Low Natural Gas Prices Force More Coal Plants to Close
Economists at The Brattle Group released a report today examining the impact of emerging Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) air quality regulations on coal-fired power plants. The new study, an update to analysis conducted in 2010, finds that 59,000 to 77,000 MW of coal plant capacity are likely to retire over the next five years, which is approximately 25,000 MW more than previously estimated.
Since December 2010 when the prior estimates of potential coal plant retirements were released, both natural gas prices and the projected demand for power have decreased, and environmental rules have been finalized with less restrictive compliance requirements and deadlines than previously foreseen. These shifts in market and regulatory conditions have resulted in an acceleration in announced coal plant retirements. As of July 2012, about 30,000 MW of coal plants (roughly 10% of total U.S. coal capacity) had announced plans to retire by 2016.
The updated study takes into account the most recent market conditions and the shifting regulatory outlook facing coal plants. To reflect the remaining regulatory uncertainty, the authors developed both "strict" and "lenient" regulatory scenarios for required environmental control technology. About 59,000 MW will likely retire under lenient rules versus 77,000 MW under strict regulations. Final regulatory requirements are still unresolved, but the authors suspect they will be akin to the lenient scenario. The study highlights that retirement projections are even more sensitive to future market conditions than to regulations, particularly natural gas prices. Likely coal plant retirements drop to between 21,000 and 35,000 MW if natural gas prices increase by just $1.00/MMBtu relative to April 2012 forward prices. Similarly, projected coal plant retirements would increase to between 115,000 and 141,000 MW if natural gas prices were to decrease by $1.00/MMBtu.
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"Our analysis indicates that future coal retirements will be a bit more than double the level announced to date," said Frank Graves, Brattle principal and co-author of the study. "The impacts will be modest over large areas, but more acute locally, especially for owners of smaller fleets that are predominantly coal-based. Everything else being equal, this amount of retirement will be enough to increase prices in both electric and gas markets for a few years, but we do not envision that impact to be large or persistent enough to alter retirement decisions."
The study does find, however, that the financial and operational implications may be substantial, even if overall reliability is not significantly affected. The authors find that $126 to $144 billion of investments will be needed to retrofit and replace coal capacity. Approximately 80% of the likely coal plant retirements will be generating plants owned by traditionally regulated utilities, such as investor-owned utilities and public power companies (as opposed to unregulated merchant generating companies). These changes could be difficult for smaller generation companies or utilities with predominantly coal-fired generation; for instance, an estimated 4% of coal plant owners (controlling about 20,000 MW of the total U.S. coal plant capacity) would need to retire more than 50% of their generation fleet. However, once industry-wide compliance adjustments are made, the coal fleet should be as profitable as it would have been absent the environmental rules.
The study, "Potential Coal Plant Retirements: 2012 Update," was co-authored by Brattle principals Metin Celebi and Frank Graves, and research analyst Charles Russell. It is available for download at www.brattle.com.
The Brattle Group provides consulting services and expert testimony in economics and finance to corporations, law firms, and public agencies worldwide. Areas of expertise include antitrust and competition, valuation and damages, utility regulatory policy and ratemaking, and regulation and planning in network industries. For more information, please visit www.brattle.com.
SOURCE The Brattle Group
Why Transmission & Distribution Utilities Need Digital Twins
As with any new technology, Digital twins can create as many questions as answers. There can be a natural resistance, especially among senior utility executives who are used to the old ways and need a compelling case to invest in new ones.
So is digital twin just a fancy name for modelling? And why do many senior leaders and engineers at power transmission & distribution (T&D) companies have a gnawing feeling they should have one? Ultimately it comes down to one key question: is this a trend worth our time and money?
The short answer is yes, if approached intelligently and accounting for utilities’ specific needs. This is no case of runaway hype or an overwrought name for an underwhelming development – digital twin technology can be genuinely transformational if done right. So here are six reasons why in five years no T&D utility will want to be without a digital twin.
1. Smarter Asset Planning
A digital twin is a real-time digital counterpart of a utility’s real-world grid. A proper digital twin – and not just a static 3D model of some adjacent assets – represents the grid in as much detail as possible, is updated in real-time and can be used to model ‘what if’ scenarios to gauge the effects in real life. It is the repository in which to collect and index all network data, from images, to 3D pointclouds, to past reports and analyses.
With that in mind, an obvious use-case for a digital twin is planning upgrades and expansions. For example, if a developer wants to connect a major solar generation asset, what effect might that have on the grid assets, and will they need upgrading or reinforcement? A seasoned engineer can offer an educated prediction if they are familiar with the local assets, their age and their condition – but with a digital twin they can simply model the scenario on the digital twin and find out.
The decision is more likely to be the right one, the utility is less likely to be blindsided by unforeseen complications, and less time and money need be spent visiting the site and validating information.
As the energy transition accelerates, both transmission and distribution (T&D) utilities will receive more connection requests for anything from solar parks to electric vehicle charging infrastructure, to heat pumps and batteries – and all this on top of normal grid upgrade programs. A well-constructed digital twin may come to be an essential tool to keep up with the pace of change.
2. Improved Inspection and Maintenance
Utilities spend enormous amounts of time and money on asset inspection and maintenance – they have to in order to meet their operational and safety responsibilities. In order to make the task more manageable, most utilities try to prioritise the most critical or fragile parts of the network for inspection, based on past inspection data and engineers’ experience. Many are investigating how to better collect, store and analyze data in order to hone this process, with the ultimate goal of predicting where inspections and maintenance are going to be needed before problems arise.
The digital twin is the platform that contextualises this information. Data is tagged to assets in the model, analytics and AI algorithms are applied and suggested interventions are automatically flagged to the human user, who can understand what and where the problem is thanks to the twin. As new data is collected over time, the process only becomes more effective.
3. More Efficient Vegetation Management
Utilities – especially transmission utilities in areas of high wildfire-risk – are in a constant struggle with nature to keep vegetation in-check that surrounds power lines and other assets. Failure risks outages, damage to assets and even a fire threat. A comprehensive digital twin won’t just incorporate the grid assets – a network of powerlines and pylons isolated on an otherwise blank screen – but the immediate surroundings too. This means local houses, roads, waterways and trees.
If the twin is enriched with vegetation data on factors such as the species, growth rate and health of a tree, then the utility can use it to assess the risk from any given twig or branch neighbouring one of its assets, and prioritise and dispatch vegetation management crews accordingly.
And with expansion planning, inspection and maintenance, the value here is less labor-intensive and more cost-effective decision making and planning – essential in an industry of tight margins and constrained resources. What’s more, the value only rises over time as feedback allows the utility to finesse the program.
4. Automated powerline inspection
Remember though, that to be maximally useful, a digital twin must be kept up to date. A larger utility might blanche at the resources required to not just to map and inspect the network once in order to build the twin, but update that twin at regular intervals.
However, digital twins are also an enabling technology for another technological step-change – automated powerline inspection.
Imagine a fleet of sensor-equipped drones empowered to fly the lines almost constantly, returning (automatically) only to recharge their batteries. Not only would such a set-up be far cheaper to operate than a comparable fleet of human inspectors, it could provide far more detail at far more regular intervals, facilitating all the above benefits of better planning, inspection, maintenance and vegetation management. Human inspectors could be reserved for non-routine interventions that really require their hard-earned expertise.
In this scenario, the digital twin provides he ‘map’ by which the drone can plan a route and navigate itself, in conjunction with its sensors.
5. Improved Emergency Modelling and Faster Response
If the worst happens and emergency strikes, such as a wildfire or natural disaster, digital twins can again prove invaluable. The intricate, detailed understanding of the grid, assets and its surroundings that a digital twin gives is an element of order in a chaotic situation, and can guide the utility and emergency services alike in mounting an informed response.
And once again, the digital twin’s facility for ‘what-if’ scenario testing is especially useful for emergency preparedness. If a hurricane strikes at point X, what will be the effect on assets at point Y? If a downed pylon sparks a fire at point A, what residences are nearby and what does an evacuation plan look like?
6. Easier accommodation of external stakeholders
Finally, a digital twin can make lighter work of engaging with external stakeholders. The world doesn’t stand still, and a once blissfully-isolated powerline may suddenly find itself adjacent to a building site for a new building or road.
As well as planning for connection (see point 1), a digital twin takes the pain out of those processes that require interfacing with external stakeholders, such as maintenance contractors, arborists, trimming crews or local government agencies – the digital twin breaks down the silos between these groups and allows them to work from a single version of the truth – in future it could even be used as part of the bid process for contractors.
These six reasons for why digital twins will be indispensable to power T&D utilities are only the tip of the iceberg; the possibilities are endless given the constant advancement of data collection an analysis technology. No doubt these will invite even more questions – and we relish the challenge of answering them.