Friday, October 18, 2013

Lessons from California for Miliband and the Great British Energy Firesale

Since Ed Miliband announced that he would cap energy prices if his party won the election, hardly a day seems to go by without an announcement of a utility company price hike, warnings of rolling blackouts  or energy executives threatening to invest elsewhere.
On the face of it, the Labour leader was right to challenge UK utility companies over their price hikes, which are way above inflation and often above wholesale price rises. But the caps are too crude a tool to fix a failing market that was incompletely and even incompetently de-regulated.
The problem is that Miliband is right and so are the utility executives - but only to a limited extent. Caps will not protect consumers from rising prices, only robust regulatory oversight will. And investment is at risk . But the utility industry is partly to blame by not making those investments early enough to avert the looming capacity gap.
But can it really be their fault when the Great British Energy Firesale didn't mandate utility companies to plan for future procurement?
After the energy monopolies were sold off in the 1990s, power was not given to the British people, but power was taken away, as James Meek pointed out last year in  the London Review of Books.
"The electricity competition has now been held. It is over, and Britain lost."
Consequently, France, Germany, Spain all won a large and arguably unhealthy slice of the UK energy pie in a way that would be unthinkable in most other countries.
The UK's consumers, who now pay some of the highest rates and largest tariff increases in the world, were seriously short-changed. What the Great British Energy Firesale created was a cartel that was largely foreign-owned and regulated by Ofgem, a feckless organisation that does not seem able to put the brakes on excessive price increases. But it doesn't have to be this way.
Miliband's plans to cap retail energy prices when the wholesale market is completely free raises the spectre of California's energy crisis in 2000 and 2001. Regulators, politicians and utility executives in the UK would do well to look west and see what the Golden State learned from its own rolling power blackouts, 800% wholesale price increases and a political row that defined an election.
After three years of reporting on the energy industry from the US, I'm currently undergoing reverse culture shock that in the UK at the prospect that my annual utility bill will rise from around $500 to around £1,500 a year.
The US and UK electric utility systems differ from one another in five striking and fundamental ways on:
1) foreign ownership;
2) regulatory oversight;
3) monopoly structure;
4) retail and wholesale prices;
5) business model revenue.
First, among the 3,200 utility companies in the United States foreign ownership is a rarity. Even the country that epitomises the global free market recognises that some sectors of the economy are strategic and that selling electricity and natural gas is not the same as selling iPhones or Jimmy Choo shoes.
Although there are no legislative barriers to foreign ownership, it's certainly not the norm. Winning over the state-level regulators would be one expense too far for many companies.
During my three years of reporting on the energy industry from the US, I lost count of the number of times I had to explain that the UK only had two domestically owned utility companies, British Gas and SSE.
That situation would be an anathema in the US. Even Centrica, which owns British Gas, has a corporate history of diversification that reveals an identity crisis in its core business: the Goldfish credit card, OneTel and Dyno-Rod.
When deregulation was all the rage in the 1990s, US companies were often "burned" by overseas investments in generating assets. NRG Energy, the largest Independent Power Producer in the US, sold its minority stake in a coal-fired power plant in Germany only last year.
NRG Energy's chief executive David Crane told me last year that the attempt to procure merchant generating assets outside of the US from the 1990s did not work out well. Electric power systems are not a global commodity.
Although National Grid has made successful inroads in transmission in the US, Scottish Power, owned by Spanish utility Iberdrola, sold Pacificorp on the west coast to Warren Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway in 2005.
But full globalisation of the UK energy industry was sealed this week by the announcement from Chancellor George Osborne that China General Nuclear Power Corporation (CGNPC) would take a minority stake with the main operator, France's EDF, to build the new Hinkley Point C power station in Somerset.
No UK firms are involved in the construction phase of the plant, according to the Guardian.
Chinese wealth is welcome in the UK. But owning a strategic asset like a nuclear power plant is worlds away from owning say, a piece of real estate or art. What's in it for the Chinese? Well other than making money out of Britain's high energy rates, there's unlikely to be any tactical move here that would have an impact on competition.
The same cannot be said for France, Germany and Spain, whose utility companies EDF, EON, RWE and Iberdrola all own the majority of the UK's electricity generating capacity and retail sales. A real cynic might contend that it's in those countries interests to keep energy rates high in the UK so investment, for example in manufacturing, looks more attractive in other European countries.
Residential rates for natural gas and electricity are among the lowest in Europe. But the industrial tariffs for electricity are high compared with France which lists electricity as its 5th largest export.
Even a moderate critic would ask whether EDF would allow foreign ownership of strategic asset in France and wonder if foreign subsidiaries act in the public good to the same extent as they might in their country of origin. 
Second, investor-owned utilities, ie significantly sized monopoly utilities, are regulated by the state, rather than federal government. In California, regulators require investor-owned utilities to prepare a general rate case if they want to raise tariffs. The California Public Utilities Commission examines the real costs of supplying power. The process takes place in an open forum, almost all documentation and commentary is highly transparent with ample opportunity for public comment.
Anyone who has sat through hours of tedious rulemaking also appreciates that the public and advocates have an extremely vital role to play. I don't see the same level of public debate or stakeholder engagement over tariffs in the UK. Rate cases also take time, lawyers fees and often end in failure.
Many CPUC commissioners are former utility executives, but Mike Florio is a more recent appointment after serving as an attorney at The Utility Reform Network, which has often put a spanner in the works for rate increases at Pacific Gas & Electric. The CPUC also pays for an internal unit, the Office of Ratepayer Advocates, which advocates very effectively for low prices for consumers.
An annual increases of the scale imposed by the Big Six in the UK would be unthinkable in California.
Third, most US utilities are natural monopolies. Competition is scarce and even when mergers do take place, regulators comb through the plans in great detail such as Duke Energy's acquisition of Progress Energy last year.
In most towns and cities if there's no municipal utility, you can only take power from the large incumbent utility. Shopping around on is not an option. For customers to be told to use less gas to save money, as the head of residential energy at British Gas was reported as saying yesterday is so breathtakingly arrogant you wonder how the company maintains its social licence to operate. British Gas sells an essential commodity, not handbags.
Fourth, average US residential retail rates are 12.61 cents per kilowatt hour, versus a UK tariff of around 15 pence per kwh (23c/kWh). Americans tend to use more electricity than the average Brit, so their annual bills can sometimes be as high. But many people living in modest apartments in cities like San Francisco will only pay around $40 a month for both natural gas and electricity.  
Cheap natural gas prices are a result of the US shale gas boom - at $3.80 per mmBTU versus $11 in the UK. But that difference can only partially explain why consumers pay so much more for electricity in the UK.
In August 2011, wholesale power prices peaked at $2,500/MWh in Texas, a state where retail rates are around 11.42 cents per kWh. However, wholesale prices in the UK have never risen above £90MWh in the past decade.
Ofgem data indicate that costs for UK utility companies are from the price of wholesale power. But utilities are allowed and indeed expected to trade on the wholesale power markets so they can hedge fuel risk.
In California, utilities pass on the full cost of natural gas to their customers but rates are adjusted every month to align with the latest prices.
"However, gas cost incentive mechanisms are in place to give the utilities an incentive to procure supplies at low costs," said a spokeswoman from the CPUC. "If the gas utilities do a poor job purchasing natural gas relative to natural gas benchmark prices, they may have to absorb some of the costs, rather than pass on all of the costs to ratepayers."
When it comes to wholesale electricity volatility, customers are again protected. Electric energy costs (as opposed to 'wire costs' for distribution or transmission lines) are collected in an Energy Revenue Recovery Account (ERRA).
"Each year, each utility files an ERRA forecast that sets the rate to be charged and a true-up case that assesses the revenues versus the costs," she said. "Any difference is rolled over and used in calculating the next year’s rate."
Such transparency and openness is missing in the UK where utilities are allowed to profit from power trading and pass through increased wholesale power to consumers without real regulatory oversight.
The fifth, final and perhaps most important difference between the UK and California markets is one of retail revenue.
California is unique in the US energy industry in many respects, largely thanks to policies introduced by Jerry Brown when he was first governor in the 1970s. Energy decoupling, for example, prevents utility companies from making money from the retail sale of electricity, removing an incentive to sell as much power as possible. Utilities have since made a tidy profit (11% returns) on investments in transmission and distribution and have been incentivised to make California the most energy efficient state in the US.
Compared with California, UK utilities complain far too loudly about the implication of green mandates on prices for consumers.

California not only manages to keep a check on energy prices but it is also on track to achieving the most aggressive Renewable Portfolio Standard in the US, which means that by 2020 utilities will have to procure 33% of their electricity from green sources, excluding large hydro.
California's system may not be perfect but it is transparent and aims to a balance between reliability, affordability, the environment and the interests of consumers and business.
No single politician, regulator, consumer or energy executive will have all the answers but through engagement in dialogue, there can be a better system that we can all live with.
As a single energy market for Europe draws closer, it would be a good time to deal with these domestic issues, hopefully before the rolling blackouts start and investors head elsewhere.
British consumers could do much, much better, and Miliband's proposals fall short of what they deserve.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Daily Mail misleads over Met Office climate data a cabbie can understand

Long haul flights always make me feel like I'm doing my bit for climate change. Every time I board a plane, I hope for some acceleration to scale of aviation biofuels.

Last night, on the way back from London to San Francisco, I read the Daily Mail. It's not my usual choice of newspaper, but it always offers an insightful glimpse into Britain's unlikeable aspects.
One piece in particular caught my eye by David Rose, a controversial journalist who was discredited for his blind reporting in the run up to the Iraq war of Ahmed Chalabi's claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Even Chalabi later retracted his claims, according to George Monbiot, forcing Rose to admit he was wrong.
Monbiot has previously criticised Rose's reporting on climate change - something that Rose himself seems proud of, boasting in his column yesterday that Planet 3.0 had awarded him its Golden Horseshoe award for the "most brazenly damaging and malign bad science of 2013". Praise indeed. Perhaps he can hang his horseshoe over the mantelpiece where his award for his reporting on Iraq should have been.

Rose claims that Met Office data shows global warming stopped 16 years ago  because of a revision in its decadal forecast which is routinely updated every December. But this assertion looks almost like comedy. Even before it was published, attempts by Britain's right wing press to join the dots  with the most migraine-inducing logic were debunked by the Met Office itself:
8 January 2013 - There has been media coverage today about our experimental decadal global temperature prediction, which is routinely updated in December each year.
The latest decadal prediction suggests that global temperatures over the next five years are likely to be a little lower than predicted from the previous prediction issued in December 2011.
However, both versions are consistent in predicting that we will continue to see near-record levels of global temperatures in the next few years.
This means temperatures will remain well above the long-term average and we will continue to see temperatures like those which resulted in 2000-2009 being the warmest decade in the instrumental record dating back to 1850.
Why can't Rose be bothered to mention this?
But like war, this really is no laughing matter if you believe that columnists help readers form opinions that they are too busy to develop through their own research and that opinion can be converted into political power at the ballot box. Rose contrives an argument to get readers to believe there is really no urgent need to deal with climate change as he contrived an argument for the need for action on non-existent weapons of mass destruction. But the stakes are higher and if such "thought leadership" prevails, it could potentially lead us into a crisis much worse than even the disastrous tragedy of the Iraq war. 

To be fair to Rose, he does acknowledge the need to develop lower carbon energy sources. That's much more than you might expect from a US right-wing columnist. But he perniciously suggests that the Met Office data indicates that we have many more decades to act on climate change.
Rose isn't a moron. He knows exactly what he is doing: manipulating the reader. Unfortunately like too many journalists, he clearly writes from a perspective that shows contempt for his readers and that they are not intelligent as he.
And even worse, if you're not a member of the digerati, you have no hope in hell of finding out the truth. My mum reads the Mail, but she has no internet. But people like my mum never have the advantage of limitless information over the internet to scrape away the artifice of posturing columnists like Rose and uncover the simple fact that Rose and the Daily Mail had their knuckles rapped by the Met Office when it tried to get away with the same nonsense in October.
My taxi driver in London yesterday told me that he left school without any qualifications at 16. Alan, now 44, described himself as "uneducated". But in the 40 minutes to Heathrow, he talked informatively about climate change, extreme weather, the energy industry, colonisation of other planets if we screw this one up… not bad for someone without even a CSE to his name. Alan said he was a Sun reader, because the Guardian was "too deep". But if Alan can get his head around such complex concepts and issues of our time, surely there's hope they can see beyond this tit for tat willy waving that no one else cares about except expensively educated and highly paid columnists. 
The newspaper-buying and tax-paying public deserve better discourse about climate change.

In December, I went to see climate scientist Michael Mann in a panel discussion during which he spoke about the six stages of denial where Rose's argument fits squarely. In my next blog, I will explore the demands on scientists like Mann to defend their work in a way that scientists in no other disciplines are required to.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Mark Zuckerberg, Craigslist and energy efficiency - what do they have in common?

Flat hunting in San Francisco has in very recent months become a monstrously competitive experience. You can find a much more creative rendering of this story told by many here.

It's a rather nasty witches' brew that blends a variety of experiences which normal people avoid. It's a little bit like competing on Shark Tank (or Dragons' Den, depending on which side of the Atlantic you are reading this blog) and a beauty pageant. Landlords and agents want to know your assets, income and projected revenues; but they also have to like the way you look (are they planning to live there, too?). It's also a little like online dating blended with job hunting. "Candidate" tenants are required to submit a letter explaining who they are, why they like the flat and why they think they are ideal tenants backed up with "character" references, and oh, yes, mine were called!

There is nothing else in life that has taken this level of sustained effort and cross-checking of my veracity as a responsible adult who can pay the rent every month and on time. I have either paid rent or a mortgage - sometimes both simultaneously - for the best part of two decades. But that seems to matter little.

Some life experiences bestow knowledge upon you that you never wish you'd learned in the first place and will be of little or no use in future. But at least job hunting or mortgage applications will be a piece of cake by comparison.

So why all the hoopla? Well, it didn't help to look in the weeks leading up to the Facebook IPO when  landlords just assumed every prospective tenant was also soon to be a zillionaire Zuckerberg employee. Each week monthly rents seemed to jack up by $100.

Interestingly, properties advertised by agents seemed to be more reasonable than those privately advertised. One lady had a two bedroom flat advertised at $3,000 per month - across the road a very similar, if not in some ways nicer flat, was advertised for $650 less.

I'm sure she got what the ad was asking for: a disgruntled tenant impoverished by ridiculous rent. She even said that the laundry downstairs was coin-operated because she feared tenants might set up their own ad hoc laundry services. Surely tenants paying $3,000 a month have got better things to do and wouldn't need an income from washing other people's dirty clothes?

I know rents are high because housing stock inventories are low -  that's just simple supply and demand. But it in San Francisco, the rental "market" seems particularly sensitive to the fortunes and misfortunes of the economy.

Quality housing stock is hard to find and value for money even harder, especially for privately advertised flats. Oh, and all that genuine fleecing (at least you end up with a roof over your head, right?) while being robbed by Craiglist scams.

Out of the 100s of ads I viewed at least 10% were scams… some were very sophisticated confidence tricks. I was spared falling into one trap only because of an admin oversight. But I engaged with many posters, thinking they were genuine. Watch out Stacy or Stacey Low… we're watching you even if Craigslist doesn't deal responsibly with you and others like you …  one less sophisticated scammer who couldn't spell at all well even wanted money upfront before viewing a flat (that didn't exist, obviously).

Aside from the risk of being scammed or having my credit ID stolen, it was a dispiriting waste of time. Craigslist is a scammers dream.

This example has just appeared in the past hour:

$905 / 2br - 1670ft² - 2 Bedroom 2 Bathroom Single-Family Home For Rent In Cow Hollow -

The last time a 2 bedroom flat was available for $905 in Cow Hollow must have been way before anyone reading this was born.

After several weeks of clicking refresh on my Craigslist search 300 times an hour, I grew accustomed to the language and it appeared that the more adjectives used, the worse the flat.

Adjectives with a completely counter meaning include:

Remodelled = a broken sink has been replaced; or a genuine upgrade in 1984;
Bright = has windows, but otherwise featureless and charmless;
Cute = tiny, possibly with a bedroom without windows;
Charming = possibly pink kitchen and 20 year old carpet; almost certain to have an extraneous random room that you'll never be able to use because it has no windows;
2/3 bed = one bedroom could be a closet or there is most certainly a glass paned French window separating two "bedrooms".

It astonished me that San Franciscans will fork out tonnes of cash for a drab and worn out San Francisco apartment that would not be tolerated by their fellow Americans, who are normally lovers of spacious interiors and large gardens. No laundry in the land that loves the tumble dryer and no parking in the land that loves the car strikes me as odd when such high standards are demanded from all other products and services.

I couldn't imagine paying half the equivalent of £2000 for something half as shabby in London. But then I joined the dots. In the US, even in California, where the record on energy efficiency is outstanding thanks to Gov Jerry Brown and his first term administration, there is little in the way of energy efficiency incentives for consumers, unless it comes through their utility company.

The price of natural gas in the UK alone is enough to make people switch to energy efficient boilers. But it's all burn, baby, burn in the US now, thanks to the low price of natural gas which quite possibly could be the only thing that has prevented the country from economic collapse.

What's more, in the UK, landlords are required by law to have boilers, gas stoves and any other gas appliances checked each year by a plumber - and not just any plumber, but one who is certified. Every five years, electric wiring systems are also required to be checked by approved electricians.

Perhaps building safety codes in the US were always better than those in the UK which is just now playing catch up. Once upon a time in the UK, students in particular seemed to poison themselves with carbon monoxide from gas fires all too regularly… I know I once had a near miss thanks to a gas fire installed without ventilation.

But in the hunt for a home, it concerned me when landlords either didn't know when the boiler was installed (I once asked if it had been checked - that was another alien from another planet moment).
Some didn't even know where the boiler was or wouldn't show us.

One elderly lady said her "furnace" was installed in 1923… when the building was constructed, I presume.

EU directives on energy labelling are not without their flaws. But at least it gives some reassurance that a) it won't cost you an arm and a leg to stay warm in San Francisco's winter that arrives around July; b) it won't cost you your life because it was installed 100 years ago.

But in the SF Fire Department's catalogue of mishaps that start fires that rip through the chimney-like wooden stud walls of San Francisco's "Victorians" I guess furnace fire can't be that high up.

One good unintended consequence of improved energy efficiency mandates for tenanted buildings would be general upgrades too - once you rip out a boiler/stove/fridge, etc you might as well remodel.

San Francisco tenants might then feel that they were getting at least something close to what they are paying for. 

While an intimate knowledge of every type of architectural style in San Francisco may be wasted overall, I did get to meet some diamonds in the Craigslist rough - some really very wonderful San Franciscans, and one who finally and refreshingly used nouns, rather than adjectives, to describe the qualities of their property.