Hawaii Is a “Postcard from the Future”

Today, the New York Times published a good look at how Hawaii’s residential solar power industry, the most advanced in the US, is forcing obsolete power companies to change, and how those power companies are fighting back. Regular readers of The Power Line are already familiar with the issues, as well as the Edison Electric Institute’s agenda of sabotaging small scale solar generation.  The Times article about Hawaii shows why the electric industry is fighting a losing battle.

The utility wants to cut roughly in half the amount it pays customers for solar electricity they send back to the grid. But after a study showed that with some upgrades the system could handle much more solar than the company had assumed, the state’s public utilities commission ordered the utility to begin installations or prove why it could not.

It was but one sign of the agency’s growing impatience with what it considers the utility’s failure to adapt its business model to the changing market.

Hawaiian Electric is scrambling to accede to that demand, approving thousands of applications in recent weeks. But it is under pressure on other fronts as well. NextEra Energy, based in Florida, is awaiting approval to buy it, while other islands it serves are exploring defecting to form their own cooperative power companies.

It is also upgrading its circuits and meters to better regulate the flow of electricity. Rooftop solar makes far more power than any other single source, said Colton Ching, vice president for energy delivery at Hawaiian Electric, but the utility can neither control nor predict the output.

“At every different moment, we have to make sure that the amount of power we generate is equal to the amount of energy being used, and if we don’t keep that balance things go unstable,” he said, pointing to the illuminated graphs and diagrams tracking energy production from wind and solar farms, as well as coal-fueled generators in the utility’s main control room. But the rooftop systems are “essentially invisible to us,” he said, “because they sit behind a customer’s meter and we don’t have a means to directly measure them.”

For customers, such explanations offer little comfort as they continue to pay among the highest electric rates in the country and still face an uncertain solar future.

Note the “problem” cited by the Hawaii Electric staffer:

But the rooftop systems are “essentially invisible to us,” he said, “because they sit behind a customer’s meter and we don’t have a means to directly measure them.”

And why is that?  Because the power company has failed to install the digital metering technology that allows the power company to “see” behind the meter systems.  This is not a big deal.  But Hawaii Electric, like all major electric utilities, prefers to fight the solar trend, instead of building a more reliable and resilient distribution grid.

Here is a link to an article about the study that Times reporter Diane Cardwell mentions in her story.  Enphase Energy, maker of micro-inverters and digital management systems, showed that Hawaii Electric’s Colton Ching was simply wrong to claim that the company couldn’t add any new solar generators to its system.

Renewable power company NextEra Energy is showing Hawaii Electric what happens when dinosaurs refuse to change.  They disappear.

Load defection”  is the final threat to Hawaii Electric, that they can do little about:

Installers — who saw their fast-growing businesses slow to a trickle — are also frustrated with the pace. For those who can afford it, said James Whitcomb, chief executive of Haleakala Solar, which he started in 1977, the answer may lie in a more radical solution: Avoid the utility and its grid altogether.

Customers are increasingly asking about the batteries that he often puts in along with the solar panels, allowing them to store the power they generate during the day for use at night. It is more expensive, but it breaks consumer reliance on the utility’s network of power lines.

“I’ve actually taken people right off the grid,” he said, including a couple who got tired of waiting for Hawaiian Electric to approve their solar system and expressed no interest in returning to utility service. “The lumbering big utilities that are so used to taking three months to study this and then six months to do that — what they don’t understand is that things are moving at the speed of business. Like with digital photography — this is inevitable.”

And FirstEnergy Shows Its Hand on HB2201

Today, The State Journal published energy reporter Sarah Tincher’s story on the differing views of HB2201.

In her story, she quoted FirstEnergy PR guy, and our old friend, as follows:

“FirstEnergy is concerned about the way we credit customer generators because we credit them back at a rate that is equal to the retail cost they pay for electricity,” said Todd Meyers, a spokesman for FirstEnergy’s West Virginia subsidiaries, Mon Power and Potomac Edison.

“Those smaller generators get the benefit of using our electrical infrastructure to sell back the electricity they generate without paying to use that infrastructure,” Meyers said. “In principle, we don’t believe it is fair for the rest of our Mon Power and Potomac Edison customers in West Virginia to subsidize small generators.”

So, now FirstEnergy’s PR guy is directly contradicting FirstEnergy’s chief lobbyist Sammy Gray’s statements to the WV House Energy Committee and the WV Senate Judiciary Committee that FirstEnergy interpreted the “cross-subsidization” language in HB2201 as applying only to direct costs of connecting individual net metered customers to a power company.

Has FirstEnergy changed their minds?  Or was Sammy hiding something from WV legislators?

Ms. Tincher does a great job of blowing Toddy’s argument out of the water, by pointing to studies done by PSCs in Missouri and Mississippi:

Among such reports is a Missouri Energy Initiative study, released in winter 2015, which evaluated the benefits and costs of net metering in Missouri, which has a similar fuel mix and retail electricity pricing to West Virginia.

The study quantified the benefits of load reduction and reduced greenhouse gas emissions, in addition to the costs associated with cross-subsidization among consumer groups, and increased administrative costs in managing a new customer class between 2008 and 2012. According to the report, the net effect was positive for the state each year.

The MEI study also suggested benefits of a decentralized energy system, reduced energy prices, local economic boost from manufacturing and installation of net metering systems.

Another study, conducted by Synapse Energy Economics Inc. for the Public Service Commission of Mississippi in September 2014, modeled the costs and benefits of net metering to the state of Mississippi, which doesn’t currently employ a net metering program. The agency’s Total Resource Cost assessment, which included costs of solar panel installation and administrative costs, as well as benefits of avoided costs to the utility, suggested net metered solar rooftop would result in $27 per MWh of net benefits to the state of Mississippi.

FirstEnergy and AEP had better watch out.  If similar studies are done for the WV PSC, they may have to end up paying net metered customers more for their electricity, not less, to pay us for the benefits we give to all customers.  By the way, that is called a feed-in tariff.

Chinese Closing 4 Remaining Coal Burners Near Beijing

Here’s the story from Bloomberg:

Beijing, where pollution averaged more than twice China’s national standard last year, will close the last of its four major coal-fired power plants next year.

The capital city will shutter China Huaneng Group Corp.’s 845-megawatt power plant in 2016, after last week closing plants owned by Guohua Electric Power Corp. and Beijing Energy Investment Holding Co., according to a statement Monday on the website of the city’s economic planning agency. A fourth major power plant, owned by China Datang Corp., was shut last year.

The facilities will be replaced by four gas-fired stations with capacity to supply 2.6 times more electricity than the coal plants.

The closures are part of a broader trend in China, which is the world’s biggest carbon emitter. Facing pressure at home and abroad, policy makers are racing to address the environmental damage seen as a byproduct of breakneck economic growth. Beijing plans to cut annual coal consumption by 13 million metric tons by 2017 from the 2012 level in a bid to slash the concentration of pollutants.

Shutting all the major coal power plants in the city, equivalent to reducing annual coal use by 9.2 million metric tons, is estimated to cut carbon emissions of about 30 million tons, said Tian Miao, a Beijing-based analyst at North Square Blue Oak Ltd., a London-based research company with a focus on China.

Coal emissions are killing more than half a million Chinese people a year.  The Chinese government now realizes it must do something, and do it fast, or there will be no more country to govern.

Also, don’t think for a minute that China is going coal free.  6 of the largest 10 coal-fired power plants in the world are in China, and they remain open.  The smallest of them has a capacity of 4600 MW.  The largest coal burner in the US is the Bowen Plant in Georgia, with a capacity of only 3499 MW.

But make no mistake, China is no longer relying on coal for new energy.  The Beijing plant closures are symptoms of rapidly accelerating trend.  This is more bad news for the US coal industry.

ISOs/RTOs Operate in Secret, Take Care of their Own

Larry Shapiro at IEEFA has an excellent new post on the secretive cartels that control who can connect to the US electrical grid, how much we pay for our electricity, and who gets energy and who doesn’t.  Readers of The Power Line know how I feel about PJM Interconnection.

Here’s what Mr. Shapiro says:

A fact little known to most Americans is that the grid they rely on for electricity is controlled by quasi-public organizations whose lavishly paid executives and board members conduct business in deep secret.

Independent system operators, or ISOs, work almost entirely behind closed doors, even though their every action affects public electricity customers of all stripes—residential, business and public sector.

I call them quasi-public because so much of what they do so profoundly affects the utility-consuming public, even as their corporate structure and inner workings are shrouded in mystery. ISOs in effect are public agencies exempt from public scrutiny—and, as a sadly predictable result, quasi-public corporations gone wild.

A little background: ISOs run the electric grid region by region across the United States. Some cross state lines. Those include PJM (whose initials are derived from its footprint: Pennsylvania-New Jersey-Maryland) and MISO (Midcontinent Independent System Operator: 11 Midwestern states and part of Canada). Others, such as NYISO, the New York Independent System Operator, are confined to one state.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) mandates that each ISO ensures that enough electricity is generated across the grid to avoid blackouts. FERC also charges each ISO with making sure electricity is fed into the grid at competitive prices and that the appropriate power-generation mix is in place.

Who knows, though, if any of this is happening?

Who knows, indeed.

Before Enron-backed laws were passed by the US Congress deregulating the US electrical system, all power companies were confined to operate within single states.  State regulators had direct access to all of the vertically integrated power companies they regulated.  Because these companies were monopolies and had no competitors, there was no reason for hiding this information from the public.

Now, claiming confidentiality of competitive secrets, power companies and RTOs/ISOs hide all their internal documents from public scrutiny.  Also, because all power company business is done in fragmented “markets” ISOs have grown huge bureaucracies of lawyers, engineers and paper shufflers to oversee the complex mess.

And as Mr. Shapiro points out, these bureaucrats don’t come cheap:

NYISO’s tax filings—which by law are public because the organization positions itself as a tax-exempt nonprofit—hint at just how well the people who control ISOs are compensated. According to the NYISO’s 2013 tax return, Stephen G. Whitley, its president and CEO, was paid $1,804,749 that year. I’m not saying Whitley didn’t deserve that much. His is specialized work and his average workweek was said to be 60 hours. It’s still a lot of money. The members of the NYISO’s part-time board of directors also did okay. For working a reported 12 to 16 hours per week, they took home from $55,167 to $156,500 in 2013. Nice work if you can get it.

Add to these very good personal payouts the fact that board members choose their board cronies—without public review—whenever there’s an opening, and you have a system that ensures perpetuation.

All these salaries are passed on to rate payers.

Did Charles Patton Really Say That?

I was just reading an article by Sarah Tincher in The State Journal about a meeting in Beckley earlier today where people got together to talk about compliance with EPA’s rule 111(d).

At the end of the article I read the following quotes from Appalachian Power CEO Charles Patton:

“Just to say we’re going to stop using these power plants and invest in wind mills and solar panels and have our customers pay for it is just – it’s crazy,” he said. “The other thing is renewables — they’re important part of portfolio but the wind doesn’t blow all the time and the sun doesn’t shine all the time.

“We need some sort of fossil based or nuclear power,” he added. “As we saw during the Polar Vortex, the wind didn’t quite blow the way it was forecasted to. It’s important to keep that in mind.

I think Mr. Patton is a pretty smart guy.  He was either very poorly prepared or he was deliberately misleading his listeners.

Look at what really happened during the 2014 polar vortex cold spells:

For the second time in two weeks, wind power once again kept consumers’ energy costs down as extreme cold drove energy prices to record highs across much of the eastern U.S.

Electricity and natural gas prices skyrocketed to 10 to 50 times normal across parts of the Mid-Atlantic and Great Lakes states as extreme cold drove demand for electric and gas heating to near-record levels late last week. Fortunately, regional wind energy output was strong throughout these periods of peak demand, producing around 3,000 megawatts (MW) on the evening of Jan. 22 when supply was particularly tight, and roughly 3,000 to 4,000 MW for nearly all of Jan. 23 as electricity prices remained very high.

The savings that wind energy provided for consumers last week likely tally in the millions if not tens of millions of dollars, as wind energy reduced consumers’ energy costs in several major ways. Wind energy always provides these savings for consumers, which is why more than a dozen state government, grid operator, and other studies have confirmed that wind energy reduces consumers’ electricity prices.

Mr. Patton doesn’t seem like the kind of guy to come to an important meeting without being prepared.  That leaves only one alternative – he was knowingly spouting false propaganda for his employer, American Electric Power.

China Turning Away from Coal

The US coal industry is facing a wave of bankruptcies.  Nick Cunningham, of OilPrice.com says:

The coal markets have collapsed in spectacular fashion over the last few years due to a perfect storm of factors. U.S. coal producers first had to compete ferociously with shale gas in America’s electric power sector as fracking took off about a decade ago. That forced an array of coal plants to shut down as cheap gas washed over the country. Subsequently a regulatory crack down from the federal government – including forthcoming restrictions on greenhouse gases – further dimmed the growth prospects of coal.

But U.S. coal producers always had the international market, and exports stepped up in concert with falling domestic consumption. Now the foreign buyers are shrinking as well. China, the one country that the coal industry could count on for ceaseless growth in coal consumption, actually burned 2.9 percent less coal in 2014 than it did the year before.

When China, which consumes about as much coal as the rest of the world combined, sees its level of coal burning stay flat or even fall, that raises red flags for the entire industry.

Here are the specifics from IEEFA’s Tim Buckley:

When the largest coal producer in China puts out the kind of numbers China Shenhua Energy Co. just reported, it’s an unmistakable signal that the most populous country on the planet is continuing to step back from coal.

In announcing its 2014 results and its 2015 business targets, Shenhua dropped some bombshells:

  • It sees a 10 percent drop in its domestic coal sales in 2015 (that’s a 47 million tonne reduction to 404 million tonnes).
  • Its capital expenditure plans for coal and power generation in 2015 are down 25 percent over 2014 to $3.2 billion.
  • It expects its ports and rail investment to drop 12 percent year-over-year to $2.5 billion.

The numbers reveal a strategic shift by Shenhua as it reduces its volumes, its operating costs and its capital spending, and the 2015 numbers in particular signal an acceleration in this strategy. These trends are bigger, actually, than Shenhua. The company has a 15 percent share of the Chinese coal market, so it’s a key barometer of the larger picture, and its cutbacks send a clear signal that China is intent on curbing its emissions by a rapid diversification away from coal.

You read that right:  “a clear signal that China is intent on curbing its emissions by a rapid diversification away from coal.”

Gone are the days when Bill Raney, president of the WV Coal Association, can claim that the US doesn’t have to do anything about carbon emissions, because China isn’t.  Gone are the days when Mr. Raney can claim that WV coal miners will be back at work soon exporting coal to Germany and China.

Real world economics have caught up to the coal industry and no amount of US or WV government subsidies can save it.

And where is China turning for energy?  Here it is from Jack Perkowski at Forbes:

According to The Global Status Report, which was released earlier this month by the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century, China once again led the rest of the world in renewable energy investment in 2013, spending a total of $56.3 billion on wind, solar and other renewable projects. The report stated that China accounted for 61 percent of the total investment in renewables by developing countries, and that China invested more in renewable energy than all of Europe last year.