Streetwise Professor

September 26, 2020

Water, Water, Not Everywhere and Still Not a Drop to Drink, Or, The Very Natural State

Filed under: Climate Change,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 2:53 pm

The WSJ reports that the CME Group is launching a cash-settled futures contract on California water, with Nasdaq providing the cash price index. I predict, with a high degree of confidence, that this will not be a commercial success. That is, it will not generate substantial trading volume.

Why not? For the same reason that listed weather derivatives hardly ever trade. Information flow is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition to make people want to trade. For weather derivatives, there is very little information flow until shortly prior to the pricing month. For example, what information arrives between today and tomorrow that leads to updates in forecasts about what the weather in Chicago will be in December 2020, let alone December 2021? Virtually none. Given the nature of weather dynamics, information flow occurs almost exclusively quite close to the contract date (e.g., in late-November 2020 or 2021, if not in December itself). There is little information that arrives today that would motivate people to trade today contracts with payoffs contingent on future weather, even for a future only months away.

So they don’t.

I predict a similar phenomenon for water derivatives. Most of the fundamental shocks are weather-driven, and those will be concentrated close to the pricing month, leading to little demand to trade prior thereto.

Moreover, successful futures contracts rest on functional physical markets. As this recent article from The American Spectator summarizes, it is a travesty to characterize the means of allocating water in California as “a market.” Instead, it is an intensely politicized process.

If you don’t consider the AmSpec reliable, do a little digging into the scholarly literature about water allocation in the West, notably things written by my friend Gary Libecap. The conclusions are depressingly similar.

The politicization of water allocation is not new. It has existed since the beginning not just in California, but the West generally. Control of water confers enormous political power. You think politicians are going to give that up?

Again, this is not a new thing. Read up on the “California Water Wars.” Or, for a more entertaining take, watch Chinatown, which is a fictionalization/mythologization of the conflict of visions between William Mulholland and Frederick Eaton over water in Los Angeles. Spoiler: the romantic vision died (literally drowned), and the corrupt vision prevailed.

California politicians will become charismatic Catholics before they give up control over water. In a way, it reminds me of the effect of sanctions in say Saddam’s Iraq. Restrictions on supply resulting from sanctions empowered the regime. It could use its power to grant access to a vital resource in order to obtain obeisance. Similarly, California politicians can use their power to grant access to the vital resource of water to obtain political support, and exercise political power.

In a way, this is the quintessence of something I used to write about in regards to Russia: “the natural state.” Here, the analogy is even more trenchant, given that it relates to a natural resource.

The natural state operates by creating artificial scarcity, which in turn creates rents. The natural state allocates those rents in exchange for political patronage.

To do things that would undermine the rents–that is, to alleviate the scarcity–would undermine political power. That will NOT happen voluntarily. Markets for water would be a good thing–which is precisely why they don’t exist, and are unlikely to exist, especially in places like California where water is scarce and hence real markets would be most beneficial.

So CME/Nasdaq California water futures face two huge obstacles. First, even if even a simulacrum of a cash market for water existed, the nature of information flows is not conducive to active trading of water futures. Second, there is not even a simulacrum of a water market in California. What exists in place of a market is a political, and highly politicized, mechanism. That is also inimical to building a successful futures contract on top of it.

PS. Riffing of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner in the title provides an opportunity for another Python reference!


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August 18, 2020

California: Boom, Boom, Out Go the Lights

Filed under: Climate Change,Economics,Energy,Houston,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 6:44 pm

Twenty years ago, California experienced its Electricity Crisis. Or, given current events (which will be the subject of what follows), may be known as the First Electricity Crisis. The problem in 2000-2001 was, in the main, a problem of insufficient generation, caused by a variety of factors. The ramifications of the supply shortage and resulting high prices for California utilities, ratepayers, and state finances were greatly exacerbated by a dysfunctional market design implemented only a few years before, in the mid-1990s. (When I gave talks about the subject, I used to quip: “California wanted to deregulate its power markets in the worst way. And it succeeded!”)

The lore of the crisis is that it was caused by Enron and other Houston bandits and their manipulative schemes. These schemes were not the cause of the crisis: they were the effect, and the effect of the dysfunctional market design, which created massive arbitrage opportunities which will always be exploited.

California is experiencing another crisis. It cannot yet rival the first, which went on week after week, whereas the current one has lasted about a week. But for the first time since Crisis I, the state is experiencing rolling blackouts due to a shortage in generating capacity.

The proximate cause of the problem is a massive heatwave which is causing high demand. A contributing proximate cause is low hydroelectric supply driven by a lower than average snowpack. But the underlying cause–and the cause that should get the attention of most Americans, including those who experience schadenfreude at the Insufferable State’s misery–is the Green Mania that has taken root in California which has made it impossible for the state to respond to demand spikes in the way power systems have done around the world for nigh onto a century.

In particular, California has adopted policies intended to increase substantially the share of power generated by renewables. This has indeed resulted in massive investments in renewables, especially solar power, which alone now accounts for around 12,338 MW.

But this capacity number is deceiving, because unlike a nuclear or coal or combined cycle natural gas plant, this is not available 24/7. It’s available, wouldn’t you know, when the sun shines. Thus, during the mid-morning to late afternoon hours, this capacity is heavily utilized, but during the evening, night, and early morning contributes nothing to generation. At those times, California draws upon the old reliables.

But that creates two problems, a short term one (which California is experiencing now) and a long term one (which contributed to the current situation and will make recurrences a near certainty).

The short term problem is that during hot weather, demand does not set with the sun. Indeed, as this chart from the California Independent System Operator shows, today (as on prior days) demand has continued to grow while solar generation ebbs. This figure illustrates “net demand” which is total demand net of renewables generation. Notice the large and steady increase in net demand during the late afternoon hours. This reflects a rise in consumption and not matched by a rise in solar generation before 1400, and a fall thereafter.

Go figure, right? Who knew that the hottest time of day wasn’t when the sun is at its height, or that people tend to come home (and crank up the AC) when the sun is going down?

Here’s the plot of renewables generation:

Note the plateau from around 1000-1400, and the decline from 1400 onwards–during which time load increased by about 10,000 MW.

So gas, nuclear, and (heaven forfend!) coal have to fill the growing gap between load and non-dispatchable renewable generation. They have to supply the net demand. Which brings us to the longer term problem.

The growth in solar generation means that conventional and nuclear plants aren’t generating much power, and prices are low, during the hours when solar generation is large. Thus, these plants earn relatively little revenue (and may even operate at negative margins) during these hours. This deterioration in the economics of operating conventional plants, combined with regulatory and political disdain for nuclear and coal has led to the exit of substantial capacity in California. A large nuke plant shut down in 2015, all 10 coal plants in the state have shut down (though three have converted to the environmental disaster that is biomass), as have many gas plants. In 2018 alone, there was a net loss of around 1500 MW of gas capacity, and from 2013 the net loss is about 5000 MW–over 10 percent of the 2013 level. (NB: the shortfall in capacity the last few days has been around 5000MW. Just sayin’.)

And note–demand has been rising over this period.

Notionally, the loss in nuclear and conventional capacity has been roughly matched by the increase in solar capacity. But again–that solar capacity is not available under conditions like the state has experienced over recent days, with hot weather contributing to high and rising demand in the late afternoon when solar output is declining. That is, these forms of capacity are very imperfect substitutes. They are most imperfect in the afternoons on very hot days. Like the last week.

In a nutshell, at the same time it massively incentivized investment in renewables, California has not incentivized the necessary investment in (or retention of capacity in) conventional generation. That mismatch in incentives, and the behavior that results from those incentives, means that from time to time California will have inadequate generation. That is, California has not incentivized the proper mix of generation.

So how do you incentivize the retention of/investment in conventional capacity that will remain idle or highly underutilized most of the time, in order to accommodate the desire to increase renewables generation? There are basically two ways.

The first way is to have really, really high prices during times like this. Generators will make little money (or lose money) most of the time, and pay for themselves by making YUGE amounts of money during a few days or hours. This is the theory behind “energy only” markets (like ERCOT).

The problem is that it is not credible for regulators to commit to allowing stratospheric prices occur. There will be screams of price gouging, monopoly, etc., and massive political pressures to claw back the high revenues. This happened after Crisis I, as more than a decade of litigation, and the payment of billions by generators, shows. Once burned, twice shy: generators will be leery indeed about relying on government promises. (A David Allan Coe song comes to mind, but I’ll leave that to your imagination, memory, or Googling skills.)

Relatedly, who pays the high prices? Having retail customers see the actual price creates some operational problems, but the main problem is again political. So the high prices have to be recovered through regulated retail pricing mechanisms that give rise to the credible commitment problem: how can generators be sure that regulators will actually permit them to reap the high prices during tight times that are necessary to make it worthwhile to maintain the capacity?

That is, for a variety of reasons energy only pricing faces a time consistency problem, and as a result there will be underinvestment in generation, especially when renewables are heavily supported/subsidized, thereby reducing the number of hours that generators can pay for themselves.

The other way is the Klassic Kludge: Kapacity markets. Regulators attempt to forecast into the future how much capacity will be needed, and mandate investment in that amount of capacity. Those with load serving obligations must pay to buy the capacity, usually through an auction mechanism. The idea being that the market clearing price in this market will incentivize investment in the capacity level mandated by the regulators.

A Kalifornia Kapacity Kludge was proposed a few years back, but the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission shot it down.

All meaning that California leapt headlong into the Brave New Green World without the market mechanisms (either relatively pure, like an energy only market with unfettered prices, or a kludge like a capacity market) necessary to bridge the gap between demand and renewables supply.

So what happens? This happens:

California’s political dysfunction makes it a near certainty that it will not implement reasonable market solutions that will provide the right incentives, even conditional on its support for renewables. Indeed, it is almost certain that it will do something that will make things worse.

Milton Friedman once said that inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon. Given that the major power crises in recent years–in California, in Australia, and a near miss in Texas last year–have involved renewables in one way or another, I have an analog to Friedman’s statement: in the future, always and everywhere power crises will be a renewables phenomenon.

And this is why Americans should pay heed. Whatever ventriloquist has his hand up the back of Biden’s shirt has him promising a massive transition towards renewable electricity generation, beyond the already swollen levels (swollen by years and billions of subsidies). A vision, which realized, would result in California’ s problems being all of our problem.

So look at California like Scrooge did the Ghost of Christmas Future. And be afraid. Be very afraid.

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May 14, 2020

Strange New Respect

Filed under: Climate Change,CoronaCrisis,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation,Tesla — cpirrong @ 5:50 pm

The past few weeks have brought pleasant surprises from people whom I usually disagree with and/or dislike.

For one, Michael Moore, the executive producer of Planet of the Humans. Moore does not appear on camera: that falls to Jeff Gibbs and (producer) Ozzie Zehner. The main virtue of the film is its evisceration of “green energy,” including wind and solar. It notes repeatedly that the unreliability of these sources of power makes them dependent on fossil fuel generation, and in some cases results in the consumption of more fossil fuels than would be the case if the renewables did not exist at all. Further, it points out-vividly-the dirty processes involved with creating wind and solar, most notably mining. The issues of disposing of derelict wind and solar facilities are touched on too, though that could have been beefed up some.

If you know about wind and solar, these things are hardly news to you. But for environmentalists to acknowledge that reality, and criticize green icons for perpetrating frauds in promoting these wildly inefficient forms of energy, is news.

The most important part of the film is its brutal look at biomass. It makes two points. First, that although green power advocates usually talk about wind and solar, much of the actual “renewable” energy is produced by biomass, e.g., burning woodchips. In other words, it exposes the bait-and-switch huckersterism behind a lot of green energy promotion. You thought you were getting windmills? Sucker: you’re getting plants that burn down forests. You fucked up! You trusted us!

Second, that biomass is hardly renewable (hence the quote marks above), and results in huge environmental damage. Yes, trees can regrow, but not as fast as biomass plants burn them. Moreover, the destruction of forests is truly devastating to wildlife and to irreplaceable habitats, and to the ostensible purpose of renewables–reduction of CO2.

The film also points out the massive corporate involvement in green energy, and this represents its weakest point. Corporations, like bank robbers, go where the money is. But that begs the question: Why is there money in horribly inefficient renewables? Answer: Because of government subsidies.

Alas, the movie only touches briefly on this reality. Perhaps that is a bridge too far for socialists like Moore. But he (and Gibbs and Zehner) really want to stop what they rightly view as the environmental and economic folly of renewables, they have to turn off the money tap. That requires attacking the government-corporate-environmentalist iron triangle on all three sides, not just two.

I am not a believer in the underlying premise of the movie, viz., that there are too many people consuming too much stuff, and if we don’t reduce people and how much they consume, the planet will collapse. That’s a dubious neo-Malthusian mindset. But put that aside. It’s a great thing that even hard core environmentalists call bull on the monstrosity that is green/renewable energy, and point out the hypocrisy and fundamental dishonesty of those who hype it.

My second candidate is long-time target Elon Musk. He has come out as a vocal opponent to lockdowns, and a vocal advocate for liberty.

Now I know that Elon is talking his book. Especially with competitors starting up their plants in the Midwest, the lockdown in California that has idled Musk’s Fremont manufacturing facility is costing Tesla money. But whatever. The point is that he is forcefully pointing out the huge economic costs of lockdowns, and their immense detrimental impact on personal liberty earns him some newfound respect, strange or otherwise.

Lastly, Angela Merkel. She has taken a much more balanced approach to Covid-19 than most other national leaders. Perhaps most importantly, she has clearly been trying to navigate the tradeoff between health, economic well-being, and liberty. Rather than moving the goalposts when previous criteria for evaluating lockdowns had been met, when it became clear that the epidemic was not as severe in Germany as had been feared, and that the economic consequences were huge, and that children were neither potential sufferers or spreaders, she pivoted to reopening quickly and pretty rationally.

The same cannot be said in other major countries, including the UK and France as notable examples. She comes off well in comparison to Trump, although the comparison is not completely fair. Trump only has the bully pulpit to work with, for one thing: actual power is wielded by governors. But Trump’s use of the bully pulpit has been poor. Moreover, he has deferred far too much to execrable “experts,” most notably the slippery Dr. Fauci, who has been on the opposite sides of every policy decision (Masks? Yes! Masks? No! Crisis? Yes! Crisis? No!), is utterly incapable of and in fact disdainful of balancing health vs. economics and liberty, and who brings to the table a record of failure that Neil Ferguson could envy, for its duration if nothing else. The Peter Principle personified: he is clearly at the level of his incompetence, and due to the perversity of government, has remained at that level for decades.

Merkel’s performance is particulary outstanding when compared to those who wield the real power in the current crisis, American governors, especially those like Whittmer, Pritzker, Evers, Walz, Brown, Wolf, Cuomo, Murphy, Northam, and Newsom. These people are goalpost movers par excellence, and quite clearly find the unfettered exercise of power to be orgasmic.

It is embarrassing in the extreme to see the Germans–the Germans–be far more solicitous of freedom and choice than elected American officials, who seem to treat freedom–including the freedom to earn a livelihood–as an outrageous intrusion on their power and amour-propre.

Will this represent the new normal? Will SWP props for Moore, Merkel, and Musk become routine in the post- (hopefully) Covid era? I doubt it, but for today, I’m happy to give credit where credit is due.

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December 27, 2019

China Syndrome–Or Socialism Syndrome?

Filed under: China,Climate Change,Economics,Politics — cpirrong @ 2:20 pm

China’s economy exhibits numerous symptoms of severe weakness that even its most world-class product–economic statistic manipulation–cannot conceal. One indicator of this is an increasing number of bond defaults (more on this in a bit). But there are others. Such as imposing the death penalty on the CEO of a large bank, pour encourager les autres, presumably.

Perhaps the best indicator is the palpable indication of nervousness at the highest echelons of the political (i.e., CCP) leadership. For example:

As China struggles to deal with the slowdown of the world’s second-largest economy, it has embarked on a new strategy of placing financial experts in provinces to manage risks and rebuild regional economies.

Since 2018, President Xi Jinping has put 12 former executives at state-run financial institutions or regulators in top posts across China’s 31 provinces,regions and municipalities, including some who have grappled with banking and debt difficulties that have raised fears of financial meltdown.

Only two top provincial officials had such financial background before the last big leadership reshuffle in 2012, according to Reuters research.

This is utterly futile. Although it reflects a realization by Xi and his minions that there is a problem, it also reflects that they have no idea what the cause of the problem is. Indeed, it shows that they are completely captured by their worldview, which believes that China will achieve wealth–and world domination–via the wise guidance of the Party and its enlightened leadership. (This worldview is not limited to Chinese Party cadres–the likes of Tom Friedman and Naomi Oreskes* and numerous other bon savants in the West share it.)

Their solution is a symptom of the problem. China’s current incipient crisis is a direct result of its economic model, which relies on state-directed investment to meet growth targets. No, there is not a granular, proscriptive investment program a la Stalin’s USSR. But provinces and local governments face strong incentives to meet growth targets that are most readily met via massive investment in infrastructure and housing: that these kinds of projects create corruption opportunities is just part of the incentive structure. Further, the financial system, with its repression of consumption and flip-side of subsidized credit, has provided further incentives to indulge the edifice complex.

This has resulted in massive malinvestment. The financial straits of these government entities, and the financial entities that have funded them, are merely a manifestation of the malinvestment: the investments have not generated returns sufficient to cover the costs of financing them. This is pretty amazing, given the magnitude of the direct and indirect subsidies.

Appointing managers with more “expertise” to exercise control at the sub-national level is not going to fix the fundamental fault in the system. The fundamental fault inheres in the socialist, centralized, Party-dominated, investment/credit-driven model.

The USSR showed that a centrally planned system can generate glittering results in terms of official statistics. For a while. But this largely reflects the flaws in national income accounting, especially in highly state-centric economies. Investment is a cost–a use of resources–but counts as contribution to national income. Pile up the costs at an insane rate for years, and you can show totally awesome GDP growth rates!

But eventually, the chickens come home to roost. If the investments are ill-advised, they do not generate a stream of consumption (and remember that consumption is the point of production, and investment) than can recoup the costs. Honest accounting would require writing down of these “investments,” causing a drop in measured national income. But this is never done.

The Soviet Union went through this “yeah we have problems but we just need better managers” phase. And it was a phase. The next phase was a slide into economic collapse. The phase after that was . . . outright economic collapse.

The Chinese and Soviet systems are not the same. But they share essential similarities, the most notable being that they are/were investment-driven and centrally directed, and horribly misprice credit. The means of direction are quite different, but the ultimate trajectories are quite similar. Investment-driven models that focus on achieving national income growth targets are prone to eventual collapse because of massively perverse incentives that lead to horrible misallocations of resources.

This has interesting short-run and long-run implications for the US (and the West generally). (“Interesting” being the most fraught word in the English language.) In the short run, it provides the US with considerable leverage over China with regards to trade: serendipitous developments, such as Asian swine flu increase this leverage. In the longer run, the fundamental flaws in the socialist model with Chinese characteristics will sharply reduce the Chinese geopolitical threat.

The problem is the interval between the short-run and the long-run. Big powers facing decline or economic crisis are inherently a source of instability. This problem is exacerbated in China, where the personalized, de-institutionalized nature of government under Xi also creates internal sources of instability. Xi is mortal, and has grandiose ambitions: as he sees the time to achieve those ambitions shrink, his incentive to take risk increases. Further, such systems are inherently unstable when the leader dies or becomes incapacitated because of succession crises–crises that are exacerbated by the fact that the ruler has a strong incentive to crush potential successors, rather than cultivate them.

Thus, there is likely to be a period of substantial internal turbulence in China, and this could have dire implications for the US and the world, especially given the changes that Xi has wrought in recent years.

In sum, China is entering the “we need better managers” phase of its development. This is a symptom of socialism, and a sign on the road to severe economic decline. A socialism syndrome, if you will. As an avowedly socialist country, China is not immune. Indeed, methinks it is particularly susceptible, especially given the neo-Maoism of Xi. This bodes well for no one.

*Oreskes is a Harvard “historian of science” who is primarily responsible for manufacturing the factoid (or should I say fiction?) that 97 percent of scientists believe in the threat of anthropomorphic climate change. Per the linked article: Oreskes believes in “change, owing perhaps to a sensible program of environmental regulation under Communism, and vindicating ‘the necessity of centralized government.'”

Sensible environmental regulation under Communism. LMFAO. Every Communist country is an environmental nightmare. I remember reading the official English-language Chinese paper when I was in China in the mid-2000s. It was a litany of environmental catastrophes. I truly shuddered when I thought that this was probably the sanitized view.

And has Naomi been to Beijing in January?

These are our better thans, people. FFS.

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November 30, 2019

The Invasion of the Control Freaks

Filed under: China,Climate Change,Economics,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 11:47 am

It’s impossible to turn around these days without being beset by control freaks.

Exhibit 1. Michael Bloomberg, who is running for president. Bloomberg is infamous for his desire to control everything, from what you eat to what you drive to how you defend yourself. Bloomberg thinks taxing “sugary drinks” (among other things) is a great thing, despite the regressivity of this tax, because it’s good for the poor:

And if you buy a gun do defend yourself, you’re pretty stupid–so he will take them away:

Pretty sure his security detail is heavily armed. But that’s the credo of his ilk: for me, but not for thee.

Bloomberg also sucks up to the world’s leading control freaks, the Chinese Communist Party. When (amazingly) confronted about this by (amazingly) a PBS interviewer, Mikey totally flacked for them:

And behold the stunning dishonesty here–the lengths to which he goes to avoid criticizing the CCP. Bloomberg wants to control the entire energy system in order to reduce the emissions of global greenhouse gases (GHG). The Chinese are building coal plants at a frenzied pace, yet when confronted on this, Bloomberg treats the Chinese coal plants as merely an issue of local particulate pollution in places like Beijing.

As an aside on this issue: the silence of the Davos Douches (control freaks all) who sucked up to Xi on this issue, and so many others involving China, is deafening.

Exhibit 2. Elizabeth Warren, reprising her “you didn’t earn that” bullshit:

What pretzel logic. Because you might have benefited from some public goods, you are obligated to let Lizzie decide what she will take from you in order to pay for all the non-public goods that she wants.

I have a better idea: I’ll gladly pay taxes for public goods that earn a return in excess of the cost of capital, and Lizzie can STFU.

Exhibit 3. Angela Merkel. Zere vill be NO free speech for you!:

Nice hand gestures there. Wonder where she picked those up?

Such a good little Ostie, ain’t she?

Exhibit 4: “Scientists”:

The irony of this is that those so wise in the ways of science

are obviously lecturing the developed world, which in their wisdom they apparently haven’t recognized is depopulating. Population growth is overwhelmingly concentrated in very low income Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and the Subcontinent, whose peoples (a) will never hear what these scientists are demanding, and (b) would ignore it in any event.

So what are these scientists proposing? What coercive powers will they deploy against brown people in order to achieve their vision?

No doubt Bloomberg has the answer: if they don’t submit voluntarily, kill them. You know, for their own good.

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November 20, 2019

Proponents of a Fracking Ban Are Seriously Fracked Up

Filed under: Climate Change,Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 6:31 pm

Elizabeth Warren, among other Democratic candidates, have promised to eliminate fracking in the US. The WSJ has a dialog between pro-ban and anti-ban advocates. It demonstrates just how unmoored from reality the fracking ban side is.

The anti-ban participant, Sam Ori, executive director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, points out that as a result of the fracking revolution, US production accounts for 8 percent of the world total, and eliminating this would dramatically increase prices:

One year after the implementation of a ban, shale-oil production would be down by more than a third. After two years, production would be down 55%. You’re talking about triple-digit oil prices and a possible global economic shock

To which the ban supporter, Kassie Siegel, director of the Climate Law Institute at the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, replied: What? Me worry? My magical thinking will save the day!

I think an oil-price prediction is largely a red herring, because I am not talking about banning fracking in a vacuum. My organization and others propose a fracking ban along with other smartly designed programs to speed the development and deployment of clean technologies, support local communities, and offset oil and gas price increases. Government policies that drive a rapid just transition to clean-energy technology can create the largest economic stimulus since World War II.

I’m talking about policies like accelerated clean car and truck standards that rapidly decrease oil consumption in the transport sector and moving the power sector to 100% renewable energy. Other policies like reinstating the crude-oil export ban would also counteract price increases from banning fracking and restricting the supply of oil and gas.

Well-designed government policy in other areas, like tobacco and asbestos, addresses both supply and demand. Climate policy must do the same. The barrier to this is opposition from the fossil-fuel industry, not any insurmountable economic or policy problem.

And don’t you think we need to be a little bit skeptical of anyone’s ability to accurately predict oil prices?

Unpacking this idiocy in its entirety would exhaust my time and my patience. So just a few comments.

“Well-designed government policy” and “smartly designed programs.” Such a comedian! Because we know government programs are always well-designed and smartly designed. Did I say “always”? Sorry. I meant “never.”

Case in point. The brilliant European strategy to reduce CO2 by forcing the replacement of gasoline engines with diesel. Whoops! Not only was it colossally expensive, it was a major mistake because (a) it barely affected emissions of CO2, and (b) greatly increased auto emissions of harmful particulates.

Further, since China is the largest emitter, and the largest growing emitter, of CO2, Ms. Siegel is relying upon the wise beneficence of the CCP to achieve her goals.

Need I say more?

“Accelerated clean car and truck standards that rapidly decrease oil consumption in the transport sector.” First, this is costly, not just directly in terms of replacing a huge stock of existing capital, but indirectly by forcing people to drive lower-quality automobiles. How do we know they are lower quality? Because people don’t buy them voluntarily: they have to be compelled.

Second, auto emissions are a drop in the CO2 bucket.

“Moving the power sector to 100% renewable energy.”

Excuse me a minute. I have to walk my unicorn.

OK. I’m back. One-hundred percent renewables is utterly unrealistic and enormously costly, including in terms of reliability and transmission–and fires started (in places by California) by transmission needed to support renewables generation. Fires which, by the way, emit massive amounts of CO2.

Look at Germany, which I wrote about a few days ago. They are running into a renewables wall well short of 100 percent, and have incurred massive costs (imposed on energy consumers) to get this far.

I note that Ms. Siegel doesn’t mention cement, or steel, or other industrial emitters (which put autos in the shade, btw).

Not to mention that fracking oil has f-all to do with power generation, and fracking gas that supplants coal reduces CO2 emissions.

“Other policies like reinstating the crude-oil export ban would also counteract price increases from banning fracking and restricting the supply of oil and gas.”

Yo. Einstein. We have oil and gas to export because of fracking. If we ban fracking, we’ll have no exports, and the export ban will have zero, zip, nada impact on prices.

Further, export bans reduce the price in the exporting country, but raise prices in the importing country. So I guess Ms. Siegel is an economic nationalist. I bet she looks stunning in her MAGA hat.

“And don’t you think we need to be a little bit skeptical of anyone’s ability to accurately predict oil prices?”

Yo. Von Neuman. This has nothing to do with predicting the level of oil prices. Demand curves slope down. You reduce production, prices go up. In fact, oil demand curves slope very steeply, so if you reduce production a little prices go up a lot.

Not rocket science. Just the law of demand.

And these are the brainiacs who are going to make sure that we have “well-designed” and “smartly designed” government policies.

God save us.

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November 17, 2019

Died of a Theory, Energiewende Edition

Filed under: China,Climate Change,Economics,Energy,Politics — cpirrong @ 8:49 pm

Germany, under Angela Merkel, has pursued with monomaniacal fervor an agenda of “decarbonizing” the German economy. This has been driven by a monocausal view of what constitutes “green” policies, one that begins and ends with greenhouse gasses.

In pursuit of this objective, Germany has embarked on a hugely expensive endeavor–“Energiewende“–that looks to replace virtually all fossil-fuel generation with renewables, notably wind and solar. The foolishness of this campaign was evident from the onset (as I wrote about some years ago), but Merkel and the German ruling class ignored it: but now reality is rearing its ugly head.

Where to begin?

For one thing, for those who do not have a view of environmentalism that begins and ends with carbon, many in Germany are finding wind power in particular to be visual pollution, sonic pollution, a major threat to bird and insect life, and a threat to some of the few remaining forested parts of the country. As a result, expansion of windpower is facing increased opposition on environmental grounds.

Expansion of offshore wind is sharply limited by the need for vastly expanded transmission capacity (to bring power from the windy northern coast to the central and southern regions of the country that consume the power). This is expensive, and also faces substantial local opposition on environmental grounds.

In a truly amazing fit of stupidity, Germany decided to terminate a large and reliable–and carbon free–source of electricity when Merkel ordered the shutdown of the country’s nuclear plants post-Fukushima. Let’s see: a coastal nuclear plant is hit by a tsunami, so let’s close down all nuclear plants in a seismically stable country with no zero risk of a tsunami. Yeah, that makes sense.

Now Germany is planning to decommission all its coal plants, because global warming. It is not intending to replace them with gas-fueled ones, despite their lower carbon emissions. Because global warming.

So . . . no nukes, no coal, no gas to replace them, severe constraints on increased renewables output. Which leads to . . . looming shortages of power. Which means that Germany’s already incredibly expensive power will become even more expensive. Hardly great for German consumers, or German industry.

But no worries, Germany will just export less!

Germany is counting on its status as a net exporter of power to help it brace it for potential shortfalls as nuclear and coal power wind down in stages. It transmitted about 53 terawatt-hours of power to its European partners in the nine months through September, compared with 31 terrawatt-hours of imports, monitoring group AG Energiebilanzen reported Monday.

Screw the neighbors! How German of them! La plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Er, that’s not very “European” of them, is it? “European partners.” Ha!

How any European can listen to Merkel’s lectures about “more Europe” without vomiting is beyond my comprehension.

It also demonstrates the failure to think through the effects of their actions. If the Germans export less, will those who currently import from them say: “Well OK then! We’ll just sit in the dark and freeze!”? As if. They will build generating capacity. And it won’t be largely renewable. Meaning that Germany closing coal plants will not lead to an equivalent reduction in the number of coal plants, but a displacement of those plants to other countries, or the building of gas plants outside Germany. So the amount of global emissions reduction will be a fraction of the amount of German emissions reduction.

The virtue signaling aspect of this is also absurd. For all of the contortions and coercion that Merkel will employ to reach her decarbonization goal, the reduction in CO2 emissions will be a drop in the bucket, given that China is opening a coal plant per week, and Chinese and Indian emissions already dwarf those of the US, let alone Germany. So the impact of this on CO2 emissions, and on temperature, will be de minimis.

Germany is a great example of the fallacy of composition. It has an incredibly intelligent and well-educated population. Arguably the most intelligent and well-educated population in the world. Yet, Germans collectively have a history of making the worst decisions of any nation on earth.

Perhaps this reflects their obsession with grand theories (as opposed to say, the more practically minded British and Americans). As a result, they tend to embark on grandiose missions that end in disaster. (Adam Smith’s remark about “the man of system” comes to mind. So does Adenauer’s remark about Prussians being Belgians with megalomania.)

In the past, tens of millions have died of German theories–most of them non-Germans. Not many will likely die of Energiewende, so in that way it is not comparable to the great debacles of German history. But it is a debacle nonetheless, and one with its roots in a grand theory, and which will produce virtually no environmental gain despite imposing a massive cost on Germans (and other Europeans who consume German electricity).

How very German.

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August 27, 2019

“HE’S FULL OF SHIT”: You Read It Here First

Filed under: Climate Change,Economics,Tesla — cpirrong @ 5:50 pm

Three guesses as to who “he” is. First two don’t count.

Vanity Fair has a long article, with a title starting with the quote in the title of this post, showing that Elon Musk’s solar roof in particular, and its solar business in general, is a fraud. The article also shows that Elon engineered Tesla’s purchase of Solar City to prevent it from going belly up, and thereby torpedoing Elon’s reputation as a genius.

Which is exactly what I said on the very day the deal was announced three years ago.

I’ve been calling BS on Elon since May, 2013. Nice to see people are finally catching up.

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August 3, 2019

Renewables Are Expensive Because You Can’t Stick ‘Em Where the Sun Don’t Shine (or the Wind Don’t Blow)

Filed under: Climate Change,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 4:45 pm

I’m sure you’ve read articles claiming that the cost of renewables electricity generation is approaching that (or even lower than) the cost of traditional thermal generation. I am deeply skeptical of these claims even when evaluated on their own terms (which focus on generation costs alone), but find them particularly misleading because they ignore other costs attributable to the facts that renewables are intermittent and diffuse, and that the siting of renewables generation is sharply constrained because they are energy limited resources; the distribution of energy is dictated by nature; and typically is not closely related to the distribution of load.

In other words, renewables are costly because you can’t stick them where the sun don’t shine (or the wind don’t blow).

Case in point: Australia. As even Bloomberg (a tiresome renewables fanzine) reports:

Australia’s financing of cleaner power is slowing because the country’s aging grid isn’t being upgraded quick enough to accept new, intermittent generation and transport it efficiently to demand centers.

Although Bloomberg attempts to blame an old, creaky transmission system, this is misleading in the extreme. It would be far cheaper to upgrade Australia’s transmission system to accommodate thermal generation than it will be to build transmission to increase the fraction of generation coming from renewables.

This is true for at least a couple of reasons.

First, the energy-limited nature of renewables means that you have to site them where the energy is available–sunny or windy places. This imposes a constraint on the location of generation resources that is not relevant for thermal generation. With traditional fossil-fueled generation, you have more flexibility in trading off transmission costs with generation costs (including the cost of brining fuel to plants) than is the case with wind. This flexibility means that all else (notably the spatial distribution of load) equal, transmission costs are lower with thermal generation than renewable power.

Second, the intermittent and inherently more volatile nature of renewables generation increases the variance in the spatial distribution of generation. This variability in the spatial distribution of generation necessarily requires more transmission capacity per unit of load. This, in turn implies a lower average rate of utilization of transmission resources.

The basic idea here can be illustrated relatively simply. Consider a system with two generation resources. One is highly volatile (e.g., a renewable resource). The other is controllable. There is one load location. The transmission capacity from the volatile location to load must be high enough to carry the power when output is high (because the energy input is high due to the vicissitudes of sun or wind). The transmission capacity from the location with controllable generation must also be high enough to transmit enough power to fill the gap left when the renewable output is low.

Note that when renewable output is high, controllable output will be low and the transmission lines from the latter will operate at low capacity. When renewable output is low, the lines serving it will be operating at low capacity.

It’s possible to expand the example to include multiple variable, energy limited, but imperfectly correlated renewables resources, but the outcome is the same. You need more transmission capacity to deal with the spatial volatility in generation, and given load, higher capacity translates into lower average capacity utilization.

Thus, the problem that Australia is confronting isn’t a function of an old grid: it arises from the fact that increased reliance on renewables requires investment in new transmission capacity even in a system where transmission is optimized relative to (thermal) generation and load.

The need to maintain relatively underutilized transmission capacity to deal with the inherent volatility of renewables generation is mirrored by the need to maintain underutilized thermal generation capacity:

While new clean energy projects struggle to gain access to a congested grid, aging coal and gas-fired generators are being kept running for longer to maintain system stability. AGL Energy Ltd. said Friday it would delay the planned closure of its Liddell and Torrens A plants, both around 50 years old, to help the national energy market cope with peak summer demand, which has seen blackouts in parts of southeastern Australia in recent years.

Who knew?

Yet the renewables industry/lobby continues to flog the dogma that they will inevitably be more efficient:

Despite the challenges facing the industry, it’s not all doom and gloom. A number of coal-fired plants will be retired over the next decade and they will only be replaced by the cheapest cost of energy, which is renewables, Clean Energy Finance Corp. Chief Executive Ian Learmonth said in an interview.
“I’m hoping once some of these issues around the grid and regulations are settled that we’ll see another significant uptick in the renewable energy pipeline,” he said.

What costs is Mr. Learmonth including in his assertion that renewables are the “cheapest” source of energy? His statement that settling “issues around the grid” will lead to increased renewables investment suggests that he is ignoring crucial costs, because settling these issues doesn’t come for free.

It’s not as if the transmission issue is unique to Australia. It is present in every locale that has force-fed renewables. Germany is a prominent example. Wind energy is abundant in the North Sea, but believe it or not, there aren’t a lot of electricity consumers there (despite my ardent wish that Merkel and her ilk get into the sea). Major sources of load are in central and southern Germany, so bringing North Sea wind power to load requires massive transmission investments, which inevitably are not just costly, but politically difficult (Der NIMBY, anyone?). These difficulties inflate the cost.

Renewables boosterism operates in an atmosphere of serious unreality because it consistently glosses over–or ignores altogether–the costs arising from intermittency, diffusiveness, the energy-limited nature of wind and solar, and the caprices of nature that cause a mismatch between where the energy exists and where it is needed. When these facts are considered, sticking renewables where the sun don’t shine makes perfect sense.

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June 3, 2019

Renewables VPPAs: An Interesting Pricing Problem For Aspiring Scholars

Filed under: Climate Change,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy — cpirrong @ 7:13 pm

Virtual Power Purchasing Agreements (VPPAs) have been around for a while, and play a particularly important role in securing financing for renewable energy projects, as this article from Reuters regarding VPPAs in Europe indicates. They are essentially long term swaps whereby one party (e.g., a wind or solar operation) receives a fixed price for power, and pays a floating price, usually based (in the US) on the spot price in an RTO/ISO market (e.g., PJM, or MISO).

These contracts present interesting pricing issues because of the unique nature of electricity as a commodity, and the unique nature of renewable generation in particular. Electricity is not an asset per se, and electricity price risk is not hedgeable, even theoretically, through a dynamic trading strategy in the way that the price risk in a stock option is. This means that electricity markets are “incomplete,” and that Black-Scholes-Merton-like formulas that derive prices that do not depend on risk premia do not exist for power derivatives.

The risk premia embedded in power prices can be large, though they have been falling over the years. I wrote extensively about this subject for about 10 years (late-90s to late-00s), including this article. That paper provides a way of extracting risk premia from the prices of traded claims (e.g., monthly power forward contracts). One virtue of that approach is that the primary state variable in the model is not price, but load (which is translated into price via the supply curve). Thus, the relevant price of risk is the price of load risk, which can be used in the valuation of load-dependent claims. Such claims could be full requirements deals, for example.

One challenge to the approach is that the realistic horizon of the market price of risk function estimate is that of the visible forward curve, which is typically far less than the maturity of long term electricity deals. The prices in such contracts effectively reflect a market price of risk negotiated between the two parties, in the absence of corresponding forward curve data.

Renewables VPPAs face an even bigger challenge: the variability of the output of a renewables asset. There is not only price risk (or market load risk) associated with a given region: there is the output risk of the facility, which may be material given the vicissitudes of wind and sun. Thus, the dimensionality of the pricing problem is higher, which is a problem given that the methods I employed in my 2008 paper (co-authored by Martin Jermakyan) are subject to “the curse of dimensionality.”

Furthermore, given the joint dependency on market price (or load) and project output, these are correlation-dependent claims. That is, what is the dependence between market price and wind output? This could be a particularly big issue given that high wind output is often associated with negative prices. Guaranteeing a fixed price therefore involves something of a wrong way risk.

The long tenor of VPPAs makes these issues even more devilish, given that pricing involves forecasting the relevant dynamics and parameters (including those associated with dependence among the state variables) over long horizons–horizons over which entry can occur and technology can change, making historical data of little relevance in estimation. Indeed, there is an element of endogeneity: the prices in VPPAs can affect the economics of entry, which can affect future price behavior, which is (theoretically, anyways) an input into the “right” VPPA fixed price.

All in all, a very interesting and challenging pricing problem, that like the simpler problems Martin and I tackled some years ago, require the use of advanced pricing techniques, numerical methods, and econometrics even to conceptualize, let alone solve. Sounds like an interesting problem–or problems–for aspiring scholars in energy pricing.

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