The Value of Renewable Energy as a Hedge Against Fuel Price Risk: Analytic Contributions from Economic and Finance Theory

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For better or worse, natural gas has become the fuel of choice for new power plants being built across the United States. According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), natural gas-fired units account for nearly 90% of the total generating capacity added in the U.S. between 1999 and 2005 (EIA 2006b), bringing the nationwide market share of gas-fired generation to 19%. Looking ahead over the next decade, the EIA expects this trend to continue, increasing the market share of gas-fired generation to 22% by 2015 (EIA 2007a). Though these numbers are specific to the US, natural gas-fired generation is making ... continued below

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Bolinger, Mark A & Wiser, Ryan September 15, 2008.

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For better or worse, natural gas has become the fuel of choice for new power plants being built across the United States. According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), natural gas-fired units account for nearly 90% of the total generating capacity added in the U.S. between 1999 and 2005 (EIA 2006b), bringing the nationwide market share of gas-fired generation to 19%. Looking ahead over the next decade, the EIA expects this trend to continue, increasing the market share of gas-fired generation to 22% by 2015 (EIA 2007a). Though these numbers are specific to the US, natural gas-fired generation is making similar advances in many other countries as well. A large percentage of the total cost of gas-fired generation is attributable to fuel costs--i.e., natural gas prices. For example, at current spot prices of around $7/MMBtu, fuel costs account for more than 75% of the levelized cost of energy from a new combined cycle gas turbine, and more than 90% of its operating costs (EIA 2007a). Furthermore, given that gas-fired plants are often the marginal supply units that set the market-clearing price for all generators in a competitive wholesale market, there is a direct link between natural gas prices and wholesale electricity prices. In this light, the dramatic increase in natural gas prices since the 1990s should be a cause for ratepayer concern. Figure 1 shows the daily price history of the 'first-nearby' (i.e., closest to expiration) NYMEX natural gas futures contract (black line) at Henry Hub, along with the futures strip (i.e., the full series of futures contracts) from August 22, 2007 (red line). First, nearby prices, which closely track spot prices, have recently been trading within a $7-9/MMBtu range in the United States and, as shown by the futures strip, are expected to remain there through 2012. These price levels are $6/MMBtu higher than the $1-3/MMBtu range seen throughout most of the 1990s, demonstrating significant price escalation for natural gas in the United States over a relatively brief period. Perhaps of most concern is that this dramatic price increase was largely unforeseen. Figure 2 compares the EIA's natural gas wellhead price forecast from each year's Annual Energy Outlook (AEO) going back to 1985 against the average US wellhead price that actually transpired. As shown, our forecasting abilities have proven rather dismal over time, as over-forecasts made in the late 1980's eventually yielded to under-forecasts that have persisted to this day. This historical experience demonstrates that little weight should be placed on any one forecast of future natural gas prices, and that a broad range of future price conditions ought to be considered in planning and investment decisions. Against this backdrop of high, volatile, and unpredictable natural gas prices, increasing the market penetration of renewable generation such as wind, solar, and geothermal power may provide economic benefits to ratepayers by displacing gas-fired generation. These benefits may manifest themselves in several ways. First, the displacement of natural gas-fired generation by increased renewable generation reduces ratepayer exposure to natural gas price risk--i.e., the risk that future gas prices (and by extension future electricity prices) may end up markedly different than expected. Second, this displacement reduces demand for natural gas among gas-fired generators, which, all else equal, will put downward pressure on natural gas prices. Lower natural gas prices in turn benefit both electric ratepayers and other end-users of natural gas. Using analytic approaches that build upon, yet differ from, the past work of others, including Awerbuch (1993, 1994, 2003), Kahn and Stoft (1993), and Humphreys and McClain (1998), this chapter explores each of these two potential 'hedging' benefits of renewable electricity. Though we do not seek to judge whether these two specific benefits outweigh any incremental cost of renewable energy (relative to conventional fuels), we do seek to quantify the magnitude of these two individual benefits. We also note that these benefits are not unique to renewable electricity: other generation (or demand-side) resources whose costs are not tied to natural gas would provide similar benefits.

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  • Report No.: LBNL-2022E
  • Grant Number: DE-AC02-05CH11231
  • Office of Scientific & Technical Information Report Number: 962658
  • Archival Resource Key: ark:/67531/metadc928809

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Office of Scientific & Technical Information Technical Reports

Reports, articles and other documents harvested from the Office of Scientific and Technical Information.

Office of Scientific and Technical Information (OSTI) is the Department of Energy (DOE) office that collects, preserves, and disseminates DOE-sponsored research and development (R&D) results that are the outcomes of R&D projects or other funded activities at DOE labs and facilities nationwide and grantees at universities and other institutions.

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  • September 15, 2008

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  • Nov. 13, 2016, 7:26 p.m.

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  • Jan. 4, 2017, 6:04 p.m.

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Bolinger, Mark A & Wiser, Ryan. The Value of Renewable Energy as a Hedge Against Fuel Price Risk: Analytic Contributions from Economic and Finance Theory, book, September 15, 2008; Berkeley, California. (digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc928809/: accessed April 20, 2018), University of North Texas Libraries, Digital Library, digital.library.unt.edu; crediting UNT Libraries Government Documents Department.