Texas wind power, the ERCOT power market, the Public Utility Commission

From SNL Energy, “Texas utility regulators expect to open investigation on wind ‘cost apportionment’“:

Having seen record wind output of more than 10,000 MW in March, ERCOT in the report also noted that Texas has gone well beyond its 10,000-MW capacity goal and far earlier than the 2025 target established in the state’s Public Utility Regulatory Act. …

And while wind energy continues to boom in Texas, the PUCT has been working with ERCOT on ensuring a reliable power grid amid wholesale prices that are not encouraging new fossil-fuel plant construction.

Perhaps, just perhaps, there is a connection between the “wind energy … boom” and the “wholesale prices that are not encouraging new fossil-fuel plant construction”?

The SNL Energy report noted the PUCT was beginning an investigation into cost apportionment issues surrounding wind energy and the recently completed CREZ transmission line additions.

Texans should pay higher taxes

From Breitbart, “Drumbeat to raise gas tax extends to conservative event“:

Texans should pay higher gasoline taxes, a Texas Tech University professor advocated at a policy conference organized by the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation in Austin on April 16. He acknowledged that how transportation dollars are spent must also be carefully considered.

Generally, I’m a “starve the beast” proponent, but I endorse the view expressed above. In fact, I said it.

“Fuel taxes serve as a road ‘user fee’,” said Michael Giberson, who serves on the faculty at Texas Tech’s College of Business. “Those who use the roads, pay for them.”

Giberson told the TPPF conference attendees that the tax should be increased to a level that brings in the same revenues as in 1991–when the tax was last increased.

Texans currently pay 20 cents per gallon, but to meet the 1991 spending power Giberson said the rate would need to be 33.7 percent. He also recommended tying the gas tax to inflation, so that it would increase automatically.

Giberson acknowledged that more fuel efficient engines and electric-powered cars mean the gas tax will continue to be a declining revenue source. He said other options, such as charging Texans on the basis of their miles-driven, should be considered even as he acknowledged concerns about privacy and practical implementation.

I’d quibble just a bit with the characterization of my presentation. I didn’t recommend a 33.7 cents/per gallon tax, but rather was illustrating the toll that inflation had taken since the state gasoline tax was last raised. I did suggest tying the tax to inflation, but commented that the current method allows the tax to diminish over time and forces the legislature into direct action to raise it. I like that latter idea better the more I think about it.

In Texas two things stand between the fuel taxes and the user fee concept. First, about half of the gasoline tax is federal, 18.4 cents/gallon for gasoline, and Texas gets only about 80 percent of the Texas-sourced federally-collected fuel taxes back from Washington DC. The money comes back with some federal strings attached and some of the money is diverted from projects that benefit fuel taxpayers. Second, the feds 20 percent cut off the top is actually better for Texas fuel taxpayers than the state’s cut. By law, 25 percent of fuel taxes collected in Texas go to state government educational funding, so Texas road users only get about 75 percent of the Texas-sourced state-collected fuel taxes back from Austin. The 25 percent cut of fuel taxes for education is enshrined in the state’s constitution (a holdover, I suspect, when fuel taxes were paid primarily by the wealthy).

In response I favored proposals circulating in Congress to radically cut the federal fuel tax and related spending, and shift the responsibility for revenue collection and spending to the states. Congress has a duty to protect interstate commerce, but that need not involve a massive federal overhead to manage. I’d like to claw back the 25 percent fuel tax take from state educational funding, too. We amend the state constitution in Texas just about every other year, so that is no big deal, but because the amendment would appear anti-education I see it as a hard sell.

I also urged more use of toll roads, which have become much more efficient these days, and congestion-based tolls on roads where congestion is a frequent issue. (Nothing annoys me more than some denizen of east coast metropolitan areas saying federal gasoline taxes ought to be higher because it will reduce congestion. For example. No amount of taxing my cross-Texas drives is going to speed your east coast metropolitan commute.)

In the Breitbart article TPPF Vice President Chuck DeVore pushed back against my tax-raising views. He hasn’t changed his views, but recently in response to President Obama’s transportation spending proposal, DeVore’s views and mine seem pretty close: cut the federal role dramatically and let the states decide the mix of taxes and tolls needed to fund transportation infrastructure for themselves.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation put together a great event, with a program organized largely by TPPF staff economist and recent Texas Tech econ PhD Vance Ginn. Happy to be part of it.

Links to video from the conference and presentations are posted, along with links to other media coverage of the event (mostly focused on the Dallas Fed chairman’s lunchtime remarks, not the “gasoline tax controversy”, but I tried). My presentation is second in the panel 1 video.

ADDED: After my presentation I had two promising suggestions from conference attendees. One is that, given that almost all of the actual wear and tear on the roads in Texas come from heavy trucks rather than cars and light trucks, we should tax large commercial vehicles more–probably on a vehicle-miles traveled basis–and the “user fee” for personal vehicles likely falls to something reflecting the modest consequences of driving relatively lightweight vehicles. Trucking companies would complain, and the political prospects of the idea are probably not good. Otherwise makes a lot of sense to me. The other suggestion was to employ certain oil and gas drilling fees currently in surplus for road work, at least for the road improvements needed in the parts of the state experiencing significant increases in commercial traffic due to the oil and gas drilling boom. The suggestion seems a bit kludge-y to me, but comes with enough symmetry between the payers and the beneficiaries to be plausible. Good enough for government work, as is said.

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.

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.

Alexis Madrigal: Why are gasoline prices falling?

Freshly returned from a few months spent with his new baby (congratulations!), Alexis Madrigal at the Atlantic wonders why gas prices are falling in the US. He notes that the national average is the lowest it’s been in almost three years.

He identifies a few factors that influence gas prices, most notably world oil prices. These prices have fallen, due both to demand and supply factors, and most importantly how higher gas prices induced consumers to change their behavior:

But they [gas prices post-Arab spring] couldn’t go too high because, at least here in the U.S., demand has softened. Americans are buying (slightly) more fuel-efficient cars, on average. And younger people are driving less.

Which is all a pretty rational response to the big run up in gas prices during the mid-2000s.

He then points out (courtesy of Brad Plumer) something that shows just how complex the dynamics are in gasoline markets — gasoline and diesel are joint products, so to produce more diesel you get more gasoline. Diesel is in high demand in Europe, thanks in part to the economical and energy-efficient, yet also sassy and full of fun, TDI diesel engines from Volkswagen and Audi (and it’s an interesting question to ask why US regulations still provide such barriers to TDI diesel, but I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader ;-0 ). If you are refining diesel in the US to export to Europe, you will increase the supply of domestic gasoline, shifting the supply curve out. In the face of that softened demand, that’s going to mean lower prices.

A couple of neat points, but this post is mostly an excuse for me to say how glad I am that Alexis is back from paternity leave! I missed his writing.