and well-being of millions of Americans.

Posted in Climate science, Politics| Leave a comment

What's behind President Trump's mystery math?

This post originally appeared on EDF's Climate 411

By this time, your eyes may have glazed over from reading the myriad of fact checks and rebuttals of President Trump’s speech announcing the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement. There were so many dizzying falsehoods in his comments that it is nearly impossible to find any truth in the rhetorical fog.

Of all the falsehoods, President Trump’s insistence that compliance with the Paris accord would cost Americans millions of lost jobs and trillions in lowered Gross Domestic Product was particularly brazen, deceptive, and absurd. These statements are part of a disturbing pattern, the latest in a calculated campaign to deceive the public about the economics of reducing climate pollution.

Based on a study funded by industry trade groups

Let’s be clear: the National Economic Research Associates (NERA) study underpinning these misleading claims was paid for by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Council for Capital Formation (ACCF) – two lobbying organizations backed by fossil fuel industry funding that have a history of commissioning exaggerated cost estimates of climate change solutions. When you pay for bad assumptions, you ensure exaggerated and unrealistic results.

In the past five years alone, NERA has released a number of dubious studies funded by fossil fuel interests about a range of environmental safeguards that protect the public from dangerous pollution like mercury, smog, and particulate matter – all of which cause serious health impacts, especially in the elderly, children, and the most vulnerable. NERA’s work has been debunked over and over. Experts from MIT and NYU said NERA’s cost estimates from a 2014 study on EPA’s ozone standards were “fraudulent” and calculated in “an insane way.” NERA’s 2015 estimates of the impacts of the Clean Power Plan, which are frequently quoted by President Trump’s EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and others, have also been rebutted due to unrealistic and pessimistic assumptions.

The study does not account for the enormous costs of climate pollution

In his speech about the Paris agreement, President Trump crossed a line that made even NERA so uncomfortable that it released a statement emphasizing that its results were mischaracterized and that the study “was not a cost-benefit analysis of the Paris agreement, nor does it purport to be one.”

The most important point embedded in this statement is that the study does not account for the enormous benefits of reducing the carbon pollution causing climate change. Climate change causes devastating impacts including extreme weather events like flooding and deadly storms, the spread of disease, sea level rise, increased food insecurity, and other disasters. These impacts can cost businesses, families, governments and taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars through rising health care costs, destruction of property, increased food prices, and more. The costs of this pollution are massive, and communities all around the U.S. are already feeling the impacts – yet the President and his Administration continue to disregard this reality as well as basic scientific and economic facts.

Cherry-picking an impractical and imaginary pathway to emission reductions

The statistics the President used were picked from a specific scenario in the study that outlined an impractical and imaginary pathway to meet our 2025 targets designed to be needlessly expensive, as experts at the World Resources Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council have noted. The study’s “core” scenario assumes sector by sector emission reduction targets (which do not exist as part of the Paris accord) that result in the most aggressive level of mitigation being required from the sectors where it is most expensive. This includes an almost 40 percent reduction in industrial sector emissions – a disproportionate level not envisioned in any current policy proposal – which results in heavily exaggerated costs.

An expert at the independent think tank Resources for the Future, Marc Hafstead, pointed out:

The NERA study grossly overstates the changes in output and jobs in heavy industry.

Yale economist Kenneth Gillingham said of these numbers:

It’s not something you can cite in a presidential speech with a straight face … It’s being used as a talking point taken out of context.

The NERA analysis also includes a scenario that illustrates what experts have known for decades – that a smarter and more cost-effective route to achieving deep emission reductions is a flexible, economy-wide program that prices carbon and allows the market to take advantage of the most cost-effective reductions across sectors. Even NERA’s analysis shows that this type of program would result in significantly lower costs than their “core” scenario. Not surprisingly, that analysis is buried in the depths of the report, and has been entirely ignored by the Chamber of Commerce and ACCF as well as President Trump.

Study ignores potential innovation and declining costs of low carbon energy

Finally, the NERA study assumes that businesses would not innovate to keep costs down in the face of new regulations – employing pessimistic assumptions that ignore the transformational changes already moving us towards the expansion of lower carbon energy. Those assumptions rely on overly-conservative projections for renewable energy costs, which have been rapidly declining. They also underestimate the potential for reductions from low-cost efficiency improvements, and assume only minimal technological improvements in the coming years.

In reality, clean energy is outpacing previous forecasts and clean energy jobs are booming. There are more jobs in solar energy than in oil and natural gas extraction in the U.S. right now, and more jobs in wind than in coal mining.

The truth is that the clean energy revolution is the economic engine of the future. President Trump’s announcement that he will withdraw the U.S. from the Paris accord cedes leadership and enormous investment opportunities to Europe, China, and the rest of the world. His faulty math will not change these facts.

Posted in International, Politics, Trump's energy plan, Uncategorized| Leave a comment

Why the EPA gives Taxpayers the Biggest Bang for their Hard-earned Buck

This blog was co-authored with Gernot Wagner

The Trump administration’s proposed federal budget for fiscal year 2017 slashes the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) budget by 31 percent, targeting an entity that already operates with one of the smallest budgets in the government – of every 10 dollars the federal government spends, EPA only gets 2 cents.

But absolute numbers aren’t the right metric. The big question is what the public (President Trump’s employer) gets for its investment. And using that metric, the EPA generates the biggest benefits of any agency, bar none.

 

 

Between 2005 and 2015, EPA regulations produced on average $9 in benefits for every $1 spent towards compliance. These benefits include: keeping Americans safe from dirty air, water, and dangerous chemicals – all of which can cause increased hospitalizations, missed work days, premature death, and birth defects. While numerous agencies across the federal government provide vital, lifesaving services, as well, EPA has the best benefits-to-costs ratio of any U.S. agency, according to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which produces an annual report tallying the benefits and the costs of major federal rules for every U.S. agency.

Total numbers are even more staggering: over those ten years, EPA is responsible for $376 billion in social benefits after subtracting the costs incurred by its regulations. That’s an order of magnitude higher than any other U.S. agency.

The message is clear: EPA provides large benefits at a bargain. In fact, while a high benefit-to-cost ratio is good, the goal isn’t to maximize the ratio. The goal is to maximize net benefits to society. EPA has been extremely successful at doing exactly that. Now is not the time to walk back that kind of progress.

 

Posted in Uncategorized| 2 Responses

What Night-time Lights Tell us about the World and its Inhabitants

Night viewMost people are familiar with the iconic image of North Korea at night—Pyongyang stands as a beacon of light amid of what looks almost like a large body of water—but what is, in fact, land draped in complete darkness. That imagery revealed details about what was previously unknowable due to the country's cloak of secrecy—its meager electricity use and level of poverty. My colleagues Daniel Zavala-Araiza, Gernot Wagner and I took an even deeper look at how well night-time lights can account for other measures of socio-economic activity in a new article published today in the journal PLOS ONE.

I got interested in what these images could tell us back in 2012 when I started attending the Geo for Good conference, an annual event hosted by Google where nonprofits and researchers learn how to use geospatial tools such as Earth Engine. Gernot, Daniel and I started wondering what interesting applications we could explore with night-time lights data, and see what we could learn by examining the entire 21-year record of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) at the country level. We took that dataset and compared it to a much wider scope of other datasets. By using a distributed, parallelized platform such as Earth Engine, the scope of this research and our analysis is able to be larger than prior studies.

The prevalence and magnitude of night-time light is an alternative, standardized, and relatively unbiased way to gather information about important socio-economic indicators like CO2 emissions, GDP, and other measures that would in some cases be unknowable. For example, these data helped estimate the size of the informal economy of Mexico in a 2009 study by Ghosh et al.

We’re hoping that by combining all of these methods, data sets, and tools, researchers can develop an even better understanding of how we relate to the environment, so we can ultimately become better stewards of it. Google Earth Engine, Hadoop and Spark are powerful examples of such tools —our hope is that our fellow researchers will ask and pursue new questions, so we can advance the conversation even further.

Posted in International, Technology, Uncategorized| Leave a comment
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