Beacon Power files for bankruptcy; Boulder CO contemplates municipalization of power assets; other energy stories of note

Michael Giberson

Brief notes about other energy stories in the news.

  • Flywheel energy storage company Beacon Power has filed for bankruptcy. News stories have highlighted the point that Beacon was a recipient of federal energy technology loan guarantees, which will give an additional boost to Solyndra critics, but I predict the apparent lack of high-level political involvement will prevent Beacon from turning into a second scandal. I hope the problem wasn’t skepticism about the value of their flywheel patents.
  • In Boulder, Colorado, citizens are contemplating creation of a municipal power utility to displace Xcel in the city. Xcel’s problem is, apparently, not moving fast enough on renewable power and other environmental issues for some residents of the famously eco-aware college town. Boulder’s problem may be that their affinity for renewable power has heretofore been subsidized by less-enthusiastic Xcel customers elsewhere in the state.
  • Cheniere Energy, owner of an expensive and not too useful facility to import LNG into the gas saturated U.S. market (the modern natural gas equivalent of “carrying coal to Newcastle“) has entered into a long-term contract to export LNG, a seemingly more sensible goal at the moment. More sensible because currently world LNG prices are much higher than U.S. domestic gas prices, but I wonder whether that price difference will persist long enough to justify the time and expense of retooling the import facility?
  • In a related matter, Daniel Yergin sums up some changes in the world energy market for the folks that read the Washington Post. Readers here should be familiar with the pieces of his story: Improving drilling technologies and better data analysis have conspired to yield increasing oil production in Alberta, oil production growth in Texas and a real boom in North Dakota, and significant off-shore oil discoveries off of Brazil.
  • The wind power lobby is becoming concerned about the the forthcoming 12-31-2012 apocalypse (i.e., expiration of the production tax credit for new wind power projects), especially in a political environment in which some politicians are willing to pull the plug on all energy subsidies. Maybe it is just the issues that the reporter focuses on, but all of the wind lobby arguments in favor of the subsidy sound like no more than the obvious claim that the industry would grow more with the subsidy than without it. Of course existing projects with a PTC would continue to enjoy the subsidy for their first 10 years of operation, and the growing wind-on-wind competition in some of the better wind resource locations may tip existing wind project owners toward not being in favor of continued subsidies for new competitors.

When price ceilings become price targets

Michael Giberson

From the most recent American Law and Economics Review, “Retail Gasoline Price Ceilings and Regulatory Capture: Evidence from Canada.” The authors find statistical support for the conclusion that “the enactment of [price ceiling] regulation is correlated with a 1–1.2 cents per liter rise in self-service retail gasoline prices, controlling for all else.” They suggest that the price ceilings may serve a coordinating “focal point” function for competitors, making it easier for them to cooperate to secure higher returns.

The authors said, “While we cannot confirm collusion due to the necessity of firm-level data, our results demonstrate that the actual results of price ceilings in Canada are contrary to the probable public interest objective of such regulation.”

FULL ABSTRACT:

We evaluate the efficacy of price ceiling legislation by employing weekly data on retail gasoline prices for eight cities in Eastern Canada between 1999 and 2007. The use of these data allows us to pool “treatment” cities in the Atlantic provinces with “control” cities in Ontario and Quebec. Ordinary least squares and instrumental variables estimates demonstrate that the enactment of such regulation is significantly correlated with higher prices. A potential explanation for these results is that price ceilings act as “focal points” enabling firms to set higher prices, thus suggesting the possibility of regulatory capture.