Navigant Research Blog

As Rail Congestion Crimps Coal Supplies, Calls for Expansion Grow Louder

— October 27, 2014

Even as power plant operators are warning of coal supply shortages come winter, the U.S. government has predicted that congestion on the nation’s railways is likely to get much worse in coming years.

Increased freight traffic traveling by rail – particularly crude oil from the Great Plains and grain from a bumper crop this year – has led to significant bottlenecks across the railway network, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said in a report issued in September.  Rail traffic has reached the levels last seen in 2007, before the global recession, and “recent trends in freight flows, if they continue as expected, may exacerbate congestion issues in communities, particularly along certain corridors,” the GAO concluded.

Sounding a more dire warning, Hunter Harrison, the CEO of Canadian Pacific, said during a recent analyst briefing that the entire North American railway system is headed toward a cliff.  “We’re quickly approaching a time where none of this works,” Harrison said, according to The Financial Times.  “We cannot continue to go down the road that we’re going down and be successful and not have gridlock beyond anything we’ve experienced before.”

On to Chicago, Slowly

Like a slow train spotted in the distance, this fall’s tie-up of train traffic has been anticipated for years.  The domestic oil & gas boom, centered in the Bakken formation in North Dakota, has had ripple effects across the upper Midwest, the Rocky Mountains, and the Pacific Northwest.  Chicago, where all seven of the Class I railroad companies have major yards, is one of the biggest bottlenecks.  Rail transport is relatively low-cost and emits less CO2 than shipping by plane or truck, but investment in rail infrastructure has been slow.  Producers and consumers of coal, in particular, have traditionally been trapped in exclusive contracts that give them little leverage in negotiations with rail providers.  In September, Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia introduced the Surface Transportation Board Reauthorization Act, which would increase the authority of the Surface Transportation Board, which regulates railroads, to force them to remedy service delays and justify rate hikes.  Lawmakers chided rail executives at a September 10 hearing in Washington for their failure to anticipate and keep up with increased demands on the railway system.

The problem is especially acute for mines in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin trying to ship coal to customers.  Big coal-burning utilities have already begun running coal plants at below capacity in order to conserve coal stocks.

Ship Gas, Not Coal

Some of this alarm is likely overstated; no one has suggested that coal plants are actually in danger of running out of fuel this winter.  And despite the transport constriction, the price of Powder River Basin coal remains stubbornly low; the price of a ton has dropped 8%, to $10.80, according to Bloomberg.  As a matter of national policy, it makes sense to reduce shipments of dirty coal by diesel-burning trains to supply aging power plants that are quickly becoming uneconomical anyway.  Meanwhile, tight coal supplies will inevitably lead to louder calls for other types of energy transport infrastructure: namely, natural gas pipelines.

There are good reasons to invest in expanding the nation’s railway infrastructure; shipping more coal is probably not one of them.

 

In Ethanol, Cellulosic Coming To Push out Corn

— October 20, 2014

The last few months have been big for cellulosic biofuels in the United States.  The first of three commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plants to come on line this year, Project Liberty, opened in Iowa in September.  In July, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) expanded the definition of the cellulosic biofuel pathway to include biogas used for transportation via compressed natural gas (CNG), liquefied natural gas (LNG), or electricity.  At full capacity, Project Liberty will produce 25 million gallons annually; the two other plants scheduled to open this year will run at 25 and 30 million gallons, respectively.  If the plants are successful, this could be the beginning of cellulosic ethanol supplanting corn-based ethanol’s hold in the U.S. biofuel market.

Cellulosic ethanol’s major advantage over corn-based ethanol is that its feedstock is organic material waste rather than food/grain.  This avoids controversial issues regarding food vs. fuel, and minimizes the conversion of arable land to farm land, which experts contend makes cellulosic ethanol far more environmentally sustainable and less politically divisive than corn-based ethanol.  The disadvantage of the fuel is that it’s ethanol.

Flat Gas

Ethanol’s end market is gasoline, primarily used for light duty vehicles in the United States and Brazil.  It can only supply up to 10% of the fuel in a vast majority of the vehicles in use in the United States due to regulatory constraints and reluctance on the part of automakers and fuel retailers to adopt higher ethanol-gasoline blends.  If gasoline consumption in the United States was growing, this aspect wouldn’t be a problem, but it’s not.

In Navigant Research’s reports, Global Fuels Consumption and Light Duty Vehicles, it is estimated that light duty vehicles account for 94% of gasoline consumption in the United States.  Over the next 10 years, the light duty vehicle fleet will become far more energy efficient, thanks to vehicle electrification, vehicle lightweighting, and engine downsizing.  The end result is that the amount of gasoline-ethanol blends consumed in 2023 will likely be 12% less than 2014 levels.

The Cellulosic Edge

Consumption of ethanol is driven by the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), which mandates specific volumes of biofuels be blended into the fuel supply.  The standard is adjusted each year to reflect anticipated industry production volumes by biofuel pathway, so that biofuel producers can be assured their product will be purchased by blenders.

Given cellulosic ethanol’s sustainability appeal over conventional ethanol, and the limited market in which these pathways compete, and despite the high cost of cellulosic compared to conventional ethanol, it’s likely that annual adjustments to the RFS will ensure that cellulosic production feeds into the U.S. fuel pool at the expense of conventional ethanol.  That means that the EPA may be inclined to lower conventional ethanol mandates against increases in cellulosic capacity – making cellulosic more valuable to blenders than conventional ethanol.  As a result, conventional U.S. ethanol will likely become an export fuel, going to foreign markets that currently make up a little over 45% of the global market.

 

Transmission Superhighway Takes Shape

— October 20, 2014

In a previous blog I focused on the expansion of high-voltage transmission systems driven by utility-scale wind generation in the multistate arc that stretches across the central United States, from the Texas Panhandle to North Dakota.  Many of us have underestimated the impact and potential of this resource as a contributor to many states’ renewable portfolio standard targets (RPS).  Headlines about new utility-scale solar projects obscure the fact that installed utility-scale wind capacity is at least 5 times that of solar.

Recently, I looked into the long term electric transmission plans for every region in the United States, and found interesting developments in the Southwest Power Pool (SPP) region.  SPP covers much of the Great Plains and the Southwest, including all or part of an eight-state area that includes Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas.  The geographical footprint of SPP overlaps slightly with other independent system operators (ISOs) and regional transmission operators (RTOs) such as Midwest Independent System Operator (MISO).  SPP’s footprint can be seen in the map below.

SPP Regional Footprint

 (Source: Southwest Power Pool)

In 2008, SPP announced that it plans to build the electric equivalent of the United States interstate highway system – an interstate transmission superhighway that would serve as the backbone of a higher capacity, more resilient transmission grid, while providing increased access to low-cost generation, improving electric reliability, and meeting future regional electricity needs.

The SPP transmission plans I saw show that this conceptual idea is beginning to come to fruition, as new 345 kV transmissions systems are being built and older systems are upgraded.  Many of these projects have been completed by the transmission owner/entities in the region to address congestion issues in corridors like the Omaha/Kansas City to the Texas Panhandle route.  The figure below shows recent transmission system builds and upgrades.

SPP Regional Transmission System

(Source: Southwest Power Pool)

On the Horizon  

Meanwhile, ABB has debuted new, 1,110 kV high-voltage direct current systems.  A recent announcement by ABB on new products with 1,110 kV high-voltage direct current capabilities raises the bar again.  Until this announcement, 765 kV lines were the largest capacity lines available, and most transmission lines are currently in the 230 kV to 350 kV sizes.  ABB and other vendors (such as Alstom Grid, General Electric, and Siemens) are focusing on the Asia Pacific markets in China and India, as well Northern Europe, where major utility-scale wind projects now under construction will need to be connected with urban areas.  ABB’s announcement is exciting because it raises the high-voltage capability to a new level, well above what we currently see here in the United States.  I can only imagine that ABB will be talking to SPP about how to take the transmission superhighway to the next level.

 

Solar Subsidies Attract Financial Schemes

— October 20, 2014

Arizona Public Service (APS) and Tucson Power have recently come under a lot of scrutiny for their proposed rate-based solar programs.   The complaint from private sector companies is that rate-basing (i.e., the utility practice of raising funds for capital investments by increasing electricity rates) would create an uneven playing field in the solar industry, because rate-basing a capital expenditure gives utilities a guaranteed rate of return.  As SolarCity’s VP Jonathan Bass put it, “If there were ever a reason for a regulatory body to exist, it would be to stop a state-sponsored monopoly from unfairly competing against the free market in an entirely new industry.”

That’s hard to argue with.  However, I would add that another reason for a regulatory body to exist is to stop the free market from abusing the subsidies that are so crucial to an entirely new industry.  In the spirit of fair-minded analysis, let’s take a closer look at the solar industry and at how level the playing field actually is.

Pump and Dump

First, let’s examine the solar developers (SolarCity, Vivint, SunRun, Clean Power Finance, etc.) whose solar lease and solar loan programs are responsible for catapulting the industry into the period of rapid growth we’re seeing today.  Critics argue that solar developers base their business models around building solar arrays on the cheap and claiming an inflated fair market value (FMV) of the systems.  The FMV is supposed to reflect the fair price of a system, and it’s ultimately used by the government to determine the monetary value of the 30% income tax credit (ITC) that goes back to the owner of the system.  Ironically, the FMV is becoming increasingly difficult to determine as more solar companies are vertically integrating, which has made the true system costs less transparent.

For systems that are being leased (which are most systems), the owners and thus recipients of the ITC are actually third parties.  These third-party owners tend to be financial institutions, such as Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse, Google, and Blackstone, that are constantly looking for tax credits, and they have found a slam dunk as financiers of residential and commercial solar arrays.  Typically, the developers bundle a group of solar customers together into a tranche (essentially a bucket of leases), which is then backed by the third-party ownership groups.  The financial firms own the leased systems for 5 years and then dump them, but not before taking advantage of the Modified Accelerated Cost Recovery System (MACRS), which is a method of depreciation that allows third-party owners to recoup part of their investment in the solar equipment over a specified time period (5 years) through annual deductions.  Basically, MACRS represents an additional subsidy, with a net present value of 25% of the initial investment.

The Treasury Steps In

So between the 30% ITC and the 25% MACRS, the owners should be getting a 55% subsidized investment; but with the inflation of the FMV, it turns into a much larger subsidy, on the order of 80%.  Then consider the high rate of return (up to 15%) that investing in solar offers on top of all these subsidies, and it starts to sound pretty good to be a solar financier.  Solar developers readily admit that their business models are dependent on government subsidies, but this sounds like manipulation of those subsidies.  Indeed, this practice is currently under investigation by the Department of the Treasury.  While the developers claim they haven’t done anything wrong, if the government tightens the rules around the ITC or tries to recoup the inflated subsidies, it could be a major blow to the solar industry.

What’s more, the developers themselves don’t seem to be reaping the rewards of their innovative business models that have brought solar to the masses.  If anything, they seem to be bearing all the risk while the third-party owners reap most of the profits.  Is there some merit to rate basing solar?  In my next blog, I’ll examine this question.

 

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