Looking for renewable policy certainty in all the wrong places

From EnergyWire comes the headline, “In Missouri, industry wants off the ‘solar coaster’.” (link here via Midwest Energy News).

A utility rebate program authorized by voters in 2008 is making Missouri into a solar leader in the Midwest. But $175 million set aside to subsidize solar installations is [nearly] fully subscribed … and the same small businesses that scrambled to add workers last year to help meet surging demand are facing layoffs….

Heidi Schoen, executive director of the Missouri Solar Energy Industries Association, said the industry, which has generated thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in new taxes for the state, is just looking for certainty.

“We want off the solar coaster,” she said. “We don’t want to be in this boom-and-bust situation.”

It is a patently false claim.

If they wanted off of the boom-and-bust policy ‘solar coaster,’ they’d get off. They could go do unsubsidized solar installations for example, or if (when?) that proves unprofitable get work doing something else. By their actions they signal that they prefer the booms-and-busts that come with reliance on politicians for favors.

Better red than dead, but not red yet (on solar power)

In her New York Times Economix column Nancy Folbre recently said (“The Red Faces of the Solar Skeptics,” March 10, 2014):

If the faces of renewable energy critics are not red yet, they soon will be. For years, these critics — of solar photovoltaics in particular — have called renewable energy a boutique fantasy. A recent Wall Street Journal blog post continues the trend, asserting that solar subsidies take money from the poor to benefit the rich.

But solar-generated electricity is turning into a powerful environmental and economic success story. It’s also threatening the balance sheets of electric utility companies that continue to rely heavily on fossil fuels and nuclear energy.

I don’t count myself a renewable energy critic, but I do find myself as a critic of most renewable energy policies and so feel a bit like Folbre is addressing her points to me. In response I’ll say my face isn’t red yet, and I’m not expecting it to turn red anytime soon.

Folbre is a distinguished economist at the Univ. of Massachusetts, but she isn’t a specialist in environmental or energy economics, and I think her thinking here is a little muddled. (In this muddling through she has similarly distinguished company–consider this response to a Nobel prize winner.)

So a sample of my complaints: She trumpets the fast declining price of solar panels by picking a factoid out of a story in ComputerWorld: “declined an estimated 60 percent since the beginning of 2011!” ComputerWorld? Maybe the work of the U.S. Department of Energy or other more traditional information sources wasn’t sensational enough (claiming as it does, merely that “U.S. solar industry is more than 60 percent of the way to achieving cost-competitive utility-scale solar photovoltaic electricity”).

An investment company would have to acknowledge that cherry-picked past results are no guarantee of future performance, but it isn’t even clear that she is firm on the idea of “cost.” Folbre declares that generous subsidies and feed-in tariffs have “allowed solar photovoltaics to achieve vastly lower unit costs.” Really? Well maybe if we subsidize it a little harder, it will become free for everyone!

C’mon professor, get serious! Perhaps it is true that generous subsidies and feed-in tariffs have allowed owners of solar PV systems to experience lower out-of-pocket expenses, but it is a little embarrassing to see a distinguished economist make this mistake about costs. Should we conclude congressional junkets overseas don’t cost anything because the government foots the bill?

Not until the penultimate paragraph does Folbre get back on firm ground, talking about renewable energy policy rather than technology:

Subsidies are not the ideal public policy for promoting clean energy. As a recent analysis by the Carbon Tax Center points out, a carbon tax devised to protect low-income households from bearing a disproportionate share of higher energy prices would yield more efficient overall results, as well as encouraging solar power.

But in our subsidy-encrusted energy economy, some subsidies are better than others. As farmers say, make hay while the sun shines.

Yes, as any economist ought to say, “subsidies are not the ideal public policy for promoting clean energy.” In fact, it’s been said here a time or two.

[HT to Environmental Economics.]

Someone please explain the American Wind Energy Association’s funky electricity price arithmetic

About a month ago the American Wind Energy Association blogged: “Fact Check: New Evidence Rebuts Heartland’s Bogus RPS Claims.” I’m scratching my head a bit trying to understand their so-called facts. The big claim from AWEA:

The eleven states that produce more than seven percent of their electricity from wind energy have seen their electricity prices fall 0.37 percent over the last five years, while all other states have seen their electricity prices rise by 7.79 percent.

The blog post mentions DOE data, and the post links to a report the AWEA assembled titled “Wind Power’s Consumer Benefits” which cites U.S. EIA data on “Average Retail Price of Electricity to Ultimate Customers” (find the data here). The blog doesn’t explain their method and the report is only barely more helpful in that regard.

The AWEA report describes the price suppressing “merit order” effect of subsidized/low marginal cost wind energy, but that is a wholesale price phenomena that doesn’t include various other utility compliance costs, and anyway the AWEA is making claims about end consumer benefits from lower retail prices. The merit order effect only matters to consumers if consumers end up paying lower retail prices.

So I downloaded data from the EIA site and tried to calculate the retail percent change in price for every state over the last five years, then compared the eleven states that AWEA said produce more than seven percent of their electricity from wind energy to the remaining states and DC.

By my simple average, prices in the 11 “wind states” were about 18.8 percent higher in December 2013 than they were in December 2008; prices in the 39 other states and DC were about 5.7 percent higher in December 2013 than they were in December 2008. Now maybe AWEA is doing a weighted average by kwh sold or something different than my straightforward calculation, but they don’t explain it and I can’t reproduce it.

Can you?

The price data from December 2008 and December 2013 for the eleven “wind states” and “Avg-All Others” are:

State Dec-08 Dec-13 Percent change
Iowa          7.10          7.77 9.4%
Kansas          7.01          9.19 31.1%
Minnesota          7.66          9.27 21.0%
North Dakota          6.35          8.03 26.5%
South Dakota          6.93          8.57 23.7%
Oklahoma          6.55          7.14 9.0%
Texas        10.85          8.77 -19.2%
Colorado          8.01          9.48 18.4%
Idaho          5.97          7.91 32.5%
Wyoming          5.68          7.71 35.7%
Oregon          7.24          8.61 18.9%
Avg-All Others        10.60        11.19 5.7%
* Prices are cents/kwh

I can’t help but notice that only one of the 11 wind states (Texas) saw a decline in prices over the time period, and the other 10 wind states actually saw prices increase from December 2008 to December 2009 faster than the overall average of the other states.

So what kind of funky AWEA arithmetic turns (mostly) larger retail price increases in the 11 states into a big consumer benefit?

NOTE: By the way, a sophisticated attempt to address the questions of wind power’s consumer benefits-if any on net-would look at a lot more information than simple average retail rates by states. I was trying to engage the debate on the level presented and even at this simple level of analysis I can’t tell how they got their numbers.

No net metering without grid connection, no net metering controversy where wires and energy products are unbundled

Around the country lobbyists for utilities and solar power companies are fighting over public policy, mostly for and against reform of net metering policies.* Today, The Alliance for Solar Choice (TASC) trumpeted in a press release recent victories in the states of Utah and Washington over net metering reforms urged by utilities. TASC highlighted the involvement of conservative policy group the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which joined the battle over net metering via a January 2014 resolution calling for “policies to require that everyone who uses the grid helps pay to maintain it and to keep it operating reliably at all times.”

In the TASC press release the group makes the odd and laughable claim:

Net metering allows rooftop solar customers to … receive full retail credit for any excess electricity sent back to the grid. Utilities turn around and sell this energy at the full retail rate to the neighbors, even though they paid nothing to generate, transmit or distribute that cleaner power.

I wonder how TASC thinks the net-metered customers’ excess electrical power actually flows to the neighbor’s property?

On the other hand, I take the next sentence in the TASC press release as obviously true: “Utilities attacking net metering want to eliminate the policy to stifle energy choice and protect their monopolies.” Evidence for the point is contained in the Washington state bill which, in addition to reforming net metering would have banned third party financing of rooftop solar if the utility itself offered a leasing program.

But one can oppose net metering and still favor “energy choice.” In fact, net metering is in the end incompatible with energy choice since net metering requires a grid connection and a cross-subsidy from grid-connected, non-net metered customers to survive. Giving energy choice to the customers subsidizing their solar-paneled neighbors will, if the burden grows large enough, push unsubsidized customers off the grid.

Currently, the burden is rather small most places. The utility industry is worried, though, about the possible rapid spread of net metering as the economics of rooftop solar improve and the consequent rate “death spiral” as fewer and fewer customers remain who actually pay for the costs of local distribution systems. See the report Disruptive Challenges, distributed by EEI in early 2013, and now the Economics of Grid Defection, published by the Rocky Mountain Institute this year.

The fight over net metering and other rooftop solar policies has broken out in a number of states, from Georgia to Massachusetts to Wisconsin to the solar-rich states of California and Arizona. Perhaps most interesting, however, is to note one solar-rich state lacking a battle over net metering: Texas. As Lynne noted here last summer, with generation and retailing already divorced from the monopoly wires business (in most of the state), Texas’s wires utilities are not nearly as threatened by distributed generation resources.

Power retailers in Texas are free (within limits) to offer a variety of contract to customers with distributed generation capability, and at least one offers a net metered-style product. Reliant’s e-Sense Sell-back plans credit customers for the full retail energy rate for the first 500 kwh of power put onto the grid (about $0.17 kwh at peak prices, and any additional power at $0.05 per kwh). Notice that as Reliant is an unregulated retail power provider, not a regulated utility, there is no forced cross-subsidization of distributed energy resources in the offering.

No subsidy, no undermining of grid finances, supports energy choice without promoting energy poverty. What is not to like?

 

 

*Net metering policies allow consumers capable of self-generation to be credited for any generation put onto the local distribution grid at the full retail price of electricity. Because the full retail price of electricity covers both energy and grid costs, utilities object that net metered customers are overpaid for the power they inject into the distribution grid.

Permissionless innovation in electricity: the benefits of experimentation

Last Monday I was scheduled to participate in the Utility Industry of the Future Symposium at the NYU Law School. Risk aversion about getting back for Tuesday classes in the face of a forecast 7″ snowfall in New York kept me from attending (and the snow never materialized, which makes the cost even more bitter!), so I missed out on the great talks and panels. But I’ve edited my remarks into the essay below, with helpful comments and critical readings from Mark Silberg and Jim Speta. Happy thinking!

If you look through the lens of an economist, especially an economic historian, the modern world looks marvelous – innovation enables us to live very different lives than even 20 years ago, lives that are richer in experience and value in many ways. We are surrounded by dynamism, by the change arising from creativity, experimentation, and new ideas. The benefits of such dynamism are cumulative and compound upon each other. Economic history teaches us that well-being emerges from the compounding of incremental changes over time, until two decades later you look at your old, say, computer and you wonder that you ever accomplished anything that way at all.

The digital technology that allows us to flourish in unanticipated ways, large and small, is an expression of human creativity in an environment in which experimentation is rife and entry barriers are low. That combination of experimentation and low entry barriers is what has made the Internet such a rich, interesting, useful platform for us to use to make ourselves better off, in the different ways and meanings we each have.

And yet, very little (if any) of this dynamism has originated in the electricity industry, and little of this dynamism has affected how most people transact in and engage with electricity. Digital technologies now exist that consumers could use to observe and manage their electricity consumption in a more timely way than after the fact, at the end of the month, and to transact for services they value – different pricing, different fuel sources, and automating their consumption responses to changes in those. From the service convergence in telecom (“triple play”) we have experimented with and learned the value of bundling. Such bundling of retail electricity service with home entertainment, home security, etc. are services that companies like ADT and Verizon are exploring, but have been extremely slow to develop and have not commercialized yet, due to the combination of regulatory entry barriers that restrict producers and reinforce customer inertia. All of these examples of technologies, of pricing, of bundling, are examples of stalled innovation, of foregone innovation in this space.

Although we do not observe it directly, the cost of foregone innovation is high. Today residential consumers still generally have low-cost, plain-vanilla commodity electricity service, with untapped potential to create new value beyond basic service. Producers earn guaranteed, regulation-constrained profits by providing these services, and the persistence of regulated “default service contracts” in nominally competitive states is an entry barrier facing producers that might otherwise experiment with new services, pricing, and bundles. If producers don’t experiment, consumers can’t experiment, and thus both parties suffer the cost of foregone innovation – consumers lose the opportunity to choose services they may value more, and producers lose the opportunity to profit by providing them. By (imperfect) analogy, think about what your life would be like if Apple had not been allowed to set up retail stores that enable consumers to engage in learning while shopping. It would be poorer (and that’s true even if you don’t own any Apple devices, because the experimentation and learning and low entry barriers even benefits you because it encourages new products and entry).

This process of producer and consumer experimentation and learning is the essence of how we create value through exchange and market processes. What Internet pioneer Vint Cerf calls permissionless innovation, what writer Matt Ridley calls ideas having sex — these are the processes by which we humans create, strive, learn, adapt, and thrive.

But regulation is a permission-based system, and regulation slows or stifles innovation in electricity by cutting off this permissionless innovation. Legal entry barriers, the bureaucratic procedures for cost recovery, the risk aversion of both regulator and regulated, all undermine precisely the processes that enable innovation to yield consumer benefits and producer profits. In this way regulation that dictates business models and entry barriers discourages activities that benefit society, that are in the public interest.

The question of public interest is of course central to any analysis of electricity regulation’s effects. Our current model of utility regulation has been built on the late 19th century idea that cost-based regulation and restricting entry would make reliable electric service ubiquitous and as cheap as is feasible. Up through the 1960s, while exploiting the economies of scale and scope in the conventional mechanical technologies, that concept of the public interest was generally beneficial. But by so doing, utility regulation entrenched “iron in the ground” technologies in the bureaucratic process. It also entrenched an attitude and a culture of prudential preference for those conventional technologies on the part of both regulator and regulated.

This entrenchment becomes a problem because the substance of what constitutes the public interest is not static. It has changed since the late 19th century, as has so much in our lives, and it has changed to incorporate the dimension of environmental quality as we have learned of the environmental effects of fossil fuel consumption. But the concept of the public interest of central generation and low prices that is fossilized in regulatory rules does not reflect that change. I argue that the “Rube Goldberg” machine accretion of RPS, tax credits, and energy efficiency mandates to regulated utilities reflects just how poorly situated the traditional regulated environment is to adapting to the largely unforeseeable changes arising from the combination of dynamic economic and environmental considerations. Traditional regulation is not flexible enough to be adaptive.

The other entrenchment that we observe with regulation is the entrenchment of interests. Even if regulation was initiated as a mechanism for protecting consumer interests, in the administrative and legal process it creates entrenched interests in maintaining the legal and technological status quo. What we learn from public choice theory, and what we observe in regulated industries including electricity, is that regulation becomes industry-protecting regulation. Industry-protecting regulation cultivates constituency interests, and those constituency interests generally prefer to thwart innovation and retain entry barriers to restrict interconnection and third-party and consumer experimentation. This political economy dynamic contributes to the stifling of innovation.

As I’ve been thinking through this aloud with you, you’ve probably been thinking “but what about reliability and permissionless innovation – doesn’t the physical nature of our interconnected network necessitate permission to innovate?” In the centralized electro-mechanical T&D network that is more true, and in such an environment regulation provides stability of investments and returns. But again we see the cost of foregone innovation staring us in the face. Digital switches, open interconnection and interoperability standards (that haven’t been compromised by the NSA), and more economical small-scale generation are innovations that make high reliability in a resilient distributed system more possible (for example, a “system of systems” of microgrids and rooftop solar and EVs). Those are the types of conditions that hold in the Internet – digital switches, traffic rules, TCP-IP and other open data protocols — and as long as innovators abide by those physical rules, they can enter, enabling experimentation, trial and error, and learning.

Thus I conclude that for electricity policy to focus on facilitating what is socially beneficial, it should focus on clear, transparent, and just physical rules for the operation of the grid, on reducing entry barriers that prevent producer and consumer experimentation and learning, and on enabling a legal and technological environment in which consumers can use competition and technology to protect themselves.

Interpreting Google’s purchase of Nest

Were you surprised to hear of Google’s acquisition of Nest? Probably not; nor was I. Google has long been interested in energy monitoring technologies and the effect that access to energy information can have on individual consumption decisions. In 2009 they introduced Power Meter, which was an energy monitoring and visualization tool; I wrote about it a few times, including it on my list of devices for creating intelligence at the edge of the electric power network. Google discontinued it in 2011 (and I think Martin LaMonica is right that its demise showed the difficulty of competition and innovation in residential retail electricity), but it pointed the way toward transactive energy and what we have come to know as the Internet of things.

In his usual trenchant manner, Alexis Madrigal at the Atlantic gets at what I think is the real value opportunity that Google sees in Nest: automation and machine-to-machine communication to carry out our desires. He couches it in terms of robotics:

Nest always thought of itself as a robotics company; the robot is just hidden inside this sleek Appleish case.

Look at who the company brought in as its VP of technology: Yoky Matsuoka, a roboticist and artificial intelligence expert from the University of Washington.

In an interview I did with her in 2012, Matsuoka explained why that made sense. She saw Nest positioned right in a place where it could help machine and human intelligence work together: “The intersection of neuroscience and robotics is about how the human brain learns to do things and how machine learning comes in to augment that.”

I agree that it is an acquisition to expand their capabilities to do distributed sensing and automation. Thus far Nest’s concept of sensing has been behavioral — when do you use your space and how do you use it — and not transactive. Perhaps that can be a next step.

The Economist also writes this week about the acquisition, and compares Google’s acquisitions and evolution to GE’s in the 20th century. The Economist article touches on the three most important aspects of this acquisition: the robotics that Alexis analyzed, the data generated and accessible to Google for advertising purposes, and the design talent at Nest to contribute to the growing interest in the Internet-of-things technologies that make the connected home increasingly feasible and attractive to consumers (and that some of us have been waiting, and waiting, and waiting to see develop):

Packed with sensors and software that can, say, detect that the house is empty and turn down the heating, Nest’s connected thermostats generate plenty of data, which the firm captures. Tony Fadell, Nest’s boss, has often talked about how Nest is well-positioned to profit from “the internet of things”—a world in which all kinds of devices use a combination of software, sensors and wireless connectivity to talk to their owners and one another.

Other big technology firms are also joining the battle to dominate the connected home. This month Samsung announced a new smart-home computing platform that will let people control washing machines, televisions and other devices it makes from a single app. Microsoft, Apple and Amazon were also tipped to take a lead there, but Google was until now seen as something of a laggard. “I don’t think Google realised how fast the internet of things would develop,” says Tim Bajarin of Creative Strategies, a consultancy.

Buying Nest will allow it to leapfrog much of the opposition. It also brings Google some stellar talent. Mr Fadell, who led the team that created the iPod while at Apple, has a knack for breathing new life into stale products. His skills and those of fellow Apple alumni at Nest could be helpful in other Google hardware businesses, such as Motorola Mobility.

Are we finally about to enter a period of energy consumption automation and transactive energy? This acquisition is a step in that direction.

Adapting to technological change: solar power and fire

Here’s an important tradeoff I never really considered until reading this article: rooftop solar panels can be hazardous for firefighters. It’s an interesting example of how wide and varied the adaptations are to innovation. In this case the potential lethal electrocution from the traditional means of venting a roof on a burning building (creating holes in the roof with an axe) has meant that both firefighters and the solar industry have had to think about fire risk and how solar installations change firefighting and the expected cost of a fire. I wonder how many benefit-cost analyses of solar take into account the higher expected cost of a fire, and the logical associated higher fire insurance premium.

Cochrane on ACA’s unravelling: parallels to electricity

John Cochrane’s commentary in last Thursday’s Wall Street Journal, What To Do When Obamacare Unravels, provides a strong and thoughtful analysis of what a free health care market could look like. In his argument he accomplishes two important tasks: he lays out the extent to which the U.S. health care market is not a free market, and he offers some design principles for a set of market rules and regulatory institutions that would enable competition to flourish and improve consumer welfare:

There is an alternative. A much freer market in health care and health insurance can work, can deliver high quality, technically innovative care at much lower cost, and solve the pathologies of the pre-existing system.

The U.S. health-care market is dysfunctional. Obscure prices and $500 Band-Aids are legendary. The reason is simple: Health care and health insurance are strongly protected from competition. There are explicit barriers to entry, for example the laws in many states that require a “certificate of need” before one can build a new hospital. Regulatory compliance costs, approvals, nonprofit status, restrictions on foreign doctors and nurses, limits on medical residencies, and many more barriers keep prices up and competitors out. Hospitals whose main clients are uncompetitive insurers and the government cannot innovate and provide efficient cash service. …

That the rest of the world spends less just shows how dysfunctional our current system is, not how a free market would work.

I encourage you to read his whole argument and think about it in the context of health care, if you haven’t already. But what really struck me while reading it was the relevance of his logic and his general market design principles to electricity. If you, as I did, reread his argument replacing “health care” with “electricity”, you will see parallels.

Long-standing legal entry barriers, erected decades ago as a regulatory corrective against putative market failure, reinforced and perpetuated by the material interests and political power of the groups that have benefited from the regulation (hospitals and insurance companies in health care, regulated utilities in electricity). Beliefs that the market in question is somehow unique, or at least different from other markets because the services in question are considered to be so essential to human well-being and to our living standards. Conviction, especially among policy makers, that the main way to meet the “public interest” is through control rather than choice, and that as political elites they are the right people to make decisions on behalf of those individual consumers whom they have deprived of making their own choices. These parallels mean that much of Cochrane’s critique is as relevant to electricity as it is to health care.

A final parallel makes this point obvious: the challenge of innovation and technological change to those established interests and their ideas about the public interest and business models in these markets. In both health care and electricity, innovation holds great promise for improving consumer well-being at lower costs, but attempts to create or implement innovation within each industry have been … fraught. In health care new technologies have enabled new treatments, but at a paradoxically high cost due to the lack of competition that Cochrane observes. In electricity new technologies have been concentrated in transmission and distribution operations. In both cases technology’s role and use have resulted from top-down regulatory determinations, not from bottom-up choices based on individual value. Economies of scale and information asymmetries may still make such organic, decentralized choices difficult, but information technology has lessened these asymmetries while other technological changes have reduced economies of scale. In fact, in both industries regulations have reinforced economies of scale that would otherwise have eroded.

Both markets also suffer from the Bastiat problem: the seen benefits of the control approach are much more salient than the unseen benefits of the choice approach in each case. In each case the threat of costly disorder (illness and death, electricity outages) is more salient than the benefits of more individual choice.

Cochrane observes that

Only deregulation can unleash competition. And only disruptive competition, where new businesses drive out old ones, will bring efficiency, lower costs and innovation.

His observation is just as true in electricity as in health care, and in electricity new businesses cannot drive out old ones in most retail markets and many wholesale markets. The sad and pathetic irony is that using the tools of regulatory control to attempt to achieve the desired outcomes of efficiency, lower cost, and innovation in each case will in fact achieve the opposite, by slowing down or stifling innovation and learning-by-doing on the part of consumers as well as producers.

Market processes and liberalization face significant political headwinds in both cases:

While economically straightforward, liberalization is always politically hard. Innovation and cost reduction require new businesses to displace familiar, well-connected incumbents. Protected businesses spawn “good jobs” for protected workers, dues for their unions, easy lives for their managers, political support for their regulators and politicians, and cushy jobs for health-policy wonks. Protection from competition allows private insurance to cross-subsidize Medicare, Medicaid, and emergency rooms.

But it can happen. The first step is, the American public must understand that there is an alternative. Stand up and demand it.

As we look forward into 2014 while reflecting on the experience of 2013, the failure of control, regulation, and political processes to achieve their stated objectives is increasingly palpable for more and more people. Control and politics cannot achieve these objectives, in either health care or electricity.

Economist debate on solar power

The Economist often runs debates on their website, and their current one will be of interest to the KP community: Can solar energy save the world?

The debate is structured in a traditional manner, with a moderator and a proposer and a responder. Guest posts accompany the debate, and readers are invited to comment on each stage of the debate. The two debaters are Richard Swanson, founder of SunPower, and Benny Peiser of the Global Warming Policy Foundation. Geoff Carr, the Economist’s science editor, is moderating the debate.

One common theme among the debaters, the moderator, and the commenters is the distortions introduced due to decades of energy being politicized, which means (among other things) that the complicated web of subsidies across all fuel sources is hard to disentangle. Given the thorough and valuable discussion that Mike’s provided of his recent analysis of wind power cost estimates, this solar debate is a good complement to that discussion.

Wind energy’s price suppression effects (Debating wind power cost estimates – 6)

[Series header: On the Morning of October 15 the Institute for Energy Research in Washington DC released a report I’d written about the federal government's wind power cost estimates. (Links available here.) Later that day Michael Goggin of the American Wind Energy Association, the lobbying organization in Washington DC that represents the wind energy industry, posted a response on the AWEA website: “Fact check: Fossil-funded think tank strikes out on cost of wind.” I’m considering points made by the AWEA response in a series of posts.]

Goggin objects to my report’s emphasis on the high cost of wind energy. He said, “The reality is that wind energy is driving electricity prices down, thanks to large recent reductions in its cost.” I agree with Goggin, as I said earlier in this series of replies, at least on price suppression: “Wind power is responsible from bringing down average prices in regional power markets, a consequence of subsidizing entry of generation with high capital costs but low marginal operating costs.”

But the effect of wind energy on prices is only obviously negative in the short run. Longer term the cost of energy could rise. More importantly, the price suppression effect is only tangentially related to the overall benefits and costs of wind power policy and so of only modest policy relevance.

The basic short-run “price suppression” effect is explained various places–here is a bit from a short report produced by the staff of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, “Renewable resources and wholesale price suppression” (August 2013):

Price suppression is a widely recognized phenomenon by which renewable resources produce lower wholesale market clearing prices. The economic theory that drives price suppression is actually quite simple. Renewable resources such as solar and wind are essentially zero marginal cost generators, as their “fuel” costs (sunlight and wind) are free. As such, they will always be dispatched first by the grid operator, thereby displacing units with higher operating costs. This results in lower wholesale market clearing prices than would have been experienced in the absence of the renewable resources.

A simple graphical representation appears below. The new renewable resources (depicted by the red line) are added to the dispatch stack, shifting the supply curve out and to the right. This results in a lower cost unit setting the market clearing price, shifting the equilibrium price down from Po to P1.

PUCO, Renewable Resources and Wholesale Price Suppression,” August 2013.

The above analysis, so far as it goes, adequately shows the simple short-run impact of adding low marginal cost resources to a supply curve. The marginal cost of producing wind energy isn’t zero–wind turbines experience wear from operation and non-zero maintenance costs. But the marginal costs are low relative to most other power plants and the short-run impact on spot prices is to push prices down. In the simulations for Ohio analyzed by the PUCO staff, the effect is a price suppression of between $0.05 and $0.20 per MWh (or, to put it in residential consumer terms, a reduction in energy cost of 0.02 cents per kwh).

But, as the staff of the Public Utilities Commission explain in their report, observing a tiny tiny price suppression effect doesn’t indicate anything about overall costs and benefits or about least-cost capacity expansion. The above analysis is a short-run assessment that ignores longer term effects on investments and retirement of assets. A more complete assessment, they said, would need “to consider additional variables such as capital and capacity costs, renewable energy credit (REC) prices, and transmission upgrade expenses.”

And that is among the problems with Goggin’s simple-minded trumpeting of a price suppression effect as some sort of renewable energy triumph: it ignores the future consequences of the policy. Other things being equal, as intermittent low-marginal-cost resources are added to a power system, less-flexible medium-low marginal cost baseload power plants tend to be most disadvantaged and most likely to be retired. At the same time, the resulting increased need for flexible, dispatchable resources will tend to support investment in responsive natural gas generators that have lower capital costs but medium to high marginal costs.

These changes to the generation portfolio in a market will also shift the shape of the supply curve. It is an empirical question, or will be in five or ten years when energy markets have finished adjusting to the 2018-2013 wind energy construction boom in the United States and data is available, whether the overall effect has been to reduce or increase average prices to consumers.

But there is at least on more point: public policy analysis ought to involve a careful counting of projected benefits and costs. It is hardly surprising that subsidizing entry of production capacity would tend to drive down market prices in the short run, but that says nothing about either the short-run or long-run overall benefits and costs of the subsidy policy. The high capital costs of wind energy are one big signal that the steel, concrete, rare earth magnets, other component parts and manufacturing expertise that are drawn into wind energy production all have valuable potential other uses in the economy. We forgo these other potential contributions when policy steers these resource into electric power generation.

Are consumers better off when public policy pulls some of these resources from the manufacture of other goods and services and pushes these resources into electric energy supply? Maybe yes and maybe no, but the price suppression effect is mostly about the division of the spoils of wind power policy, and has little to do with the overall benefits and costs of the policy.