Navigant Research Blog

Take Control of Your Future, Part IV: Power Generation Shift

Jan Vrins — May 20, 2016

Oil and Gas ProductionDale Probasco and Rob Patrylak also contributed to this post.

In the initial blog of this series, I discussed seven megatrends that are fundamentally changing how we produce and use power. Here, I discuss how the shift in the power generation fuel mix is changing our industry.

Generation Fuel Mix Shift Is Accelerating

The electric grid in the United States has relied heavily on nuclear and coal-fired plants to serve as baseload generation for the overall system. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), U.S. electric generating facilities expect to add 26.1 GW of utility-scale generating capacity in 2016. Most of these additions come from three resources: natural gas (8 GW), solar (9.5 GW), and wind (6.8 GW), which together make up almost 93% of total planned additions.

The Navigant Energy Market Outlook has projected this level of expansion in natural gas and renewable assets for several years. For 2016, Navigant expects higher natural gas (16.3 GW) and solar (13.2 GW) expansions than EIA is projecting. Navigant forecasts wind expansion will be lower at 6.1 GW, suffering a bit from extremely low natural gas prices and the ongoing decreases in installed costs for solar (decreasing faster than the installed cost of wind).

This shift toward natural gas and renewables will continue as many different factors affect generation fuel strategies, resource plans, and decision-making. Among these factors are sustained low natural gas prices (see Navigant’s natural gas price forecast), state and federal renewable incentives, the implementation of environmental regulations such as the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard, and the threat of new carbon legislation such as the Clean Power Plan (see also my earlier blog in this series on this topic). Today, this shift is accelerating even more because of increased interest from customers in renewable power (customer choice) and the rapidly declining installed costs, which are making renewables more competitive with traditional fuel sources (including coal and nuclear).

What Does This Mean to Generators?

As a result, the economics have changed and some of the existing (coal and nuclear) assets are experiencing eroded profit margins. These margins, in turn, are resulting in challenging economics and, in some cases, significant devaluation. Increasingly more generation assets are at risk of becoming stranded investments, as the fuel mix is shifting more quickly than anybody envisioned. Coal-to-gas switching has caused coal plants to consider retirements and, with low gas prices and the impact of renewables off peak, there is more pressure to decommission nuclear assets. There have been several early shutdowns, confirmed announcements, and threatened early shutdowns in recent years, including the recommendation from Omaha Public Power District (OPPD) management last week to discontinue operations at its Fort Calhoun nuclear station. Generators are reevaluating the role of each of their plants, as well as how and if the plants should fit into their portfolio, leading us to the following observations:

  1. Coal and nuclear plants operate at reduced revenue while still required to maintain system reliability/stability as long as their required economics are met.
  2. Coal plants (designed as baseload) are required to operate more as cycling units. This requirement drives up cost and reduces efficiencies, which may mitigate some of the environmental gains made as a result of more off-design operations.
  3. These economic pressures are driving numerous coal plants out of the market and increasing the possibility of stranded assets.
  4. Nuclear assets have been hurt as well and are requesting market assistance and incentives to keep operating. Savings measures such as Capacity Resource Adequacy payments and even state legislatures have been looking at approaches that can improve the economics for both nuclear and coal in order to maintain fuel diversity and keep these baseload plants running.
  5. Efficient gas plants are operating more in areas of ample gas supply and infrastructure.
  6. All generating plants are seeking ways to reduce operations and maintenance (O&M) costs while maintaining reliability.

As evidenced by Navigant’s Generation Knowledge Service (GKS), the average capacity factor of coal plants has declined by 20%-30%, which translates to a 20%-30% drop in gross revenue opportunity. Very few companies can easily adapt to this type of drop in gross revenue. At the same time, driven largely by increasing amounts of variable renewable generation, these coal plants have been asked to perform more as cycling plants, which drives up overall operating costs and reduces efficiency. To deal with the combination of lower realized revenue and higher operating costs, companies are evaluating their plants to determine if they can survive in the new world or if they should be repowered or retired. They are actively seeking new ways to reduce costs through fewer planned outages and higher operating efficiencies while maintaining high reliability to support the increased use of variable generation.

And to Make Things Worse: The Move from Big to Small Power

Additionally, with the rapid growth of distributed generation (DG), all central generation (coal, gas, nuclear, and wind) will face more changes in their role on the grid. DG installations are expected to reach 19 GW in 2016; thus, DG is growing faster than central station generation (26.1 GW additions, minus 7.9 GW retirements, using the referenced EIA forecast). On a 5-year basis (2015-2019), DG in the United States, with some variance by region, will grow almost twice as fast as central generation (98.4 GW vs. 57 GW).

Path Forward

As a path forward, generators must clearly define the mission of each generating unit to understand their new role and how to survive economically. To succeed, companies must do the following:

  1. Conduct a strategic review of generating assets and determine what, if any, changes need to be made in generation portfolio and/or in how these assets are managed under several regulatory and commodity pricing scenarios.
  2. Find ways to reduce O&M costs while maintaining the reliability required by the independent system operators during target operating periods (for plants that will continue to run in the near term).
  3. Have a strategy to manage significant reductions in staffing levels and loss of critical experience across the board, including dealing with the impacts on funding pensions and local economies when plants are retired.
  4. Plan for a changing workforce that will need to include deeper knowledge of digital technology and an understanding of how to optimize operations in a more variable power market.
  5. Aim to operate fossil assets globally, as companies that do so may find it easier to survive than generators focused solely on North America or Western Europe.
  6. Seek new sources of revenue to replace the capital-intensive position for large generating plants by considering investments in renewables and distributed energy resources.

An understanding of the above data points and how they affect your company and the rest of the industry is crucial to shaping our energy future. Navigant can help you develop and use this information to influence the key decision makers, regional transmission organizations, and state agencies that are shaping the future of the industry. If you’re not sitting at the dinner table shaping a future that works best for your company and your customers, then you just might be the entrée.

This post is the fourth in a series in which I will discuss each of the megatrends and the impacts (“so what?”) in more detail. My next blog will be about delivering shareholder value through mergers and acquisitions. Stay tuned.

Learn more about our clients, projects, solution offerings, and team at Navigant Energy Practice Overview.

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