The price of most goods we purchase is generally based on the costs associated with the goods' production, including the raw materials used to generate them, the labor associated with their manufacturing, and so on. However, when it comes to pricing residential electricity, many regulators choose to use a flat price per unit of electricity (kilowatt-hours, or kWh) that unfortunately fails to adequately reflect the underlying costs of generating and delivering energy to our homes.
This creates incorrect incentives for conservation and investments in distributed energy resources (like rooftop solar, energy storage, and demand response). Getting these incentives right can go a long way in creating more opportunity for efficiency and clean energy resources.
Pricing electricity generation
The cost of generating electricity from large-scale power plants varies significantly over the course of a day. When demand is low, electricity providers call upon the most efficient and inexpensive power plants to produce electricity. As demand increases, they must also utilize more inefficient and expensive power plants. So, for the price of generation to accurately reflect these costs, it too must vary with the time of day. Time-variant pricing charges customers more for using electricity during periods of high demand (such as during hot afternoons) and less when demand is not as great. This pricing system is an accurate reflection of generation costs.
In contrast, flat rates that don’t vary over time incentivize customers to consume more electricity when it’s most valuable to them, even though consuming during times of high demand places a larger cost on the system. Thus, the current, static pricing system creates incorrect incentives for conservation and electricity use. Read More »
New York is preparing for a future in which clean, distributed energy resources – such as energy efficiency, electric vehicles, rooftop solar panels, and other types of local, on-site power generation – form an integral part of a more decentralized electric grid. This is the future the New York Public Service Commission (PSC) wants to see realized through its signature initiative, Reforming the Energy Vision (REV).
This vision means the role of the customer is changing: from recipient to both user and provider of electricity and other grid services. By investing in clean, distributed energy resources, customers can make the electric system more efficient and contribute to a cleaner environment, while gaining greater control over their energy bills. Read More »
Electricity markets around the world are transforming from a model where electricity flows one way (from electricity-generating power plants to the customer) to one where customers actively participate as providers of electric services. But to speed this transformation and maximize its environmental and cost benefits, we need to understand how customer actions affect the three distinct parts of our electric system: generation, transmission, and distribution. Read More »
Reason for despair: Climate change. It’s the perfect problem: more global, more long-term, more irreversible, and more uncertain that virtually any other public-policy problem facing us. Climate change is a lot worse than most of us realize. Almost regardless of what we do on the mitigation front, we are in for a whole lot of hurt.
On the policy front, we have now talked for more than 20 years about how we need to turn this ship around “within a decade.” Not unlike the ever-elusive fusion technology, that hasn’t happened yet. Global carbon emissions declined slightly this year—for the first time ever without a global recession—but the trends are still pointing in the wrong direction. Worse, turning around emissions is only the very first step. It’s not enough to stabilize the flow of water going into the bathtub when the goal is to prevent the tub from overflowing. We need to turn around atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. That means turning off the flow of water into the tub—getting net emissions to zero and below. It doesn’t help our efforts that many people seem to confuse the two. A study involving over 200 MIT graduate students faced with this same question revealed that even they confuse emissions and concentrations—water flowing into the tub and water levels there. If MIT graduate students can’t get this one right, what hope is there for the rest of us?
Reason for hope: Climate change. Many signs point to some real momentum to finally tackle this momentous challenge.
The Paris Climate Accord builds an important foundation. It enables transparency, accountability, and markets to help solve the problem. Many governments are moving forward with pricing carbon: from California to China, from Sweden to South Africa, we see ambitious action to reign in emissions in some 50 jurisdictions. Meanwhile, lots is happening on the clean-energy front. That’s particularly true for solar photovoltaic power, which has climbed up the learning curve—and down the cost curve—faster than most would have expected only five years ago. That has also provided an important jolt for sensible climate policy. Then there’s R&D for entirely new technologies. Bill Gates leading an investment coalition with $1 billion of his own money is only one important sign of movement in that direction. The excitement for self-driving, electric vehicles is palpable up and down Silicon Valley, to name just one potentially significant example. In the end, it’s precisely this mix of Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and, of course, Washington that will lead—and, in part, is already leading—to the necessary revolution in a number of important sectors, energy and transportation chief among them.
Over the past decade, Pennsylvania has seen a huge increase in natural gas production due to technology advancements. Horizontal drilling combined with hydraulic fracturing, the process of cracking rock open deep underground to release the gas trapped inside, has made Pennsylvania the nation’s second largest natural gas producer. While a thriving natural gas industry is a boon for the state’s economy, well-documented accounts of air and water pollution have been associated with its development.
But do the benefits and risks of natural gas production impact Pennsylvania’s communities equally? In particular, while the broad economic benefits (more jobs, cheaper gas prices, etc…) may accrue to all members in the community, the local environmental impacts may only affect those living in close proximity to a shale gas well.
A recent paper published this month in the American Economic Review examines the impact of increased drilling activity on the property values of homes located in close proximity to a well, and in particular, estimates whether this impact differs for homes dependent on groundwater for drinking compared to those with publicly supplied water. To determine how property values for these different types of homes may be affected, EDF, working with economists from the University of Calgary and Duke University, utilized transaction level data across the state to conduct comparisons in three different dimensions simultaneously:
properties very near a well to those further away;
properties dependent on groundwater for drinking to those with access to piped water;
and properties sold prior to a shale gas well being drilled with those sold after the well was drilled.
Furthermore, to account for the fact that many groundwater-dependent properties may be located further away from urban centers, the data were restricted to homes located near the piped water boundary. This helps eliminate differences in neighborhood characteristics that could affect both the price of the home and its proximity to a shale gas well.
The analysis determined that property values are impacted by proximity to a shale gas well, though results differ depending on the property’s drinking water source. Those with piped water can economically benefit from being very near a well (a value increase of 3 percent for properties within 1.5km of a well), potentially due to royalties and bonuses companies pay to develop on a homeowners land. However, the property values of homes that are dependent on groundwater and located within 1.5km of a shale gas well declined by an average of 13 percent. Importantly, the impact on both types fades with distance; showing that both the benefits (increased royalty payments) and costs (increased groundwater contamination risk) of proximity diminish as one moves further from shale gas development.
This analysis does not draw information from observed air or water contamination. Instead, the data reflects public perception and brings to focus two important observations.
The first is that oil and gas communities are becoming more aware of the environmental risks posed by development. Managing these risks is critically important, as nearly 10 million Americans live within one mile of a hydraulically-fractured oil or gas well. Smart policies that improve operations and create more opportunities for public transparency are necessary to ensuring communities in close proximity to drilling feel adequately protected from the inherent risks of oil and gas development.
But the study also highlights another key issue – the economic and environmental consequences of oil and gas development (both positive and negative) do not impact communities evenly. There is a clear detriment to some populations – as there often is with any industrial activity. And rigorous, economic and scientific analyses are important tools for helping policy leaders understand these discrepancies to respond effectively.
Economic research can provide insights into how markets internalize the environmental costs of economic activities, even if these costs do not have a monetary value associated with them (for example, you can’t buy greenhouse gases, but economic research has demonstrated that the social cost of a ton of carbon is around $40). This analysis demonstrates that the threat of drilling activity causing groundwater contamination – which has no market value – still has true costs. Rigorous economic analysis allows us to quantify these costs, leading to more informed policy decisions and better outcomes for both the environment and the local community.
Q&A accompanying a re-broadcast of a PBS NewsHour segment featuring Climate Shock:
Everyone is talking about 2 degrees Celsius. Why? What happens if the planet warms by 2 degrees Celsius?
Martin L. Weitzman: Two degrees Celsius has turned into an iconic threshold of sorts, a political target, if you will. And for good reason. Many scientists have looked at so-called tipping points with huge potential changes to the climate system: methane being released from the frozen tundra at rapid rates, the Gulfstream shutting down and freezing over Northern Europe, the Amazon rainforest dying off. The short answer is we just don’t — can’t — know with 100 percent certainty when and how these tipping points will, in fact, occur. But there seems to be a lot of evidence that things can go horribly wrong once the planet crosses that 2 degree threshold.
In “Climate Shock,” you write that we need to insure ourselves against climate change. What do you mean by that?
Gernot Wagner: At the end of the day, climate is a risk management problem. It’s the small risk of a huge catastrophe that ultimately ought to drive the final analysis. Averages are bad enough. But those risks — the “tail risks” — are what puts the “shock” into “Climate Shock.”
Martin L. Weitzman: Coming back to your 2 degree question, it’s also important to note that the world has already warmed by around 0.85 degrees since before we started burning coal en masse. So that 2 degree threshold is getting closer and closer. Much too close for comfort.
What do you see happening in Paris right now? What steps are countries taking to combat climate change?
Gernot Wagner: There’s a lot happening — a lot of positive steps being taken. More than 150 countries, including most major emitters, have come to Paris with their plans of action. President Obama, for example, came with overall emissions reductions targets for the U.S. and more concretely, the Clean Power Plan, our nation’s first ever limit on greenhouse gases from the electricity sector. And earlier this year, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a nation-wide cap on emissions from energy and key industrial sectors commencing in 2017.
It’s equally clear, of course, that we won’t be solving climate change in Paris. The climate negotiations are all about building the right foundation for countries to act and put the right policies in place like the Chinese cap-and-trade system.
How will reigning in greenhouse gases as much President Obama suggests affect our economy? After all, we’re so reliant on fossil fuels. Gernot Wagner: That’s what makes this problem such a tough one. There are costs. They are real. In some sense, if there weren’t any, we wouldn’t be talking about climate change to begin with. The problem would solve itself. So yes, the Clean Power Plan overall isn’t a free lunch. But the benefits of acting vastly outweigh the costs. That’s what’s important to keep in mind here. There are trade-offs, as there always are in life. But when the benefits of action vastly outweigh the costs, the answer is simple: act. And that’s precisely what Obama is doing here.
And what steps should the countries in Paris this week take to combat climate change?
Martin L. Weitzman: If it were entirely up to me, I would have a very simple solution: negotiate one uniform price on carbon dioxide applicable to everyone. That doesn’t mean some imaginary world government would be in charge — not at all. Every country — every government — can implement their own policy, keep the revenue and decrease taxes elsewhere. But the price is universal across the world.
Gernot Wagner: Pricing carbon, of course, is indeed the answer. It’s the obvious one or at least it should be. Now, the negotiations themselves, of course, are messy, and there currently is no negotiation around a uniform, globally applicable carbon price. Instead, what’s happening is many large countries — the U.S., the EU, and chief among them China — are putting forward internal policies that will put a price on carbon and other greenhouse gases. That’s also where Paris comes in: putting a framework on all these country actions.
Are you hopeful?
Gernot Wagner: I am. The climate problem is, in fact, a lot worse than many people realize. The climate shock is real. But there are solutions. They work. They are getting better and cheaper by the day. And we are largely moving in the right direction.
Martin L. Weitzman: Climate change is an extremely difficult problem to solve, certainly among the most difficult I have seen in my lifetime. But I’m guardedly optimistic, yes.
Gernot Wagner: In the end, it’ll take Washington, Wall Street and Silicon Valley to make this right by pricing carbon, deploying clean technologies at scale and investing in research and development that will lead to new, even cleaner technologies we can’t yet even imagine. A lot is happening on all these fronts. A lot more, of course, needs to be done.