Streetwise Professor

February 28, 2022

Reality is a Mother

Filed under: Climate Change,Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia,Ukraine — cpirrong @ 11:09 am

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has not shocked and awed the Ukrainian military, but it has shocked and awed Germany, fo’ sho’.

In a period of hours over the weekend (and remember, German stores close promptly at 6 and are not open on Sunday), Germany announced that it will:

(a) Increase defense spending to 2 pct of GDP.

(b) Build two new LNG import facilities.

(c) Consider delaying decommissioning its nukes.

(d) Consider all options for energy, including gas, nuclear, and coal: there are no longer any “taboos” on energy sources.

What will Greta say?:

The Germans are saying, in effect: Go away girl. The shit just got real.

I note that (a) and (b) topped the list of Donald Trump’s harangues against Germany, which caused the ruling class to shriek in anger: how dare he insult our dear allies? Actions speak far louder than an apology.

Alas, this reality therapy has not penetrated the thick skulls of the Biden administration. When asked about reversing Biden administration anti-fossil fuel policies, spokesmoron Jen Psaki instead continued to ride the renewables hobby horse. She thereby reinforced the message of the Most Clueless Man in the World, John Kerry, whose big concern about Ukraine is that it might distract Vladimir Putin from focusing on climate change.

Yes, reality is a mother. Enough of a mother to snap even the dreamy Germans out of their green and pacifistic reveries. But not enough of one to do the same in the Biden administration.

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February 9, 2022

Spin the Bottleneck: The Location of the LNG Bottleneck Is Now Blindingly Obvious

Filed under: Climate Change,Commodities,Economics,Energy,LNG,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 10:36 am

When playing Spin the Bottleneck with my students I say to look at what lies between the price of a transformed and untransformed commodity to identify the bottleneck. In my earlier post on the gaping spread between European (and Asian) LNG prices and the price of US gas (which is on the margin for both destinations) I noted two possible constraints: shipping and liquefaction capacity.

Well, it ain’t shipping.

There is a surfeit of LNG shipping capacity. So much that LNG shipping is effectively free between the US and Europe (down from $273K/day in December). Yet the spread remains very wide. So the binding constraint is definitely liquefaction capacity, in the US in particular. Those who have the rights to that capacity–notably firms that entered into contracts with the likes of Cheniere or Freeport that buy gas at the US price and pay a contractually fixed liquefaction/tolling fee–are coining it. They capture the bulk of the existing spread between TTF or UK Balancing Point prices and Henry Hub. (The LNG companies are benefitting only to the extent that they reserved some of their capacity for their own trading, which is rather de minimis).

So in the short run liquefaction capacity is quite valuable. The question is what will its value be over the longer term? Will current events convince enough financiers to provide capital for a large expansion of US capacity? Given the long gestation period of these projects it is a hard issue for banks and equity to analyze.

One thing to note. Another thing I discuss extensively in my classes is the importance of government/regulatory bottlenecks. Such bottlenecks may be a constraint on expansion of US LNG capacity. Many of the projects under development do not have the requisite federal permits. The Biden administration is unlikely to grant more. Thus, like taxicab medallions in NYC, existing permits likely have a substantial scarcity value–thanks to a government-created bottleneck.

This has interesting implications for financing of US LNG projects. Financiers of a given project face less risk of a glut of capacity coming online in a few years, and this should make them more willing to finance already permitted projects. But, of course, they are taking on political risk by doing so: might a new administration change course post-2024? Or might political pressure induce a change in course by the current administration? There are already a lot of political risks in investing in anything fossil-fuel related (attributable to climate hysteria). This is a US LNG-specific risk.

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December 26, 2021

No Blood For Batteries?

Filed under: China,Climate Change,Economics,History,Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 5:46 pm

The latest hyperventilation over Russia relates to the alleged involvement of the Wagner Group–Russian mercenaries/paramilitaries–in Mali. Wagner is run by “Putin’s Chef,” Yevgeny Prigozhin.

Russia denies involvement. Wagner denies involvement. Mali denies involvement. Since none of them are remotely trustworthy, I will accept as true that Wagner (or some other Russian entity) is involved.

At one level, one could answer “So what?” or even “Good!” Western militaries, notably American and French, have been involved in the Sahel for years. The US involvement has been marked by some tragic events, notably the destruction of a US Army Special Forces team in Niger and a murder of a Green Beret by other US special operations members in Mali. France recently withdrew its troops from Mali after 8 years of inconclusive fighting that resulted in the deaths of 52 French soldiers, including a highly decorated special operator. (And which also saw two coups in Mali. So much for creating stability.)

The American and French efforts had little effect on Muslim insurgents. So why not let the Russians have a go, if the real objective is to kill Salafists–and the objective isn’t worth American or French lives?

But this level is likely a very superficial one, and that is likely why there has been such alarm at Russian involvement. West and central Africa, including the desolate Sahel region, are now the cockpit of a 21st century version of a “great game” not so much because of ISIS or Al Qaeda, but because of . . . batteries.

And unlike the Great Game of the 19th century, which involved Russia and Great Britain, the 21st century game in Africa involves Russia, the West (especially but not exclusively the US), and notably China. The largely desolate and desperately poor region which the world’s richest nations are contesting is of increasing importance because it is disproportionately endowed with materials like lithium, copper, and cobalt, all essential for the manufacture of batteries or other components for electric vehicles that the alleged green elites in the West claim will be our climate salvation.

And don’t think that the Salafists are solely motivated by religious fervor–they no doubt understand the economic calculus as well. If oil made Saudi Arabia, another otherwise desolate and impoverished region, what economic power could control over lithium, copper, and cobalt create? Oil fueled Wahhabism. EV materials could well fuel another radical Islamist movement.

A rallying cry of the left, and especially the environmentalist left, from the 70s onward was “no blood for oil!” No doubt their CO2 monomania, and the resultant obsession with electrifying everything and especially electric vehicles, has blinded them to the inevitable if unintended consequences of their idée fixe.

Specifically, realizing their vision will require vast amounts of materials. Put aside the environmental consequences of mining for these materials. Focus on the geopolitical consequences. These minerals are found disproportionately in vast, violent, and largely ungoverned spaces. Control over them can be achieved only by violence, and even if violence was not necessary, the incentive for unscrupulous governments and corporations to utilize violence to capture the rents these resources promise (especially in an electronic world) is great indeed.

Furthermore, the powers contending for these resources are facing off on every continent, and are armed with nuclear weapons. What starts in Africa is unlikely to stay in Africa. And something could very well start in Africa. Great Power conflicts almost erupted in Africa on several occasions in the era of imperialism, when the economic stakes were far smaller: what did Fashoda matter, really? Yet Britain and France almost went to war over it. The stakes are far larger now.

Especially in a world obsessed with replacing petroleum with electricity.

Methinks that the evident panic over Russians in one of the world’s armpits really has little to do with the stated reasons: again, why would France or the US mind if Russians killed Salafists, and took the casualties necessary to do it? Instead, the panic is over the prospect of an impending struggle between the US/Western Europe, China, and Russia over a vital economic resource in an ungoverned region that requires organized violence to control it.

Environmentalists are so absorbed in their monomania that they are oblivious to the unintended consequences thereof. They have lectured us for years about no blood for oil. What about blood for batteries? Because that is the inevitable consequence of replacing the former with the latter.

They need to be forced to face this reality and to own the consequences of their obsessions. Now.

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July 12, 2021

Elon’s On Fire!

Filed under: China,Climate Change,Cryptocurrency,Energy,Tesla — cpirrong @ 6:29 pm

No. Wait. That was a Tesla in Taiwan City.

But Elon did ignite some (metaphorical) pyrotechnics in a Delaware Chancery courtroom with his fiery defense of the Solar City deal of 2016. My criticism of the deal at the time–which inspired some of my better lines, IMO–is the gravamen of the shareholder lawsuit against Musk. Namely, that the Tesla purchase of Solar City was a bailout of a sinking Solar City, mainly driven by Elon’s desperation to avoid a blow to his reputation as a visionary genius.

Nothing in what I’ve read about Elon’s testimony changes my mind. Ya sure the Tesla board was totes independent of him. Ya sure he did not dominate the board. Ya sure the deal made sense on the merits. Whatever, dude.

All that said, I surmise that the plaintiffs have a difficult hill to climb. Proving, legally, in court, what we all know to be true is sometimes a very difficult thing. That’s probably a good thing, but that’s a statement about the average–not any particular case.

That said, since the Solar City deal Tesla’s stock price, unlike Elon, has gone to Mars. It’s about 20 percent off its all time high in January, but still about 15 times above its June, 2015 price, which I thought was inflated then. So what do I know?

The most logical explanation to me is that $TSLA is not so much a bet on Tesla qua Tesla, or Musk qua Musk, but on government policies around the world that seem hell bent on forcing us all to drive electric cars, never mind fire risks (and Taiwan City is not a freak event), or the environmental costs of mining, or the insanity of renewables, or the increasing inability of electrical grids to handle existing demands let alone massive new ones such as that arising from electric autos, or on and on and on and on. Tesla is a first mover in electric vehicles, governments are compelling the shift to electric vehicles regardless of all the myriad problems, so Tesla stock booms. It’s not an efficiency story or an innovation story. It’s a wealth creation (for Tesla shareholders) by wealth destruction (the rest of us) story.

A couple of other Tesla/Musk-related comments that have struck me recently but not sufficiently to catalyze a post.

Tesla is having problems in China. Musk assiduously courts China. Musk makes huge sunk investments in China. China shtups Musk.

This storyline alone is sufficient to make you question Musk’s acumen. Did he really think that China would not act opportunistically? FFS. Opportunism ‘R Us is the CCP motto. Look at how the CCP is shtupping domestic tech companies (and those foolish enough to invest in tech company IPOs). If that’s what they do to “their” companies, what can foreign devils expect? Foreign devil Elon apparently thought he was special. He ain’t.

Crypto. Elon’s pronouncements can cause massive movements in cryptocurrency prices. This alone is enough to demonstrate the utter arbitrariness of crypto. Why should the value of anything depend on the musings of a mercurial and megalomaniacal individual other than the things that individual can control? Especially when said mercurial and megalomaniacal individual no doubt derives immense glee from watching people jump to his tune? That incentivizes him to say ever more outlandish things. Which the KoolAid drinkers respond to, which just incentivizes him more.

Why do his musings matter? Because people believe they matter.

In coordination games sunspot equilibria exist. In sunspot equilibria, values/prices change in response to a variable that people think matters, even though it is totally unrelated to fundamentals. Currencies–including cryptocurrencies–have a coordination game aspect where expectations matter. The value of currency (or a cryptocurrency) depends on what people think its value is, or what they expect it to be. If people believe that variable X–e.g., what Elon Musk tweets–matters, then X will matter.

That is apparently the case with crypto: whatever Elon says, cryptos do, at least to a considerable degree. What is more bizarre is that whereas “sunspots” are exogenous, Elon’s pronouncements are endogenous–he says what he says almost surely based on the fact that he knows that what he says will move prices. Yeah, that’s exactly the kind of power you want to give a megalomaniac.

Exogenous/extrinsic uncertainty can lead to excessive volatility. Crypto suggests that endogenous uncertainty a la Musk creates massive excess volatility.

So you want to “invest” in crypto why, exactly? To speculate on Elon’s mood swings and narcissism? To speculate on how other speculators speculate on Elon’s mood swings and narcissism? To speculate on how other speculators speculate on how speculators speculate on Elon’s mood swings and narcissism. (To complete this post, continue ad infinitum.)

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June 29, 2021

Betting on Time Inconsistency: Glencore Will Profit When Reality Intrudes on Renewables Reveries

Filed under: Climate Change,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 6:01 pm

In his swan song at Glencore, the soon to retire Ivan Glasenberg doubled down on coal:

In what’s likely to be the final deal announced by outgoing Chief Executive Officer Ivan Glasenberg, Glencore agreed to buy stakes owned by BHP Group and Anglo American Plc in the Cerrejon thermal coal mine for about $588 million, subject to purchase price adjustments.

Glencore is filling a void left by two mining giants:

The sale completes Anglo’s retreat from thermal coal and extends similar efforts by BHP, amid investor pressure. However, Glencore has committed to run its coal mines for another 30 years, potentially allowing it to profit as rivals retreat. It’s already the biggest shipper of the fuel, and gaining full control of Cerrejon gives the company even more exposure just as prices trade at the highest level in years, buoyed by strong demand as the global economy rebounds.

In my opinion, this is a very canny contrarian bet. The panicked flight from coal by the Anglos and BHPs and others of the world is directly attributable to political and policy pressure. Hydrocarbons bad. Renewables good. Hydrocarbon companies are evil. You will be punished you carbon spewing bastards! Your CEOs will be snubbed by righteous people. Oh Noes!

But these policies are predicated on a collective delusion about renewables. Bloomberg can preach all it wants about how renewables are as efficient as conventional generation, but the fact is and will remain that dispatchable, reliable, continuous conventional generation, producing power from cheaply stored chemical energy, will remain much cheaper that non-dispatchable, intermittent, unreliable renewables that will have to rely on expensive battery storage. Bloomberg’s “levelized cost” metric is total bullshit because it leaves out all of the costs associated with reliability, transmission, and intermittency–details, details!

Renewables will never be able to handle current electricity demand at reasonable cost, but policymakers in the grip of the delusion are adding to electricity demand by forcing the electrification of other energy consumption, including transportation and home heating and cooking.

And it is almost certain that Glasenberg recognizes these delusions for what they are, and knows that in five to ten years time reality will rear its ugly head–recognition of reality can be postponed, but not forever. And Glasenberg recognizes when that reckoning comes, and electricity costs spike and reliability plunges, countries around the world will come begging for dependable electricity sources. And thus, they will come begging to Glencore for its coal.

The payoff will be all the bigger because Anglo, BHP, and others will not invest, leaving a capacity void. Price will rise to ration the limited supply.

Current government energy policies around the world are not time consistent. Political coercion to achieve a utopian outcome will result in more costly and less reliable energy that will not be politically sustainable. Ivan Glasenberg recognizes that time inconsistency, and as his parting gift to Glencore’s shareholders–and the world, frankly, when it comes to his senses–is an investment that will pay off handsomely when reality intrudes on renewables reveries.

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February 21, 2021

Touching the Third Rail: The Dangers of Electricity Market Design

In the aftermath of the Texas Freeze-ageddon much ink and many pixels have been spilled about its causes. Much–most?–of the blame focuses on Texas’s allegedly laissez faire electricity market design.

I have been intensely involved (primarily in a litigation context) in the forensic analysis of previous extreme electricity market shocks, including the first major one (the Midwest prices spike of June 1998) and the California crisis. As an academic I have also written extensively about electricity pricing and electricity market design. Based on decades of study and close observation, I can say that electricity market design is one of the most complex subjects in economics, and that one should step extremely gingerly when speaking about the topic, especially as it relates to an event for which many facts remain to be established.

Why is electricity market design so difficult? Primarily because it requires structuring incentives that effect behavior over both very long horizons (many decades, because investments in generation and transmission are very long lived) and extremely short horizons (literally seconds, because the grid must balance at every instant in time). Moreover, there is an intimate connection between these extremely disparate horizons: the mechanisms designed to handle the real time operation of the system affect the incentives to invest for the long run, and the long run investments affect the operation of the system in real time.

Around the world many market designs have been implemented in the approximately 25 year history of electricity liberalization. All have been found wanting, in one way or another. They are like Tolstoy’s unhappy families: all are unhappy in their own way. This unhappiness is a reflection of the complexity of the problem.

Some were predictably wretched: California’s “reforms” in the 1990s being the best example. Some were reasonably designed, but had their flaws revealed in trying conditions that inevitably arise in complex systems that are always–always–subject to “normal accidents.”

From a 30,000 foot perspective, all liberalized market designs attempt to replace centralization of resource allocation decisions (as occurs in the traditional integrated regulated utility model) with allocation by price. The various systems differ primarily in what they leave to the price system, and which they do not.

As I wrote in a chapter in Andrew Kleit’s Energy Choices (published in 2006) the necessity of coordinating the operation of a network in real time almost certainly requires a “visible hand” at some level: transactions costs preclude the coordination via contract and prices of hundreds of disparate actors across an interconnected grid in real time under certain conditions, and such coordination is required to ensure the stability of that grid. Hence, a system operator–like ERCOT, or MISO, or PJM–must have residual rights of control to avoid failure of the grid. ERCOT exercised those residual rights by imposing blackouts. As bad as that was, the alternative would have been worse.

Beyond this core level of non-price allocation, however, the myriad of services (generation, transmission, consumption) and the myriad of potential conditions create a myriad of possible combinations of price and non-price allocation mechanisms. Look around the world, and you will see just how diverse those choices can be. And those actual choices are just a small subset of the possible choices.

As always with price driven allocation mechanisms, the key thing is getting the prices right. And due to the nature of electricity, this involves getting prices right at very high frequency (e.g., the next five minutes, the next hour, the next day) and at very low frequency (over years and decades). This is not easy. That is why electricity market design is devilish hard.

One crucial thing to recognize is that constraints on prices in some time frames can interfere with decisions made over other horizons. For example, most of the United States (outside the Southeast) operates under some system in which prices day ahead or real time are the primary mechanism for scheduling and dispatching generation over short horizons, but restrictions on these prices (e.g., price caps) mean that they do not always reflect the scarcity value of generating or transmission capacity. (Much of the rest of the world does this too.) As a result, these prices provide too little incentive to invest in capacity, and the right kinds of capacity. The kludge solution to this is to create a new market, a capacity market, in which regulators decide how much capacity of what type is needed, and mandate that load servers acquire the rights to such capacity through capacity auctions. The revenues from these auctions provide an additional incentive for generators to invest in the capacity they supply.

The alternative is a pure energy market, in which prices are allowed to reflect scarcity value–and in electricity markets, due to extremely inelastic demand and periodic extreme inelasticity of supply in the short run, that scarcity value can sometimes reach the $1000s of dollars.

Texas opted for the energy market model. However, other factors intervened to prevent prices from being right. In particular, heavy subsidies for renewables have systematically depressed prices, thereby undercutting the incentives to invest in thermal generation, and the right kind of thermal generation. This can lead to much bigger price spikes than would have occurred otherwise–especially when intermittent renewables output plunges.

Thus, a systematic downward price distortion can greatly exacerbate upward price spikes in a pure energy model. That, in a nutshell, is the reason for Texas’s recent (extreme) unhappiness.

As more information becomes available, it is clear that the initiator of the chain of events that left almost half the state in the dark for hours was a plunge in wind generation due to the freezing of wind turbines. Initially, combined cycle gas generation ramped up output dramatically to replace the lost wind output. But these resources could not sustain this effort because the cold-related disruptions in gas production, transmission, and distribution turned the gas generators into fuel limited resources. The generators hadn’t broken down, but couldn’t obtain the fuel necessary to operate.

It is certainly arguable that Texas should have recognized that the distortion in prices that arose from subsidization of wind (primarily at the federal level) that bore no relationship whatsoever to the social cost of carbon made it necessary to implement the kapacity market kludge, or some other counterbalance to the subsidy-driven wrong prices. It didn’t, and that will be the subject of intense debate for months and years to come.

It is essential to recognize however, that the underlying reason why a kludge may be necessary is that the price wasn’t right due to government intervention. When deciding how to change the system going forward, those interventions–and their elimination–should be front and center in the analysis and debate, rather than treated as sacrosanct.

There is also the issue of state contingent capacity. That is, the availability of certain kinds of capacity in certain states of the world. In electricity, the states of the world that matter are disproportionately weather-related. Usually in Texas you think of hot weather as being the state that matters, but obviously cold weather matters too.

It appears that the weatherization of power plants per se was less of an issue last week than the weatherization of fuel supplies upstream from the power plants. It is an interesting question regarding the authority of ERCOT–the operator of the Texas grid–extends to mandating the technology utilized by gas producers. My (superficial) understanding is that it is unlikely to, and that any attempt to do so would lead to a regulatory turf battle (with the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates gas and oil wells in Texas, and maybe FERC).

There is also the question of whether in an energy only market generators would have the right incentive to secure fuel supplies from sources that are more immune to temperature shocks than Texas’s proved to be last week. Since such immunity does not come for free, generator contracts with fuel suppliers would require a price premium to obtain less weather-vulnerable supplies, and presumably a liability mechanism to penalize non-performance. The price premium is likely to be non-trivial. I have seen estimates that weatherizing Texas wells would cost on the order of $6-$9 million per well—which would double or more than the cost of a well. Further, it would be necessary to incur additional costs to protect pipelines and gas processing facilities.

In an energy only market, the ability to sell at high prices during supply shortfalls would provide the incentive to secure supplies that allow producing during extreme weather events. The question then becomes whether this benefit times the probability of an extreme event is larger or smaller than the (non-trivial) cost of weatherizing fuel supply.

We have a pretty good idea, based on last week’s events, of what the benefit is. We have a pretty good idea of the cost of hardening fuel supplies and generators. The most imprecise input to the calculation is the probability of such an extreme event.

Then the question of market design–and specifically, whether weatherization should be mandated by regulation or law, and what form that mandate should take–becomes whether generation operators or regulators can estimate that probability more accurately.

In full awareness of the knowledge problem, my priors are that multiple actors responding to profit incentives will do a better job than a single actor (a regulator) operating under low power incentives, and subject to political pressure (exerted by not just generators, but those producing, processing, and transporting gas, industrial consumers, consumer lobbyists, etc., etc., etc., as well). Put differently, as Hayek noted almost 75 years ago, the competitive process and the price system is a way of generating information and using it productively, and has proved far more effective in most circumstances than centralized planning.

I understand that this opinion will be met with considerable skepticism. But note a few things. For one, a regulator’s mistakes have systematic effects. Conversely, some private parties may overestimate the risk and others underestimate it: the composite signal is likely to be more accurate, and less vulnerable to the miscalculation of a single entity. For another, on the one hand skeptics excoriate a regulator for its failures–but confidently predict that some other future regulator will get it right. I’m the skeptic on that.

Recent events also raise another issue that could undermine reliance on the price system. Many very unfortunately people entered into contracts in which their electricity bills were tied to wholesale prices. As a result, the are facing bills for a few days of electricity running into the many thousands of dollars because wholesale prices spiked. This is indeed tragic for these people.

That spike by the way, is up to $10,000/MWh. $10/KWh. Orders of magnitude bigger than you usually pay.

It is clear that the individuals who entered these contracts did not understand the risks. And this is totally understandable: if you are going to argue that regulators or generators underplayed the risks, you can’t believe that they typical consumer won’t too. I am sure there will be lawsuits relating in particular to the adequacy of disclosure by the energy retailers who sold these contracts. But even if the fine print in the contracts disclosed the risks, many consumers may not have understood them even if they read it.

One of the difficulties with getting prices right in electricity markets which has plagued market design is getting consumers to see the price signals so that they can limit use when supply is scarce. But this will periodically involve paying stratospheric prices.

From a risk bearing perspective this is clearly inefficient. The risk should be transferred to the broader financial markets (though hedging mechanisms, for instance) because the risk can be diversified and pooled in those markets. But this is at odds with the efficient consumption perspective. This is not a circle that anyone has been able to square heretofore.

Moreover, the likely regulatory response to the extreme misfortune experienced by some consumers will be to restrict wholesale prices so that they do not reflect scarcity value. That is, an energy only market has a serious time consistency problem: regulators cannot credibly commit to allow prices to reflect scarcity value, come what may. This means that an energy only market may not be politically sustainable, regardless of its economic merits. I strongly suggest that this will happen in Texas.

In sum, as the title of the book I mentioned earlier indicates, electricity market design is about choices. Moreover, those choices are often of the pick-your-poison variety. This means that avoiding one kind of problem–like what Texas experienced–just opens the door to other problems. Evaluation of electricity market design should not over-focus on the most recent catastrophe while being blind to the potential catastrophes lurking in alternative designs. But I realize that’s not the way politics work, and this will be an intensely political process going forward. So we are likely to learn the wrong lessons, or grasp at “solutions” that pose their own dangers.

As a starting point, I would undo the most clearcut cause of wrong prices in Texas–subsidization of wind and other renewables. Alas, even if stopped tomorrow the baleful effect those subsidies will persist long into the future, because they have impacted decisions (investment decisions) on the long horizon I mentioned earlier. But other measures–such as mandated reserve margins and capacity markets, or hardening fuel supplies–will also only have effects over long horizons. For better or worse, and mainly worse, Texas will operate under the shadow of political decisions made long ago. And made primarily in DC, rather than Austin.

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February 18, 2021

How Low Can Prices Go, and Why?

Filed under: Climate Change,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 6:04 pm

A quick follow up to the previous post.

I noted that negative prices have been a thing in Texas for years. Indeed they are in every market with substantial renewables penetration.

This is particularly true in the US, where the Production Tax Credit pays qualifying renewables facilities $23/MWh to produce, regardless of prices. Meaning that a recipient of the PTC will continue to produce even if prices are -$22.99/MWh.

So why do prices go negative? In particular, why do other producers who do not get the credit continue to produce even when there are negative prices? Why don’t enough of them cut output to make sure that prices don’t fall below variable cost?

The answer in a word is: indivisibilities. Or, if you prefer, non-convexities.

Specifically, many thermal generators incur costs to shut down or start up. These are basically fixed costs, of the avoidable variety. A unit currently operating can avoid shutdown costs by continuing to operate. A unit currently idle can avoid startup costs by remaining idle. Minimum run times and ramping constraints are other examples of non-convexities.

So, for example, when demand is low and wind turbines continue to blend birds (and generate electricity), prices can go negative but a gas or coal or nuke plant may continue to operate (and incur fuel costs as well as incremental O&M) because it is cheaper to PAY to sell output (and pay variable costs as well) than it is to shut down.

If the cost of adjusting output of a plant to or from zero was zero, whenever prices fall below marginal operating cost the plant would shut down. This would put a floor on prices equal to marginal cost. However, if there is a fixed cost of adjusting output to or from zero, it can make sense to continue to operate even when prices do not cover variable costs–and when prices are negative–in order to avoid paying this cost of shutting down (and/or the cost of starting back up again when prices are higher).

Generation technology is such that efficient baseload plants (i.e., units with lower per MW variable costs) tend to have higher shutdown and startup costs, and more acute operating constraints that give rise to other forms of non-convexity. As in all things in life, there tends to be a trade-off: low variable costs must be traded off against higher avoidable costs/less flexibility to adjust output. Thus, negative prices hit such units especially hard. They are faced with the bleak choice between paying to sell what they produce, or paying a cost to avoid producing. Obviously this choice is bleaker, the costlier it is to avoid producing. For many, the cost of shutting down is big enough that they continue to spin even when prices are negative.

Economists have long known that non-convexities can interfere with the operation of a price system. If you look at classic Arrow-Debreu proofs of the welfare theorems (i.e., that competitive prices call for the efficient level of production and consumption), you’ll see that they assume that production technologies are convex. That is, they assume away things like shutdown and startup costs. When production technologies are characterized by non-convexities (e.g., fixed avoidable costs), the proofs don’t go through.

Indeed, an equilibrium in prices and output may not exist if indivisibility problems are sufficiently severe: in my earliest academic life, my work on applying core theory focused on this issue. If an equilibrium does exist, it may be inefficient.

Put simply, the invisible hand can get really shaky if indivisibility problems are severe.

Liberalized electricity markets (e.g., PJM and other ISOs) have devised various means of addressing these indivisibilities. The results are not first best, but the mechanisms allow an energy market with prices approximately equal to marginal cost to survive.

The subsidization of wind, especially through the PTC, greatly exacerbates indivisibility/non-convexity problems because its effects fall with particular force on generating units with more pronounced indivisibilities. These tend to be the most efficient, and also the ones most essential for maintaining reliable system operation.

This means that although renewables subsidies punish investment in thermal generation generally, they punish investment in units that operate nearly continuously at low cost with particular severity. Having these units available nearly 24/7/365 is vital for keeping electricity prices low, and for ensuring a highly reliable power system.

So the distortions caused by renewables subsidies, particularly of the pay-to-produce variety, are more severe than “we have too much renewables capacity and too little thermal capacity.” Yes, that’s a problem, but the distorted price signals also distort the types of generation invested in. In particularly, they are particularly punitive to generation with more acute indivisibilities. Since these also tend to be low operating cost, high reliability technologies, that is a very costly distortion indeed.

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Who Is To Blame for SWP’s (and Texas’s) Forced Outage?

Filed under: Climate Change,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 12:44 pm

I am back following a forced outage, due to forced outages of Texas electricity generators caused by the cold snap–brutal by Texas standards, routine compared to what I experienced in my 40+ years up north–that is just relaxing its grip. Having some foresight, I had laid in some firewood, and that kept things from getting unbearable. Other than the power outage, water pressure was an issue: I thought my faucets needed a prostate check, but as of about 10AM the flow is back.

So, with fingers crossed, I have the opportunity to comment on what happened. As with so many things–everything?–today, the commentary has been highly partisan, and largely wrong. Blame wind power (or the lack thereof)! Uh-uh! Blame fossil fuel generation!

The facts are fairly straightforward. In the face of record demand (reflected in a crazy spike in heating degree days)

supply crashed. Supply from all sources. Wind, but also thermal (gas, nuclear, and coal). About 25GW of thermal capacity was offline, due to a variety of weather-related factors. These included most notably steep declines in natural gas production due to well freeze-offs and temperature-related outages of gas processing plants which combined to turn gas powered units into energy limited, rather than capacity limited, resources. They also included frozen instrumentation, water issues, and so on.

Wind was down too. Wind defenders have been saying that wind did great! because it sucked less than ERCOT (the Electricity Reliability Council of Texas) had forecast; that is, wind generation was somewhat higher than the low levels that ERCOT had predicted. The defenders were spinning, even if the turbines were not.

However, wind performance was objectively worse than thermal. In the weeks prior to the Big Freeze, wind was operating at ~50-65 percent of installed capacity, and supply ~40-60 percent of Texas load. When the freeze hit on Monday (and I was throwing another log on the fire), due to turbines freezing, capacity utilization fell to around ~10 percent to ~5 percent, and wind was generating ~3-10 percent of ERCOT load. Meaning that the relative performance of wind vs. thermal was worse during the cold wave, even as bad as thermal performance was. Further meaning that if wind had represented a larger fraction of Texas generating capacity, the situation would have been even grimmer.

The last few days wind defenders have been saying that the problem wasn’t with wind per se, but the failure to winterize adequately wind generators in Texas. After all, there are windmills in Antarctica! (Not to mention Sweden, etc.).

This brings to mind what Adam Smith wrote in the Wealth of Nations:

By means of glasses, hotbeds, and hotwalls, very good grapes can be raised in Scotland, and very good wine too can be made of them at about thirty times the expense for which at least equally good can be brought from foreign countries.

That is, you need to consider cost. Yes, winterizing windmills to withstand the conditions observed in Texas this week is inside the production possibilities frontier, but winterizing is not free. It is a question of whether the benefits exceed the cost.

The same thing is true with regards to thermal generation (and natural gas production). After all, power plants in far colder climes (it was below zero in Missouri, for example) hummed along in even more frigid conditions. Similarly, gas continues to flow every year in winter conditions in Canada and Siberia. But achieving these results is not free. It is a question of cost vs. benefit.

The cost of not winterizing power plants that shut down due to temperature-related outages (rather than limitations on fuel supply) were certainly material. Power prices spiked to around $9,000/MWh, and were routinely over $1,000/MWh. For a 500MW plant, losing an hour at a $9000 price means $4.5 million in revenue forgone. Even at $1,000, that’s $500K up the flue. (That’s the gross loss. The net loss is harder to calculate, given that natural gas prices also spiked).

That’s a lot of money, but whether it would have been worthwhile to incur the cost to ensure operation under the conditions we observed also depends on the probability of the event. Given the extremes observed, the probability is pretty small. Meaning that it might have been rational for generators to forego the expense: zero failure rate is never optimal. This is in contrast to a generator in say Minnesota, for which such conditions are the norm.

I would imagine that there will be a pretty intense review of utilities’ decisions regarding winterizing their plants. The cost should be fairly easy to estimate. By applying market prices or the value of lost load (VOLL) it should be similarly straightforward to estimate the cost of such weather induced outages. The probability, however, will be much harder. It is inherently difficult to estimate the probability of extreme events, especially when they are seasonal in nature.

Similar considerations hold for gas processing plants and gas wells. The opportunity cost, and the cost of upgrades, are fairly straightforward to quantify. The probability that the upgrades will actually pay off (by avoiding shutdowns) is far more amorphous.

The events of this week also bring to the fore longstanding debates regarding the appropriate generation mix in Texas. Yes, thermal experienced unprecedented outages, but as noted above, it performed both absolutely (measured by capacity utilization) and relatively (measured by decline in utilization) better than wind. Texas would have been better off with less wind and more thermal. Maybe not enough to avoid blackouts altogether, but enough to mitigate substantially their severity.

Texas has had longstanding concerns about reserve margins. The main drivers have been the retirement of substantial amounts of coal generating capacity, and relatively low rates of increase in natural gas generation (a measly 3.5 percent over the past 4 years) at the same time wind capacity has more than doubled and solar capacity has increased by 2000 percent.

The problems here are twofold. First, wind and solar availability and output are often negatively correlated with demand. (Solar wasn’t doing much at 10PM on Monday, now was it?) Second, and more insidiously, wind and solar generation depress prices–often to below zero–at other times, which undermines the economics of thermal generation. Hence, the low rate of investment in gas, and the actual disinvestment in coal.

As I said, this is a longstanding problem. I remember hosting a roundtable on this issue at UH in 2005 or 2006. Generators were already raising alarms that negative prices were a powerful disincentive to investment.

Things have only worsened since, and perverse policy is to blame. It is unarguable that wind and solar capacity have increased to extremely inefficient levels due to lavish subsidies, especially at the federal level. As a result, Texas has a grotesquely inefficient resource mix.

And with the new administration, the outlook is even worse. It has embraced increasing demand for electricity (electrify everything!–echoing the malign and evil Bill Gates) and subsidizing the production of electricity using unreliable renewables.

Texas’s travails raise questions about the viability of ERCOT’s “energy only” market design, in which generator revenues are solely from the sale of energy (or ancillary services). In this model, price spikes are intended to incentivize investment in generation (and upgrades to enhance availability rates). But price signals distorted by excessive renewables are a strong disincentive to investment.

The standard kludge in these circumstances is capacity requirements plus a capacity market. This was mooted in my roundtable so many years ago. If price signals are allowed to work, a capacity market is unnecessary and inefficient. But prices have been so distorted that it will receive serious attention going forward.

This is unfortunate, in the extreme, as the better approach would be to destroy the price distortions at their source–subsidies for renewables. Alas, in the current political environment it is likely that the nation will move strongly in the opposite direction, making the problem worse not better. Perhaps Texas could find ways of counteracting national policies–e.g., by imposing a state “reliability tax” on renewables–but this is likely to be politically impossible (although it would be a nice illustration of the theory of the second best!) Meaning that in the end, we will kludge our way to increasing reserve margins.

Not a cheery picture, but what is these days?

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November 25, 2020

How Green Is My Valley? After the Greens Get Done With it–Not Very Green At All, or Living In A Material World.

Filed under: Climate Change,Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 7:21 pm

The biggest intellectual defect of modern environmentalism–and there are many–is its monomania. The obsession with greenhouse gases has led it to advocate drastic changes in the production and consumption of energy without regard for the non-GHG-related consequences of these changes, including in particular the environmental consequences.

Fossil-fuels are carbon intensive, but the alternatives to fossil fuels and fossil-fueled vehicles, heaters, appliances, etc.–electricity generated by wind and solar, batteries, vastly expanded transmission networks, electric cars and appliances–are incredibly material intensive.

Many–most–of these materials need to be mined. Electric vehicles and batteries utilize massive amounts of metals and minerals, e.g., copper, nickel, cobalt, lithium. The mining of these things generates massive amounts of pollution of the air and water and the ground.

Just a few examples. Many of the largest Superfund sites in the US are defunct copper mines, like the Berkeley Pit in Montana, where decades after its retirement the country’s largest earthen dam holds back–hopefully!, as I’ll discuss in a moment–6.5 trillion gallons of toxic sludge. And the mine itself is now a 900 foot deep, mile long, toxic lake.

What did I mean about “hopefully!”? Well, there have recently been massive failures of containment dams at mines in Canada, Brazil (at least two) and Australia, which have cost hundreds of lives and massive ecological and economic damage.

Even when there are not such catastrophic failures, the accumulation of toxic tailings is hardly green.

And tailings are not the only issue. Let’s talk about air pollution, shall we? Specifically with a mineral that will be crucial to the production of massive batteries–nickel.

Riddle me this: what city has the worst air pollution in Russia, and among the 10 most polluted in the world? If you answer “Norilsk”, you’re a winner. Why? Nickel production. The world’s largest nickel mine and processing facility located there spews out “four million tons of cadmium, copper, lead, nickel, arsenic, selenium and zinc” per year. And the river runs a beautiful красный for good measure. Not very зеленый!

The “green” electrification of the entire world will require massive amounts of rare earths. The vast bulk of rare earths are produced in China. Not because it is uniquely endowed with them–they are actually quite common. Because only the Chinese are willing to accept the pernicious environmental impacts of rare earths mining.

And it’s not just environmental impact. It is historical impact as well. Rio Tinto obliterated a 40,000 year old archeological site to expand an iron ore mine. The “Sacred Valley” in Peru is also being mined extensively.

These things are happening at current scale, and they are an inevitable consequence of industrialization. But the question is whether the benefit of reducing GHG emissions justifies increasing commensurately these impacts. For you multiply these environmental consequences by many times when you consider the impact of multiplying electrical vehicles and appliances and batteries by many, many times.

Wind and solar generation facilities also consume massive amounts of material. Many of these are mined, or involve polluting production processes (including not immaterially–pun intended–concrete, which is a major GHG producer).

But there’s also the land. I’m so old that I can remember (though I was very young at the time–so I’m not THAT old!) Lady Bird Johnson campaigning against the visual blight of highway billboards. Quaint, really: they were a ribbon of eyesores, at most. In contrast, the amount of wind and solar facilities required to achieve the grandiose objectives of the Green New Deal or its proposed counterparts around the world (ya I’m looking at you Boris) would create square mile after square mile of eyesores.

Not to mention (a) displacing land from other productive uses, and (b) creating large risks for fauna, especially birds. Wind farms are collections of bird blenders, and solar farms bird fryers.

The lack of thought to environmental consequences behind grandiose “carbon neutral” visions is also apparent in the failure to consider the substantial diseconomies of scale in wind and solar. Meaning that costs will rise disproportionately to increases in renewables generation.

You can expand wind output on an intensive margin–siting windmills closer together. But this cannibalizes the wind, leading to output per turbine decline with density, and hence rising costs. You can expand wind output on an extensive margin–devoting more land to wind farms. But this also reduces average and marginal productivity because it requires expanding into progressively less windy places. Moreover, it results in higher average and marginal costs, because even holding windiness constant, the marginal value of the displaced land in alternative uses increases (because holding windiness constant, you’ll develop on the cheapest, least productive land first).

Solar is hard to expand on the intensive margin, but expansion on the extensive margin faces the same sources of rising cost as wind.

Meaning that these plans to substitute wind and solar for existing fossil fueled generation at the same time as dramatically substituting electricity for other forms of energy (e.g., electric cars instead of ICEs, electric appliances instead of gas) will inherently result in steeply rising costs.

Steeply.

If you look at countries (or states like California) that have even been able to get a mere ~20 percent of their electricity generation from renewables, you will see they are also the countries where electricity is most expensive. Usually by a factor of 2 or 3 or more than those that rely on conventional generation. Given the inherent increasing cost nature of renewable production, think of how much more expensive it will be to produce close to 100 percent of total energy consumption from renewables.

Rational people take into account trade-offs. Drastic reductions in GHGs involve massive costs. Many of these costs are environmental. The environmental pollution–real pollution, not the sort-of-pollution of say CO2–that will result from the massive production of materials necessary for electric vehicles, electric appliances, large scale storage batteries, transmission lines, wind turbines, and solar installations is staggering. Staggering. The consumption of natural resources–not just those buried in the earth, but the earth’s surface–will be prodigious. The cost of energy will rise, which will make people poorer: and the poorest will be hardest hit.

I often use Jefferson Davis’ proposed epitaph for the Confederacy–“Died of a Theory”–to illustrate the destructive tendencies of those wedded to a single principle, to the exclusion of other considerations. Unfortunately, it is too early to use it as an epitaph for modern environmentalism, because that is all too alive. But the idea fits. Monomaniacally wedded to theories of climate change and GHGs, modern environmentalists are pursuing a course that will, paradoxically and perversely, wreak massive environmental destruction.

How green is my valley? After the greens get done with it–not very green at all.

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November 18, 2020

The Anglosphere: Hurtling Down the Road to Serfdom

Filed under: Climate Change,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation,Uncategorized — cpirrong @ 7:07 pm

From 911 through the early days of the invasion of Iraq, there were some on the right who argued that the Anglosphere–the US, UK, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand–would save the world from a dark future. I was always skeptical, because it was evident that the Commonwealth countries in particular were already hurtling down the road to serfdom: from the earliest days of this blog, I referred to the UK as the “Ghost of Christmas Future,” because its embrace of collectivism and political correctness bode ill for the US.

Recent events have validated that skepticism–and how. I could cite many verses in many chapters, but two recent developments make the point.

The first is covid. The allegedly doughty Anglosphere has been as been as much of a collectivist collection of bedwetters and repressers as any country or group of countries in the world. The panic and consequent lockdown policies are largely attributable to the hysterical predictions of University College London’s crack–as in crackpot–epidemiological modelers. And the government’s panicked response thereto. The UK locked down once–to little effect. It is now locked down again, with progressively more draconian restrictions on normal life.

The evidentiary basis for this: zip, zilch, nada. There is no evidence that lockdowns improve public health outcomes, and there is considerable evidence that they don’t. There is evidence beyond counting that the economic and health consequences of lockdowns is severe. All pain. No gain.

Parts of Australia have also imposed draconian lockdowns, complete with police state enforcement methods and limitations on individual freedom. Ditto New Zealand. Canada has also been highly restrictive.

These efforts have been statist and collectivist in the extreme, with the smattering of protests about liberty being screeched down by the better thans who have proven themselves utterly impotent, not to mention incompetent. But we’re supposed to obey them. Because they give incantations to SCIENCE!

The other telling indicator of the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of the Anglosphere elites is climate policy. The UK, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand are all hard core worshippers in the Church of Climate Change (while the pews of the Church of England are empty, notably).

Australia has implemented policies intended to displace totally fossil fuels within a short time frame, substituting renewables in their place. This has had a too small to measure impact on global climate, but has blessed Australia with more expensive and less reliable electricity.

Not to be outdone, “Conservative” British PM Boris Johnson said “hold my ale,” and has just announced a grandiose “green industrial revolution.”

Note to Boris: the original industrial revolution was an endogenous, self-generated process that massively improved living standards; your proposed “industrial revolution” is a government-driven, centrally planned process that will produce penury in exchange for trivial environmental benefits (and indeed, may involve serious environmental harm, when the consequences of mining, distorted land usage, etc., are considered). To compare what happened in the 18th and 19th centuries to what you propose for the 21st is an abuse of language that staggers the imagination.

So what is Boris’ Big Plan? This:

“My ten point plan will create, support and protect hundreds of thousands of green jobs, whilst making strides towards net zero by 2050.

“Our green industrial revolution will be powered by the wind turbines of Scotland and the North East, propelled by the electric vehicles made in the Midlands and advanced by the latest technologies developed in Wales, so we can look ahead to a more prosperous, greener future.”

The push forms part of the UK’s pledge to go carbon neutral by 2050, and comes ahead of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow next year.

The plans include producing enough offshore wind to power every home, quadrupling how much Britain produces to 40GW by 2030, which would support up to 60,000 jobs.

It also aims to generate 5GW of low carbon hydrogen production capacity by 2030, and develop the first town heated entirely by hydrogen by the end of the decade.

The UK Government also wants to advance nuclear as a clean energy source to help support 10,000 jobs.

Then there are wider plans for electric vehicles, public transport and well as an expansion of cycle and walk routes.

Mr Johnson will also discuss making homes more energy efficient, creating 50,000 jobs by 2030 and installing 600,000 heat pumps every year by 2028.

In other words, like California, except with crappy weather.

The key word is “plan.” It’s Boris’ 10 Year Plan. Maybe Boris can borrow from Lenin and promote it with a slogan: “Utopia is Tory government combined with green electrification of the entire country.”

It bears all of the intellectual defects of such grandiose schemes. The reliance on centralized decision making. The focus on dictating technological means for achieving an objective–and relying on technologies that are either unproven, or extremely unlikely to be scalable (wind energy in particular). Further, the monomaniacal agenda: reducing CO2 emissions, to the exclusion of any consideration. Putting aside that CO2 is what makes things green, there is apparently no consideration of the environmental consequences (e.g., from mining) of large scale wind power and battery usage (in autos and to make intermittent wind a reasonable power source). Nor is there consideration of other trade-offs: what are the costs, in terms of foregone output and opportunities, of pursuing this single goal? What are the benefits that will be achieved?

Further, the entire agenda is profoundly anti-freedom. The private automobile was the greatest liberating force of the 20th century–which is why the left hates it with such a passion. Boris’ (not so) green electric machines will be far more costly, and far more limiting, making them more expensive and less useful to the hoi polloi. The policy obviously aims to push the proles onto public transport. Yeah. I’m sure British train service will get so much better. And even if it does, it is inherently more regimented and limiting than autonomous personal transport.

I guarantee that this effort will be a bacchanal of rent seeking, incompetence, and failure. If you doubt this, contemplate the multiple failures of the UK government’s covid responses like testing and test-and-trace. But sure, they will totally nail a complete re-engineering of the entire energy system!

If Boris et al really believe that CO2 is a deadly menace, then tax it and get the hell out of the way. Let individuals figure out the most efficient way to trade-off carbon vs. other human wants. This centrally planned approach is doomed to failure. Which means that the green industrial revolution may spark a real revolution when Britain sinks into penury. While sitting in the dark and cold.

Again, climate policy is merely an example. I could go on. But it illustrates the Anglosphere’s descent into collectivism and statism and corporatism: and alas, the US–at least about half of it–want to follow them all the way down.

The beginning of this descent can be dated to the end of WWII. Churchill’s loss in 1945 is probably a good starting point. The pace of decline has varied over time: things were so dire by the late-1970s in the UK that Thatcher came to power and slowed, and in some cases reversed the decline. But it has resumed apace, and the adoption of green energy lunacy by an ostensibly conservative government suggests that the decline is now irreversible.

In some ways, Australia’s decline is the most depressing. Once upon a time Oz was more individualist, and disdainful of the pommy bastards. There was a kinship between Australia and the American west, a frontier kinship as it were. But that seems largely a thing of the past.

This came home to me when I re-watched the Mad Max trilogy last week. Watching those paeans to rugged individualism (personified by Mel Gibson’s Max), then reading about Australia today (especially the lockdowns in Victoria and the dysfunctional energy policies), I said to myself: “What the hell happened to you?”

Well, whatever happened to them has happened to the Anglosphere as a whole. (Don’t even get me started on Canada, ex Alberta.)

And it is happening to the US too. The recent election results, and many other political developments, suggest that at most half the country resists joining the UK et al on the road to serfdom. And that half is politically marginalized–perhaps by electoral manipulations engineered by the other half.

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