Blog Posts

New England’s “tenuous” ability to affordably and cleanly keep the lights on

To say that New England’s energy future is muddled is an understatement. Only 24 hours ago, during an annual press briefing, the president and CEO of regional grid operator ISO New England sounded a cautionary note about future energy supplies.

“As more oil, coal and nuclear plants seeks to retire in the coming years, keeping the lights on could become even more tenuous,” Gordon van Welie told reporters.

To put that statement in context, the region will have lost more than 4,600 megawatts of electric generating capacity between 2013 and 2021. That equates to about 16 percent of ISO New England’s current generating capacity. Several thousand more megawatts of generating capacity are deemed to be at risk.

It was just a few weeks ago that ISO New England released its Operational Fuel-Security Analysis, a study assessing whether possible future resource combinations would have enough fuel to ensure bulk power system reliability throughout an entire winter. “The results indicate that maintaining reliability is likely to become more challenging, especially if current power system trends continue,” the grid operator determined.

Meanwhile, efforts to improve New England’s energy infrastructure are meeting obstacles.

For example, the Northern Pass proposal, a 192-mile transmission line project to bring 1,090 megawatts of power from Hydro-Quebec’s hydroelectric plants in Canada to New Hampshire and the rest of the region, suffered a major setback on Feb. 1 when a state Site Evaluation Committee unanimously rejected the Northern Pass application. Northern Pass officials today are outlining conditions they believe could swing the Evaluation Committee in favor of the proposal, according to the New Hampshire Union Leader.

While the share of electricity New Englanders receive from renewable energy sources has increased in recent years (though most new generation has come from natural gas-fired power plants), the push to increase renewables significantly has hardly been a slam dunk. The organization Friends of Maine’s Mountains epitomizes the opposition that many wind projects encounter.

To observers outside New England, the region’s steps to address its energy challenges effectively will be at least a curiosity. To those within New England, particularly paying customers, there’s much more at stake.

Referencing the frigid temperatures that gripped much of the nation at the start of the new year, van Welie noted, “Wholesale electricity costs for that two-week cold spell total about $990 million, or about four times more than the $243 million incurred during the same two-week period last year.”

Call it the cost of muddling.

February 28, 2018

Is the solution to a California natural gas shortage doing away with natural gas?

If it weren’t for the fact that so many livelihoods, if not lives, are at stake, one would be tempted to smile at the sentiment expressed in a Los Angeles Times editorial a few days ago that lawmakers must do more, faster to “induc(e) consumers to shift from gas to electricity generated by renewable resources.” The Times’ prodding comes on the heels of a proposed moratorium by the California Public Utilities Commission on new gas hookups to commercial and industrial customers in parts of Los Angeles County through March. The proposal resulted from concerns about “adequate capacity in the system to meet foreseeable need,” according to the CPUC.

As context, natural gas plays a rather sizable role in California’s energy system and, thus, as an underpinning of the state’s economy. For example, it provides 50 percent of the in-state electricity generation and more than one-third of the state’s total power mix, according to the California Energy Commission.

One could hardly accuse California of not being aggressive in its determination to achieve a clean energy future. The state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard mandates that 50 percent of electricity retail sales be served by renewable resources by 2030, and a recent annual RPS reportfiled with the state legislature documents the impressive progress that’s been achieved to date.

Nonetheless, the Times appears insistent that, because there are concerns about a gas shortage, the solution is to … eliminate natural gas as a potential resource. Then Californians won’t have to worry whether there’s a gas “shortage” or not. To that point, an interesting article posted to the engadget website last month quotes California Gov. Jerry Brown at length on the ability of policy directives to drive technology advances. “We would have never gotten renewable energy prices where they are today without really ambitious public policy,” Brown says. Even Brown, however, suggests the next ambitious goal might be 80 percent renewables by 2050 — three decades away and hardly the pace that would placate the Times’ editorial board.

“If state lawmakers are serious about moving away from fossil fuels such as natural gas, and if local officials want a future without the risks that come with nearby gas storage wells, they can’t wait until the next crisis. They must take action now,” the Times opines.

Click your heels three times, Californians. Renewables nirvana is at your doorstep. The Los Angeles Times says so.

January 31, 2018

Infrastructure legislation offers ideal opportunity to improve electric grid resilience

Two times last week at notable forums in Washington, D.C., in the context of discussions about the electric grid, comments from top energy officials illustrated the unsettling lack of focus that exists with regard to the all-important subject of grid resilience.

First, at a Bipartisan Policy Center event, FERC Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur said, “How you make your system more resilient depends on what risk you’re mitigating against, and I think we’ll hear about different risks from different regions.”  Two days later, at the U.S. Energy Association’s State of the Energy Industry forum, American Public Power Association CEO Sue Kelly asked whether 2018 will be the year of resilience and said, according to an attendee’s tweet, “we need a common definition of resilience.”

These comments catch one’s attention because infrastructure legislation is coming. With no disrespect to the officials referenced above, who clearly are engaged on the issue, our nation can ill afford to miss this unique opportunity to better protect the electric grid while Washington works at Washington’s pace defining resilience.

In its 2017 report “Enhancing the Resilience of the Nation’s Electricity System,” the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine on page 10 provides a four-part definition of resilience: 1) preparing to make the system as robust as possible in the face of possible future stresses or attacks; 2) relying on resources to manage and ameliorate the consequences of an event once it has occurred; 3) recovering as quickly as possible once the event is over; and 4) remaining alert to insights and lessons that can be drawn (through all stages of the process) so that if and when another event occurs, a better job can be done in all stages.

The NAS resilience report also states that physical and cyber attacks pose “a serious and growing risk” to the electric grid, and last November the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security issued a joint technical alert confirming that many sectors within our nation’s critical infrastructure have been the targets of repeated cyber attacks. Similarly, DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, when asked how much confidence she has in the current system for protecting the grid, “(W)e need to continue to do more, we need to continue to update it and keep up with the threat, the threats continue to evolve,” as reported by E&E News.

Meanwhile, a version of the infrastructure funding principles leaked on Monday makes only one reference to electric and is void of electricity infrastructure provisions.

Our nation cannot afford the calamity of a large-area, long-duration power outage. Time is of the essence. For the well-being of the American people, we need to make meaningful progress on electric grid resilience now. Infrastructure legislation isn’t the entire answer by any means, but it certainly should be part of it.

January 25, 2018

A week to remember for natural gas lovers

“We have seen the future, and it is ours.”

If ever there were a week for natural gas proponents to utter these words, attributed to United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez three decades ago, this week might have been it.

Consider the week’s two major energy developments. Last Monday, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission terminated the Department of Energy’s notice of proposed rulemakingon grid reliability and resilience pricing. While FERC initiated a new proceeding that directs the operators of regional wholesale power markets to dive into the issue, its decision landed with a big, unwelcome thud at the doorstep of the coal and nuclear energy sectors. The National Mining Association and the Nuclear Energy Institute each issued statements expressing their disappointment.

Fast forward to Friday, when the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported upon the extent to which natural gas was used to help Americans cope with the bitterly cold weather that descended upon the nation to close out 2017 and open the new year.

“During the recent cold weather event that affected much of the eastern United States, more natural gas was withdrawn from storage fields around the country than at any other point in history,” EIA’s website states. “Net withdrawals from natural gas storage totaled 359 billion cubic feet (Bcf) for the week ending January 5, 2018, exceeding the previous record of 288 Bcf set four years ago.” Do the math, and that’s an eye-popping 25 percent increase over the prior record.

Sandwiched in between these two events was Tuesday’s “2018 State of American Energy” speechby the president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, Jack Gerard.

“Consider what was previously thought impossible. We’ve taken the nation from energy scarcity to energy abundance,” Gerard said. “Building a better future takes energy, and natural gas and oil are central to continued progress … (T)he natural gas, oil and refined products industry is focused on powering the future. The fact is we always have been, even if most didn’t know it.”

Strains of Cesar Chavez? Judge for yourself.

January 12, 2018

Fresh evidence that our clean energy future could be a long time coming

The question isn’t a new one, but two news items from the past week crystallize the issue in a manner that isn’t always quite so vivid. The question, specifically: Where does the clean energy hype end and the clean energy reality begin?

Consider: The U.S. Energy Information Administration, in its Dec. 5 “Today in Energy” posting, examined the significant growth in electricity generation from natural gas-powered plants over the past decade in the southern United States. More precisely, natural gas generation climbed to 42 percent of total power generation in the South in 2016 from 25 percent of total generation a decade earlier, according to EIA. That corresponds with the region’s decline in coal-fired power generation to 29 percent from 50 percent over the past 10 years.

Leapfrog the Atlantic, per a GreenTech Media article published earlier today, and we find this question posed in the headline: “If Renewables Aren’t Growing Fast Enough to Replace Nuclear, What Are Europe’s Options?” Reporter Jason Deign posits that while Europe has a number of options to meet its 2050 decarbonization goals, “the pathways are getting slimmer.” Reductions in carbon emissions have been slow despite the expansion of renewables, and they will be increasingly difficult to achieve as nuclear energy facilities are retired (principally in Germany), “since renewables have much lower capacity factors than the nukes they are often replacing,” the article states.

Back to the United States and the EIA report, which strikes me as relevant because it documents the extent to which electricity generation lost in the South by retired coal-fired and nuclear power plants has been replaced largely by natural gas plants. EIA notes that, “New installed capacity in the region came primarily from natural gas and wind, with an additional 47.0 GW and 25.6 GW installed, respectively, between 2006 and 2017.” Again, wind’s lower capacity factors mean that actual electricity production has come overwhelmingly from natural gas facilities.

Only a few states in the South have a renewable portfolio standard mandating increased production levels. Unquestionably, as EIA verifies, renewable energy generation is growing nonetheless. But as the GreenTech Media article makes plain, even Europe grapples with the fact that the clean energy dream is a long way from being realized, and the path forward remains murky.

December 11, 2017

When Do Climate Change Precautions Get Distorted into Wealth Redistribution?

So here’s a question: When does action to mitigate the potential impacts of climate change cross the line from being a prudent precaution to brazen redistribution of wealth?

In the eyes of some, the answer is simple: From the get-go. The threat of climate change is overhyped; the United Nations bureaucrats organizing international conferences are riding a gravy train; and the leaders of  (pick your countries) are doing their utmost to squeeze untold billions of dollars out of the United States.

Conversely, in the eyes of others, climate change has a near-religious fervor. We can never do enough fast enough to save the planet from a thermal-induced apocalypse.

For those whose belief system falls somewhere between these two extremes, the question posed above may be worth pondering. I ask after reading a commentary in the Nov. 26 Washington Post headlined, “A climate policy that grows the economy.” The co-authors of the commentary, small businessmen in the nation’s capital, advocate enactment of the Climate and Community Reinvestment Act by the D.C. Council “as soon as possible.” As the writers explain it, the measure would “require fossil-fuel companies doing business in the District to pay a fee for every ton of carbon dioxide they put into the atmosphere. The policy would then rebate the overwhelming share of the collected revenue — hundreds of millions of dollars — to D.C. households and small businesses such as ours.”

Early in the article, the writers express their empathy and concern for the people and communities affected by this year’s hurricanes in Puerto Rico, Florida and Texas. “(W)e wonder: How can D.C. businesses and residents do our part to address our climate crisis?” Their answer, at least in part: Pass the Climate and Community Reinvestment Act. Now.

I have no doubt in the world that the compassion and concern expressed for those whose lives have been devastated, if not lost, is heartfelt. I share it and can’t imagine how anyone could feel otherwise.

At the same time, I have to wonder why, then, the revenue from the desired legislation would not go directly to communities already affected and/or most threatened by hurricanes and climate change? The authors cite an economic study that finds the “fee-and-rebate” policy would “rais(e) the incomes of most Washington residents, especially the poor and middle class … (L)ow-income residents would receive $4 in rebate payments for every $1 they pay in energy ‘taxes.’ ”

Hence my question: If the revenues generated are going to “most Washington residents,” even those in the middle class, would the District be taking a prudent precaution, or would it simply be redistributing wealth?

What’s your opinion?

November 30, 2017

Donna Brazile’s new book on Clinton campaign carries lesson on influencing target audiences

Buried toward the end of last Sunday’s lengthy Washington Post article on Donna Brazile’s new book about the 2016 presidential election are a few cautionary paragraphs that business professionals in a variety of disciplines should heed. While persons working in communications, marketing, community relations and government relations will find the tale particularly relevant, others may find value as well.

“Brazile writes that Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook and his lieutenants were so obsessed with voter data and predictive analytics that they ‘missed the big picture,'” The Post reports. “They knew how to size up voters not by meeting them and finding out what they cared about, what moved their hearts and stirred their souls, but by analyzing their habits,” Brazile writes. “You might be able to persuade a handful of Real Simple magazine readers who drink gin and tonics to change their vote to Hillary, but you had not necessarily made them enthusiastic enough to want to get up off the couch and go to the polls.”

There’s no arguing that the era of Big Data is upon us. I won’t pretend to know a fraction of what I could or should about our improved abilities to gather information via the Internet of things to predict user behavior, identify emerging trends and otherwise confront societal challenges. Our economy and our lives increasingly will be shaped by practical applications manifested in this new era.

Nonetheless, as Donna Brazile’s critique suggests, one runs a risk in relying too heavily on data and failing to engage with people directly. Focus groups, mall intercepts and town hall meetings are but a few examples of methods that long have been employed with great benefit to conduct consumer research, test messages and materials, gauge attitudes and surface (and answer) lingering questions. As we adopt new tools in social media space — microtargeting advertisements, for example — we should be mindful to keep at the ready in our toolkits many of these proven practices to connect with audiences and stakeholders where (to Brazile’s point) they actually think and feel.

A relevant story from my own experience was a conversation with a social media practitioner about ways to advance policy goals with congressional staff. As a former congressional press secretary myself, I sought to make the point that supportive editorials (in national and local newspapers alike) are a useful means to advance policy goals in congressional offices. I was less than encouraged when the social media practitioner on this particular team replied that he didn’t read editorial pages. When I see Donna Brazile’s take on the data-focused aspects of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, I’m reminded of this conversation.

Good messages and initiatives don’t do much for you if you fail to effectively leverage the channels and means to get the attention of your target audience. At the same time, even the right channels aren’t likely to do much for you if your message doesn’t “move hearts” and “stir souls.” Now, executing both effectively …. THAT’s a formula for success.

November 10, 2017

Is It the Best of Times or the Worst of Times for Renewable Energy?

It seems an odd point at which to make this argument: David Roberts posits in a new commentary that renewable energy mandates aren’t getting the support they merit; truth be told, they should get more.

“Though they aren’t as sexy as perpetually-discussed-but-rarely-passed carbon taxes, and they are flawed and insufficient in a number of ways, RPSs have been the quiet workhorses of renewable energy deployment in the US,” Roberts states. “RPSs might not be the most cost-effective way to improve air quality, reduce carbon emissions, or stimulate the growth of clean-energy industries and jobs … but they are real, working, doing all three of those things, right now, cost-effectively.”

You can read his full arguments and the research on which he bases them for yourself. What catches my eye is the absence of any reference to nuclear energy. The headline to David’s piece characterizes renewable mandates as “the most effective clean energy policy,” despite the fact that nuclear energy for decades has been the nation’s largest source of carbon-free power. It remains so (at 60 percent of carbon-free power generation) even though its dominance has eased a bit over the past several years due to some reactor closings and the increased penetration of renewable technologies.

For those whose goal is clean energy, the question becomes, “What benefit is served by having renewable mandates that crowd out nuclear energy?” I delve into this in greater detail in an analysis I penned for RealClearEnergy a few months ago. For brevity here, I’ll note simply that the impending retirement of California’s Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in the mid-2020s was triggered largely by the upward ratcheting of the state’s RPS. (Roberts happens to describe the California standard as “wildly ambitious.”) If continued ratcheting of existing RPSs occurs in other states, and additional states enact strict “renewable” mandates vs broader “clean energy” mandates that don’t make room for nuclear energy, how will we move forward rather than backward in clean energy space? Truth be told, we won’t.

October 23, 2017