Disruptions, Energy Markets and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor DreamCoat”

On 2014 April 22 as this year’s president of the National Capital Area Chapter (NCAC) of the U.S. Association for Energy Economics (USAEE), I will preside over NCAC’s 18th Energy Policy Conference, which this year has the title “Disruptive Technologies Shock All Energy Sectors.”[1]  These disruptive technologies will require additional infrastructures, such as pipelines, wires, refineries, and generators.  And, since we operate a free market economy in the United States, we will need dynamic markets to handle the effects of these disruptive technologies as we see a change in the way energy flows in North America.

Wind pockets in the Great Plains and West Texas need high capacity lines to transport the energy across space to areas where the need for electricity is greater.  We need ways to pay for those transmission lines.  In response to the intermittency associated with wind, we will need fast response generators and ways to pay those generators to operate only a small fraction of the year.

Some fast response generators will be storage devices.  A high price for storage devices providing electricity for a small fraction of the year will be meaningless unless there are low prices during the portion of the year that the storage devices are being recharged.  This will move electricity across time, using cheap electricity during periods of fat to provide electricity during later periods of lean.

Oil production areas in North Dakota and Montana need pipelines and rail cars to move oil across space to market.  For years, the availability of low cost oil pipelines has reduced the price differential across the U.S.  The lack of sufficient pipeline capacity has depressed the well head price of oil in the Bakken fields, reflecting the higher cost of rail transportation to refineries.  New oil pipelines will reduce this price differential.

The natural gas system has many storage fields.  I mentioned earlier electricity’s growing need for storage.  And petroleum and its refined products also need storage.  During January 2014, there was not enough propane in storage in the Midwest and prices soared.  The shortage could have been handled by more refined products pipeline capacity, but additional storage would also have been an option, perhaps a cheaper option.

Though the conference is about technological disruptions, the shortage of propane in January can be thought of as a weather disruption.  Some people say that we are experiencing climate change.  My first experience with a claim of climate change was in 1990, when Edith Corliss, a physicist with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a bureau of the U.S. Department of Commerce, told me was that the weather at that time more variable than weather had been since the time of Christ.  Our summers were alternately either (A) hotter and dryer or (B) cooler and wetter.  Or to put it mathematically, we were seeing a greater statistical variance and standard deviation in the measured temperature and the measured rainfall.  The el Niños were getting more intense, as were the la Niñas.  We were not having more of one and fewer of the other, just seeing more intensity in each.

I am reminded of the stage musical  “Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”  The DreamCoat refers to a vision by the pharaoh that Joseph interpreted as a climate disruption.  There were to be seven years of fat followed by seven years of famine.  Joseph then created a physical system and a market to handle this insider knowledge.  He stored grain during the years of fat and used the grain sparingly through the end of the years of famine.  In commercial parlance he bought low and sold high.  In legal parlance, he traded on insider information and made a killing.

We need new infrastructure to handle the growing disruptions created by technological changes.  But we also need dynamic markets and new market mechanisms in our free market economy.  At least that is my Technicolor dream.

[1] See the conference notice at WWW.NCAC-USAEE.org

NCAC-USAEE Overnight Field Trip of 2013 October 4-5

Friday and Saturday I went on a overnight bus trip with NCAC-USAEE to visit energy facilities in Western Pennsylvania and Maryland.  The trip included a visit to the Conemaugh coal fired generating plant near Johnstown, PA, the EDF Renewable Energy Chestnut Flats wind farm near Altoona, PA, and a family owned open pit coal mine near Frostburg, MD.  It was wonderful to visit these different technologies, seeing how they work, and getting some quality time with other people interested in the topic of energy economics.

The National Capital Area Chapter (NCAC)of the US Association for Energy Economics (USAEE) is one of the largest chapters of USAEE.  USAEE is in turn one of the largest members of the International Association for Energy Economics (IAEE).  I started attending NCAC meetings in January 2001, was on the NCAC council for 2003-4, treasurer 2005-2011, secretary 2011-2012, vice president 2012-2013, and am now president for 2013-2014.  As president I receive great support from the other council members.  This trip was the result of that support.

Jim McDonnell of Avalon Energy Services has been an NCAC member for about 5 years.  Late this summer he called to tell of a visit he had made to an open pit coal mine in Western Maryland, suggesting it might be a good place for an NCAC field trip.  Rodica Donaldson, NCAC secretary, of EDF Renewable Energy had mentioned during the July NCAC council meeting the possibility of a field trip to a wind farm.  I introduced Jim and Rodica and the next thing I knew they had plans to combine those two field trips with a field trip to a coal fired power plant and we were off for an overnighter.

During the bus ride Friday morning to Conemaugh, the 20 people on the tour introduced ourselves.  We included two current officers of NCAC, two past presidents of NCAC, and a vice president of IAEE, who currently lives and works in the DC area.  Sarah McKinley, an NCAC past president, of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission was one of the last people to introduce herself.  She told of the open meetings at FERC that facilitated discussions, including the meeting of the Asian Pacific Electricity Regulators (APER) forum 2012 August 1-2.  She told the group that I had attended the APER conference as a member of the public.  Sarah and I talked the rest of the ride to Conemaugh.

My memory of the APER forum included having lunch with two members of India’s Central Electricity Regulatory Commission (CERC), including its chairman.  During the two days prior to the conference, on July 30-31, the Indian electric grid had suffered two huge blackouts, which were highly publicized.  Sarah remembered the two CERC commissioners being interviewed by the press about the blackouts.  My view of the blackout was that India had an overly constrained market mechanism for unscheduled flows of electricity.  A less constrained market would have provided larger incentives for actions that might have prevented the blackout.  I had even written a blog entry on that issue.[1]

In 1998, I became a pen pal through IEEE’s PowerGlobe with Bhanu Bhushan, the principal architect of the Availability Based Tariff (ABT) which in 2002 began to govern wholesale transactions in India.  Bhanu and I visited over dinner in both 1999 and 2001 when he came to Washington, D.C.  He gave me his papers supporting the ABT concept including its provision for pricing Unscheduled Interchange (UI).  A pricing vector sets the UI price every 15 minutes based on the average frequency variation experienced during that 15 minute period.  The UI pricing concept was quite similar to my Wide Open Load Following (WOLF) concept, in that WOLF also sets a price for unscheduled flows of electricity based on concurrent frequency variation.  Just as he shared his private papers on UI pricing, I gave Bhanu some papers I had published on WOLF.  As suggested by the full name of Wide Open Load Following and by the WOLF acronym, the UI pricing mechanism is very constrained relative to the prices that WOLF can produce.

In 2003 January, after UI pricing became active, Bhanu introduced me to InPowerG, an Internet e-mail group of electric power engineering professionals, generally from Indian industry and academia. The group is currently administered by the Power Electronics and Power System group, Electrical Engineering Department, IIT-Bombay and has more than 500 subscribers.  Bhanu’s introduction of me to InPowerG was in regard to an extended discussion of UI pricing, with some people strongly opposed to the concept.  I ended up adding comments providing theoretical support of UI pricing.[2] Though I fault UI pricing as being overly constrained, especially in comparison to my WOLF, I note that the US has no mechanism for pricing the unscheduled flows that brought down the US grid in 2003.[3]

Conemaugh is an 1800 MW power plant near Johnstown, PA, with two 900 MW units.  Conemaugh’s low cost has generally resulted in it being operate 24×7 at full load.  The expanded PJM market place has changed sufficiently to provide incentives for Conemaugh to cycle down at night.  Its operators have made major modifications to allow each unit to have a minimum load of about 380 MW.  I was impressed that the ball mills used to crush limestone for the scrubbers are generally operated off-peak.  The plant has sufficient storage for crushed limestone that the operators shut down this major parasitic load during the day, moving the parasitic load to the night.

One of our tour members subsequently ascribed the need for cycling to the growth of wind during the night.  I question attributing the need for cycling solely to wind since PJM has also experienced a huge shift in load patterns, with many fewer major loads, such as steel mills, that used to operate 24×7.  For instance, the river passing Conemaugh used to be reddish orange from the run-off at Johnstown Steel a few miles upstream.  Now the steel mill is gone.  I imagine that the shift in load shape could be having as big of an effect as the growth in wind.  Accordingly, I say that the jury is still out on the cause of the need for increased cycling of coal fired power plants.  I prefer to think that the cause of increased cycling is the increased transparency of the diurnal price of electricity, independent of the cause of that diurnal aspect of prices.

Another tour participant commented on the very large investment being made at Conemaugh to handle new environmental concerns, both NOX’s and mercury.  His analysis was that the investment is in excess of the original cost of the plant, at least according to his estimates.

EDF Renewable Energy’s Chestnut Flats wind farm is near Altoona, PA.  Seeing the wind mills operate up close, I could image Don Quixote tilting at wind mills in the 1605/1615 classic or the attack of the Martian machines in H.G. Wells “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast of 1938.  I have a blog entry combining Don Quixote and Robin Hood in regard to a proposal last year to mandate Maryland customers paying for off shore wind, which is an expansion of my “Letter to the Editor” published by The Washington Post.[4]

The output of Chestnut Flats is sold to Delmarva Power at a flat energy price.  There is no seasonality nor diurnal incentives, just that maintenance could not be planned during the summer.  After all, the summer is the high price period for PJM.  The SCADA system is operated in Spain, home to the company that provided much of the equipment and has the contract to provide operations and maintenance.  The Spanish company normally has three workers on site.  EDF Renewable Energy’s field manager at Chestnut Flats does have access to the SCADA information.  The SCADA system includes the ability to feather the blades after 6 seconds of continuous excessive wind speeds.

Our bus parked in the wind shadow of one of the wind mills.  Most of the time that we stood there I did not notice the noise created by the wind mills.  But when I thought about it, I could pick out a sound that I realized was the action of the blades.  The local township has zoned Chestnut Flats as residential, though the closest house is about 1200 feet from a tower.  A result of the residential zoning is that rain runoff ponds must be encircled by fences to protect children from drowning hazards.  But with the nearest house being 1200 feet from one of the towers and the land being fenced and at the top of a ridge, the zoning requirements seem excessive.  EDF Renewable Energy’s field manager very much accepted the regulations, providing very matter of fact responses to our questions, much like the old Dragnet line, “Just the facts, Ma’am, just the facts.”

The field manager had no impression that the wind was stronger during the night versus during the day.  His experience was that there was no significant difference.   Again, “just the facts” as he saw the facts and his personal observation of the movement of the wind mills.

On Friday morning we visited a family owned open pit coal mine near Frostburg, MD.  The owner described buying about 180 acres for his home so he could be away from everyone and then deciding to dig up coal from the abandoned drift mine about 100 feet under his property.  The entrance to the drift mine was about one mile away from the pit into which we walked.  Thus, the old underground miners eventually had to walk a mile into a hill side to get to the coal.  Initially the underground miners would have chipped at the coal at the hill side and then went deeper into the hill side to get to the remaining coal.  At the greatest extent, the walk was about a mile into the hill, at least for the underground mine.  Now, the mine was a pit 100 feet deep.

The owner had preserved, perhaps only temporarily, an area that included two wooden rails that had been used about 200 years ago to move coal cars into and out of the mine.  In the early 1800’s, miners would pull wagons into the mine, at an upward slope, through the coal seam to the face at which they were working.  The loaded wagons could almost drift down the rails to the exit.  Thus, empty coal cars were pulled up hill into the mine and loaded coal cars were pulled down hill out of the mine.  Jim McDonnell had given another explanation for working at an upward slope.  Water could not run upslope to fill the mine and did not need to be pumped out.  Both explanations work for me.

One of the mine workers seemed to express surprise that our group from Washington was “pro” coal, making the comment to Andy Knox, the other NCAC past president on the field trip, who works on energy projects for the Navy.  I didn’t hear Andy’s response but the worker’s comment led me to think that I am not “pro” coal, since that would imply that I am “anti” some other source of electricity.  Rather, I am “pro” keeping the lights on at the lowest reasonable cost to consumers.  As an engineer, I have learned that diversity of supply is generally good.  Having all wind, all nuclear, all gas, or all coal would make the electric system subject to great stress during political or environmental upheavals, such as has occurred in regard to nuclear, wind, coal, and gas.  Thus, I personally am “pro” diversity.  If NCAC is “pro” anything, NCAC is “pro” an open discussion of the issues.

The trip back to Washington, DC, on Saturday from Frostburg included a stop at Sideling Hill, where I-68 goes through a manmade notch in a ridge.  Jim McDonnell is a geologist and had provided material on synclines (which look like a bowl) and anticlines (which look like an inverted bowl) that resulted in the folding of the earth’s crusts millions of years ago.  Sideling Hill is at a sharp syncline, showing dozens of strata in the manmade notch.  The upward slope of the strata in the syncline suddenly stopping on both sides of Sideling Hill, which is only obvious because of the manmade notch, is quite impressive.  That Sideling Hill is at such a sharp syncline shows the impressive results of erosion, in that the notch is several hundred feet about the base of the mountain.  The implication is that huge amounts of the upper portion of the syncline bowl had been washed away.  What was left, as revealed in the manmade notch, was a narrow bottomed bowl that had layers of different types of rocks stacked in its center.

For me, an important part of the field trip was the interaction with the other participants.  Some of that is described above in regard to my discussion with Sarah McKinley and hearing the questions asked by various parties, including the mine worker’s comment.  Andy Knox also talked about his personal experience of becoming a net zero energy household.  He has installed enough solar cells that he often has a surplus and exports electricity to the grid.  He believes he has enough solar power to offset not only the energy he takes when solar production is low but also to compensate for the gas he burns in his range.  Recently, the gross generation from the solar cells has become enough that he was able to sell a REC, or a Renewable Energy Credit, for the 1 MWH he has generated to date.  I believe that Andy has an impressive story to tell.

Pictures from the field trip are being posted to the NCAC web site.[5]  Jim McDonnell has already submitted his photos and I saw many other people with cameras.  We expect to have an article published in the next issue of USAEE’s Dialogue.  I hope that some of the other participants on field trip will add comments to this blog or that I can include their comments in the Dialoguearticle.  There is enthusiasm for another field trip, which NCAC had already been planning for the spring in the Philadelphia direction.  One participant expressed interest in a field trip dealing with the use of electricity, such as at a steel mill or an aluminum plant, which the Philadelphia trip would do only partially.  Another participant said he had contacts in the steel and aluminum industry and might be able to arrange such a trip.  Maybe more later.

[1] Economic Failures Contribute to Indian Grid Blackouts, Posted on 2012 Aug 06 by Mark Lively, http://www.livelyutility.com/blog/?m=201208


[2] ABT – Availability Based Tariff, http://abt-india.blogspot.com/2007/10/windpower-discussion-on-inpowerg.html

[3] Power Crisis: Revenue Accounting Needed, http://www.energycentral.com/utilitybusiness/businesscorporate/articles/521/Power-Crisis-Revenue-Accounting-Needed

[4] Wind Boondoggles, Posted on 2012 Feb 28 by Mark Lively, http://www.livelyutility.com/blog/?m=201202

[5] NCAC-USAEE.org