-- This post was written by Paul Bachman, Director of Research, Beacon Hill Institute, August 19, 2011.
On TP's Climate Progress blog, Michael Conathan, claims that Beacon Hill Institute's recent cost-benefit analyses of offshore wind energy in New Jersey are slanted. Conathan alleges that the BHI study "misses the mark on both sides of the ledger by dramatically overstating the costs and underestimating the economic benefits of offshore wind."
It is actually Mr. Conathan that "misses the mark" in his critique of the BHI study. Mr. Conathan makes baseless claims, reports only partial data and relies on irrelevant studies with no economic value or relevance to offshore wind power in New Jersey. We address his individual critiques below.
Mr. Conathan: "The study dramatically underestimates the economic savings realized from the environmental benefits by assuming a static price for the valuation of reduction of greenhouse gasses - which will inevitably rise over time. "
BHI response: Mr. Conathan bases his claim on speculative assumptions about the future regulations of greenhouse gas emissions and other variables. He assumes that the U.S. government will impose a cap-and-trade system, a carbon tax, or a restrictive E.P.A. regulatory regime. This action by the federal government would raise the cost of greenhouse emissions and in turn the price of coal and other fossil fuels, while at the same time raising the benefits of wind power. However, these greenhouse gas regulations are not even a remote possibility in the current political and economic environment.
Let us take a look at the recent history of CO2 prices over time. The IntercontinentalExchange INC. which runs the Chicago Climate Exchange and Chicago Climate Futures Exchange has decided to shut both down due to a lack of legislative interest. "The U.S. has not enacted carbon cap-and-trade legislation and changes to the EPA acid rain program have reduced trading activity," ICE said in its notice. "Accordingly, volumes are down substantially and the exchange is operating at a loss." It appears that IntercontinentalExchange INC. does not share Mr. Conathan's view that the price of greenhouse gas emissions will inevitably rise over time.
The exchange also lists prices for New Jersey RGGI futures contracts. On June 30, 2011 the price was $2.02 per metric ton for November 2016 delivery and on May 30, 2011 the price was $1.93 per metric ton. In our study we used a real price of $2.04 in 2011 dollars. Therefore, our price is well within the range of futures prices listed at that time. Moreover, if we inflate our current price using a 3.5% annual rate, our $2.04 2001 real price translates into a nominal price of $2.78 in 2020 and $3.92 in 2030. We, in fact, do account for his inevitable price increase over time.
Mr. Conathan: By BHI applies an absurdly high discount rate of 10 percent to the benefits when most economic studies use rates of 3-5 percent. The discount rate mistake alone could lead to underestimating the benefits of offshore wind by as much as 50 percent.
BHI Response: First, Mr. Conathan makes the mistake of comparing our 10 percent nominal discount rate with 3-5 percent real, or inflation-adjusted, discount rates. Using the same 3.5 percent inflation rate assumption as in the previous example would translate our nominal rate into a real discount rate 6.5 percent, not far off from his 3-5 percent range. If we use the recent annual CPI increase of 4.2%, our real discount rate becomes would be 5.8%. Moreover, the White house Office of Management and Budget recommend using this discount rate.
While Mr. Conathan rails against us for applying such as high discount rate to the benefits, he is silent about the fact that we apply the same discount rate to the costs of the project. Thus, if we are underestimating the benefits of the project by 50 percent, which we do not, then we would be underestimating the costs also.
Mr. Conathan: BHI also artificially inflates the costs of the project compared to fossil fuel generation by failing to account for the reality that as costs go up, people will reduce their consumption thereby partially offsetting the price increase.
BHI Response: Mr. Conathan is describing what is commonly known as a "rebound effect." It is often used to describe the consumers' behavior after the installation of energy efficiency equipment. For example, as consumers witness their winter heating bill drop after making energy efficiency changes, they respond by turning up the thermostat to a more comfortable temperature, and thus negate some of gains of the efficiency gains. However, Mr. Conathan thinks that there is a free lunch to reducing electricity consumption and fails to recognize the two factors in the wind power case. First, consumers incur a cost to reduce the amount of electricity they would have consumed in the absence of the higher price. Either consumers lose the benefit they derive from that electricity consumed, for example less time on one's IPad, or consumers make an energy efficiency investments to reduce their electricity consumption, which also has a cost of lost opportunity to spend the money elsewhere. Thus, our estimates of the price effects include these costs of the rebound effect and do not need to be adjusted.
Mr. Conathan: "Furthermore, the study estimates the cost of natural gas and coal based on historical prices rather than based on forecasts of future market conditions. While natural gas prices are difficult to predict, experts believe coal prices will rise in the future."
BHI Response: Here again Mr. Conathan believes that his and other "expert" assumption of future prices and regulatory regimes are more valid than ours. Only time will tell who is more accurate. However, what we do know is that forecasting future regulations, supply, demand, costs, prices and other variables is extremely difficult and uncertain, and that includes coal prices. This is why we conduct a sensitivity analysis to test the robustness of our assumptions and provide a range of estimates.
Mr. Conathan: "The BHI study entirely fails to account for the jobs that would be created by the wind farm. Meanwhile, according to a 2009 report by the European Wind Energy Association, the wind energy sector in Europe created more than 60,000 jobs from 2004-2008."
BHI Response: Mr. Conathan is wrong again. We report net jobs, which includes 2,400 jobs created in the construction, manufacturing and related industries. These jobs created are simply swamped by the jobs lost in the other sectors that suffer from the higher electricity costs.
Mr. Conathan cites a report from the European Wind Energy Association, hardy an unbiased source. The purpose of the report is to boast the positive employment effects of the industry. However, as an economic study, it makes nonsensical assertions and fails to look at the economy-wide effects of wind energy that is more expensive and less reliable than conventional energy. Manufacturing and other energy intensive industries facing higher costs can move production to lower cost locations or simply shut down.
For example, the study states that the "additional employment effect of including the higher cost (and higher employment per MW installed) of offshore capacity is estimated at 2,800 jobs…" The report associates higher costs and higher employment requirements with offshore wind with economic benefits. The report associates higher costs and less efficient energy sources with more employment in the wind energy industry. Using this logic, the wind power should not be placed just off the New Jersey coast, but rather in the middle of the ocean because it would create many more jobs to construct and maintain the turbines and transmission lines that are much further away from the energy consumer. This is the same logic that would insist that a canal should be dug with picks and shovels instead of machines.
The report, and Mr. Conathan, fail to note that Denmark has the highest concentration of wind power in Europe and the highest electricity rates in Europe. Moreover, Denmark sells its wind power to Germany during the overnight hours at a very low rate, when the wind is blowing most consistently, and buys conventional electricity back from Germany during the daytime at a much higher rate, when their electricity demand is highest.
Mr. Conathan: Furthermore, the study assigns zero value to increased energy independence and vastly underestimates the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that New Jersey's targeted 1,100 MW of offshore wind energy would produce.
BHI Response: Mr. Conathan displays his ignorance of the composition of the New Jersey electricity market. As we explain in the report New Jersey gets the vast majority of its electricity supply from domestic sources of coal, natural gas and nuclear power. Oil only provides between 0.5 percent and 1.5 percent of state electricity, and fluctuates depending on oil prices. Moreover, because it is unpredictable and unreliable, wind power cannot provide any of the marginal electricity supply. In other words, wind power operators are at the mercy of the current wind conditions and they cannot control their output to meet changes in electricity demand at any given moment in the day. Therefore, wind power must supply the base load on the grid, which means it would displace domestically supplied coal and natural gas and would have no effect on electricity supplied by oil. Therefore, no foreign oil would be displaced by the wind power.
Contrary to Mr. Conathan's statement that we underestimate the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions the wind power project would produce; the emissions effect is likely negligible for two reasons. First, coal represents 68% of the New Jersey's marginal supply of electricity, so that when the wind suddenly stops blowing at any given moment, coal plants must be cycled up to supply the power lost from the wind plant. The opposite happens when the wind begins to blow again.
Nevertheless, the coal plants cannot be shut down completely when the wind power is operating. That is to say coal power plants are similar to an automobile idling. They are still burning coal and sending some electricity to the grid, but not at an efficient level. When the wind stops blowing the cola plant operator hits the gas petal, if you will, to keep the current electricity supply balanced with the current demand and prevent brownouts and blackouts. While the coal plants are idling, so to speak, they are running at less-than-peak efficiency and produce more greenhouse gas emissions than if they were running at peak efficiency while online. This shifting back and forth between idling coal plant and intermittent wind turbine reduces the emission benefit from wind power.
In addition, the construction of a 1,000 MW wind plant takes much more raw materials, such as steel concrete, aluminum, plastics, transmission wires and land, or in this case water, than a conventional power plant. The production of all these materials also produces greenhouse gas emissions and when we accounted for these greenhouse gas emissions, the wind advantage erodes even further.
Mr. Conathan: This report isn't BHI's first foray into the admittedly complex world of offshore wind. A 2003 report from BHI on Cape Wind's proposal to build America's first offshore wind farm used similarly deceptive tactics, suggesting the project could cost the region $64 million to $134 million in tourism dollars. These findings were included despite polls that showed less than 3 percent of potential tourists would change their plans if the farm were built and despite ample studies of actual tourists' behavior in areas proximate to actual wind farms in Europe.
BHI Response: Mr. Conathan must not have read BHI's report on Cape Wind carefully. BHI did, in fact, conduct a statistical survey of tourists that were on the very Cape Cod beaches where the Cape Wind turbines would be visible. The fieldwork for these two surveys was done under contract with, and under the supervision of, David Paleologos, President, DAPA Research, Inc., an experienced pollster and professor at Suffolk University. The attitudes of European tourists on European beaches, cited by Mr. Conathan, are irrelevant to the Cape Wind project.
Mr. Conathan also fails to cite the recent contract between Cape Wind and the utility National Grid that priced its electricity at 19.4 cents per kilowatt hour in 2016, escalating 3.5% per year for 20 years. This is almost double the current electricity rates for Massachusetts.
Offshore wind power is more expensive, unpredictable, less reliable and less efficient than conventional energy sources. These features make wind power costly to electricity consumers, especially businesses in energy intensive industries. This is why wind power was abandoned as a source of reliable electricity at the dawn of the industrial revolution. These inconvenient economic truths force advocates like Mr. Conathan to resort to "deceptive tactics," half- truths and baseless accusations.