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The Megawatt NOT Consumed
Back in the 1990s, when I was new to the industry, I was working for a competitive generator. I recall one morning, I was in the office early; the sun was bright that day and I had my lights off in my office. The CEO Joe Kearney, a gregarious but thoughtful guy, came by, turned my lights on and said, “We sell electricity”.
The Blame Game & Solutions
My stomach turned… I was on vacation after dropping our daughter off at a new college when I got a text about the impending rolling blackouts in California on August 14. I knew the weather was hotter than Hades and there were fewer resources around than in previous years due to retirements. But rolling blackouts? That took us all back to the summer of 2000 and the blame game that followed…
Well, that was awkward!
Ever find yourself on a flight next to someone who just wants to talk? You know, you exchange pleasantries and you think you can go back to watching a movie, doing work, or reading and this person does not stop talking. That was my first leg of the trip. According to the flight map, this guy talked from Chicago to Utah. What made it worse was that he was telling me of his “second business” – trying to sell solar projects to manufacturing clients with battery storage as if this were a new idea. He had never been in the industry, and did not even know the difference between energy and ancillary services. He honestly thought all he needed to do was offer a solar project with some battery storage and SNAP! Everybody could have cheap, clean power without any connection to anything else.
Domestication
I want to talk about the California ISO (CAISO) and the awful position it has been put in by FERC, the CPUC, the legislature of California and other factors that restrict its independence.
Believe It or Not...
Perhaps you have heard from others during the Covid-19 sheltering that the process leads one to forget what day it is. I encountered this just recently when I ordered curbside take away food from a Mexican Restaurant on May 5. Yep, the video here is the area outside the restaurant with an overflow of folks waiting for food. The parking lot was full of people with masks on trying to maintain social distance while expressing a mild form of rebellion by having some adult beverages. Had I thought about the calendar, I would have avoided this place and ordered Chinese Food. But on to matters more germane to the power business. In case you missed it, WPTF had an interesting Web meeting on “Demand Destruction and Its Implications”. Like any good meeting, there were some surprises.
Scarcity 101
Like most of you, I’ve been working from home and dealing with co-habitants that aren’t used to being in the house all the time. In my case, these are our two kids who are supposed to be back in college. Let’s all put ourselves in their position: how you would like to be stuck in the house for weeks with your parents when you were supposed to be back on campus? If you did the exercise properly, you probably were just overcome by feelings of claustrophobia. They know they must stay home so that they don’t contribute to spreading the virus, but it challenges them, and their parents.
A Job Well Done… Now What?
At this moment, I’m writing from inside my camper van on the South Island of New Zealand. Why am I writing now? Immediately after the WPTF Winter Meeting, I left for the trip down here to celebrate a “significant” birthday (no, I’m not speaking the number). I had forgotten about the news Steve Berberich leaving the CAISO until I found myself barreling down an NZ mountain road in an RV. It was there on Takaka Hill that my mind started to process Steve’s news.
Getting Organized...
One of the great things about work in the modern world is that one can do most things from almost anywhere. I mean, there are times for physically getting together and meeting face to face. As I write this, however, I’m in New York City because my nephew is singing at Carnegie Hall tonight. As I sit in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel near Times Square, the ghosts of the old Algonquin “Roundtable” seem all around. I think I just caught a glimpse of Dorothy Parker in the corner talking to Harpo Marx.
Remain Calm! All is Well!
Have you ever had a stupid song on repeat in your head, wondering what your brain is trying to do to you? I had that happen last Friday morning at the Seattle airport. That cheesy Perry Como song from the 1960s - “Seattle” - was resourcing in my head… “Like a beautiful child growing up, free and wild…” I thought I was going to go insane! Then I realized, it was probably my brain trying to distract me.
It is tough to be in the power business in California
 
 
There have been points in my life where I have felt like the “font of wisdom” in some person’s life. For example, when my wife and I were dating and up until we were married, it seemed as if my every opinion was golden. That situation stopped somewhere around the return from the honeymoon. Similarly, my kids used to come to me with most any problem or any question. About the time they got drivers licenses, my “Oracle” status came to an end.

Fortunately, I have a true “font of wisdom” when it comes to energy related policy questions. For me, Christi Tezak is the best analyst in the energy industry for sorting out competing issues, laws and policies. I spoke to her and some others with experience in bankruptcy proceedings after Governor Newsom threatened to have the State of California “take over” PG&E. After all the conversations I had, the following occurred to me.

One more step, and I’ll shoot…

Assume for a moment that the state did take over the beleaguered utility. It would have to do so as a bankruptcy “workout." In such circumstances, the equity holders would likely get little to no return. Secured debt, consisting mostly of bondholders, would get some reduced value. That’s a standard bankruptcy workout. Recognize that many of the holders of equity and bonds are likely to be California residents. So far, so good?

Things only get more complex from there. If the state does not change the liability standard that has been at the root of the PG&E bankruptcy, who owns the risk when utility equipment may have sparked a wildfire? Normally public entities have certain protections from liability claims. Consider, though, that if the state has protection against claims under its unique “inverse condemnation” liability law, wouldn’t the insurance companies be on the hook for financial claims? Insurance companies have been the main reason the state has not changed its strange liability standard to something more traditional like “negligence.”

If, rather than the risk falling to insurance companies, the state assumes the risk under the inverse condemnation standard, then the state’s balance sheet is at risk for very large claims - $30 billion in the current PG&E calculation. We know that the state has run budget surpluses the last few years thanks to an economic expansion lasting a decade and the budget care of former Governor Brown. The state is in good shape now, but as recently as 2009, the state’s budget was in disarray. Even California does not have the Federal Government’s ability to “print money” to allow it to extend “full faith and credit” assurances. The risk to the budget for payment of claims of damages from the next incident – wildfire, etc. – could wipe out any future budget surplus.

But wait, wouldn’t a state agency have better motivation to manage capital, make wise investments and save money for state residents who use the system that was PG&E? Possibly.  As an example, one could argue that Salt River Project – an agency of the state of Arizona – is well run. But there are plenty of examples like the New York Power Authority (NYPA) and the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) that have checkered histories of excessive costs and debt. Ironically, those entities ultimately had to be restructured with some of the assets privatized. Perhaps even more worrisome is the fact that states can issue debt (bonds) at cheap interest rates. This tends to provide an incentive to incur debt. Rare is the government administration that does not give in to this temptation.

I suspect that, at the end of the day, the state of California will not take over the utility for the reasons enumerated here. Additionally, it is too convenient a political “whipping horse” for the state’s politicians. When something goes wrong, many politicians like having an easy target to hit. Why spoil it?

Back to our regularly scheduled programming…

I have great regard for the people who operate and manage network markets like CAISO, SPP, MISO, and PJM. They do their best to operate an economically efficient market that enhances the operation of a reliable grid. While their commitment to independence is real, politics, overly controlling market monitors, or the financial challenges of its members often test it. These pressures can influence decision-makers resulting in policies that are, well, questionable. I would put PJM’s predicament regarding its capacity market squarely in this category.

Similarly, I think the CAISO’s aggressive regulatory and political constituency in the state, along with a very loose relationship with its Federal “parent," combine to incent questionable policies. Alone among the FERC regulated markets, the CAISO shuns any ownership of the way capacity (resource adequacy) is attained. This is probably because the CPUC wants it to keep it away from the Feds. The CAISO knows that FERC is eager to appease California whenever possible. Continuing with the “appeasement” analogy, the CAISO is Czechoslovakia in 1938. If Britain and France (FERC) don’t have your back, you must deal with the aggressor.  We know how that one went down.

This dynamic of uneven regulatory relations might explain why the CAISO is engaging in a dubious effort regarding “system market power." Typically, ISO market power concerns have been a matter of load pockets and local constraints. One of the benefits of a network dispatch of many balancing areas is that many resources are brought to bear and can compete over the entire area. I’m on record asserting that we have been too quick to mitigate so-called “market power” in the electric sector. It undermines the incentives for hedging, physical contracting and demand response. You get what you pay for, and mitigation distorts price signals.

If you ask around CAISO staff, you get the real impression that they think having measurements of system market power is both unnecessary and potentially damaging for reliability and incenting imports into the CAISO. The only logical explanation is that they are doing this to appease – there’s that word again – the Market Monitor. What’s worse is the method they are using to assess hours when there might be system market power – the Residual Supply Index – is a threshold test that is prone to giving off false positives.

Cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face…

At the Regional Issues Forum of the EIM meeting held in Portland in late August, Kallie Wells, who works with Carrie Bentley on WPTF’s CAISO Committee, gave an excellent presentation on just this topic.  Specifically, she outlined 1) the failure of the analysis to demonstrate a System Market Power problem, 2) the limitations of the Residual Supply Index (RSI), and 3) the negative effects over-mitigation would have on imports into CAISO. Leaving aside the fact that the unloved RSI shows only a handful of hours of even potential system-level market power, let us consider the results of such mitigation.

A basic premise of market economics is that prices send signals and set appropriate values for assets. This, in turn, elicits a rational, efficient response. As alluded to above, this response may be a longer-term hedge, a demand response, an investment in a physical asset, or an investment in energy efficiency. Another basic premise: mitigation always reduces prices.  In any other commodity market, mitigation would not be contemplated until market power was observed over a period of weeks, months or even longer. CAISO staff seems to understand this, and no wonder. They must be worried about stifled signals for the imports that will be key to reliably accommodating increasing renewable generation and the retirement of legacy generation.

Rather than being focused on proper price signals, the CAISO seems to be worried about the reaction of its market monitor – a reaction that will likely be shared by the CPUC. Unfortunately, we have historically seen the CAISO Market Monitor more interested in price suppression rather than efficient outcomes. Will anyone be able to talk the CAISO into standing up to this folly?