Navigant Research Blog

Severe Drought Hastens Hydropower’s Slow Decline

— November 4, 2014

Coal retirements, the shale gas bonanza, post-Fukushima nuclear curtailments, the rising adoption of distributed generation, and emerging price parity for solar PV and wind – the dynamic changes impacting electricity grids worldwide are many.  Now, with prolonged droughts affecting leading global economies, like Brazil and California (the world’s seventh and eighth largest economies by gross domestic product [GDP], respectively), a slow decline in the prominence of hydropower is in the mix.

Historically, hydropower has been the primary source of clean and renewable energy in both economies.  Its decline has had a more severe impact on Brazil’s grid, but in both places, this development is expected to continue to coincide with a further rise in gas-fired generation and renewables.  Due to the current cost of renewables, the consequences of this shift may be a rise in greenhouse gas emissions in each country’s electric power sector.

California Copes

With a fleet of 300 dams, California is among the nation’s leaders in hydropower generation.  However, hydro in the state has declined from peaks in the 1950s, when it was responsible for more than half of the state’s generation mix, to just 9% in 2013.  Having prepared for hydro’s decline by broadening its generation mix over the last several decades, the California grid remains mostly insulated from the worst effects of nearly a half decade of severe drought.

California generates around 55% to 60% of its power from natural gas and has seen a 30% increase in gas-fired generation since 2002.  Meanwhile, California’s leading investor-owned utilities across the state – Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), Southern California Edison (SCE), and San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) – are on track to meet or exceed their 33% renewable procurement obligations by 2020 under the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) policy.

Brazil Gasps

Facing its worst drought in 40 years, meanwhile, Brazil has been more severely affected by reduced hydropower generation than California.  Currently, the second leading producer of hydroelectric power in the world, trailing only China, Brazil relies on hydro for more than three-fourths of its generation.  According to data published by BP earlier this year, hydropower consumption fell 7% in 2013.

This rapid decline has prompted severe rationing in 19 cities, undermined hydropower generation, and resulted in blackouts across the country.  In the run up to the 2014 World Cup, the Brazilian government provided more than $5 billion to subsidize electric utilities, replacing lost hydroelectric generation with fossil fuel-fired generation, including large amounts of liquefied natural gas.  While this helped stabilize the grid during the event, it has nearly doubled greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector.

Brazil’s experience provides a harsh lesson for drought-stricken areas with a high dependence on hydropower.  While natural gas is a low-carbon alternative relative to coal-based generation, it may stall or reverse carbon mitigation efforts when used in place of hydropower.  Renewables can help make up the difference, but even with sharp declines in the price of solar PV and wind, they remain far more expensive than hydropower or natural gas.  While both California and Brazil are in a hole with respect to water supply and hydroelectric generation, persistent drought is unlikely to result in a significant increase in new renewables spending without the introduction of new subsidies.

 

Finally, Germany Makes Progress on Coal

— November 2, 2014

For critics who scoff that Europe’s carbon emission reduction goals are unachievable, Germany has become Exhibit No. 1.  Since Chancellor Angela Merkel decreed in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident that Germany would phase out its nuclear power industry, coal use in Germany has been on the rise, and the country’s carbon emissions have remained stubbornly high.

Now it appears that tide may be turning.  According to AG Energiebilanzen (“Working Group on Energy Balances”), an energy research firm, total energy consumption in Germany is projected to fall by 5% in 2014, compared to 2013, to the lowest level since the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Coal consumption for the year is expected to be down more than 9%.

Those declines are due mostly to the mild winter in 2013-2014, but clean energy is expanding as well: Renewable energy use grew by 1.6% over the first 9 months of 2014, compared to the previous year.

The Brown Stuff

Germany’s coal use carries particular importance not only because it is Europe’s biggest economy, but also because Germany burns mostly lignite or “brown coal,” the dirtiest form of coal, and because Germany’s green energy program, known as the Energiewende, is among the most ambitious in the world.  While renewable energy production has expanded rapidly in Germany – accounting, at times, for 100% of the country’s power demand and forcing utilities to pay customers to consume electricity from conventional power plants – the nuclear phase-out has led to a rise in the burning of coal for baseload power supply.

Now, the government is at least considering shutting down coal plants.  German minister Rainer Baake of the Green Party told reporters in late October that the government could come up with a plan as early as December to eliminate coal-fired capacity and boost energy efficiency programs.  Earlier Der Spiegel reported that the government wants to eliminate as much as 10 GW of coal capacity.  A decision will likely not come until next year.

Please Exit

Getting rid of coal is critical if Germany is to reach its target of cutting greenhouse gas emissions 40% compared to 1990 levels by 2020.  The environment ministry has said that if current trends continue, the country will fall short of that goal by 5 to 8 percentage points.

Meanwhile Swedish energy giant Vattenfall, one of Europe’s largest operators of power plants, said it will seek to sell off its coal-fired plants in Germany.  Vattenfall’s coal operations in Germany produce some 60 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) a year – more than Sweden’s total CO2 emissions.

Like a drunk uncle at a wedding, Germany’s coal industry is an embarrassing and unwelcome guest that everyone would like to usher to the exit.  Getting it out the door, though, remains a tough task.

 

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 Eastern Tennessee, the Future of Electricity Generation Takes Shape

— September 4, 2013

It’s been a cool, wet summer in the Southeastern United States, which has meant lower power sales for the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the federally owned utility that serves 9 million customers across seven states in the region.  The TVA said last month that it sold 4% less power and took in 6% less revenue in the third quarter than the same period in 2012, mostly because of the mild weather, a weak economic recovery, and lower fuel prices.

TVA, which brought electricity and running water to much of the Southeast in the decades following the Great Depression, is facing many of the challenges that big utilities across the country face, and it has responded (or has been forced to respond) by beginning to phase out its coal-fired units in favor of gas-fired generation at modern combined cycle plants, including one at the John Sevier power station in Rogersville, Tennessee.  In 2011, the TVA signed a landmark agreement with four states, several environmental groups, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that calls for the retirement of 18 units at three power plants, including the huge Johnsonville Fossil Plant in Tennessee, the Widows Creek Fossil Plant in northern Alabama, and the Sevier plant.  Two of the four units at Sevier have been idled, and the other two will either be equipped with modern emissions control equipment, converted to biomass-fired generation, or retired by the end of 2015.

The agreement, which was spurred by a lawsuit filed by the state of North Carolina over air pollution from TVA plants, also levied a $10 million civil penalty on the utility and calls for $350 million in investment in new pollution controls over the next 5 years.  The Sierra Club called it “one of the largest pollution reduction agreements in the nation’s history.”

Shifting to Gas

The transition at the Sevier plant was not a conversion, per se; TVA determined that switching the existing units to gas-fired generation would be much more costly than simply idling the coal units and building a new combined cycle plant.  The new John Sevier Combined Cycle plant went into commercial operation last year and has 880 MW of total capacity – about 490 MW in single cycle mode and another 390 MW in combined cycle – in which excess heat from the primary gas turbine system is recycled to drive a secondary steam turbine.  TVA says that, compared to the old coal units, the new gas-fired station will produce 40% less air pollution – half the carbon dioxide and 1% sulfur dioxide.

Last year the TVA said it had signed a lease-purchase agreement with an investor group known as John Sevier Combined Cycle Generation LLC, under which the utility will lease the $820 million to the company for $1 billion over 30 years.  Such complicated financing arrangements are a necessary strategy for the TVA, which lost $203 million on revenue of $7.9 billion in the first 9 months of this year.  Pressured by tightening regulations, market forces, and public demand for cleaner power, TVA, like many big utilities, is facing wrenching changes in the coming years.  Switching to advanced natural gas-fired power stations, like the new Sevier plant, offers one way forward for the TVA and for U.S. utilities in general.

For an in-depth examination on switching coal-fired generation capacity to natural gas, please join us for the Navigant Research webinar, Coal to Natural Gas Plant Conversions, on Tuesday September 10 at 2 p.m. Eastern time.

 

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