Selected category: Energy efficiency

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.

Policy paper: Aligning natural gas and electricity markets »

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.

 

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The United States Could Lead the Next Tech Revolution by Investing in Clean Energy

New Risky Business Report Finds Transitioning to a Clean Energy Economy is both Technologically and Economically Feasible

In the first Risky Business report, a bi-partisan group of experts focused on the economic impacts of climate change at the country, state and regional levels and made the case that in spite of all that we do understand about the science and dangers of climate change, the uncertainty of what we don’t know could present an even more devastating future for the planet and our economy.

The latest report from the Risky Business Project, co-chaired by Michael R. Bloomberg, Henry M. Paulson, Jr., and Thomas F. Steyer, examines how best to tackle the risks posed by climate change and transition to a clean energy economy by 2050, without relying on unprecedented spending or unimagined technology. The report focuses on one pathway that will allow us to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050 through the following three shifts:

1. Electrify the economy, replacing the dependence on fossil fuels in the heating and cooling of buildings, vehicles and other sectors. Under the report’s scenario, this would require the share of electricity as a portion of total energy use to more than double, from 23 to 51 percent.
2. Use a mix of low- to zero-carbon fuels to generate electricity. Declining costs for renewable technologies contribute in making this both technologically and economically feasible.
3. Become more energy efficient by lowering the intensity of energy used per unit of GDP by about two thirds.

New Investments Will Yield Cost Savings

Of course, there would be costs associated with achieving the dramatic emissions reductions, but the authors argue that these costs are warranted. The report concludes that substantial upfront capital investments would be offset by lower long-term fuel spending. And even though costs would grow from $220 billion per year in 2020 to $360 billion per year in 2050, they are still likely far less than the costs of unmitigated climate change or the projected spending on fossil fuels. They’re also comparable in scale to recent investments that transformed the American economy. Take the computer and software industry, which saw investments more than double from $33 billion in 1980 to $73 billion in 1985. And those outlays continued to grow exponentially—annual investments topped $400 billion in 2015. All told, the United States has invested $6 trillion in computers and software over the last 20 years.

This shift would also likely boost manufacturing and construction in the United States, and stimulate innovation and new markets. Finally, fewer dollars would go overseas to foreign oil producers, and instead stay in the U.S. economy.

The Impact on American Jobs

The authors also foresee an impact to the U.S. job market. On the plus side, they predict as many as 800,000 new construction, operation and maintenance jobs by 2050 would be required to help retrofit homes with more efficient heating and cooling systems as well as the construction, operation and maintenance of power plants. However, job losses in the coal mining and oil and gas sectors, mainly concentrated in the Southern and Mountain states, could offset these employment gains. As we continue to grow a cleaner-energy economy, it will be essential to help workers transition from high-carbon to clean jobs and provide them with the training and education to do so.

A Call for Political and Private Sector Leadership

Such a radical shift won’t be easy, and both business and policy makers will need to lead the transition to ensure its success. First and foremost, the report asserts that the U.S. government will need to create the right incentives.  This will be especially important if fossil fuel prices drop, which could result in increased consumption.  Lawmakers would also need to wean industry and individuals off of subsidies that make high-carbon and high-risk activities cheap and easy while removing regulatory and financial barriers to clean-energy projects. They will also need to help those Americans negatively impacted by the transition as well as those who are most vulnerable and less resilient to physical and economic climate impacts.

Businesses also need to step up to the plate by auditing their supply chains for high-carbon activities, build internal capacity to address the impacts of climate change on their businesses and put internal prices on carbon to help reduce risks.

To be sure, this kind of transformation and innovation isn’t easy, but the United States has sparked technological revolutions before that have helped transform our economy—from automobiles to air travel to computer software, and doing so has required collaboration between industry and policymakers.

We are at a critical point in time—we can either accelerate our current path and invest in a clean energy future or succumb to rhetoric that forces us backwards. If we choose to electrify our economy, reduce our reliance on dirty fuels and become more energy efficient, we will not only be at the forefront of the next technological revolution, but we’ll also help lead the world in ensuring a better future for our planet.

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Benefits of Clean, Distributed Energy: Why Time, Location, and Compensation Matter

solar-panels-new-yorkNew 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 »

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Transforming the Electric System to Reduce Costs and Pollution

electrical-power-linesBy: Beia Spiller and Kristina Mohlin

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 »

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Biking and Renewables

Illustration by Kelsey King/Ensia

Illustration by Kelsey King/Ensia

There’s nothing quite like biking down clogged city streets, weaving in and out of traffic. For short distances, it’s faster than driving. It’s liberating. It’s fun.

It also makes it painfully clear that most roads aren’t made for bikes. Make one mistake, and you might end up dead. If you do everything right and the 4,000-pounder next to you makes a mistake, you still might end up dead. Few regular urban cyclists remain entirely unharmed throughout the years: A broken bone (“cut off by a van”), a scraped shin (“car door”), or perhaps simply drenched on an otherwise dry road (“I avoided the mud puddle; the car didn’t”).

Blame it on my day job, but as I was cut off by yet another driver fixated on his phone while cycling to work, I got to thinking that this is how wind and solar electrons must feel as they try to navigate the electric grid. There, too, the infrastructure and rules were designed for the conventional, fossil fuel-based generators, not their smaller, greener counterparts.

We need to get off gasoline-powered vehicles, the same way we need to get off fossil-powered electricity. Biking alone, of course, can’t eliminate fossil fuel-based transportation. It’s a niche alternative that chiefly works in densely populated cities filled with environmentally concerned citizens. What works in Berkeley, Boulder, Brooklyn and Boston won’t work everywhere. Neither can trains, by the way, another favorite of environmentalists. Most U.S. cities have a lot of catching up to do with their European counterparts, but, if anything, it will be electric vehicles that will truly help us make this transition.

Similarly, wind and solar can’t singlehandedly eliminate fossil fuel-based electrical generation. They have great potential, much more so than biking ever will. But there, too, are limitations — chiefly the (eventual) need for storage to eliminate all fossil fuel-based generation: coal, petroleum and natural gas.

Meanwhile, there are great benefits to pushing both green technologies. Biking helps get previously sedentary drivers to move, which, in turn, extends their lives and decreases societal health care costs, assuming injuries can be avoided by appropriate bike infrastructure. Every dollar invested in that infrastructure can pay for itself many times over.

Something similar holds for subsidizing infrastructure for renewables (and, for that matter, some energy efficiency measures). The reduction in the large and risky global warming externality typically offsets the costs of subsidies and other sensible policy interventions. Many of the right policies are indeed being put in place.

Still, some traditional utilities continue to fight the integration of rooftop solar and other renewables, the way New York City did with bikes in 1987 when it tried to ban them altogether from midtown Manhattan. Today, New York is decidedly friendlier to cyclists, with Mayor Michael Bloomberg adding over 300 miles of bike lanes to city streets, and a popular, still-expanding bike share program. Renewables, for their part, are increasingly welcomed onto the grid, with increased open access and grid management tools aimed at integrating intermittent renewable energy sources. Much more needs to be done.

Getting the Job Done

There’s one more parallel that might well dwarf all else: Biking for biking’s sake is fun on a sunny Sunday afternoon. On a Monday morning, when it’s about getting to a meeting on time and looking professional, transport choice comes down to getting there reliably, quickly, cheaply and without sweat stains.

Electricity is no different. Solar panels may be an interesting, even fun, choice for some. The feeling of energy independence and doing good is a bonus. But many times, it doesn’t matter where electrons come from, just that they do — reliably, cheaply and cleanly.

The ideal policy solution for energy is as clear as it is seemingly difficult to implement: Pay the full, appropriate price for electricity at the right time and place, including currently unpriced environmental costs. Once every electron comes with the appropriate price tag, the solar panel on your roof — or the solar farm down the road — may well carry the day. Or it might not. That’s OK, too. Having the right energy mix matters more than any one technology. The energy system is a system, after all.

Biking, too, is but one form of getting around. Appropriate gas taxes, congestion charges and parking fees help incorporate the full costs of gasoline-powered engines and encourage more alternative modes of transport — from electric vehicles to public transport and bikes. Meanwhile, outright subsidizing those alternative modes is surely the right step. Pushing those alternatives at scale is as sensible as pushing renewables, especially when it also means moving closer to the ideal pricing policies in the first place.

But pushing biking or any one form of alternative transport is no end goal in itself. At the end of the day, it’s about getting from A to B. That means — as it does for energy — getting the entire system right.View Ensia homepage

Published on Ensia.com on October 1st, 2015.

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Reconsidering the Rebound Effect

By Kenneth Gillingham, David Rapson, and Gernot Wagner.

The Rebound Effect and Energy Efficiency PolicyThe rebound effect from improving energy efficiency has been widely discussed—from the pages of the New York Times and New Yorker to the halls of policy and to a voluminous academic literature. It’s been known for over a century and, on the surface, is simple to understand. Buy a more fuel-efficient car, drive more. Invent a more efficient bulb, use more light. If efficiency improves, the price of energy services will drop, inducing increased demand for those services. Consumers will respond, producers will respond, and markets will re-equilibrate. All of these responses can lead to reductions in the energy savings expected from improved energy efficiency. And so some question the overall value of energy efficiency, by arguing that it will only lead to more energy use—a case often called "backfire."

In a new RFF discussion paper, "The Rebound Effect and Energy Efficiency Policy" we review the literature on the rebound effect, classify the different types, and highlight the need for careful distinction between causal links—which are indeed worthy of the “rebound” label—and mere correlations, which are not. We find, in fact, that measures to improve efficiency, despite potential rebound effects—are likely to improve welfare, generally.

Among the key questions about the rebound effect are a) whether the net benefits of energy efficiency increases are positive (for a costless improvement, the answer is almost certainly "yes"), and b) whether the increase in demand for energy services uses so much additional energy that it leads to greater, rather than less, demand for energy itself (the answer is almost certainly "no").

Our findings are clear: while it is possible for rebound effects to be large in some settings, there is no reliable evidence supporting rebound effects so large that improving energy efficiency leads to more energy use. Backfire is theoretically possible, but even the theoretical predictions rely on channels that are either a) second-order in magnitude (and thus unlikely to overwhelm primary effects), or b) lacking in empirical evidence of their existence and magnitude. Globally, we have little reason to worry about backfire. While there is much uncertainty about the size of the so-called "macroeconomic rebound" (how re-equilibration of markets and such hypothesized effects as induced innovation from the energy efficiency improvement may lead to a rebound), we consider a plausible upper bound of the total effect to be in the range of 60 percent (that is, 60 percent of the potential energy savings will be lost to rebound), with most studies pointing to a smaller effect.

Regardless of its size, we find that the rebound effect is very likely to be welfare-improving. In fact, in the extreme, energy efficiency improvements that come about from innovations or otherwise have no cost are unequivocally welfare-enhancing. If the improvements come with costs, such as air pollution from more driving or more expensive technology, those need to be weighed against the energy savings, emissions savings, and welfare benefits from the policy.

In short, undue emphasis on backfire is a mere distraction. Or as we put it in a recent letter to the editor of the New York Times: energy efficiency improvements such as "LEDs alone won’t solve global warming or global poverty, but they are a step in the right direction for both."

Published on Common Resources. The RFF Discussion Paper is here: "The Rebound Effect and Energy Efficiency Policy."

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