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.

How cool WAS that? Not that cool, it turns out.

Michael Giberson

While digging through the KP archives looking for another old story, I can across a 10-year old post titled “How cool is this?

(Let me warn you now that there isn’t much more to this 2013 post other than to observe that not every cool-sounding technology in 2002 turned out to work. You already know that; you can stop reading now. -MG)

What seemed pretty cool at the time was a new bladeless turbine that the inventor said would drastically reduce costs in a number of applications. The Hydrogen Renewable Energy Enterprise, LLC in Hawaii was reportedly very excited about the possibilities and signed up to be the exclusive seller of the technology.

Since I hadn’t noticed bladeless turbines taking over the world, I wondered what became of the technology. Unfortunately, other than a bunch of press release inspired news reports from about 10 years ago, not a lot of information is findable online about Hawaii-based The Hydrogen Renewable Energy Enterprise, LLC.

Utah-based International Automated Systems, Inc. (IAUS), developer of the bladeless turbine technology appears to be still around. In addition to the bladeless turbine, the company has developed products including a automated self-checkout retail system and a fingerprint identification system. The newest technology seems to be a solar energy thermal system which can be used with the bladeless turbine. The company website lauds its solar technology as “Years Ahead of Schedule” and costing less than “the World Government’s goal for solar power cost per kilowatt by the year 2020.”

In June 2009 Renewable Energy Development Corporation contracted with Needles, California to supply the town with solar power based on the IAUS technology. In an interview published in November of 2009, REDCO owner Ryan Davies touted the IAUS technology, saying, “All of our engineering reports and research data indicate that this technology will be significantly more efficient than PV. We’re quite excited about it.” A year later REDCO was pleading with Needles to boost the $128 per MW price in the contract after REDCO “discovered … fatal flaws in the technology they were going to use. Those flaws included cost and efficiency issues.” In 2012 REDCO filed for bankruptcy.

Neldon Johnson, President and CEO of IAUS, is quoted as saying he thinks the technology would have worked, had Davies and REDCO attracted enough investment. Maybe, but IAUS has apparently attracted a detractor online who has collected information about the company: See http://www.iausenergy.com, particularly the page http://iausenergy.com/NewsHistory/index.html, and don’t miss the website’s collection of photos from the IAUS solar pilot plant west of Delta, UT.

That’s about it. No real surprises.

 

Europe wood. Wood you?

Michael Giberson

From The Economist, “Wood, The fuel of the future“:

WHICH source of renewable energy is most important to the European Union? Solar power, perhaps? (Europe has three-quarters of the world’s total installed capacity of solar photovoltaic energy.) Or wind? (Germany trebled its wind-power capacity in the past decade.) The answer is neither. By far the largest so-called renewable fuel used in Europe is wood.

In its various forms, from sticks to pellets to sawdust, wood (or to use its fashionable name, biomass) accounts for about half of Europe’s renewable-energy consumption. In some countries, such as Poland and Finland, wood meets more than 80% of renewable-energy demand. Even in Germany, home of the Energiewende (energy transformation) which has poured huge subsidies into wind and solar power, 38% of non-fossil fuel consumption comes from the stuff. After years in which European governments have boasted about their high-tech, low-carbon energy revolution, the main beneficiary seems to be the favoured fuel of pre-industrial societies.

Also note, “because wood can be used in coal-fired power stations that might otherwise have been shut down under new environmental standards, it is extremely popular with power companies.”

And:

But if subsidising biomass energy were an efficient way to cut carbon emissions, perhaps this collateral damage might be written off as an unfortunate consequence of a policy that was beneficial overall. So is it efficient? No.

Wood produces carbon twice over: once in the power station, once in the supply chain. The process of making pellets out of wood involves grinding it up, turning it into a dough and putting it under pressure. That, plus the shipping, requires energy and produces carbon: 200kg of CO2 for the amount of wood needed to provide 1MWh of electricity.

This decreases the amount of carbon saved by switching to wood, thus increasing the price of the savings. Given the subsidy of £45 per MWh, says Mr Vetter, it costs £225 to save one tonne of CO2 by switching from gas to wood. And that assumes the rest of the process (in the power station) is carbon neutral. It probably isn’t.

And there’s more, so read the whole thing, but you get the idea. A real case study in unintended consequences.

Fossil energy subsidies and renewable energy competitiveness

Michael Giberson

Some, not all, of you believe that fossil fuel energy gain massive and undeserved subsidies from the federal government, that such subsidies way outweigh subsidies for renewable energy, and that subsidies for fossil fuels undermine the market success of renewable energy.

You may want to read Severin Borenstein’s post, “Are Fossil Fuel Subsidies Really the Problem for Renewables?

In brief, he claims that government-based fossil fuel subsidies don’t amount to much per unit of energy delivered so don’t undermine renewables, are pretty stupid anyway, and the more significant fossil fuel support is elsewhere.

NYT Energy For Tomorrow Closing Plenary video

Lynne Kiesling

Last week the New York Times hosted a conference called “Energy For Tomorrow”, and they have made video from all of the sessions available; there are several sessions discussing energy efficiency, natural gas, renewables, etc. I watched the closing plenary on Friday, for which the topic was subsidies in any or all energy industries (sorry, WordPress and the embed code aren’t playing well together). Among the speakers it features Rice economist Amy Myers Jaffe  (to whom we have linked here before), as well as friend-of-Knowledge Problem Branko Terzic from Deloitte Consulting.

The discussion was good and very informative, raising many of the aspects of the pros and cons of subsidies depending on their form and how they are implemented. Naturally, much of the discussion addressed solar and the unintended (but easily anticipated) costs illustrated by Solyndra and by Spain, whether subsidies generate more overall net benefits than a carbon tax would, and whether subsidies should focus on driving down costs and getting to grid parity or on R&D. I’ll let you form your own conclusions on those topics.

I found that Amy Myers Jaffe’s comments were the closest to what I would have said if I were on the panel. She critiques the use of subsidies very effectively, and encourages an energy policy focus on “targeting the externality” and pricing it in the market. Branko’s comments highlight the political economy of subsidies and whether subsidies are hidden or in plain sight.

Recommended for easing into your Monday.

Measuring success by how much you spent on the program: A renewable energy example

Michael Giberson

In general, in public policy analysis, you’d like to judge ultimate success or failure of a program by its net results, by actual benefits less the costs involved in achieving those benefits. Admittedly sometimes benefits are hard to measure, but ultimately the point of a policy change is to bring about some improvement in something somewhere. Ultimately it would be nice, once a program is done, to try to find and measure that improvement.

What we often get instead, however, is an attempt to infer a benefit based on the expenditures on the program: how much money was spent, how many people were employed, how many miles of ditches were dug, and so on. This is, more or less, what we see this week from the U.S. Department of Energy in the study it commissioned from the National Renewable Energy Lab on the impact of the Section 1603 Treasury Grant Program.

The Section 1603 grants were payments made to qualifying renewable power projects in lieu of those projects claiming the Investment Tax Credit or Production Tax Credit subsidies for which the projects would have otherwise qualified for. The NREL study looked at the $9.7 billion in program spending up through November 10, 2011; by the time the program ended it’s three-year run in December 31, 2011 over $11 billion in federal funds had be committed.

The DOE asked NREL to estimate the effects of the 1603 program on jobs and economic expenditures. In NREL’s report they explicitly state that their work is an estimate of “gross jobs, earnings, and economic output.” This means that they don’t consider any private sector crowding out, any disincentives from the taxation needed to support the program, any consequences from duplication of other government incentive programs, and so on. They simply treat the federal resources as if it were manna falling from the heavens, and the jobs, capital, and industries that became involved in building renewable power plants would have otherwise sat idle. (Note that I’m not criticizing NREL in performing just a piece of the overall analysis, they just did the work that DOE asked for and paid them to do.)

But note that this is primarily a study which just measures the expenses of the program and a part of what the expenditures bought. So, it is a partial study of the costs of the Section 1603 program, and not any kind of estimate of any of the benefits of the program.

Nonetheless, in the DOE press release accompanying publication of the study, they said the study found “the program has been a huge success.” How does it justify its claim of success? By noting how much was spent, how many people were employed, and how many things were subsidized by the program.

The DOE is not the only one to claim success. At Climate Progress, Stephen Lacey’s assessment is titled, “Grant Program Supported Up To 75,000 Wind And Solar Jobs: Congress Killed It Anyway.” Lacey’s post does mention some of the construction activity might have happened even without the grants, and he observes it estimates just the gross impact (and, by implication, doesn’t reflect any negative effects due to the crowding out of unsubsidized economic activity). But along the way Lacey keeps claiming the program was a success. How does he know? Well, he summarizes from the NREL report: the government spent a lot of money, hired a lot of people, and subsidized the purchase of a lot of things.

Great, but resources consumed is not a measure of success. Any fool can spend money, but spending it well can be a challenge. Is there any evidence in the NREL report that the money was well spent?

If the answer to that question is “no,” then we can’t conclude that the program was a success.

ADDITIONAL LINKS: Reactions to the NREL report from North American Windpower, Solar Industry magazine, and Clean Technica. Rep. Ed Markey (MA) cited the report in calling for Republicans to support “revisions to the tax code that level the playing field for clean energy.”

Natural gas is too cheap and too plentiful

Michael Giberson

Russel Smith thinks we should use government power to limit natural gas production in order to boost gas prices. Why? Because he is the executive director of the Texas Renewable Energy Industries Association and cheap and plentiful gas is cutting into the business opportunities of renewable energy companies.

“The price is so low, there’s so much being produced, and it’s perverting the effort to move renewables into the marketplace,” he said.

He continued:

With the addition of shale gas to the marketplace and continuing low gas and power prices, Smith said renewables have been unable to gain the traction that was anticipated a few years ago.

“Because prices are so low, the momentum to bring large-scale solar and wind, especially solar, to the market has been somewhat stymied,” he said. “The differential in the price of natural gas and solar wasn’t there five years ago as momentum was building.”

The article said Smith initially suggested the idea of regulating gas production to spark discussion during a conference panel. (Reminds me of the Adam Smith quote on business gatherings: “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”)

If he can’t convince regulators to limit gas production, Russel Smith suggested that government could do more to boost demand for natural gas: exports, LNG for long-distance trucking, anything that might help boost the price of the competition. Such moves would, said Smith, “improve the situation for natural gas and everyone else.”

Not quite everyone else, right?

Wherein the jobs jobs jobs rhetoric hampers solar power development

Michael Giberson

If you believed what politicians say about green energy and jobs, you probably think they fit together like peanut butter and jelly squished between layers of bread. Has there been a renewable power subsidy announcement or ribbon-cutting ceremony where the word “jobs” was not featured in the first two or three sentences uttered by politicians? When it comes to public policy, job counting is the new measure of policy.

So in the outer suburbs of Phoenix, Queen Creek town officials counted up the jobs associated with a couple of solar power projects proposed to occupy a large bit of their industrially-zoned property with the help of some town economic development funds. Turns out it doesn’t take a lot of people to maintain a large-scale PV power system, and they’re mostly low level maintenance workers. The jobs-counting is giving the town second thoughts about the projects.

Now, in some big-picture, overall costs-and-benefits, thorough and balanced look at energy technologies, that it doesn’t take a lot of highly paid professionals to operate a PV solar power facility is a good thing. It is one of the reason that PV power has such a low marginal cost of operation. But in the kookier world where local economic development, renewable power rhetoric, and taxpayer subsidies collide, jobs are counted as benefits and then the analysis stops.

Two comments: First, PV power remains more expensive than alternative sources of power even admitting the presence of larger external costs for fossil-fueled power plants. We likely would be better off if money currently being used to build solar projects now were spent on additional research instead. Queen Creek may be on the right track, even if for the wrong reason. Solar advocates are promising that grid-parity is just around the corner, so why are we wasting money building inefficient projects now instead of spending that money on getting us around that corner?

Second, the number of jobs a policy is expected to create has very little relevance to the evaluation of public policy proposals. Mostly what matters is whether the benefits of a policy proposal exceed the projected costs (plus, you know, those old-fashioned ideas about the proper scope of government and trying not to infringe on people’s rights).

Environmental economist John Whitehead is right to hope that environmental policy creates few jobs, because, as he explains, it would mean that businesses have found lower cost ways to get cleaner air and water.

At Freakonomics, the realization that state solar power policies may be less than optimal

Michael Giberson

File it under “Ya think???”

A post at Freakonomics by Steve Sexton concludes that California’s solar power subsidies may not be making the best use of the technology. Sexton points out, for example, the 1,923 residential rooftop systems installed in cloudy San Francisco rather than sunnier California locations:

If San Francisco’s residential solar panels were relocated to Apple Valley, they would produce another 2.1 million kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity each year—enough to power 320 average California homes.

Similarly, we could consider state policies that made New Jersey one of the fastest growing markets for solar power panels. Installing solar panels in New Jersey instead of the sunnier desert southwest is like throwing away about 30 percent of the power production potential of the equipment.

More on Evergreen Solar’s move to China

Lynne Kiesling

As an addendum to Mike’s post Monday about Evergreen Solar and Ed Glaeser’s comments, note that WW at The Economist’s Democracy in America blog has also posted some remarks on the subject. In particular, he focuses on the use (or uselessness) of solar technology subsidies as social policy:

If subsidies for solar-panel manufactures is good policy, that’s because it forestalls future costs to the economy and the environment by hastening the day alternative-energy sources become cheaper than coal and oil. But these supports make sense neither as a way of creating jobs nor as a way of reducing income inequality. Indeed, because state subsidies to industry so rarely produce a stable source of jobs or growth, in the end they tend to amount to little more than transfers of taxpayer money to rich people.