Friday, May 19, 2017

Bull Case in Rick Perry's Grid Study

On April 14, 2017, U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry ordered a two-month study of the U.S. electric grid.  Sounds like a good idea, since we know that a resilient and reliable electric grid is vital for economic growth as well as homeland security.  However, the study has a particular goal:  determine how policies promoting wind and solar power are accelerating the retirement of coal and nuclear power need for ‘base load’ power.  True enough coal and nuclear power are two fuel sources that are valuable for generating base load power, i.e. the amount of power needed to fulfill minimum demand presented to the electric grid.  Base load power generation requires a continuous supply of electricity throughout the day and all year long, maintaining grid reliability and resilience.  The underlying premise of Perry’s study appears to be that coal and nuclear power are necessary for adequate base load power and without them the country is vulnerable.
Investors might see Perry’s study in the context of environmental politics.  However, the dynamic of the study  -  even one flimsily designed to promote coal  -  can inform investment strategy and tactics.

Political Background 
It did not take long for scientists, energy experts and even politicians to see the weaknesses in the Perry study.   Within a couple of weeks various energy groups joined together in a letter to Perry expressing concern over the study construction.  The petitioners include the Advanced Energy Economy (AEE), the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE), the American Wind Energy Association, and the Solar Energy Industries Association.  The group submitted materials to improve the study, which the group says is off to a bad start with a “faulty premise”.  The group also questioned the qualifications of the study leader who was previously employed by a group that lobbies for utility companies against renewable energy.
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An even louder voice has expressed doubt in Perry’s study.  Republican Senator Chuck Grassley has also written a letter to Perry.  Besides ethanol for transportation fuel, Grassley’s home state of Iowa is one of the leading producers of wind energy.  Grassley’s letter appealed to Perry’s own track record while governor of Texas where a one of the most modern electrical grids in the country relies extensively on wind power.
Sorting Through the Coal Dust
In the letter announcing his new study Perry decried the loss of diversity in power sources at the peril of coal-fired power plants.  Actually electricity sources have become MORE diversified.  As shown in the chart below thirty years ago the U.S. relied primarily on coal, oil, hydroelectric and nuclear power sources.  Fast forward to today, we can add natural gas, geothermal, biomass, solar, tidal wave and wind to the mix. 

Perhaps the better way to understand Perry’s study is through the coal industry’s fear it will be sidelined as a fuel source for power plants.  Our chart illustrates the loss of market share by coal beginning around 2000.  Renewable sources have captured market share, but largely these sources are simply benefiting from new demand that results from an expanding population and increased power use per capita.  Per capita energy consumption in the U.S. increased to 97.7 quadrillion BTU in 2010 compared to 78.1 quadrillion in 1980.  Total power production increased 86% from 1980 to 2014.
It is natural gas that is really eating away at coal’s position in the power industry.  Every electric grid in the U.S. scans the market place every day looking for available power, ranking each by selling price.  Expensive power sources are ranked last.  Electricity from the lowest priced power plant is served up first.  As demand increases during the day, more power producers are asked to provide electricity.  The last one to get called up will be the most expensive and therefore sets the price for every source in the provider group.  This market-based system favors the low-cost producer.  These days that provider is quite likely the power generator using natural gas, which is presently priced at about $3.00 per million BTU. 
According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in 2015, natural gas powered systems set up for combined cycle operation operated with a Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE) ranging between $42 to $55 per megawatt hour  -  the lowest among all power sources.  The NREL is forecasting an increase for these combined cycle natural gas power plants to a cost range of $56 to $68 per megawatt hour.  However, coal is not expected to gain any advantages.  Indeed, wind power sources are expected to experience a reduction in LCOE to as low as $40 per megawatt hour.  Photovoltaic systems under operation by utilities are expected to reach an LCOE as low as $43 per megawatt hour.
The coal industry is worried and tactically it makes sense to attack renewable energy sources.   The lobbying strength of the real enemy  -  natural gas  -  is exponentially more powerful than even the combined lobbying efforts of solar, wind, geothermal and biomass.  Why take on a powerful enemy when a lesser threat can be vanquished with no more costly an effort than misinformation masquerading as a ‘study’. 
The first targets are the environmental standards that bring back to the income statements and balance sheets of coal producers the high costs of toxic emissions and greenhouse gas from burning coal.  Other programs that promote renewable energy are also fair game.  If renewable power sources lose the small advantages of even temporary tax credits or other economic incentives, coal can pick up their portion of the power market resulting from new power demand.  This would be a plus for coal producers even though natural gas is still the most significant power generation fuel.     
In other words, the coal industry does not want diversity in power sources.  The argument against renewable energy is strengthened by focusing on an apparent vulnerability  -  intermittentcy of power production.  Wind and solar in particular cannot supply power all day and night and therefore theoretically cannot be relied upon for base load power production.  A study focused on this circumstance and undertaken by the U.S. Energy Secretary could be quite handy in discrediting wind and solar power sources in particular.  
Smarting up the Grid
Grassley gave Perry a deadline of May 25th to explain how the study will provide for transparency and objectivity.  Investors do not need to wait for Perry’s response or even the results of his study.  Technology advances are changing electric grid operation and with it the economics of electric power generation.   Base load is no longer the bugaboo that grid operators worry about.  Granted renewable power sources such as wind and solar are not available 24/7, but these power sources can still be strong grid competitors.   An unfortunate but real circumstance for the coal industry. 
Our next post will feature long plays on electric grid technology that are being driven by economic reality and not politics.

Neither the author of the Small Cap Strategist web log, Crystal Equity Research nor its affiliates have a beneficial interest in the companies mentioned herein.

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