Along The Green Horizon: Big US Electricity Price Increases

Gasoline price increases can always be counted on to grab headlines. Chances are good that electricity prices, too, soon will be very newsworthy in the USA - right about election time. Major drivers: construction materials and process technology for new or upgraded power plants have become drastically more expensive of late; and, there's suddenly much less certainty by investors that the black chips (coal) are worth as much as the greener ones (natural gas and renewables) in this card game. So, bets are coming off the table, encouraged by citizens concerned with climate change.

There are other reasons why higher electricity prices are a predetermined outcome. Conservation has not been looked at seriously by the current US Congress or Administration. Nor have carbon emission limits been taken seriously, leaving designers to guess what might be needed for pollution control. Plus, coastal citizens protest when importers try to bring in the LPG fuel that's needed to support the only low-cost, low-carbon emitting, highly scalable option, natural gas.

Bottom line: investors can't estimate risk or measure the competition. The result is stasis in capacity, with projections of continued consumption growth.Then there is the matter of previously planned deregulation. With perhaps half of US states approaching or passing deregulation deadlines set years ago, but with the hoped-for price cuts not materializing, voters and industrial customers are screaming in pain; and legislators, predictably, are reacting in knee jerk fashion. (So much for free market principles.) The tipping point for this driver is now, with more around the corner.

Adding up the above factors, we think it's a certainty that, in 2008, US voters will be paying serious attention to power. First comes:- "Who'd a guessed this could happen in America?" In the midst of this awakening, "green" legislative proposals that could add capital cost to power generating operations will be characterized as harming lower income and middle class voters.

High power prices will be the fault of [fill in the political party name of choice]: for not allowing hundreds of coal fired power plants to be built; or, for not pushing for a major conservation effort before the demand/supply crunch hit.

We think this will be the most important green issue that frames the 2008 election. Coal versus conservation. Conservation versus coal.

"For a long time, conventional wisdom has held that coal would easily meet the nation's rising demand for electricity. It's cheap, and there's enough of it in the U.S. to power the country for an estimated 250 years." (Make that 430 per the last stage coach out of Wyoming)

"But a combination of rising construction costs for coal-fired power-plants and uncertainty over whether Congress will regulate emissions of carbon dioxide - a byproduct of burning coal and one of the main gases behind global warming - has put plans for many new plants on hold."

"Rising construction costs and uncertainty over global warming laws may lead to higher power prices for everyone, experts say. With the nation's demand for power expected to surge 50 percent over the next 30 years, the result may be higher electricity costs for everyone."

"An estimated one-third of planned new coal plants have either been delayed or are "at the edge of cancellation," said Dean Oskvig, head of the energy business at Black&Veatch;, an engineering firm that builds power plants. Oskvig said cost is the main concern. The global commodities boom has caused the price of steel, concrete and lumber to soar. Plus, a spike in demand for energy of all kinds has led to a construction frenzy throughout the sector, driving up the cost of skilled labor. This has doubled the price of building a new coal-fired power plant, said Judah Rose, an industry expert at ICF Consulting, who testified before the North Carolina Utilities Commission."

"Black & Veatch's Oskvig said carbon capture and sequestration can raise the price of a power plant by 40 to 80 percent -- yet another factor that will drive power prices higher. "We've been used to really cheap energy to drive our society," he said. "But the days of the energy bargain in this world are over.""

Via:: CNN Money, "Power prices set to surge:- From expensive construction costs to uncertainty over global warming laws, experts say electricity bills are only headed higher." Image credit:: Lumilux, Green Horizon

Tags: Coal | Conservation