All posts by Dennis Wamsted

The Facts Tell The Story: Coal Comeback Is Nothing But A Trump Delusion

“Facts are stubborn things.”

John Adams, our second president, generally gets credit for this wonderful aphorism, but regardless of who was the first to say it, the observation itself is what matters: You simply cannot wish away facts. This came to mind earlier this week when I looked at the Energy Information Administration’s monthly electric power overview (which can be found here); it’s a publication that only the geekiest of energy wonks would ever read, particularly on a regular basis. However, dry as it may be, it does one thing exceedingly well: It presents facts, just as they are—not as people may want them to be.

One of the many such facts that caught my eye this month concerns electricity generation from coal, that shiny black rock that seems to be the moving force behind all the Trump administration’s energy and environmental policies. ‘The war on coal is over,’ his minions mouth repeatedly. ‘We are going to bring the jobs back,’ the president assures miners at every opportunity.

Problem is, facts are stubborn things. In the EIA review, which covers the first nine months of 2017, coal-fired electricity generation fell compared to the comparable year-earlier period. To be fair, it didn’t drop by much, sliding 1.5 percent to 919,805 thousand megawatt-hours from 934,267 thousand mwh a year ago. However, if the war is over and the jobs are coming back, then there should have been no slide at all; indeed, there should have been an increase.

The slide in coal-fired generation also pushed coal production for the sector, which accounts for the vast majority of U.S. coal consumption, down during the first nine months. Overall, just over 504 million tons of coal were used to generate electricity, down from 509 million in 2016—which was the lowest production year for the industry since 1979. Hardly the turnaround the Trump administration repeatedly trumpets.

What the administration definitely doesn’t trumpet in its incessant tweets and coal-dominated decision-making, is that during this same nine-month period, generation from non-emitting wind and solar jumped 13.6 percent, climbing to 284,584 mwh from 250,482 mwh in 2016. Combined with hydro, renewables generated just over 525,000 mwh of electricity annually for the first nine months of the year, within hailing distance of the nation’s nuclear sector, which has generated just under 600,000 mwh so far this year.

And while the administration clearly is not a fan of renewables, more growth in this sector is just around the corner. The American Wind Energy Association says 84,000 MW of wind capacity are installed across the United States, with another 25,000 MW under construction. Similarly, the Solar Energy Industries Association reports that 47,000 MW of solar capacity has been installed in the U.S., with another 21,000 MW of utility-scale solar generation currently in the construction pipeline.

As much as Trump and his backers like to blame renewables and the environmental community for the downfall of coal, the stubborn little fact is that the war, such as it was, against coal was waged, and won, by natural gas. From an expensive afterthought used largely just as a peaking resource during periods of high demand in the early 2000s, natural gas has taken ever-larger chunks of the electric generation market since then. From less than 20 percent of the total in 2001 (when coal’s share was roughly 50 percent), natural gas’ share of the market has climbed steadily, reaching 34 percent in 2016 and topping coal as the largest single source of electricity in the United States (see graphic below).

This transition, in turn, was due to another simple, stubborn fact: Huge quantities of formerly uneconomic gas supplies in the Mid-Atlantic and surrounding regions became accessible at affordable prices due to the commercialization of horizontal drilling and fracking technologies. As EIA noted earlier this year in one of its Today in Energy news stories (available here): “The increase in natural gas generation since 2005 is primarily a result of the continued cost-competitiveness of natural gas relative to coal.”

No war, no hidden agendas, just stubborn economic facts—obvious for anyone to see, provided, that is, they are willing to look.

–Dennis Wamsted

 

Latest DOE LED Report
 Illustrates Transition
 In Electric Power Sector

I was at Home Depot this weekend (so many tools, so little time) and they had a special on LED lights that caught my attention—a four pack of dimmable 60-watt replacement LEDs was selling for $9.88, or just under $2.50 a bulb. I’m not the type to track day-to-day pricing for much of anything, but the display caught my attention because I had just finished reading the Energy Department’s latest report on the status of the LED market—which found that the typical dimmable 60W replacement bulb in 2016 cost roughly $8 apiece.

This is important for two reasons. First, DOE assumes that LEDs are steadily going to account for an ever-larger percentage of the installed lighting stock in the United States, estimating that by 2035 86 percent of all the lighting in the country will be LEDs of one type or another and that these vastly more efficient lights will cut primary energy use by 3.7 quadrillion British thermal units (Btus)—that’s a lot of electricity that will no longer be needed, about 10 percent from the 2016 level, in fact, when roughly 37.5 quads were used to generate electricity in the U.S. (Paying attention out there in utility land?) But those DOE forecasts rely heavily on pricing assumptions, and if the current price of the most commonly used LED has already tumbled below $2.50, down roughly 70 percent from just a year ago, that means the nationwide take-up of LEDs almost certainly will be faster than DOE currently estimates.

Second, the sharply declining price of this lowly light bulb is a symbol of the massive changes under way in the energy industry, such as the steep declines in solar and windpower costs, the surge in corporate interest in cleaner energy and the plateauing of electricity demand. These changes are largely market-driven and, thankfully from my perspective, outside the reach of politicians on either side of the aisle.

Continue reading Latest DOE LED Report
 Illustrates Transition
 In Electric Power Sector

Storage Puts Utilities
 In A Big Bind
 On Demand Charges

Electric utility executives already fretting about slow/no growth in their service territories have another item to add to their growing list of worries: the prospect that many of their commercial customers could begin installing behind-the-meter storage to lower their demand charges.

A recent white paper from DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the Clean Energy Group, a nonprofit advocacy organization, shows that it could be economic for almost 28 percent of commercial customers across the country to install batteries at their business sites to cut their electricity consumption during specific periods of the day, thereby reducing their exposure to utility-imposed demand charges. This would amount to a one-two punch for utilities: electricity sales would drop if the batteries were linked with solar and the amount of revenue collected from these charges would fall, not a pretty picture for the utility industry.

Continue reading Storage Puts Utilities
 In A Big Bind
 On Demand Charges

Georgia Power, SCE&G
 Whistling In The Dark
 On Growth And Nuclear

The nuclear morass that has ensnared utility executives, state regulators, and legislators in South Carolina and Georgia shows no signs of easing its grip. Southern is set to decide soon whether its Georgia Power subsidiary will seek to complete Vogtle 3 & 4 even though the total cost for the much-delayed nuclear project has now ballooned to an estimated $25 billion. How those economics can ever pencil out is beyond me, but that is not the topic for today. Across the border in South Carolina, the blame-passing game has now started in the wake of Santee Cooper’s decision to pull out of the similarly delayed and way-over-budget V.C. Summer 2 & 3 project: Legislators in the state launched a series of hearings this month on the project, and the first order of business for Kevin Marsh, chairman and CEO of SCANA Corporation (the parent of South Carolina Electric & Gas, the lead partner in the Summer project) was to remind everyone listening that the company had done everything by the book, and that state regulators had continually vouched for the prudence of the utility’s decisions. But that is for another column as well.

What caught my eye, and what nobody at either utility ever wants to talk about, was the first bullet on the first page of Marsh’s presentation (which is available here). “Why did we choose nuclear in 2008?” he asked, rhetorically, I hope. His lead answer? “Growing customer demand required the addition of new base load generation.”

And therein lies the rub. Growing demand in the early 2000s clearly played a major role in pushing both Georgia Power and SCE&G to ask regulators to approve their respective nuclear projects. But the absence of similar growth, in fact the absence of any growth at all since the 2008-2009 recession and its consequent impact on the need for the projects, has been largely ignored by both utilities, as is abundantly clear in a review of their state-mandated integrated resource plans. Let’s take a look.

Continue reading Georgia Power, SCE&G
 Whistling In The Dark
 On Growth And Nuclear

New Analysis
 Begs The Question:
 Is Vogtle Project
 Too Costly To Complete?

Last week’s headlines focused on Georgia Power’s newly signed agreement with Toshiba committing (recommitting?) the Japanese parent of bankrupt Westinghouse to pony up $3.68 billion to fund the completion of the long-delayed Vogtle 3 & 4 nuclear power plants. While that is clearly good news (at least for the moment) for Georgia ratepayers, who could otherwise have been stuck with the bill, it has obscured the real news—that no one knows how much it is going to cost or how long it is going to take to complete the two reactors.

The day before Georgia Power’s headline stealing news, staff and the independent construction monitor filed testimony at the Georgia Public Service Commission covering the latest six months of activity at the site (from July 2016-December 2016, with rollover analysis through April 2017). Their conclusion? The project has been a mess since the beginning, and there are still no signs of improvement (although admittedly couched in far more diplomatic/technical language, to which we now turn).

At the macro level, much of the problem can be traced to the absence of a credible integrated project schedule or IPS, an absolute must in a project as complex as this, William Jacobs, Jr., and Steven Roetger told the commission. Jacobs has served as the project’s independent construction monitor since 2009; Roetger is the commission’s lead analyst for the project. They have been highly critical of the Southern/Westinghouse work at Vogtle for years and have warned consistently that the stated completion dates bore no relationship to reality; see my stories here and here.

Continue reading New Analysis
 Begs The Question:
 Is Vogtle Project
 Too Costly To Complete?