MasterResource–$0.11/kWh: Why Wind Is More Expensive than Advertised

At the MasterResource blog, “$0.11/kWh: Why Wind Is More Expensive than Advertised,” a quick summary of my report for the Institute for Energy Research, “Assessing Wind Power Cost Estimates.”

And be sure to notice in the comments on that blog post: remarks from the American Wind Energy Association.

Debating wind power cost estimates – 3

[Series header: On the Morning of October 15 the Institute for Energy Research in Washington DC released a report I’d written about wind power cost estimates sponsored by the federal government. (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.]

The AWEA response to my report includes the retort, “IER is also incorrect in alleging policy support for wind energy is large or unusual.” (Link in source.)

Actually, no claim in my report suggests policy support for wind is large relative to other energy resources–I don’t discuss subsidies or policy supports for other energy sources. I didn’t intend to allege a relative subsidy size claim. But if Goggin is interested in my view, it is: Unfortunately, policy supports for politically-favored energy sources are not at all unusual, and they tend to reduce overall economic performance, and we’d be better off if we gave up on trying to direct energy markets from Washington DC.

We can’t reach back and undo all of the damage from bad energy policies of the past, but we ought to fix the energy policy we have now. And by “fix” I mean cut energy production subsidies, purchase mandates, favorable tax treatments, regulatory limits on competing energy resources, and otherwise minimize the role of political influence in the choices of energy producers and consumers.

Cut them all down: renewable subsidies, fossil-fuel subsidies, and nuclear subsidies. Sure, do something about pollution, and I’m not in principle against government-sponsored research, but various energy production subsidies and other policy supports tend to benefit a few at the expense of the rest of us.

What my report does claim is the PTC-subsidy for wind power imposes costs on non-wind participants in power markets. Without the PTC, we’d have a lot fewer wind turbines connected to the grid; the wind turbines that did get built would not bid into markets at negative prices, and with fewer wind turbines installed the resulting modest displacement of non-wind power might even be a net economic benefit.

Part of the problem is the PTC subsidizes output at the margin and so directly distorts prices and the generation mix in regional power markets. The alternative Investment Tax Credit subsidy sometimes available to wind power developers, on the other hand, is inframarginal and a bit less distorting: excessive amounts of wind are built, but ITC-subsidized wind power faces no special incentive to run at negative prices. (In economics terms, the ITC is more like a lump-sum transfer while the PTC is a per-unit production subsidy. A per-unit production subsidy is typically seen as more distortionary than a lump-sum transfer.) Generally, when wind power runs at negative prices, it suggests that non-wind baseload power plants are being pushed into a costly pattern of cycling off and back on. These cycling costs, as well as the modest wear-and-tear on the wind turbines operating when their output has negative value, are excess costs caused by the PTC subsidy.

Next: So far I’ve been responding to the introduction of the AWEA/Goggin response. The rest of the response goes into a little more detail on certain points–I’ll respond in a little more detail as seems appropriate.

Debating wind power cost estimates – 2

[Series header: On the Morning of October 15 the Institute for Energy Research in Washington DC released a report I’d written about wind power cost estimates sponsored by the federal government. (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 complains I am relying on obsolete data and government estimates in my report instead of “price data from signed contracts.” He wrote:

The reality is that wind energy is driving electricity prices down, thanks to large recent reductions in its cost. Contracts that utilities signed to purchase wind energy, which were approved by state regulators and filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, document that the average purchase price for wind energy was $40 per MWh in 2011 and 2012.

While IER tries to hide behind old data and theoretical estimates, it cannot escape from the real-world data proving that utilities are signing low-cost contracts to purchase wind power. It is strange that an organization that claims to support free-market price signals would use government estimates instead of price data from signed contracts.

Wind energy’s costs have fallen by more than 40 percent over the last four years. These cost declines have been driven by technological improvements as well as the development of a domestic wind-turbine manufacturing sector that now builds over 70 percent of wind turbine value in the United States. [Emphasis in original.]

It is true that wind energy is driving electric prices down, but it has little to do with the reduction in capital cost and more to do with the effect of adding low marginal cost wind power in regional power markets. Whether these are efficient prices are another matter–consider, for example, that many in Texas are worried that low power prices are discouraging investment in new generation at a time that ERCOT studies suggest new investment will soon be needed. I’ll come back to this question in a later post.

Old data? My primary resources are the 2012 Wind Technologies Market Report (WTMR) produced by the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, published in August of 2013, and the 2011 Cost of Wind Energy Review (CWER) produced by the National Renewable Energy Lab, published in March 2013.These two document series funded by the Department of Energy are the most recent publications in the longest, most detailed and complete assessments of wind power costs available targeting the U.S. wind industry. I cite to earlier reports in the WTMR and CWER series on a number of occasions when they present relevant discussions of methods and data sources that are not reproduced in the most recent report. A scan through my bibliography shows I cited one document as old as 2004, but the bulk of my citations link to documents published in 2011, 2012, and 2013.

Government estimates instead of market data? Goggin claims, “It is strange that an organization that claims to support free-market price signals would use government estimates instead of price data from signed contracts.” Not at all. The Berkeley Lab and NREL reports are the most frequently cited and likely most authoritative resources available on the topic of wind power costs. The primary point of the my report was to evaluate and provide broader context for understanding the frequently-cited wind cost estimates presented in the Berkeley Lab and NREL reports. For that reason, the report focuses on these “government estimates instead of price data.”

There is more. Cost and price are far from equivalent concepts. Goggin seems to miss this point, but the Berkeley Lab understands. At page 49 of the 2012 WTMR, the report authors said, “because the PPA prices in the Berkeley Lab sample are reduced by the receipt of state and federal incentives (e.g., the levelized PPA prices reported here would be at least $20/MWh higher without the PTC, ITC, or Treasury Grant), and are also influenced by various local policies and market characteristics, they do not directly represent wind energy generation costs.” (Emphasis in the original.)

As even a basic understanding of economics reveals, a subsidy can reduce a price even as it increases the cost of a good or service.

Goggin claims that, because “the average purchase price for wind energy was $40 per MWh in 2011 and 2012,” we can conclude that there are large reductions in cost. Goggin’s $40 per MWh report likely comes from the most recent WTMR, but here is the full sentence with a bit more information:

After topping out at nearly $70/MWh for PPAs executed in 2009, the average levelized price of wind PPAs signed in 2011/2012—many of which were for projects built in 2012—fell to around $40/MWh nationwide, which rivals previous lows set back in the 2000–2005 period.

So prices for contracts in 2011/2012 have returned to levels of the 2000-2005 period? And this is, supposedly, evidence of vast reductions in the cost of wind power, that we are now–after shoveling billions of dollars into the wind power industry post 2005–only now getting wind power contract prices back to the level that they used to be? Goggin’s got more explaining to do if he wants to make an argument using prices to represent costs.

A much more likely explanation is that wind power contract prices depend, in part, on alternative sources of electric power. As natural gas prices rose up through 2008, utilities were willing to pay higher prices for wind power. As natural gas prices fell beginning in late 2008, wind power contract prices fell with them. I’ll hazard the guess that these contract prices have more to do with natural gas prices then reductions in wind power costs.

Up next: Are government subsidies for wind power large or unusual compared to government support for fossil fuels, nuclear power, and other resources?

Debating wind power cost estimates – 1

On the Morning of October 15 the Institute for Energy Research in Washington DC released a report I’d written about wind power cost estimates sponsored by the federal government. (Links available here.) Later that day the 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.

Before we get to substantive issues, I’d like to emphasize that I have no particular objection to wind energy technology. In fact, geek-wise I think it is kind of neat that tall, graceful, well-designed machines can make electric power out of the wind. However, I do object to a wide range of federal energy policies including the Production Tax Credit. Like most other government subsidies, the PTC distorts the electric power market and makes most people worse off.

Okay, still not yet to the substantive issues, but consider Goggin’s opening paragraph:

After two failed attempts to attack wind energy earlier this month, the fossil-fuel-funded Institute for Energy Research (IER) has now struck out swinging (strikes one and two are documented here). Strike three comes from a report written by Michael Giberson that relies on obsolete data and largely regurgitates anti-wind myths that have already been debunked. As a result of those mistakes, IER’s report overstates the actual cost of wind energy by around 100%.

[Links are carried over from the AWEA website for the convenience of the interested reader.]

The words “fossil-fuel-funded” link to a website ran by the Natural Resources Defense Council intended to finger the groups “trying to stop clean energy and new jobs” and reveal (some of) these groups sources of funds. It notes that the Institute for Energy Research (IER) leadership includes people who had worked for large energy companies in the past (Enron, Koch Industries) and that IER had taken money from ExxonMobil. (I tried to dig a little deeper by using resources relied upon in a Daily Kos article published a few days ago about links between the Koch brothers and various policy and advocacy groups, but didn’t turn up anything more on IER.)

Now I didn’t personally speak to anyone from Koch Industries or ExxonMobil about any of this work, and I don’t personally care much where IER gathers its money from (as long as I get paid). It also doesn’t matter to me where AWEA gets its money.

In any case, if you want to dismiss my report because IER once took some money from ExxonMobil, then you should read this short essay instead.

The rest of Goggin’s opening paragraph asserts I relied on obsolete data and anti-wind myths to make my case, and as a result I overstate the “cost of wind energy by around 100%.” These points get into substantive issues, I’ll take them up in subsequent posts.

Assessing wind power cost estimates produced by the US government

From the press release:

WASHINGTON — The Institute for Energy Research released today a study titled Assessing Wind Power Cost Estimates. The study, written by Dr. Michael Giberson, an economics professor at Texas Tech University, details the costs of wind power that commonly go unreported in studies performed by government-funded groups such as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). The study is published as the federal wind Production Tax Credit (PTC), a massive subsidy to the wind power industry, is set to expire at the end of the year. Last year, the PTC received another one-year extension that government analysts project will cost taxpayers $12 billion.

“As Big Wind’s lobbyists fight tooth and nail to extend the wind Production Tax Credit, it is important that we look at the true costs of wind power to taxpayers and ratepayers,” IER President Thomas Pyle said upon release of the study.

“Despite being propped up by government mandates and billion dollar subsidies for decades, wind power continues to be an expensive and boutique energy source that the American people cannot rely on for power when they need it. Although lobbyists for the wind industry prefer to downplay the real costs of wind power, Dr. Giberson has produced a fact-based study that demonstrates just how expensive it really is.”

The study highlights several categories of costs that NREL and others fail to recognize in their studies on the Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE). Rather than approaching the cost of wind power from the point of view of the wind project developer, Dr. Giberson takes a broader view of the cost of wind power to all Americans, including electricity consumers and taxpayers.

As Giberson states in the study, “While expenses faced by wind project developers are an important element of the overall cost of wind power, the addition of wind power to the power grid involves a number of other costs … Such costs include the expense of transmission expansions needed to develop wind power, other grid integration expenses, and added grid reliability expenses.”

So that press release hit the newswires this morning, and a little later today the American Wind Energy Association explained on their blog that I was wrong, wrong, and wrong about wind power costs: “Fact check: Fossil-funded think tank strikes out on cost of wind.”

Now that the study is out, I’ll post a bit about it here over the next few days. I’ll see what I can learn from the AWEA reaction and comment on it as well.

To read the full study, “Assessing Wind Power Cost Estimates,” click here (PDF), for the executive summary, click here (PDF).

ADDED NOTE: One infelicity in the press release describes me as a professor in the economics department at Texas Tech University. Actually, I’m an economist working in the Area of Energy, Economics, and Law in the Rawls College of Business at Texas Tech University–the economics department is located across campus within the College of Arts & Sciences.

Power demand in Texas grows more slowly than forecasted

From StateImpact Texas, a joint effort of radio station KUT Austin and KUHF Houston, a report that consumption of electric power in Texas isn’t growing as fast as expected:

As the Texas Public Utility Commission (PUC) considers changing the electricity market so there’s more money to build new power plants, a mystery has popped up: why aren’t Texans using as much electricity as predicted?

“There’s something that’s been going on recently with the forecasts, which affects a lot of things,” said PUC commissioner Kenneth Anderson at the commission’s open meeting last week.

Who Turned the Lights Out?

Anderson said forecasts from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) had predicted electricity demand would increase in 2013 by 2.1 percent.

In reality?

“It’s been barely one percent, if it’s even hit one percent,” Anderson said.

As the story highlights, this is kind of a big deal. The Texas PUC is contemplating fairly substantive changes to the ERCOT power market design based on projections that power generation capability won’t grow fast enough to meet forecasted future demand. If the forecasts are overstating the problem, maybe regulators need not be quite so nervous.

EIA shows higher wind power output cutting into baseload power generation

The Energy Information Administration’s “Today in Energy” series shows with a couple of charts how growing wind power output in the Southwest Power Pool region is cutting into the income of baseload power plants.

U.S. EIA chart based on Southwest Power Pool data.

The effect matters because baseload power plants tend to have the lowest operating costs. As baseload plants get pushed off the system, more of system capacity will shift to more flexible “load following” plants, which tend to have higher operating costs. Power prices in the Southwest Power Pool and other ISO power markets tend to reflect the operating costs of load following plants, so the effect will be to increase average wholesale power prices.

Wind power advocates sometimes want to claim credit for driving down power prices, and in the short run the addition of wind power can push prices down (especially, of course, if wind power plants have their output subsidized as with the Production Tax Credit). In the long run, as output of cheap-to-run baseload power plants is squeezed from the system, average prices will rise again.

The ERCOT market in Texas faces this same problem — in fact I suspect it is a little further down this path than the Southwest Power Pool — and the state has been struggling over projected resource adequacy concerns on the horizon. Of course, as Texas PUC commission Kenneth Anderson has pointed out, an efficient “energy-only” market with growing consumption should always see resource adequacy problems about four or five years ahead. If it doesn’t see shortages in the future, it implies the system is currently overbuilt. Still, incentives to invest in generation appear weak, wind power capacity additions in Texas are expected to continue, and resource adequacy analysts in ERCOT are nervous.

Politicized implementation of U.S. oil import quotas, 1959-1973

The oil import quota system in place from 1959 to 1973 restricted imports to an amount equal to the difference between the federal government’s estimate of domestic oil demand and the estimate of domestic oil supply. But, of course, nothing in industry-protection policy can be easy, so the policy contained a number of adjustments and exclusions.

Chief among exclusion was the “overland exemption” for imports from Canada and Mexico. Hilarity ensues.

120. There is an overland “exemption” for imports from Canada and Mexico. The overland exemption has been construed to include imports from Mexico which are transported by tanker to Brownsville, Texas, where they are entered in bond, transferred to trucks which cross the Mexican border, then re-enter the United States where they are released from bond and are said to have entered by overland means. The oil is reloaded aboard tankers for shipment by sea to the U.S. East Coast. On the other hand, the exemption has not been extended to shipments from Canada across the Great Lakes or to rail shipments from Canada to Ketchikan in Southern Alaska because of a short inland waterway crossing by rail car ferry. The “overland exemption” for both Canadian and Mexican imports are further limited quantitatively by intergovernmental agreements.

From Cabinet Task Force on Oil Import Control, The Oil Import Question, (1970), at pp. 9-10.


“In the spirit of Apollo, with the determination of the Manhattan Project”: Nixon’s Project Independence

When Arab oil exporters imposed their embargo on the U.S. and the Netherlands in October 1973, George Schultz noted that the United Kingdom and France faced hardly any problem accessing crude oil supplies.Schultz was Secretary of the Treasury at the time and had earlier been in charge of Nixon’s Cabinet Task Force on Oil Import Control.

The United States too, despite the embargo’s intent, faced few problems accessing crude oil supplies–the effect of the embargo was mostly to rearrange tanker routes, at modest additional cost to U.S. importers, and import levels were barely affected. Supplies were not too affected, but world oil prices jumped. The oil import allocation system was not up to the challenges presented by the needed market response, and the result was an uneven pattern of regional shortages and surpluses that were difficult to correct: movements across U.S. government planning regions required government permission.

As I mentioned yesterday, it was the import allocation system in combination with oil price controls that turned the world oil price increase into an energy crisis in the United States.

Economic problems often create political problems for the President. But Nixon, increasingly entangled in Watergate scandal revelations in late 1973, found the growing energy crisis to be a useful political device. On November 7, 1973, the President announced “Project Independence”:

Let us set as our national goal, in the spirit of Apollo, with the determination of the Manhattan Project, that by the end of this decade we will have developed the potential to meet our own energy needs without depending on any foreign energy sources.

Let us pledge that by 1980, under Project Independence, we shall be able to meet America’s energy needs from America’s own energy resources.

No people in the world perform more nobly than the American people when called upon to unite in the service of their country. I am supremely confident that while the days and weeks ahead may be a time of some hardship for many of us, they will also be a time of renewed commitment and concentration to the national interest.

Nixon’s simple political narrative–bad Middle Eastern oil producers were a threat to our economic security–was readily accepted and politicians have seized onto “energy independence” slogans ever since.

Nixon’s popularity had peaked near 67 percent at his second inauguration, January 1973, then began sliding down throughout the year. The Project Independence speech coincided with a stabilization of his popularity around 25 percent, where it remained until his resignation in August of the next year.

RELATED: Peter Grossman’s book, U.S. Energy Policy and the Pursuit of Failure, hammers hard on politician’s invocation of Apollo and Manhattan Project analogies when announcing outsized energy research goals. There is an immense difference, Grossman explains, between pursuing a known technological task at incredible expense and pursuing speculative scientific developments with the goal of fostering a new commercial energy product (fusion power, synfuels, wind power, solar power, cellulosic ethanol fuels, etc.). If the book could only cure politicians of this one failing, it would have been worth Grossman’s efforts in producing it. Of course, as Grossman points out, there are many other political failings as well.

Energy imports and energy security: a view from 1970

A few weeks back George Schultz posted a few happy memories on a Hoover Institution website from his time heading Nixon’s Cabinet Task Force on Oil Import Control way back in 1969 and 1970. The task force was charged with reviewing the existing mandatory oil import quotas, first imposed under the Eisenhower administration, and recommending reforms if needed

At the AEI Ideas blog, Ben Zycher finds Schultz’s recollections of that effort maddening off point. Zycher concludes there is “something about oil imports or ‘dependence’ that has a deeply corrosive effect on clear thinking, a commodity all too rare in policy discussions generally, and in the Beltway in particular.”

I found a copy of the task force’s report at the library* to see what the fuss was about. Overall the report looks pretty comprehensive, and the process of preparing the report seems open and thorough (Schultz mentions receiving 10,000 pages of comments in response to the task force’s list of questions published in the Federal Register on May 22, 1969, and these were followed by task force site visits and extensive deliberations). The majority on the task force recommended scrapping the import quotas, imposition of a tariff that approximated the difference between the then current domestic and world oil prices, then periodic reductions in the tariff to bring the domestic price down to the world price over time.

I noticed how far from prescient the report was about how world oil markets would actually change during the 1970s. Forecasting being hard, and all that.

At the time the Texas Railroad Commission, with the help of the Interstate Oil Compact, import quotas and other supportive federal policies, limited domestic production to keep crude oil prices up in the U.S. Current oil prices were then around $3.30/bbl in the United States, and the task force’s proposed policy of shifting from import quotas to a slowly declining import tariff was deemed likely to yield prices drifting down to $2 over a decade. A dissenting view, included at the end of the report, objected to the tariff approach on the grounds that the lower prices expected would harm the domestic energy industry and therefore be bad for national security. Things went a little differently.

Of course the text frequently points out the hazards of prediction. Many things could happen, it acknowledged, and the report considered several seemingly-plausible scenarios within which to consider the policy alternatives. In any case, Nixon shelved the task force report, imposed price controls on oil the next year, then as energy shortages loomed in early 1973 he abolished the quota system and implemented an import allocation program to ensure that all regions got (the Nixon administration’s idea of a fair share of) access to cheaper imports.

It was this cumbersome oil import allocation system, combined with continued federal oil price controls, that created an energy crisis out of the sharp boost in world oil prices in late 1973. All in all, the task force’s recommendation would have been superior to Nixon’s actual policies.

*Actually, since I have a great librarian, I just emailed him and was able to pick it up at the library’s front desk the next day. (I could have had it delivered to my office in two or three days, but I’m an impatient person.)