Archive for Economics

Other Objections to PACE Programs

Micheal Giberson over at Knowledge Problem bounced off my article on why PACE financing would be unlikely to damage the mortgage market to mention several of his own worries about how such programs are implemented.

He and I are in agreement that there’s little wrong with PACE programs in principle, but they raise some thorny issues in practice. Here are a few of his worries. Micheal says:

If PACE is just a way for homeowners to scrape up subsidies – i.e. to improve their properties and make their neighbors’ pay for it – then I’m against it.

I agree, but with a caveat: one justification for subsidies for energy efficiency is that energy efficiency has positive externalities, and creates societal benefits. To the extent that energy efficiency subsidies are societal payments for societal benefits, there is no problem with using PACE to scoop up as many as possible. In fact, it should be encouraged.

Here are some of the societal benefits of energy efficiency:

1. Lower energy consumption reduced the need to build and upgrade energy infrastructure, a cost which is borne by all.
2. Lower greenhouse gas emissions.
3. Predictable energy bills reduce bankruptcies and foreclosures, lessening the need for social services and raising property prices.
4. Less money spent on energy assistance programs.
5. Local jobs from the economic multiplier when money is not spent on fossil fuels imported from outside the region.
6. Reduction in local air pollution from local power plants.
7. Lower water use in electricity generation.
8. Lower energy prices because of reduced energy demand.
9. More total jobs because energy efficiency improvements tend to be more labor-intensive than capital-intensive energy production.

Micheal goes on to say:

If my local government was proposing such a program, I’d worry that mismanagement would lead to future obligations for non-participating taxpayers. What is the mechanism that ensures civil servants will be effective loan officers? Will they get bonuses for doing good work or just be paid the same salary and promoted on schedule whether or not the loans they approved achieve intended results?

I agree with Micheal on this one, but this all depends on the particular implementation, although I just finished reading Micheal Lewis’s excellent book The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine
on the Wall Street’s role in the subprime mortgage meltdown, and so I’m compelled to point out that civil servants would be hard pressed to do a worse job extending loans to unqualified buyers than any of dozens of mortgage lenders from 2005 to 2008.

And finally:

Maybe the more interesting question is how and why the retail energy and home mortgage marketplaces became so bollixed up that a municipal-government-sponsored home-improvement-lending tax authority work-around is seen as a promising way to help consumers make sensible energy-related improvements to their homes.

Now that’s a great question. If you want to know why the mortgage market is so messed up, I highly recommend The Big Short, a book that makes highly technical subjects easy to understand. I can say that because I had to learn exactly how CDS’s on CDO’s work in order to pass my Chartered Financial Analyst exams, and I wish this book had been around back then… it would have made the task much simpler.

As for why the energy market is bollixed up, I think it has to do with lack of just about everything that improves market efficiency. The consumer energy market has limited price transparency, a lack of price information and real-time pricing, a single monopoly supplier, a lack of knowledge on the part of the consumer, regulated prices, a cost-plus pricing model for most suppliers, and subsidies for the purchase of energy for many classes of customers. With all this going against it, it’s no surprise at all that the market is so dysfunctional that civil servants as loan officers starts to sound like a good idea.

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Green Jobs Demystified

I read a lot of Green Jobs reports over the last couple of months, and the research culminated in three articles. One is for the next issue of Smart Energy Living, and will be published in the Fall ’09 issue, but the other two are available now.

In the first, I look at the differences in the potential clean energy sectors to create jobs (they’re all a lot better than fossil fuels), while in the second I analyze the arguments against a green stimulus.

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Todd Litman on Pay as You Drive Insurance

A couple weeks ago, I suggested to Bill Paul at Energy Tech Stocks that he interview Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute.

As an investor, I have yet to figure out a way to make money from Mr. Litman’s ideas, but as a citizen of the planet, I see his ideas as the best ones available for quickly and painlessly imporiving our society’s well-being while also reducing emission and oil consumption.

So I’m happy to say that now there is one more place you can read about pay as you drive insurance, and other Win-Win emission reduction strategies.

Part II: Get Paid for NOT driving to work
Part III:‘Congestion Pricing’ to Include Entire Regions

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Economics of Carbon Capture and Storage

Both Carbon capture and storage (CCS) and Enhanced Geothermal Systems need research and development to reach their full pormise of baseload power without significant emissions. What will be the costs of this research, and what will be the costs of the eventual elctricity production?

I take a look at these questions in my AltEnergyStocks column. Given limited funding, what would you choose?

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Corn is For Ethanol, Grass is for Cows

Last year my wife and I read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s
Dilemma
, and it changed we eat.  My wife was greatly affected by how animals are mistreated in production farming, while I was attracted by the health
benefits of eating grass fed beef
and other foods grown in the manner to which they are evolutionarily adapted, as well as by the lower degree of harm to the environment.  We haven’t become all-natural, all-organic, all-the-time at the Konrad household, but we’re now much more willing to pay more when we have the opportunity to do so for food which we consider healthier and more environmentally and morally sound.  For a world-class tightwad like myself, being willing to pay more is a considerable step.

In any case, the book also got me thinking more sympathetically about the ethanol industry, because it serves as a relatively benign outlet for the mountain of corn produced by America’s insane farm policies.   I find rising price of corn and other grains is more a cause for celebration than despair, because I see current prices more as a return to sanity rather than a likely cause for starvation.  Even in the third world, low agricultural productivity is (in part) due to a lack of incentive to compete with subsidized first world production, rather than an inability to grow enough food.  The market for corn has been massively distorted by oversupply caused by too many subsidies.  Ethanol represents a new source of practically inexhaustible demand which is restoring balance to a market too long out of kilter.

One practice which the massive flood of cheap grain begat was feeding corn to cattle.  In my AltEnergyStocks
column this week, I look at one way I think the market may be starting to find its equilibrium again.  As corn prices rise, there will be less incentive to fatten cattle in feedlots (or Concentrated Agricultural Feeding Operations, CAFOs ad Michael Pollan calls them), and more to feed them grass.  I believe that long before we can perfect the art of using energy crops such as switchgrass to make cellulosic ethanol on a commercial basis, the rising price of corn will make it economic to feed those same energy crops (i.e. grass) directly to cattle, more than doubling the amount of corn currently available to the ethanol industry.

Click here to read the entire column.

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Modern Portfolio Theory and Electricity Generation Planning

I mentioned on Saturday that I had gotten some ideas which I planned to use in testimony before the Colorado Public Utilities Commission Least Cost Plan.

Yesterday, I ran my ideas by my friend Morey Wolfson, who is currently serving as head of the utilities program at the Govenor’s Energy Office. Like many members of the local energy advocacy community, Morey was recently tapped by Governor Ritter to help jumpstart Colorado’s New Energy Economy.

I hit the jackpot by talking to Morey, because he turned me on to the work of Shimon Awerbuch, who has been thinking along these lines for years. I’ve just read the first couple pages of his working paper Applying Portfolio Theory to EU Electricity Planning and Policy Making and I’m confident that he’s done a lot of the hard work for me. Here’s one great quote:

    Least Cost procedures are roughly analogous to trying to identify yesterday’s single best performing stock and investing in it exclusively for the next 30 years. Clearly, modern finance theory offers better tools.

Dick Kelley, are you listening? I have a hunch Ron Binz will be….

So what’s the big deal?

I almost forgot to say why this is such a big deal: According to Awerbuch and me, renewable energy and energy efficiency projects deserve a lower discount rate than conventional generation when projects are being evaluated, due to the fact that their costs have low (or even negative, in the case of solar) correlation with electricity prices in general. To use the stock valuation metaphor again, renewable resources are like low and negative beta stocks: the benefits in reduced risk to your portfolio justify paying a higher price for the same level of earnings or dividends.

What this means when evaluating utility projects is that the typically relatively high up-front costs of renewable energy resources do not have to be justified solely by their lower operating costs, but it gives a methodology for taking into account the benefits of reduced risk. This is something that renewable energy advocates have been arguing for a long time. The relatively new part is this gives us a way to quantify those benefits, and utility commissions are very fond of numbers to back up thier decisions.

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Visual Comparison of Electricity Generation Technologies

I just put together a couple graphs for a talk I’m giving on Monday to give people a visual feel of the various technologies for generating electricity.  These come with a gigantic caveat: the numbers are far from precise.

With changing technologies, it’s impossible to represent any of this with a single number anyway.  I’m trying to show how the technologies compare to each other, and I used four parameters:

  • Cost ($/MWh),
  • Availability (better the closer the profile of the technology matches a normal demand curve (wind is bad, baseload is okay, dispatchable is best, solar),
  • Emissions (and I count waste storage when it comes to nuclear),
  • Bubble sizes represent the size and durability of the resource (I’ve tried to combine in one number how much power we can get from the resource, but also how long supplies of fuel will last.) 

In both charts, the “best” technologies are in the upper left (low cost, low emissions, and available when we need them.)

I know that I’m going to upset a lot of people because I was too harsh with their favorite technology, so feel free and comment on the numbers I’m using, but also please provide references for where you get your numbers.  Most of these are off the top of my head, so their accuracy is admittedly questionable.   Here are the numbers I used to make the graphs.

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