Skip to content Skip to site navigation

Sean Casten's Posts

Comments

Things to Worry About in 2014: US Electric Grid Edition

The US electric sector is surprisingly easy to understand.  It’s big, capital-intensive, complicated and integral to our standard of living – which gives it a massive bias in favor of the status quo.  Neither its owners nor its regulators have any incentive to risk their money or their careers with sudden change.  This makes it fairly predictable: take what’s happening today, and assume that will continue indefinitely forward until such time as (a) we overshoot some fundamental technical constraint and/or (b) some regulatory action upends the balance of power in the industry. There have been several, noteworthy instances where regulatory …

Read more: Uncategorized

Comments

How hard is it to integrate renewables into the grid?

In January, EEI said [PDF] that the incentives paid to renewable energy are going to jeopardize grid reliability and electricity costs.  Many enviros have responded that this represents nothing more than the utility industry’s naked self interest.  Who’s right? I’d suggest neither.  The true problem with the EEI report, as I pointed out here, is that they are confusing (perhaps intentionally) a pricing structure problem with a technology problem. There are technical issues, but they result from the structure of clean-energy incentives, not the technologies or the total volume of the incentive. So there’s an easy solution: change the structure by …

Read more: Uncategorized

Comments

Solar grows up — now what?

Almost a decade ago, I was part of a group that lost a standby rate case with a Massachusetts utility, when the utility convinced the commission to approve a rate that would incentivize solar at the expense of combined heat and power (CHP). The package fractured the green coalition we’d assembled and the utility got to greenwash its terrible new rate. Yes, I’m still bitter. When the dust settled, I told friends on the solar side of our group that they shouldn’t celebrate too hard. The message wasn’t that utilities liked solar, but that they liked technologies that didn’t eat …

Comments

Thoughts on economic growth and energy slaves

I've lately become intrigued by the idea of "energy slaves" a deliberately unsettling way to highlight how unusual the last 200 years have been in terms of energy and economic growth. Suppose you were a wealthy white farmer in the antebellum South and owned 10 slaves. Assume you have no other access to energy beyond their muscle power. If you monopolize the fruits of their collective labor, you get a 10x force multiplier: the output of 11 men, harnessed to the sole benefit of one. That means you churn butter ten times as fast, harvest cotton ten times as fast, …

Read more: Uncategorized

Comments

EPA’s Boiler MACT Is an Economic Growth Opportunity

The new EPA air toxics standards, or “Boiler MACT” will tighten the pollution allowances for industrial (e.g., non-utility) coal boilers, and are widely and consistently being criticized as a threat to a still-fragile economy.  This criticism is coming from the usual corners (Inhofe, US Chamber of Commerce, etc.).  Meanwhile big-name engineering firms are turning out studies for affected industrials that say some variant of “you can install back end pollution controls that will reduce your fuel efficiency, you can switch your boiler to run on higher cost, cleaner fuels or you can shut down your manufacturing plant.” They’re all wrong.  …

Read more: Uncategorized

Comments

How wind power fits into our energy diet

Photo by stormcrypt.

There’s a bunch of discussion right now on renewable electricity vs. baseload electricity. David Roberts gives a good German example here. Chris Nelder goes so far as to suggest that thanks to renewables, "baseload is doomed," while John Farrell suggests that renewable energy is the new and sexy iPad, destined to replace the old baseload typewriter. Meanwhile, in utility land, we see issues like the one that took place in the Northwest last year, with Bonneville Power Association (BPA) forcing the curtailment of wind turbines, on the claim that the grid could not readily accommodate the rising percentage of intermittent resources.

So is BPA just a Paleolithic typewriter sales rep, or are these smart writers missing something fundamental about the power grid? I suggest to you that both are right -- but that the debate is focusing on the wrong axis. As evidence, consider that the percent of power generated from renewable energy in the U.S. today is virtually the same as the percent of power we generated from renewable energy 20 years ago. If something dramatic is happening in renewable energy that is disrupting the old paradigm, it hasn’t happened yet. So then why is there so much noise about the sudden challenge integrating renewable energy into our grid?

Comments

The U.S. electricity mix in 20 years: A prediction

What will the U.S. power mix look like in 10 to 20 years? It's impossible to predict for certain, of course, because there's no way to know what regulators will do. Given the heavily regulated nature of the electric sector, even in so-called "deregulated" markets, surprises tend to come from regulatory reform, not innovation. (The U.S. electric grid has shown itself capable of rapid, large-scale transformation in response to regulations.) Nevertheless, there is insight to be gained from thinking through how the generation mix would evolve in the absence of regulatory reform. Despite the lengthy time required to design, finance, …

Comments

Why electricity markets will never be (totally) free

Over the past few years, the U.S. electricity grid has begun a massive, underappreciated, and largely unintentional transition away from coal to natural gas. Because nobody decided on a shift to gas, or directed such a shift, many people have mistaken the transition for the outcome of a "free market." It's an easy mistake to make, since electricity markets do bear some superficial resemblance to competitive markets; we have spot prices, liquid markets, and no central planner telling us what to do. However, the shifting power mix derives much more from regulatory choices than from markets. (For that reason, future …

Comments

Bonneville Power unfairly favored hydro over wind, rules FERC

Photo: Vlasta JuricekThe Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has ruled that the Bonneville Power Association (BPA) unfairly discriminated against wind turbine owners when it curtailed the production of power from wind assets last spring in response to high hydro production. Wind owners are understandably happy, having argued that BPA was essentially favoring hydro over wind. The technical argument went like this: BPA entered into contracts to sell all of the power available from their generators; if BPA (or any other grid operator) has the ability to unilaterally curtail wind generation, it would reduce the effective value of future wind contracts …

Comments

The problem with renewables and ‘cost parity’

At what point do hamburgers reach cost parity with salad? Assume for a moment that this is a serious question and try to figure out how you'd answer it. What is the relevant metric of comparison? Cost per pound? Cost per calorie? Outside of a few rabid vegans, no one seriously tries to do that math, for self-evident reasons. But every time another story comes out about renewables nearing cost parity with fossil sources, that's exactly what we do. The problem is the metric. Competing power generation technologies are typically compared on a dollar-per-megawatt-hour ($/MWh) basis, but -- like the …