Navigant Research Blog

Q&A: Doug Houseman of EnerNex on the Future of Utilities and Power Generation

— June 17, 2014

The release of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) long-awaited new rule on carbon emissions from U.S. power plants has heightened the debate over the future of power generation in this country.  Environmental organizations and renewable energy industry figures have suggested that wholesale replacement of fossil fuel-based generation with renewables is both achievable and desirable within the next few decades.

I spoke with Doug Houseman, vice president of Innovation and Technology at EnerNex, to get his take on the future of power generation and on utility industry challenges in general.  Houseman has 30 years’ experience in the global power industry and is widely recognized as an energy sector thought leader.  EnerNex specializes in engineering services and consulting to utilities, government, and private institutions.

Navigant Research: In a new report on power generation from renewable sources, Greenpeace suggests that smart grid investments will facilitate integration of extensive distributed generation, but later in the report it shows a “power plant value chain” where generation utilities disappear after 2020 and grid operators become state- or community-controlled.  What’s the logic there?

Doug Houseman: The implication is that the grid can mostly just disappear and that renewable energy will have the same ability to be scheduled as conventional power plants.  A peer-reviewed IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] paper I coauthored estimated that, if the U.S. were to use only wind energy, in order to deal with the annual cycle of wind and demand, the U.S. would need large amounts of storage – for example, pumped hydro, which is the most cost-effective storage available today for long-term storage.  We would need to take Lake Michigan twice and put it behind a 200-foot-high dam.  Solar and mixed renewable scenarios all require significant annual storage cycles.  If we move all transportation to electricity, those numbers would grow significantly – say, three to four Lake Michigan equivalents of pumped storage.

NR:  Plans like this rely not only on green generation sources but also reduced electricity and heating demand, thanks to more efficient electronic devices and energy-related renovation of the residential building stock.  Who pays for these innovations?

DH: The consumers will, which means that the people who have money will end up even better off than the people who don’t.  These devices will have a much higher initial cost than less efficient devices – unless the government intervenes in the market in a significant fashion, by either taxing the low efficiency devices heavily or subsidizing the high efficiency devices.  Since many energy-consuming devices have a 20- to 30-year life, even if the manufacture of low efficiency devices are banned, the resale of them through Goodwill and other resale shops will happen, extending use of these devices to the end of their useful life.

Also, to rehab the U.S. housing stock is not a simple process, but probably a 30- to 40-year process – 100 million dwellings will take time to completely rehab to the kinds of standards necessary.  Some of those rehabs will take tens of thousands of dollars to do, and in many cases the buildings will have to be vacant to do the rehab because of remediation issues (like mold) that will be found in the buildings.

NR:  Policy changes are also needed to dramatically change the industry.  Many observers suggest abolishing subsidies for fossil fuels and nuclear energy and transferring the socialized cost of pollution back to the energy sector via carbon fees.  Do you see any of these policy changes happening in the near term?

DH: Honestly, no.  The House of Representatives has proposed a major overhaul of the tax code, which removes many of the subsidies, but the Senate has indicated it is dead on arrival because of the depth of the change.  I doubt that a comprehensive plan can get through and that is the only way to actually act on all the possible subsidies.  Some say that any investment or R&D credits are subsidies, so the depth of the overhaul on the tax code would have to be extensive.

NR:  In the wake of Fukushima, environmental activists and national governments – including Germany and Japan – are working to eliminate nuclear generation.  Natural gas is often considered a “transitional” or “bridge” fuel source.  Your thoughts?

DH: The Sierra Club, the NRDC [Natural Resources Defense Council], and others have indicated that nuclear has a place.  The administration has indicated that natural gas will either need carbon capture or have to be transitioned out.  So electricity use will rise further (as will storage) as heating and cooling move to electricity, along with transportation.

 

Facing Change, Utilities Change Course

— June 16, 2014

Minutes after details of the proposed new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations on emissions from power plants were released, the coal industry made its reaction clear.

“If these rules are allowed to go into effect, the [Obama] administration for all intents and purposes is creating America’s next energy crisis,” declared Mike Duncan, the CEO of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, a trade group that represents suppliers, such as Caterpillar; mining companies like Peabody Energy and Arch Coal; and big operators of coal-fired plants, including American Electric Power (AEP) and Southern Company.

The responses echoed what some utility officials have been saying for years: limiting emissions of greenhouse gases from existing power plants will unravel the already beleaguered utility industry, send electricity rates soaring, and kill the shaky economic recovery.

“Under Attack”

“Electricity is under attack in our country,” said Tony Alexander, CEO of Ohio-based utility FirstEnergy, in a speech last April at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, “and this battle is being waged through largely untested policies that will ultimately impact the reliability and affordability of electric service, and the choices customers now enjoy.”

Utilities and industry associations have spent millions trying, with limited success, to influence the EPA’s rulemaking decisions.  Utilities’ tactics, however, do not always match their rhetoric.  The umbrage of officials like Duncan and Alexander masks the industry’s more nuanced and responsive adaptations – not only to the EPA’s aggressive regulations, but also to the market forces that are driving power generation away from coal and toward cleaner sources like renewables and natural gas.  In fact, the EPA is only giving a shove to a battleship that’s already turning, however gradually, toward uncharted waters.

“The rule is going to speed the transition away from coal into natural gas and renewables and potentially increase the role nuclear electricity plays in the U.S.,” Christopher Knittel, director of the Center for Energy & Environmental Policy Research at MIT, told Bloomberg News.

Diversify, Already

AEP, for example, is the biggest owner of coal-fired power plants in the United States, and the Columbus, Ohio-based utility “could be among the most affected by the new rules,” according to Columbus Business First.  CEO Nick Akins has warned of plant shutdowns and the associated job losses because of the proposed regulations.  AEP is also, however, among the utilities that have already taken dramatic steps to reduce its carbon emissions and shift its generation fleet off of coal.  According to AEP’s 2014 Corporate Sustainability Report, the company’s generation fleet is “increasingly diverse,” and the company already had plans to retire 6,600 MW of coal-fired capacity before the new regulations were announced.

AEP’s 2013 environmental performance was “the best in company history,” a release summarizing the Sustainability Report said.  “AEP has invested about $10 billion in environmental controls and new generation over the past decade. Between 2005 and 2013, AEP reduced its carbon dioxide emissions by 21 percent.”

These reductions have hardly ruined AEP’s financial performance: the company earned $3.23 per share in 2013, comfortably within analysts’ projections, and its share price has nearly doubled since 2009.  “AEP’s total shareholder return for [2013] was 14.2%, compared with an average of 7.8% for the S&P 500 Electric Utilities Index,” the release noted.

Like newspaper publishers a decade ago, industry executives are watching a business that has persisted in more or less its current form for a century or so transform, virtually overnight.  Some of them are proving to be surprisingly nimble.

 

New Emissions Rule Won’t Destroy the Economy

— June 4, 2014

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) new emissions rule, released on June 2, proposes to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by 30% compared to their 2005 levels.  It follows a surge of reports warning of the dire consequences of failing to rapidly transition to a low carbon economy, including the Obama Administration’s National Climate Assessment, the National Security and the Accelerating Risks of Climate Change report from the Center for Naval Analyses, and a new study from researchers at the University of California Irvine and NASA.

Critics of the EPA’s proposal are once again arguing that environmental regulations will destroy the U.S. economy.  Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.) stated that “More EPA regulations … threaten the reliability and affordability of our power grid, will weaken our economy, and drive more people into the unemployment lines.”  The U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates that the plan would eliminate $50 billion a year in GDP.  However, the history of environmental regulation makes it clear that these alarms have not been borne out by subsequent events.  Similar responses followed the 1990 Clean Air Act (CAA) amendments, which targeted reductions in acid rain, urban air pollution, and toxic air emissions.  Auto industry executives at the time claimed that “[Further reducing auto emissions] is not feasible or necessary and that congressional dictates to do so would be financially ruinous.”  Peer-reviewed studies have demonstrated that the central benefits of the programs established by the 1990 CAA amendments have actually exceeded the costs of the program by a factor of more than 30:1.

Health experts have estimated that in 2010 alone, the CAA amendments were responsible for:

  • Avoiding more than 160,000 premature deaths, 130,000 heart attacks (acute myocardial infarction), millions of cases of respiratory problems such as acute bronchitis and asthma attacks, and 86,000 hospital admissions – thus avoiding the costs to the economy of all of these health issues.
  • Preventing 13 million lost workdays, improving worker productivity.
  • Keeping children healthy and in school, avoiding 3.2 million lost school days due to respiratory illness and other diseases caused or exacerbated by air pollution.

Adaptation and Innovation

The EPA estimates that while investments of about $8 billion a year will be needed to meet the emissions limits, the new emissions rule will save 6,600 American lives and $50 billion annually on health costs related to air pollution.  Additionally, a study by the NRDC and ICF International found that the emissions rule could create 274,000 jobs through energy efficiency and renewable energy solutions.

It’s clear that when challenged by stricter environmental rules, industry finds ways to adapt and innovate, and the savings to society outweigh the costs imposed on the particular regulated industry.  This is particularly true of the potentially disastrous costs of climate change.  Proponents of “cheap coal,” for example, ignore a 2011 study, published in the American Economic Review, which concluded that the mining and burning of coal actually imposes more costs on the economy than the value it creates by generating electricity.

The figure below from the Pacific Institute shows U.S. GDP from 1929 to 2013 in real 2009 dollars (corrected for inflation), along with major environmental legislation passage.  No correlation exists between the implementation of environmental regulations and damage to the U.S. economy.

(Source: Pacific Institute)

 

Emissions Plan Powers Energy Efficiency

— June 2, 2014

President Obama has finally unveiled the long-awaited draft carbon emissions regulations on existing power plants.  The goal of the Clean Power Plan Proposed Rule is to reduce carbon emissions from the power sector by 30% by 2030.  While most of the focus is on how this rule will affect coal power plants, it has huge ramifications for the demand-side management and renewable energy sides of the equation, as well.

This is the first time that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will allow “outside the fence” solutions for such a major regulation.  Instead of requiring unit-specific actions to reduce emissions, regulators will allow each state the ability to submit its own compliance plan by June 2016.  States can choose from a menu of four sets of measures, or building blocks, that the EPA has identified as being eligible for Best System of Emission Reduction (BSER) status:

  • Make fossil fuel power plants more efficient
  • Use more low-emitting power sources (such as natural gas)
  • Use more zero- and low-emitting power sources (renewables and nuclear)
  • Use electricity more efficiently, with a goal of an annual increase of 1.5% in demand-side energy efficiency

Have It Your Way

In addition, states have the option to convert their emissions rate-based goals to emissions mass-based goals in order to set up cap and trade-based systems.  The agency also made it clear that states can develop their own individual plans or collaborate to develop multistate plans, including existing programs, such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), or new ones.  Finally, the EPA stated that states that have already invested in energy efficiency programs will be able to build on these programs during the compliance period to help make progress toward meeting their goals.

The draft rule is extremely accommodating to energy efficiency.  For states that have existing energy efficiency programs, this presents a new avenue to provide value and expand their reach.  For states that have yet to develop energy efficiency programs, or for those states (mostly out west) that have the highest emissions reductions goals, this rule can act as a jump-start for energy efficiency.  It also provides a roadmap to attain emissions cuts in ways that are more cost-effective than strictly targeting power plants and that have the smallest economic impacts – possibly even economic benefits.

There is still some ambiguity about how solutions like demand response and smart grids will be applied under the plan, but that can be hammered out through comments and negotiations prior to the final rule in 2015.  This is just the beginning of what will be a long, arduous, and likely litigious process – but the opening salvo certainly bodes well for clean demand-side resources.

 

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