This has been a spring of leaks. Most of you probably heard about the hole at the Oroville Dam. In my house, we’ve had leaks in both our skylight and our car. Yes, it’s great to be out of the drought, but like other Californians, we’re feeling a bit waterlogged.
All this water means that the hydro dams are cranking out lots of electricity. Reservoirs are at high levels, even before the major snow melt, so we’re letting a lot of the water run through the dams and producing cheap hydropower morning, noon and night.
If you believe the saying, ducks take to water well. But in the electricity world, the bountiful water is creating problems for the industry’s favorite waterfowl.
Long-time blog readers have heard several mentions of the “duck curve” – the aptly named graph that depicts energy demand net of wind and solar generation over the course of a day. I’ve reproduced one of the original versions below, which was created circa 2013 and shows projections out to 2020. Much of the focus has been on the duck’s neck – the rapid increase in non-renewable electricity demand as the sun sets on solar plants and people turn on lights.
As of last spring, the projections in the duck curve were materializing on schedule, as Meredith’s blog post described. During 2016, however, utility-scale solar PV capacity in the state grew by another 50%. As a result, net load in the middle of the day on a recent Sunday (April 9) bottomed out at 10,000 MW (see the green line in the graph below), instead of the 14,000 MW projected for 2017 in the forecast duck (the dark orange line labeled “2017” in the graph above).
Source: Daily Renewables Watch, CAISO (Thanks to the ISO for this and other great data sources.)
All the solar and hydropower have led to a new phenomenon – negative prices in the middle of the day. The blue line in the graph below depicts day-ahead prices for Sunday, April 9 in Southern California. For comparison purposes, the red line depicts day-ahead prices at the same location on the second Sunday in April 2012. Looks like another version of the duck, albeit drawn by a preschooler, and this time with price on the vertical axis.
Source: California ISO OASIS
Note that I picked April 9 as an example. Through yesterday, there were 19 days during March and April 2017 with negative midday prices in the day-ahead market in the South. They’re certainly more common on weekends, when people take breaks but the sun doesn’t. But, 7 of those 19 days were weekdays. Also, I’m focusing on the South, as that’s where most of the grid-scale solar is located. For the three days I checked, though, prices were also negative in the North.
Let’s first wrap our heads around what it means to have a negative price. On these days, if you were in southern California, the ISO was willing to pay you to consume electricity. Nearly all retail customers are on fixed tariffs that do not vary with wholesale prices, so they were still paying positive prices for electricity. But, if you were exposed to wholesale prices, you would have made more money the more electricity you consumed – just plug in your least efficient electric space heater and watch the dollars role in.
You may wonder why an electricity generator would be selling into the market when prices are negative. If you’re the owner of a large solar plant in the desert, for example, can’t you just turn off your connection to the grid, instead of having to pay to feed electricity into the market? Similarly, why would a gas or nuclear plant use costly fuel to sell into a market with negative prices?
There are a couple reasons generators might be willing to sell at negative prices:
- The production tax credit. Some renewables owners (mainly wind) are eligible for a production tax credit, which essentially pays them, in the form of a tax credit, for every MWh they produce. So, not producing means that they have to forego this credit. In theory, producers will pay to sell into the wholesale market as long as they’re paying less than the tax credit.
- The Renewable Portfolio Standard. Under California’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), utilities are on the hook to provide 33% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020 and 50% by 2030. The utilities sign contacts with renewable providers and, while terms likely vary, the utilities want to meet their RPS targets. In the extreme, the utilities are on the hook to pay a penalty (which was $50/MWh early on) if they don’t. So, they generally want to encourage the renewable providers to produce. For example, under a very simple power purchase agreement, the utility would pay the renewable provider a pre-specified price per MWh irrespective of the wholesale market price, leaving them no incentive to shut down when prices are negative.
- Operating constraints. For some power plants, varying the output level entails high costs, particularly starting and stopping the plant. I think of those as analogous to the extra fuel, plus wear and tear, planes expend taking off. So, if it costs a lot to restart a nuclear plant, for example, you’re willing to pay not to have to turn it off to avoid incurring those costs.
In the graph below, we can see that the state’s lone nuclear plant, and even some thermal (which is essentially analogous to fossil-fuel) plants were still operating on April 9 when the prices were negative.
Source: Daily Renewables Watch, CAISO
The cost of turning plants on is also reflected in the real-time prices from April 9. Just like the day-ahead prices, they were negative in the middle of the day. But, they really spiked during the morning and evening ramps (to $1000/MWh!) when plants needed to turn on to meet the additional demand.
What do the negative prices tell us? At a fundamental level, they tell us that we have too much of a good and suppliers need to pay people to take it off their hands. Right now, California has too much renewable electricity. Emphasizing this point, a recent briefing from the California Independent System Operator noted that renewable “curtailments” were at record levels in March 2017, amounting to over 80 GWh, which is more than a typical day’s worth of solar production that month.
Is there anything to do about the negative prices? Negative prices certainly highlight the value of storage, where the basic idea is to buy low and sell high. Buying when prices are negative is especially lucrative. Standalone storage is still expensive, but the costs are rapidly declining. Increased electrification of transportation may provide one type of storage or at least flexible demand.
Another solution is to expose more retail consumers to wholesale prices, or find other ways to encourage customers to respond to real-time prices. Economists have bemoaned the disconnect between wholesale and retail pricing for years—maybe the prospect of being paid to consume electricity will help more people see the value of this?!?
In addition, generators that historically operated through the belly of the duck, including nuclear, combined heating and power, and conventional natural gas plants might be encouraged to reduce their output. For example, while it may not be practical to cycle nuclear generation on a day-to-day basis, maybe refueling outages could be scheduled for the spring, when excess supply problems are generally the worst.
Proponents of western grid integration note that removing barriers to exporting electricity will help California share some of its renewable electricity, especially when in-state demand is low and hydro supplies are high. (This is not intended as a comprehensive list of the solutions – an ISO discussion includes more here.)
To round out the post with another duck-ism, the duck may look calm, but we need to pay attention to what’s going on below the water line – the zero price line in this case. The duck is paddling furiously, as operating an electricity system with a lot of renewables isn’t easy.
Catherine Wolfram is Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and the Cora Jane Flood Professor of Business Administration at the Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley. She is the Program Director of the National Bureau of Economic Research's Environment and Energy Economics Program, Faculty Director of The E2e Project, a research organization focused on energy efficiency and a research affiliate at the Energy Institute at Haas. She is also an affiliated faculty member of in the Agriculture and Resource Economics department and the Energy and Resources Group at Berkeley.
Wolfram has published extensively on the economics of energy markets. Her work has analyzed rural electrification programs in the developing world, energy efficiency programs in the US, the effects of environmental regulation on energy markets and the impact of privatization and restructuring in the US and UK. She is currently implementing several randomized controlled trials to evaluate energy programs in the U.S., Ghana, and Kenya.
She received a PhD in Economics from MIT in 1996 and an AB from Harvard in 1989. Before joining the faculty at UC Berkeley, she was an Assistant Professor of Economics at Harvard.