Navigant Research Blog

Winners and Losers under the U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan

— September 5, 2014

The most cost-effective and accessible way for states to replace retiring coal plants and comply with the U.S. EPA’s proposed carbon regulation (the Clean Power Plan, or CPP, released in June 2014) is through demand-side measures.  These include the energy efficiency programs that the EPA uses to calculate emissions rate targets in the CPP as well as other measures, such as demand response.  Analysis by Navigant and others shows that measures that cut demand growth will cut compliance costs.  However, most states cannot meet their targets by energy efficiency alone.

It’s in electricity customers’ best interest for states and utilities to implement the CPP with as much emphasis on energy efficiency and demand response as they are physically and financially able to.  For this primary reason, states and utilities will expand programs where they already exist and introduce new programs where there are gaps.

Accelerating Retirements

The costs to comply with the CPP, in addition to costs to comply with other environmental regulations as well as competition with low-cost natural gas, will drive approximately 45 GW of additional coal retirements by 2025, beyond anticipated retirements without the CPP (according to Navigant’s analysis).  The aging U.S. coal fleet already faces troubled times, with low natural gas prices expected to continue and the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) requiring hundreds of coal plants to install costly emissions controls or shut down.  As coal plant owners look ahead to a carbon-constrained future, they are weighing complex decisions about whether it makes sense to invest in improvements in the near term when the long-term future of their coal fleets is uncertain.  Much depends on what the EPA’s final regulation will look like and how states will choose to implement it.

While the discussion around coal retirements tends to center on replacement by natural gas, wind and solar will also play a role.  The CPP will drive solar and wind generation above and beyond existing renewable targets, even in states that do not currently have a Renewable Portfolio Standard.  Growth will be particularly strong in areas that have high potential for solar and wind, such as the Desert Southwest and the Texas Panhandle, and where higher power prices make renewables more cost-effective.  Although much of the new solar capacity will be distributed customer-scale generation, wind installations will continue to be larger, utility-scale deployments.

New Questions Raised

The power sector has been expecting federal-level climate change policy or regulations for years.  This has been a major area of uncertainty for future generation planning.  However, the release of the proposed CPP has not led to any concrete assumptions for the future, and it has likely generated more uncertainty than it has quelled.  How will the EPA fashion its final regulation?  Will states choose to band together to implement the regulation, and will the basis for their implementation be rate-based or mass-based targets?  How will energy efficiency be measured and verified?  How will differences between states be reconciled in a system where electricity is constantly moving across state lines?  The answers to these questions will drive broad changes in the power sector and have ripple effects across the national economy.  These ripples will be felt by all industry players that are electricity customers (i.e., everyone) and, indirectly, by the healthcare industry (handling fewer conditions brought on by poor air quality) and the insurance industry (facing lessened impacts of climate change).

It’s not surprising that the CPP will transform the domestic power generation landscape, reducing coal use, lowering demand growth (due to energy efficiency and conservation programs), and increasing gas-fired and renewable generation.  Thinking globally, the plan could be just what the international community has been calling for: leadership on climate change from the United States that will push other nations (notably China and India) to follow suit.

 

A Conversation with Sharon Alton, Executive Director of USGBC Colorado

— September 3, 2014

On August 13, the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC’s) Colorado chapter held a commercial real estate forum to highlight green building projects in the state, particularly Denver’s recently reopened Union Station, which is pursuing LEED Gold certification. 

Following the event, I sat down with USGBC Colorado’s executive director, Sharon Alton, to discuss the state of green building and LEED in Colorado.

Madeline Bergner: Are any particular commercial building types adopting LEED more than others?

Sharon Alton: Colorado actually mirrors the rest of the country.  Office is by far the highest building sector percentage of LEED-certified buildings, and I think the reason for that is that it’s the most common one.  LEED for homes, either single-family or multi-family, comes in second behind office, and LEED for schools is third.  We have a big conference every November, the Green Schools Summit, which highlights green building in schools.

MB: What are some of the drivers of energy efficiency in new construction and retrofits in Colorado?

SA: A lot of investors are demanding LEED certification for buildings in their portfolio, so that’s definitely a factor.  Technology is the other key one.  As technology is improving really quickly, it’s just going to make the whole green building process that much easier and more economical.  Ten or 12 years ago, certain aspects of green building technology were more expensive, and they’re not now because they are more efficient and new technologies have started to drive down the cost.

MB: On the other side, what are some barriers to green building and LEED certification?

SA: If decision makers don’t adopt LEED early in the planning process, costs can increase.  A green building doesn’t need to cost more than a non-green building.  However, many times, because people think about pursuing LEED too late in the process, then it does end up costing more, and that’s what gives green building a negative reputation.  As a result, part of what we need to do is educate people and explain to them that they need to adopt this early on in the process, and therefore costs won’t need to increase.

MB: Is green building activity in Colorado mainly concentrated in Denver? What other kinds of projects are going on around the state?

SA: Since Denver is the most dense, populated area of the state (as well as other areas along the Front Range), that’s where you’ll see the most green building.  However, there are great projects going on throughout the state.  We have a group in Aspen that promotes green building there, and there are some interesting projects in the area.  USGBC Colorado gives green building awards, and we received some great award applications from Grand Junction, Colorado Springs, and other parts of the state.  You’ll find green building all over, but along the Front Range is where most the green building is, purely because it’s where most of the buildings are.

MB: At the forum, one panelist said that the ultimate goal of USGBC and similar organizations was to no longer exist.  Is this how you see the future of green building?

SA: If we get to a point where everyone is doing sustainable things and utilizing green building, that’s going to become the status quo.  As we try to push the envelope and make things greener and greener, and get to net zero, LEED Platinum may end up someday just being the code that all buildings have to build to.  So then you wouldn’t call it a LEED building, it would just be a building.

 

New York Details Its Energy Vision

— August 27, 2014

The New York State Public Service Commission (PSC) has released its latest straw proposal on its Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) proceeding.  It includes recommendations that incumbent utilities take on the central Distributed System Platform (DSP) role, at least in the short term.  This was one of the most controversial issues in the REV plan, with the potential for the utilities to be stripped of many of their responsibilities by the PSC and replaced by a new independent entity.  PSC staff decided to stick with the utilities – partly for substantive reasons, partly out of expediency.

The paper includes a table comparing the roles of a utility versus a DSP, exhibiting a great deal of overlap.  So the utilities can breathe a major sigh of relief with that recommendation, knowing that they will maintain many pivotal duties.  But the paper does point out that utilities do not currently have all of the capabilities and competencies needed to successfully operate the DSP and will need to hire new staff with different skill sets, as outlined in my earlier blog on utility hiring trends.

Seeking Alignment

Also noteworthy, from the standpoint of demand response (DR) and distributed energy resources (DER), is the recommendation that all utilities be required to develop DR tariffs, including fees for storage and energy efficiency.  PSC staffers are wary about the potential effects of the pending U.S. Circuit Court case on Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Order 745 on DR compensation, which could complicate DR participation in wholesale markets like the New York Independent System Operator (NYISO).  On the other hand, the report is rather light on recommendations for expanding time-of-use rate structures, which may also encourage increased DR participation.

Addressing the concern about a lack of coordination between retail and wholesale markets, the report states that market rules allowing DER participation in both markets must be aligned to ensure that DER interaction is efficient and properly valued.  The PSC argues that this goal can be accomplished with DSPs acting as aggregators in NYISO programs.  That’s a threatening statement to the third-party DR aggregators that would not want the utility/ DSP to compete with them in the wholesale markets.

Are Smart Meters Necessary?

From the consumer perspective, the report references a recent survey of residential electricity customers in New York that found that, although few customers say they are knowledgeable about their electricity usage, many place a high value on easy access to information regarding their energy use, the price of electricity, and methods for controlling their energy costs.  This indicates the potential for substantial increases in residential customer adoption of home energy management and DER products.

Notably absent from the REV plan is a recommendation regarding advanced metering infrastructure (AMI).  Electricity cost and rate increases are sticky political issues in New York currently, and PSC staff did not highlight AMI as a requirement for achieving REV goals.  The only reference to AMI actually speaks to how to avoid it: “To the extent that the cost of advanced metering equipment presents a barrier to customer adoption of DER programs or time variant pricing, utilities and market participants should consider alternatives to AMI technologies to enable program delivery.”  In other words, the report acknowledges that AMI functionality may be useful for REV purposes, but doesn’t say how that functionality can or should be achieved.

Comments on the straw proposal are sure to be plentiful from all sides.  I view this plan as less aggressive than the original REV paper, but ultimately, it is more achievable in the short term – which may help build momentum for the longer-term transformation.

 

Bill Gates: How to Fund Energy Miracles

— August 21, 2014

Through the Gates Foundation, Bill Gates has taken a stand on improving global public health, investing in programs focused on basic advances such as developing a next-generation condom to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, creating a standalone vaccine cooler for communities that are stranded without electricity, and inventing a toilet that can solve sanitation issues by pyrolizing human refuse into something more usable (using solar power, no less).  Meanwhile, Gates is also challenging U.S. energy policymakers and their funding practices for energy R&D.

In a June blog post titled “We Need Energy Miracles,” Gates called for the United States to look hard at R&D allocations, potentially redirecting funding from the military and healthcare sectors toward energy research and pilot projects (presumably renewable ones).  Given the imperfections (intermittency, inefficiency) of existing renewable resources, Gates argued, this research is necessary to establish an equitable energy mix, both in the United States and abroad – especially in developing nations that must increase energy use to grow their economies.  He stressed the need to invest in projects that are “high risk/high reward” in order to achieve the sort of miracle needed to support growing demand and limit climate change.

Memo to Bill: DIY

Responding to Gates, Solar Wakeup (republished by Clean Technica) noted that Gates has been active in investing in energy storage with Aquion and LightSail but challenged him to be the major financer of the next energy miracle.  Why?  Simply put, it’s unreasonable to expect increased investments (private and public) in risk-agnostic energy R&D, and if one of the world’s richest men wants it to get done, he should do it himself.  Payoffs are slow for energy projects, the uncertainties many: macroeconomic conditions, volatile energy and resource markets, policy reversals, infrastructure needs, and high operating and maintenance costs.  Solar Wakeup’s challenge is based in reality.

But the cleantech and renewable energy sectors are already substantial in countries all over the world, and growth is accelerating.  China has recognized this.  In recent years, China’s public and private investments in cleantech, both at home and abroad, have explodedReports by Azure International explore the drivers for increasing investment in cleantech in China.  Risk is inherent in investors’ strategies for expanding their energy-related portfolios, and intangible values, such as technological and innovative prestige, sometimes compete with return on investment (ROI).  Encouraged by the government, Chinese investors have become increasingly willing to fund energy efficiency and conservation projects such as smart grids and smart buildings.

The topic of investment in renewables and smart grids is thorny, with many caveats and nuances that tend to shape the potential for ROI – but it’s safe to say that with China’s example, maybe Gates has a point in his stance against being risk-averse toward investing in potential energy miracles.

 

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