Facts still matter. And the fact of the matter is residential utility rates in Washington state are the lowest in the nation. But some people want to change that and force Washington residents to pay more for their power.
“…the widely-publicized decline in solar and wind prices now makes it probable that (Columbia Generating Station) could be replaced entirely with renewable resources and still deliver a cost reduction to Pacific Northwest customers. Once thought to be too expensive, renewables are becoming a viable option for utilities…”
Portland economist Robert McCullough wrote those words as part of a February report pushed by Physicians for Social Responsibility, an anti-nuclear energy group dedicated to closing Columbia Generating Station nuclear energy facility and eliminating nuclear energy entirely from the U.S. electricity mix.
McCullough based his conclusions mostly on levelized cost of electricity reports by Lazard, a financial advisory and asset management firm. However, in doing so he misrepresents the Lazard LCOE 10.0 report, which clearly states that renewables alone can’t replace baseload generation. By ignoring the cost of firm capacity resources needed to back up intermittent generation from renewables, McCullough significantly under-represents the costs that would be incurred if Columbia were retired prematurely (it’s currently licensed through 2043).
McCullough’s conclusion: replacing Columbia with renewables yields a net present value savings of $261.2 million to $530.7 million through June 2026.
A recently released analysis (PPC Analysis – McCullough CGS Report) by the Public Power Council, an entity that has represented the Pacific Northwest’s consumer-owned utilities for 50 years, uses actual data for the Northwest to show McCullough is simply wrong in his conclusions.
The PPC report concludes McCullough’s recommendation would cost Pacific Northwest power customers $271 million a year, as well as impact the region’s power supply resource adequacy.
Playing with numbers
As the PPC report explains, McCullough uses the “median” Lazard LCOE to make his cost comparison, which gets him a cost per megawatt-hour for solar of $42.50 and $31 for wind. The PPC writes, “(a)lthough these values might be realistic in some circumstances, they are wildly inconsistent with the values produced specifically for this region by the [Northwest Power and Conservation Council].”
But the numbers in the Pacific Northwest aren’t as friendly to McCullough and PSR, so they avoid them altogether. The PPC looked at the NWPCC’s Seventh Northwest Power Plan to find levelized costs more in tune with the region where necessary replacement power for Columbia would be generated. “The least expensive new renewable resources in terms of levelized cost in the 7th Power Plan is $61.43 per MWh for utility scale solar and $102.45 per MWh for wind. Many options are significantly higher,” the PPC writes.
They go on to offer a slight rebuke of McCullough’s research tactics.
“Although the (McCullough) report cites the NWPCC and the 7th Power Plan in other instances, the choice to rely on a minimally documented, national level report for levelized resource costs rather than the extensively vetted regional analysis used by the NWPCC is not explained.”
Perhaps we can help. Anti-nuclear energy ideology drives many folks to discount scientific facts about nuclear (such as calling carbon-free nuclear “dirty”) and economic facts that don’t serve their point of view (such as existing resources being cheaper than new resources, even renewables). A lot of people across the country just participated in the March for Science which was, in part, a protest against this type of tactic. In fact, PSR members just marched against this type of tactic.
Doing the math
The PPC takes the NWPCC solar cost of $61.43/MWh and adds Bonneville Power Administration’s Resource Support Services number, basically capturing the cost of an intermittent resource versus a baseload, or full-time, resource. The PPC report uses BPA’s 2018 rate case number of $16.30/MWh for solar.
“Using regionally vetted analysis from the NWPCC and BPA’s latest proposed rates, the least expensive replacement for the power of (Columbia) with intermittent renewables would be utility scale solar facilities in Idaho at a total cost of $78.84 per MWh,” according to the PPC report.
The average cost of power for Columbia Generating Station is $48.50/MWh through 2026 (including transmission), according to the PPC.
Given the difference between the two costs, based on Columbia’s 1,019 aMW annual output (1,019 MW of generation an hour multiplied by 365 days), the McCullough/PSR recommendation would cost power customers $271 million a year over what they currently pay.
“This result is consistent with a scenario analysis conducted in the 7th Power Plan that examined the change in regional portfolio cost for the planned retirement of a 1,000 MW carbon free resource. That analysis found an increase in regional power costs of
$3 to $6 billion on a net present value basis over 20 years,” the PPC concludes.
Other report issues
Cost is certainly an important factor when considering electricity resources. But so is capacity and reliability, or what McCullough strangely sees as “inflexibility.”
In his report, McCullough writes, “Indeed, as renewable energy standards in the Pacific Northwest, California, and other Western states require additional variable resources, inflexible baseload plants, including nuclear and coal plants, will become increasingly problematic.” This ignores two key points: that intermittent generation from renewables is not a reliable replacement for baseload generation; and, existing Northwest coal plants are and will be retiring, reducing the available amount of baseload generation in the region. By arguing that Columbia should be retired, McCullough is doubling down on these challenges.
The Public Power Council report catches this mistake.
“The NWPCC conducts a rigorous, annual Pacific Northwest Power Supply Adequacy Assessment which looks forward five years. The most recent assessment conducted in 2016 for adequacy in 2021 already shows significant potential for resource deficiencies based on the planned retirements of the Boardman, Centralia and Colstrip Units 1 & 2 coal facilities. Retirement of (Columbia) would significantly exacerbate these issues,” the PPC writes.
A final point from PPC: BPA uses the hydro system to help balance the wind generation in the region. The baseload electricity from Columbia Generating Station provides significant additional margin to accomplish that while still maintaining an environmentally-friendly carbon-free mix. Following the McCullough/PSR formula would put added pressure on BPA and the hydro system.
“(T)he 7th Power Plan specifically does not rely on the large scale development of intermittent resources to meet capacity needs, instead calling for demand response measures as available or natural gas generation,” according to the PPC analysis.
So to summarize, McCullough took 48 pages to reach a result that was off by literally more than half a billion dollars at best ($750 million at worst) versus a three-page analysis that provided facts relevant to the Northwest and its power customers, and showed the true value of Columbia Generating Station to the region.
As another regional energy expert said about this McCullough report:
Overall, it looks like Robert McCullough hasn’t changed his basic approach. Instead, he’s just adding more superstructure on top of a weak foundation. For example, he willfully continues to ignore and misrepresent the fact that the Mid-Columbia spot market only reflects the variable operating costs of resources, and at best only allows a small portion of the fixed costs of owning resources to be recovered.
As headline grabbers, McCullough’s reports do the job admirably (see here and here, for example), but as the basis for serious energy policy discussions, they seem to miss the mark, and in this case, wildly.
(Posted by John Dobken)