Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Energy Markets and City Councils

Brent Ridge, Energy Northwest’s Vice President and Chief Financial Officer, contributes an editorial to the webzine Clearing Up, which covers energy issues in the northwest. He notes that Columbia Generating Station has been operating without incident for almost 30 years. He also focuses on initiatives taken to improve costs to ratepayers and Columbia’s impressive worker safety record:

As Clearing Up noted last week, cooperation between EN, the Bonneville Power Administration and the Northwest power community on a regional debt management strategy will result in as much as $1.8 billion in savings for ratepayers.

and:

Energy Northwest employees and contractors are now exceeding 12 million hours worked without a lost-time injury.

Columbia has lately attracted some scrutiny from anti-nuclear energy activists, which actually strikes me as odd. Washington state is a very environmentally aware place and, whatever nuclear energy’s contribution to keeping the state’s clean air profile high, that doesn’t really matter to activists. That leads to this:

During the last two years they have devised arguments ranging from false Fukushima similarities to creatively calculated economic claims that lead to the same self-serving conclusion: Columbia should be immediately shut down.

And that led to the Seattle city council:

The committee meeting included half a dozen anti-nuclear activists repeating false claims, half-truths and doomsday scenarios designed to scare the general public into adopting their fear-based ideology about nuclear energy. It’s a clever tactic – disproving a hypothetical is difficult.

Most of Seattle’s electricity comes from hydro power – with nuclear energy’s relative minor contribution, it must be one of the cities least impacted by fossil fuel.

I don’t know the extent to which anti-nuclear tactics can work in Seattle, but it has gotten some well-considered pushback:

Arguments about eliminating nuclear generation from the Northwest, national or world energy mix make about as much sense as arguing that climate change isn’t real or happening. It’s an argument that is 40 years past its prime, if it ever had a prime to begin with.

Ridge pushes back further, tackling several activist arguments, including cod comparisons to Fukushima, seismic concerns, and, interestingly, Columbia’s value to the market place. It’s considerable:

The [Public Power] council specifically pointed to the Western Energy Crisis of 2000-2001. During that relatively short energy crisis, the cost benefit of Columbia’s power dwarfed “the modest benefits that would have been achieved” through replacement power. “In 2001 alone the operation of Columbia Generating Station compared to the market saved Bonneville Power Administration ratepayers $1.4 billion,” the council wrote.

Add to that the previously mentioned BPA/EN bond sale that will save Northwest ratepayers up to $1.8 billion in gross interest savings, and on those two data points alone, Columbia is saving Northwest ratepayers $3.2 billion.

That’s not chickenfeed. Most concerns about nuclear energy in the market place involve correctly valuing it as a non-carbon-emitting source of electricity. Just because it’s been doing that since the 50s doesn’t mean it has no value doing it now – closing a nuclear plant now almost always means increased emissions. This is exactly what the nation –or world – does not need. 

Ridge is taking this issue a different way around, noting that nuclear plants have a value as stable financial propositions:

In January, the Public Power Council, representing Northwest consumer-owned utilities, examined the Cambridge market assessment (commissioned by Energy Northwest) and the competing McCullough report (commissioned by Physicians for Social Responsibility). The Public Power Council observed that the variable cost of Columbia operations in recent years was slightly above spot market energy prices, for which the McCullough study recommended seeking a replacement power option.

However, the council also noted that a single unanticipated shift in the markets “can easily wipe out years of anticipated benefits” gained from replacement power, and concluded that the continued operation of Columbia “is economically advisable for the region.”

Which is true. Taking advantage of current market conditions ignores history and overall energy trends. It’s like bailing on Apple stock in 1997 because the company hit a trough. It’s essentially a trick, which looks good – and just barely - only in the moment and with no context.

It’s a terrific article, specific to Columbia but very broadly applicable. You can see the whole thing if you can subscribe to Clearing Up. In the meantime, if we can give it some wider distribution, good.

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