Energy & Greenhouse Gas Solutions
Mission: To provide rigorous and timely information to decision-makers and the public regarding energy and greenhouse gas related policy in Hawaii and beyond.
The Energy and Greenhouse Gas Solutions research program (EGGS) was launched in 2007 by the University of Hawai‘i Economic Research Organization (UHERO). It serves as a resource for those interested in issues of energy and greenhouse gas emissions reduction in Hawaii and beyond. EGGS takes a transdisciplinary approach to research by bringing together economists, planners, engineers and system modeling experts to address urgent issues of energy and climate change mitigation.
EGGS Core Goals
- 1. Engage in rigorous analysis that contributes to a global community of scholars.
- 2. Develop and maintain data and models on Hawai‘i’s energy, economy, and resulting greenhouse gas emissions.
- 3. Develop solution-oriented analyses for decision-makers and energy-related stakeholders.
- 4. Design interactive education and outreach programs for a variety of audiences.
- 5. Showcase Hawai‘i-based energy policy solutions that may benefit other jurisdictions, including other States, the U.S., and island areas.
- February 26, 2016 Incentives for the Utility
Perhaps the greatest obstacle to a renewable-energy future is that our utility, Hawaiian Electric Industries (HEI), has little or no incentive to transform its operation into a model more suited for renewable energy. While there has been a lot of hand-wringing and criticism of HEI for its monopoly and slow approval of distributed solar, it’s important to realize the truly unprecedented change they are being forced to undertake. And worse, the new cutting-edge system they are being asked to adopt will literally undermine its profits.
Revenue decoupling (PDF) was supposed to correct HEI’s incentives by ensuring that the utility could recover the same revenue toward its operation costs even if they generated less electricity due to growth of distributed solar or improvements in energy efficiency, both of which have factored into higher electricity prices.
Revenue decoupling does make HEI less vulnerable to improved efficiency and growth of renewable energy over the short run. But over the long run the utility profits mainly from making new capital investments. For such investments they receive a nearly guaranteed rate of return that far exceeds low-risk borrowing costs. If the utility is forced to retire its old power plants and instead buy renewable energy from independent providers—the apparent inclination of the Public Utilities Commission---its rate base and profitability decline. Thus, even under revenue decoupling, low-cost renewables do not accord with HEI’s interests.
The larger problem is that the regulatory infrastructure is not conducive to a rapidly changing energy landscape in need of innovative and perhaps distributed solutions. HEI has little incentive to control costs, much less increase renewable energy in a cost effective manner.
It doesn’t need to be this way. We can fix regulatory incentives. But given the novelty of the renewable energy system we are creating, combined with Hawai`i’s geographic uniqueness, it seems unlikely that we can simply borrow a regulatory model from the mainland. Some are calling for our private utility to be replaced by publicly-run municipality, or possibly a cooperative like the one on Kaua`i. These models might work. But it’s not clear how long it would take to transition to these systems, or whether they will bring about the most innovative solutions.
What’s the fix? First, the utility needs to have some skin in the game. Full cost recovery via rate adjustments—the current regulatory situation---gives the utility virtually no incentive to be strategic in its management and planning. Instead, if costs fall due to cost-effective development or contracting of renewables, the utility should get to keep a share of the gains. The utility’s profits ought to be tied to its cost effectiveness, not the size of the capital outlay. At the same time, if oil prices rise, then the utility should absorb a share of the cost increases, such that it cares about oil price volatility just as its customers do.
Second, to the extent that the state wishes to favor renewables over fossil fuels, fossil fuels should be explicitly taxed and renewables subsidized. Such incentives could be made roughly revenue neutral and would be more effective at achieving renewable energy goals in a cost-effective manner than the state’s expensive and seemingly pointless renewable energy tax credits. Federal credits are more-than-adequate to make distributed generation cost-effective to homeowners, even under revised rate structures. And we should allow utility-scale and distributed renewable energy generation to compete on equal footing. Instead of the tax credit, customers should be able to sell all surplus generation to the grid at appropriate real-time rates.
Of course, regulators will need to negotiate a baseline profit level, how the baseline will change over time, the share of overall cost changes born by the utility and passed on to customers, and whether the utility’s share of cost improvements ought to phase out over a number of years. Regardless of these choices, these kinds of changes in regulatory structure would align the utility’s interests with their customers as well as the state’s renewable energy goals.
The big, encouraging news is that the cost of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and slowing global warming now looks cheap. While Hawai`i’s contribution to this global problem is minimal, if we can show the world how to do renewable energy in a smart, cost-effective manner, we could be a true global leader in helping to solve it. But without smart policy, we’ll only serve the interests of denialists and naysayers who will point to Hawai`i’s renewable energy boondoggle as an excuse for inaction.
- February 25, 2016 Embrace Policy Experiments for Demand Response
*This post follows up on the previous post in the Sustainable Energy Blog Series: Four Years to Improve Renewable Energy.
HECO has recently proposed new time-of-use rates and is developing pricing for various kinds of demand response programs. The proposed programs are a long ways from the open-access, marginal-cost pricing, but they are a big step in the right direction.
Table 1. Proposed Time-of-Use Rates in Hawai`i (cents per kilowatt-hour)
9am – 4pm
4pm – 12am
12am – 9am
Hawaiian Electric (Oahu) 11.0413 36.1997 13.6755 Hawai`i Electric Light (Big Island) 15.7148 46.3867 17.8685 Maui Div. of Maui Electric 23.8116 45.7002 26.8383 Lanai Div. of Maui Electric 36.6396 52.3616 35.7913 Molokai Div. of Maui Electric 36.6396 52.8520 29.6548
The new time-of-use rates embody high-powered incentives for shifting loads to different times of the day (Table 1). Depending on an individual household’s use profile, many should be able to reduce their bills even if they don’t change the way they use electricity. Alternatively, some households might be tempted to install batteries, charging with solar or cheaper electricity during the daytime and discharging during nighttime peaks. Such strategies should be economical given these price differentials.
Unfortunately, these rates only apply to residential customers, which is a small share of the load (about 27%). To maximize load shifting potential and make use of real time meters already in place, we should quickly introduce variable prices for commercial-scale customers.
While time-of-use pricing is a step forward, the proposed time-of-use prices, despite their apparent 4-digit precision, do not reflect the true incremental cost of electricity. The true cost can vary significantly across hours in each block in the table of proposed rates, and across different days and seasons of the year. Expensive peak loads, for example, fall off sharply by 9pm, but peak-load pricing extends until midnight. Also, the difference between peak pricing and midday pricing far exceeds the current cost of serving these loads. Values are likely to change rapidly as the generation mix shifts increasingly toward renewables, so it appears that proposed prices anticipate future changes in generation. While the incentives are strong enough to kick-start demand response programs, it’s hard for customers to know how the rate structures will change over time. The uncertainty could discourage entrepreneurs looking to Hawai`i as a place to test their demand response technologies.
Over time, variable pricing could be improved in a number of ways. First, it is important to make the price-setting mechanism clear and transparent, so that customers and entrepreneurs developing smart devices can reasonably anticipate how prices will change going forward. The guiding mechanism should link to the overall system’s marginal cost of electricity. Second, customers should be given more choices. Some may prefer time-of-use pricing with the proposed simple three-block structure; others might embrace full-fledged real time pricing; others may prefer something in-between. As long as rates reflect typical costs in each block, customers will be free to choose a level of flexibility they are comfortable with.
How much will the new rates shift loads away from the peak and toward midday and early morning? The reality is that it’s very hard to know. In fact, it will still be difficult to know even after new rates have been implemented. Many households could probably select time-of-use pricing and save money without shifting loads at all. We won’t be able to tell whether they always tended to use electricity during the low-cost times or changed behavior as a result of time-of-use pricing. To know, it is important to observe real-time electricity use before and after the rate change. And we would further need to rule out the possibility that other factors besides the rate change were affecting use.
To accurately measure how much demand-response bang for the time-of-use buck the system is getting from variable rates, or any other change in policy, we need to run actual experiments. The idea is to offer up different pricing menus to different households and businesses for a trial run of a year or two. The pricing menus would need to be randomly assigned across customers, in part for fairness, but also to ensure that observed changes are not a reflection of selection bias. Some households might obtain opportunities to install smart devices that aid automatic shifting of loads. Some randomly selected customers would be reserved as controls, without the opportunity to choose a variable pricing contract. Such experiments could measure the actual and potential demand response much more precisely than simply changing policy for everyone all at once.
Of course, the public would need to be let in on the whole policy experiment. And it would further help to have some guidelines for how policy will evolve based on the outcomes of the experiments. There are a number of successful examples of such experiments, some of which show great potential for curbing peak loads, and customers that are happy participating in the program. While we can learn from policy experiments elsewhere, the load shifting needed in Hawai`i is different and more substantial. We need our own, thoughtfully-designed experiments to learn the true potential for demand response.
- February 24, 2016 Four Years to Improve Renewable Energy
Without the debt-ceiling hijinks of earlier years, the federal budget bill passed at the end of last year with a lot less drama and press coverage. But little news turned out to be good news, at least for Hawai`i and renewable energy interests. The spending bill included an extension of the 30% tax credit for renewable energy that otherwise would have expired at the end of 2016. Under the new legislation, the tax credit will remain at 30% through the end of 2019, then step down gradually through 2021, and remain at 10% thereafter. The subsidy is especially valuable to Hawai`i because, under the State’s renewable portfolio standard, we will be ramping up renewable energy investments with or without it. That means free federal money for Hawai`i, potentially a whole lot of it, compliments of the other 49 states.
The extended subsidy, falling costs of renewable energy, plus an historic Paris Agreement, signed last month by all United Nations countries, gives great global momentum to renewable energy. A renewable-energy future now looks all too plausible, and there’s a chance it could happen fast. Even without subsidies, solar PV and wind are already competitive with coal and natural gas in the generation of electricity, and costs continue to fall. By the time federal subsidies bottom out, it appears likely that renewable energy will handily beat fossil fuels on a levelized-cost basis, not just in Hawai`i, but everywhere. Storage costs, the critical challenge for renewables, are also falling, and could fall much further as production scale increases for both electric cars and grid applications.
Renewable energy indirectly gained further momentum on the mainland from a Supreme Court ruling that upheld a rule by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) that forces grid operators to reward demand response at the same rates as incremental generation. The ruling should open up new markets for demand response, which in turn should improve the system-level cost effectiveness of variable and intermittent renewables. Although the ruling has no direct bearing on Hawai`i, the nascent industry of demand response systems could be helpful to our state and its renewable energy goals.
So, how can Hawai`i make the most of the situation? Part of the answer involves maximizing the benefits of extended federal subsidies, which probably means getting more renewables onto the grid sooner than later.
And part of the answer involves fully exploiting our leadership in renewable energy. Due to the high cost of imported oil and our old infrastructure, renewable energy is more economically viable here than in most places. At the same time, our isolated island economy makes the intermittency problem especially acute. But if we can do renewable energy right—which means efficiently dealing with intermittency challenges of solar and wind—it could bring economic opportunities to the State that far exceed any direct benefits from subsidies, lower dependence on imported, oil or even lower electricity bills.
The greater opportunity is that Hawai`i could become an innovation hub for new smart devices, batteries, thermal storage and perhaps other technologies that can aid demand response and can help solve intermittency challenges. Entrepreneurs should be anxious to test their new technologies in the place where they will be economical first. If new technologies are proven here, in subsequent years they will likely find much larger markets in California, other mainland states, Japan and the rest the world.
To some degree this kind of thing is already happening, but the potential is far greater. If Hawai`i can attract this kind of investment, it will bring high-skilled and high-paying jobs, along with the broader social and economic rewards that typically accompany them.
Open-Access Variable Pricing
The key to making all this happen boils down to better pricing and easy, open access to the grid. A few months ago UHERO’s Energy Policy and Planning Group argued that we should work toward a system in which anyone can buy or sell at the incremental cost of electricity generation, which varies a lot over seasons, hours of the day, and certain events, like unexpected power plant failures. While the FERC ruling does not force Hawai`i to price demand response as it does generation, we should nonetheless figure out a way to embrace the spirit of that ruling, and more.
Open-access variable pricing allows anyone to buy low and sell high, and thereby make a profit while helping to solve intermittency challenges, effectively rescheduling electricity use toward intermittent supply. Everyone benefits, whether they participate in variable pricing or not, since it lowers the overall cost of the system. Open-access variable pricing might improve efficiency a little today, but its benefits will grow much more with greater wind and PV solar penetration.
This vision stands in stark contrast to our current system in which a centralized utility adjusts supply to match time-varying demand. Demand response embraces the idea that balancing supply and demand need not be a one-sided proposition. A lot of electricity is used to heat water, pump water from aquifers and up hills to storage tanks. Perhaps as much as 40 percent of the load is used for air conditioning. All of these demand sources, and perhaps many others, could employ any number of technologies to shift electricity demand toward supply of renewables. These technologies, like smart, price forecasting water heaters, variable speed pumps and ice storage, could be automated to respond to price changes, saving money for hotels, the water utility, the military, and other large electricity customers. Such systems might even be used to stabilize short-run fluctuations in the grid, exacerbated by passing clouds and variable winds.
Savvy residential consumers might strategically time clothes washing, water heating, electric car charging and air conditioning, to save a few bucks or enjoy a cooler, more comfortable living situation when renewable energy is plentiful and prices are low. Or, more likely, engineers could build smart controllers for these machines such that they automatically run at opportune times. While this kind of residential demand response is not where the largest opportunities lie, the benefits could add up. The problem today is that, without real marginal-cost pricing for either buyers or sellers of electricity, there’s no incentive to create smart, price-forecasting controllers for appliances.
A greater potential for load shifting may lie with large-scale uses. Well over two thirds of electricity consumption on Oahu comes from commercial and industrial class customers. These large-scale users have a real stake in lowering energy cost and many already have real-time meters. It’s easy to imagine that 20-30 percent of our load might be shiftable to different times of the day. The savings could amount to the difference in cost between a 100 percent renewable systems and our conventional fossil-fuel based system.
Regardless of the potential savings, focusing on demand response first is the least-cost way to help balance a grid with a growing share of variable renewable supply. The longer we can put off investments in storage capacity, the less expensive those investments will be. And the pricing policies needed to entice demand response will provide a larger framework for optimally managing storage and the grid of the future.
Together with Matthias Fripp, Makena Coffman, and graduate students in UHERO’s Energy Policy & Planning Group, we are working to develop ballpark estimates of the potential savings. First-cut estimates indicate overall cost savings of roughly 20 percent if 30 percent of the load in each hour can be shifted to other times of the day. Looking forward, we hope to pin down more concrete estimates of shiftable loads at different times of day, season and weather-related circumstances.
I will follow this post with two more over the next couple days, one that discusses recently proposed time-of-use rates and ways they could be improved, and another discussing how we need to change incentives for our utility, Hawaiian Electric Industries, such that they better align with state goals.
- January 4, 2016 A Status Update on Federal GHG Emissions Reduction Policy for Hawaii
In early August, President Obama announced and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the final details for the Clean Power Plan (CPP). These rules are designed to lower levels of carbon pollution from existing U.S. power plants – aiming to curb U.S. electric sector emissions by 32% from 2005 levels by 2030 (EPA, 2015a). The CPP is an important first step in making good on the U.S.’s global commitment to reduce economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions by at least 26% below 2005 levels by the year 2025*.
Under the CPP, states have been given the choice of meeting either a rate- or mass-based goal for their existing fleet of power plants. In the draft version of the CPP, Hawaii was given a goal of reducing its emissions rate to 1,306 pounds of CO2 per MWh by 2030 (Carbon Pollution Emission Guidelines for Existing Stationary Sources: Electric Utility Generating Units, 2014). This target included energy efficiency gains and, given Hawaii’s Renewable Portfolio Standard goal of 100% renewable sources for net electricity sales by 2045 (and 40% by 2030), the CPP target was almost certainly achievable. Our modeling of Hawaii’s electric sector suggests that it was cost-effective to go beyond this draft target, even without factoring in energy efficiency.
Yet, Hawaii is not included in the last version of the CPP. Between the draft and final, the EPA based its decision on a continental grid-based modeling approach (EPA, 2015b). As such, non-contiguous regions are currently left without regulation. The EPA states that further regulations will be developed, though no timeline for completion has been given (EPA, 2015b). In addition, Hawaii is excluded from generating potentially valuable emission rate credits (ERCs), even if a target is determined in the future. The CPP regulations state that the “resources must be connected to, and deliver energy to or save electricity on, the electric grid in the contiguous United States.” This regulation unnecessarily excludes Hawaii (and Alaska and Puerto Rico) for geographic reasons, when economic markets do not have to be geographically bound.
One of the ways that the federal programs will regulate GHGs is to limit future coal-fired power. The New Source Performance Standards (NSPS) for the construction and operation of new power plants will effectively prohibit new coal units (without carbon capture) from coming online in the U.S., including Hawaii (Standards of Performance for Greenhouse Gas Emissions From New Stationary Sources: Electric Utility Generating Units, 2014). This of course is a positive outcome in terms of limiting future emissions and most relevant to coal-intensive states. In Hawaii, limiting new coal is something that the Hawaiian Electric Companies voluntarily agreed to in 2008. The NSPS makes this official**.
In sum, the EPA’s recent actions toward GHG emissions is important at the national scale but will have limited to no impact on Hawaii.
*This commitment was made in 2014 between President Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping, representing the world’s two largest GHG polluters. China committed to peaking its carbon emissions around the year 2030 and to increase the share of non-fossil fuel energy consumption to about 20% by 2030 (Office of the Press Secretary, 2014).
**Oil-burning units in Hawaii are excluded from regulation under the NSPS (Standards of Performance for Greenhouse Gas Emissions From New Stationary Sources: Electric Utility Generating Units, 2014).
Carbon Pollution Emission Guidelines for Existing Stationary Sources: Electric Utility Generating Units, 78 Fed. Reg. 34830 (proposed June 18, 2014) (to be codified at 40 C.F.R pt. 60). Available here
Office of the Press Secretary, 2014. Fact Sheet: U.S.-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change and Clean Energy Cooperation. Available here
Standards of Performance for Greenhouse Gas Emissions From New Stationary Sources: Electric Utility Generating Units, 70 Fed. Reg. 1430 (proposed January 8, 2014) (to be codified at 40 C.F.R pts. 60, 70, 71, and 98). Available here
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 2015a. Fact Sheet: Clean Power Plan Overview.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 2015b. Carbon Pollution Emission Guidelines for Existing Stationary Sources: Electric Utility Generating Units. Final Rule. Available here
- November 5, 2015 Research Driven Energy Policy
Hawaii is in the midst of transforming its electricity system into one with a lot more renewable energy. It’s an exciting time, but also a challenging one that is forcing the State to make tough decisions amid many uncertainties. There appears to be confusion about who bears responsibility for making these decisions. Take, for example, public discussion surrounding the potential merger of HECO and NextEra, which has focused at times on whether NextEra can be trusted to keep their commitments to meeting Hawaii’s clean energy goals. At face value, that discussion seems odd given the utility is regulated and obtains approval from the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC) for important policy changes. Meeting clean energy goals is a statutory mandate or regulatory requirement, not HECO’s or NextEra’s “choice”.*
It is possible that these concerns arise from the fact that the State’s goals have escape clauses. The Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), for example, includes a long list of reasons why the utility can be allowed to fall short of prescribed targets, including the cost of achieving the goals. Clearly, there are many ways the State might achieve its renewable energy goals, and the path we choose will have many consequences—for the cost of electricity, how the burden of those costs are allocated, how much energy we use, and the environmental impacts. Regardless of how the PUC decides the merger case, it is their job to ensure that the State’s goals are met in a cost effective manner.
Regardless of who owns the electric utility, given the pace and scale of changes to our electric system, there has to be a better way to fully utilize our local academic resources as we take on this formidable energy transformation. We need a mechanism for the utility, the PUC and other entities to engage in collaborative processes that results in an effective strategy befitting of the state’s multifaceted goals. These should include rigorous and transparent analysis of a wide range of policy alternatives from neutral parties.
We believe UHERO, as an objective data and research driven entity, can play a role in achieving the State’s clean energy goals and the need to lower and stabilize the cost of electricity. Several UHERO faculty and fellows have recently joined forces to form the Energy Policy and Planning Group. You may have seen some of the many blog posts or working papers we have released over the past year. A few things stand out from this line of research. First, is the merely obvious, reducing the cost of electricity in Hawaii can have significant impacts on our economy. Makena Coffman’s research showed that a 25% reduction in the price of electricity could raise Hawaii GDP by close to 1.5%. Moreover, focusing on making the business of contracting and pricing more efficient to get the incentives right is likely to create economic development opportunities through innovation in the production, delivery and use of energy.
Demand shifting is another active area of work that was discussed in some detail in "Efficient Design of Net Metering Agreements in Hawaii and Beyond" by Makena Coffman, Michael Roberts, Mathias Fripp, and Nori Tarui. This paper lays out several policy goals that are achievable in the near term, and some longer term goals. For example, Coffman et. al recommend an optional tariff, available for all customer classes, with hourly prices that reflect the continuous variation in supply and demand of electricity. In that way, customers will have incentives to reduce their use during times of high marginal cost (high loads with low renewable power production) and increase their demand during times of low marginal cost (low loads and/or high renewable power production). Customers who are able to shift demand will reduce their own costs and the system’s costs. And, variable pricing will open the door even wider to storage and related innovations. Such variable pricing will require smart meters, and HECO has already filed with the PUC to install smart meters.
There are thoughtful ways of incrementally modernizing the grid in a way that also facilitates customer choice. At first, smart meters need only be installed for households most willing to juggle variable pricing. Well-designed experimental pilots can be used to measure efficacy and guide future policies. To implement these policies it is imperative that the PUC possess the capacity to analyze the technical and economic merits of proposals or issues to be deliberated. UHERO faculty and fellows have been working on building such capabilities for several years. For example Matthias Fripp’s open source SWITCH model allows optimization of investment and electric system operation decisions to study alternative pathways to extremely high penetration renewables. And the UHERO electric sector model is tied to our General Equilibrium Model to translate energy systems decisions into economic outcomes.
We recommend using UHERO’s Energy Policy & Planning Group as a neutral, research-driven evaluator to model and analyze Hawaii’s energy policy. This role could be modeled after the role of the UH Hawaii Natural Energy Institute as a neutral evaluator of energy technology, or it could be less formal.