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Economic Currents

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Cost-Effectiveness of Controlling Invasive Miconia via Herbicide Ballistic Technology

Miconia calvescens is an invasive tree native to South and Central America that grows up to 50 feet with shallow root systems that promote erosion. The trees form thick monotypic stands, shading out native plants and threatening the watershed function of Hawaii’s forests. The quick growing miconia can mature in four years and produce 3 million seeds several times a year. It is thought that these seeds can remain viable for at least 18 years, and possibly much longer, before sprouting, potentially many more. Birds spread the tiny seeds when they eat the fruit, as do people when contaminated dirt or mud sticks to shoes, clothing, equipment, or vehicles.

Above: Herbicide is delivered via small purple pellet. Average treatment is 25 shots per plant.
Photo credit: Kimberly Burnett

Miconia was introduced to Maui in the early 1970s at a private nursery and botanical gardens near Hana, and now occurs in approximately 37,000 acres throughout East Maui. Maui Invasive Species Committee (MISC) has been managing Miconia for the last two decades, primarily through the use of ground crews and aerial treatment via long-line spray ball. Herbicide ballistic technology (HBT) was recently developed by Dr. James Leary (CTAHR, UH Manoa) as a way to complement these management strategies. The HBT platform delivers small amounts of herbicide into plant tissue from the air, allowing management in otherwise inaccessible locations. The herbicide is delivered via a small projectile fired from a device similar to a paintball gun.

Above: Getting a first-hand look at HBT operations in East Maui. L to R, Christopher Wada (UHERO), James Leary (CTAHR), Kimberly Burnett (UHERO).  Photo credit: Kimberly Burnett

UHERO’s Project Environment will be working with Dr. Leary to assess the cost-effectiveness of HBT technology relative to other management strategies. Key research questions include how to optimize frequency of surveillance, how to minimize the cost of reducing the population to a target level, where to focus HBT efforts (low density, isolated, high elevation/rainfall areas), and how to best combine HBT with other management strategies for maximum cost effectiveness.

--Kimberly Burnett and Christopher Wada

 

For more on the economics of Miconia from UHERO, see:

Economic impacts of non-indigenous species: Miconia and the Hawaiian economy

Invasive Species Control over Space and Time: Miconia calvescens on Oahu, Hawaii

Economic lessons from control efforts for an invasive species: Miconia calvescens in Hawaii

Prevention, Eradication, and Containment of Invasive Species: Illustrations from Hawaii

Control of Invasive Species: Lessons from Miconia in Hawaii

An Economic Assessment of Biological Control for Miconia calvescens in Hawaii


Incentives for the Utility

*This post follows up on two previous installments in the Sustainable Energy Blog Series: Embrace Policy Experiments for Demand Response and Four Years to Improve Renewable Energy.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to a renewable-energy future is that our utility, Hawaiian Electric Industries (HEI), has little or no incentive to transform its operation into a model more suited for renewable energy.  While there has been a lot of hand-wringing and criticism of HEI for its monopoly and slow approval of distributed solar, it’s important to realize the truly unprecedented change they are being forced to undertake.  And worse, the new cutting-edge system they are being asked to adopt will literally undermine its profits. 

Revenue decoupling (PDF) was supposed to correct HEI’s incentives by ensuring that the utility could recover the same revenue toward its operation costs even if they generated less electricity due to growth of distributed solar or improvements in energy efficiency, both of which have factored into higher electricity prices. 

Revenue decoupling does make HEI less vulnerable to improved efficiency and growth of renewable energy over the short run.  But over the long run the utility profits mainly from making new capital investments.  For such investments they receive a nearly guaranteed rate of return that far exceeds low-risk borrowing costs.  If the utility is forced to retire its old power plants and instead buy renewable energy from independent providers—the apparent inclination of the Public Utilities Commission---its rate base and profitability decline.   Thus, even under revenue decoupling, low-cost renewables do not accord with HEI’s interests. 

The larger problem is that the regulatory infrastructure is not conducive to a rapidly changing energy landscape in need of innovative and perhaps distributed solutions.  HEI has little incentive to control costs, much less increase renewable energy in a cost effective manner.

It doesn’t need to be this way.  We can fix regulatory incentives.  But given the novelty of the renewable energy system we are creating, combined with Hawai`i’s geographic uniqueness, it seems unlikely that we can simply borrow a regulatory model from the mainland.  Some are calling for our private utility to be replaced by publicly-run municipality, or possibly a cooperative like the one on Kaua`i.  These models might work.  But it’s not clear how long it would take to transition to these systems, or whether they will bring about the most innovative solutions. 

What’s the fix?  First, the utility needs to have some skin in the game. Full cost recovery via rate adjustments—the current regulatory situation---gives the utility virtually no incentive to be strategic in its management and planning.  Instead, if costs fall due to cost-effective development or contracting of renewables, the utility should get to keep a share of the gains.  The utility’s profits ought to be tied to its cost effectiveness, not the size of the capital outlay. At the same time, if oil prices rise, then the utility should absorb a share of the cost increases, such that it cares about oil price volatility just as its customers do. 

Second, to the extent that the state wishes to favor renewables over fossil fuels, fossil fuels should be explicitly taxed and renewables subsidized.  Such incentives could be made roughly revenue neutral and would be more effective at achieving renewable energy goals in a cost-effective manner than the state’s expensive and seemingly pointless renewable energy tax credits.  Federal credits are more-than-adequate to make distributed generation cost-effective to homeowners, even under revised rate structures.  And we should allow utility-scale and distributed renewable energy generation to compete on equal footing.  Instead of the tax credit, customers should be able to sell all surplus generation to the grid at appropriate real-time rates.

Of course, regulators will need to negotiate a baseline profit level, how the baseline will change over time, the share of overall cost changes born by the utility and passed on to customers, and whether the utility’s share of cost improvements ought to phase out over a number of years.  Regardless of these choices, these kinds of changes in regulatory structure would align the utility’s interests with their customers as well as the state’s renewable energy goals. 

The big, encouraging news is that the cost of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and slowing global warming now looks cheap.  While Hawai`i’s contribution to this global problem is minimal, if we can show the world how to do renewable energy in a smart, cost-effective manner, we could be a true global leader in helping to solve it.  But without smart policy, we’ll only serve the interests of denialists and naysayers who will point to Hawai`i’s renewable energy boondoggle as an excuse for inaction. 

- Michael Roberts


Embrace Policy Experiments for Demand Response

*This post follows up on the previous post in the Sustainable Energy Blog Series: Four Years to Improve Renewable Energy.

HECO has recently proposed new time-of-use rates and is developing pricing for various kinds of demand response programs.  The proposed programs are a long ways from the open-access, marginal-cost pricing, but they are a big step in the right direction.

Table 1.  Proposed Time-of-Use Rates in Hawai`i (cents per kilowatt-hour)

 

Mid-Day 

9am – 4pm

On-Peak 

4pm – 12am

Off-Peak 

12am – 9am

Hawaiian Electric (Oahu)  11.0413  36.1997  13.6755
Hawai`i Electric Light (Big Island)  15.7148  46.3867  17.8685
Maui Div. of Maui Electric  23.8116  45.7002  26.8383
Lanai Div. of Maui Electric  36.6396  52.3616  35.7913
Molokai Div. of Maui Electric  36.6396  52.8520  29.6548

 

The new time-of-use rates embody high-powered incentives for shifting loads to different times of the day (Table 1).  Depending on an individual household’s use profile, many should be able to reduce their bills even if they don’t change the way they use electricity.  Alternatively, some households might be tempted to install batteries, charging with solar or cheaper electricity during the daytime and discharging during nighttime peaks.  Such strategies should be economical given these price differentials.

Unfortunately, these rates only apply to residential customers, which is a small share of the load (about 27%).  To maximize load shifting potential and make use of real time meters already in place, we should quickly introduce variable prices for commercial-scale customers. 

While time-of-use pricing is a step forward, the proposed time-of-use prices, despite their apparent 4-digit precision, do not reflect the true incremental cost of electricity.  The true cost can vary significantly across hours in each block in the table of proposed rates, and across different days and seasons of the year.  Expensive peak loads, for example, fall off sharply by 9pm, but peak-load pricing extends until midnight.  Also, the difference between peak pricing and midday pricing far exceeds the current cost of serving these loads.  Values are likely to change rapidly as the generation mix shifts increasingly toward renewables, so it appears that proposed prices anticipate future changes in generation. While the incentives are strong enough to kick-start demand response programs, it’s hard for customers to know how the rate structures will change over time.  The uncertainty could discourage entrepreneurs looking to Hawai`i as a place to test their demand response technologies. 

Over time, variable pricing could be improved in a number of ways.  First, it is important to make the price-setting mechanism clear and transparent, so that customers and entrepreneurs developing smart devices can reasonably anticipate how prices will change going forward.  The guiding mechanism should link to the overall system’s marginal cost of electricity.  Second, customers should be given more choices.  Some may prefer time-of-use pricing with the proposed simple three-block structure; others might embrace full-fledged real time pricing; others may prefer something in-between.  As long as rates reflect typical costs in each block, customers will be free to choose a level of flexibility they are comfortable with.

Source: "Making an Optimal Plan for 100% Renewable Power in Hawaii"

How much will the new rates shift loads away from the peak and toward midday and early morning?  The reality is that it’s very hard to know.  In fact, it will still be difficult to know even after new rates have been implemented.  Many households could probably select time-of-use pricing and save money without shifting loads at all.  We won’t be able to tell whether they always tended to use electricity during the low-cost times or changed behavior as a result of time-of-use pricing.  To know, it is important to observe real-time electricity use before and after the rate change. And we would further need to rule out the possibility that other factors besides the rate change were affecting use.

To accurately measure how much demand-response bang for the time-of-use buck the system is getting from variable rates, or any other change in policy, we need to run actual experiments.  The idea is to offer up different pricing menus to different households and businesses for a trial run of a year or two.  The pricing menus would need to be randomly assigned across customers, in part for fairness, but also to ensure that observed changes are not a reflection of selection bias.  Some households might obtain opportunities to install smart devices that aid automatic shifting of loads. Some randomly selected customers would be reserved as controls, without the opportunity to choose a variable pricing contract.  Such experiments could measure the actual and potential demand response much more precisely than simply changing policy for everyone all at once. 

Of course, the public would need to be let in on the whole policy experiment. And it would further help to have some guidelines for how policy will evolve based on the outcomes of the experiments.  There are a number of successful examples of such experiments, some of which show great potential for curbing peak loads, and customers that are happy participating in the program.  While we can learn from policy experiments elsewhere, the load shifting needed in Hawai`i is different and more substantial.  We need our own, thoughtfully-designed experiments to learn the true potential for demand response.

- Michael Roberts

Next up:  Problems with the Utility’s Incentives and How We Can Improve Them


Four Years to Improve Renewable Energy

Without the debt-ceiling hijinks of earlier years, the federal budget bill passed at the end of last year with a lot less drama and press coverage. But little news turned out to be good news, at least for Hawai`i and renewable energy interests. The spending bill included an extension of the 30% tax credit for renewable energy that otherwise would have expired at the end of 2016. Under the new legislation, the tax credit will remain at 30% through the end of 2019, then step down gradually through 2021, and remain at 10% thereafter. The subsidy is especially valuable to Hawai`i because, under the State’s renewable portfolio standard, we will be ramping up renewable energy investments with or without it. That means free federal money for Hawai`i, potentially a whole lot of it, compliments of the other 49 states.

The extended subsidy, falling costs of renewable energy, plus an historic Paris Agreement, signed last month by all United Nations countries, gives great global momentum to renewable energy. A renewable-energy future now looks all too plausible, and there’s a chance it could happen fast. Even without subsidies, solar PV and wind are already competitive with coal and natural gas in the generation of electricity, and costs continue to fall. By the time federal subsidies bottom out, it appears likely that renewable energy will handily beat fossil fuels on a levelized-cost basis, not just in Hawai`i, but everywhere. Storage costs, the critical challenge for renewables, are also falling, and could fall much further as production scale increases for both electric cars and grid applications.

Renewable energy indirectly gained further momentum on the mainland from a Supreme Court ruling that upheld a rule by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) that forces grid operators to reward demand response at the same rates as incremental generation. The ruling should open up new markets for demand response, which in turn should improve the system-level cost effectiveness of variable and intermittent renewables. Although the ruling has no direct bearing on Hawai`i, the nascent industry of demand response systems could be helpful to our state and its renewable energy goals.

So, how can Hawai`i make the most of the situation? Part of the answer involves maximizing the benefits of extended federal subsidies, which probably means getting more renewables onto the grid sooner than later.

And part of the answer involves fully exploiting our leadership in renewable energy. Due to the high cost of imported oil and our old infrastructure, renewable energy is more economically viable here than in most places. At the same time, our isolated island economy makes the intermittency problem especially acute. But if we can do renewable energy right—which means efficiently dealing with intermittency challenges of solar and wind—it could bring economic opportunities to the State that far exceed any direct benefits from subsidies, lower dependence on imported, oil or even lower electricity bills.

The greater opportunity is that Hawai`i could become an innovation hub for new smart devices, batteries, thermal storage and perhaps other technologies that can aid demand response and can help solve intermittency challenges. Entrepreneurs should be anxious to test their new technologies in the place where they will be economical first. If new technologies are proven here, in subsequent years they will likely find much larger markets in California, other mainland states, Japan and the rest the world.

To some degree this kind of thing is already happening, but the potential is far greater. If Hawai`i can attract this kind of investment, it will bring high-skilled and high-paying jobs, along with the broader social and economic rewards that typically accompany them.

 
Open-Access Variable Pricing


The key to making all this happen boils down to better pricing and easy, open access to the grid. A few months ago UHERO’s Energy Policy and Planning Group argued that we should work toward a system in which anyone can buy or sell at the incremental cost of electricity generation, which varies a lot over seasons, hours of the day, and certain events, like unexpected power plant failures. While the FERC ruling does not force Hawai`i to price demand response as it does generation, we should nonetheless figure out a way to embrace the spirit of that ruling, and more.

Open-access variable pricing allows anyone to buy low and sell high, and thereby make a profit while helping to solve intermittency challenges, effectively rescheduling electricity use toward intermittent supply. Everyone benefits, whether they participate in variable pricing or not, since it lowers the overall cost of the system. Open-access variable pricing might improve efficiency a little today, but its benefits will grow much more with greater wind and PV solar penetration.

This vision stands in stark contrast to our current system in which a centralized utility adjusts supply to match time-varying demand. Demand response embraces the idea that balancing supply and demand need not be a one-sided proposition. A lot of electricity is used to heat water, pump water from aquifers and up hills to storage tanks. Perhaps as much as 40 percent of the load is used for air conditioning. All of these demand sources, and perhaps many others, could employ any number of technologies to shift electricity demand toward supply of renewables. These technologies, like smart, price forecasting water heaters, variable speed pumps and ice storage, could be automated to respond to price changes, saving money for hotels, the water utility, the military, and other large electricity customers. Such systems might even be used to stabilize short-run fluctuations in the grid, exacerbated by passing clouds and variable winds.

Savvy residential consumers might strategically time clothes washing, water heating, electric car charging and air conditioning, to save a few bucks or enjoy a cooler, more comfortable living situation when renewable energy is plentiful and prices are low. Or, more likely, engineers could build smart controllers for these machines such that they automatically run at opportune times. While this kind of residential demand response is not where the largest opportunities lie, the benefits could add up. The problem today is that, without real marginal-cost pricing for either buyers or sellers of electricity, there’s no incentive to create smart, price-forecasting controllers for appliances.

A greater potential for load shifting may lie with large-scale uses. Well over two thirds of electricity consumption on Oahu comes from commercial and industrial class customers. These large-scale users have a real stake in lowering energy cost and many already have real-time meters. It’s easy to imagine that 20-30 percent of our load might be shiftable to different times of the day. The savings could amount to the difference in cost between a 100 percent renewable systems and our conventional fossil-fuel based system.

Regardless of the potential savings, focusing on demand response first is the least-cost way to help balance a grid with a growing share of variable renewable supply. The longer we can put off investments in storage capacity, the less expensive those investments will be. And the pricing policies needed to entice demand response will provide a larger framework for optimally managing storage and the grid of the future.

Together with Matthias Fripp, Makena Coffman, and graduate students in UHERO’s Energy Policy & Planning Group, we are working to develop ballpark estimates of the potential savings. First-cut estimates indicate overall cost savings of roughly 20 percent if 30 percent of the load in each hour can be shifted to other times of the day. Looking forward, we hope to pin down more concrete estimates of shiftable loads at different times of day, season and weather-related circumstances.

I will follow this post with two more over the next couple days, one that discusses recently proposed time-of-use rates and ways they could be improved, and another discussing how we need to change incentives for our utility, Hawaiian Electric Industries, such that they better align with state goals.

- Michael Roberts

Next Up: Embrace Policy Experiments for Demand Response


New Perspectives on Honolulu's High Housing Prices

Posted January 28, 2016 | Categories: Hawaii's Economy

Single-family home prices in Honolulu soared to record highs in 2015, with the median price for the full year reaching $700,000. In the second quarter of 2015, only three U.S. cities had higher prices—San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara ($980,000), San Francisco-Oakland ($842,000), and Anaheim- Santa Ana-Irvine ($713,000)—and Honolulu’s price premium over the next highest city—San Diego ($548,000) is huge. High housing prices are, however, nothing new for Honolulu or the State of Hawaii. Census data show that home prices in Hawaii in 1950 were already higher than in the 48 mainland states. Honolulu’s long history of high land and housing prices relative to the U.S. mainland tells us that any explanations of high land and housing prices must be rooted in history to be valid. In my new UHERO report on land and housing markets in Honolulu, I identify four factors that have contributed to high housing prices in Honolulu over the last 50 years.

The first factor is somewhat obvious but perhaps the most important—Hawaii’s world-class amenities. Media and consulting firm surveys regularly place Honolulu among the top cities for quality of life. Consider the following attributes which are likely to positively affect the Honolulu price: warm ocean waters; high number of sun days, moderate temperatures, trades winds; a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic social environment, highlighted by the host Native Hawaiian culture; relatively low racial and ethnic tensions; and a low crime rate. To gain access to these positive environmental attributes, Honolulu residents compete with each other and with people living outside Hawaii to pay higher housing prices and to accept lower wages.

A second factor raising housing prices is that the competition to live in paradise is exacerbated by the population being concentrated in the smallest natural supply of land available in any U.S. metropolitan area. Honolulu has a very small natural supply of developable land, with roughly 92 percent of the 50-kilometre radius circle centered on the Honolulu downtown not developable, either being mountains, wetlands, lakes, harbors, or the Pacific Ocean. This is much higher than the 80 percent measure of undevelopable land for the next most constrained U.S. metropolitan area, Ventura, California, or the 63 percent in San Diego or the 40 percent in New York City. High rents in the central city that middleincome residents could normally escape by moving to a distant suburb would leave a Honolulu family paddling a canoe in the middle of the Moloka‘i Channel.

A third factor is land use regulation. The process of competition in Honolulu land and housing markets takes place under the watchful eyes of state and county governments that together impose the most severe regulation on land development to be found in any large U.S. metropolitan area. We compare Honolulu’s regulation with other U.S. cities by examining values of the Wharton Residential Land Use Regulatory Index, a respected index measuring land use regulation in U.S. cities. Developed by economists Joseph Gyourko, Albert Saiz, and Anita Summers, the Wharton Index aggregates 11 sub-indexes: a local political pressure index, a state political involvement index, a state court involvement index, a local zoning approval index, a local project approval index, a local assembly index, a supply restrictions index, a density restrictions index, an open space index, an exactions index, and an approval delay index. Honolulu has a higher value of the Wharton Index (compiled in 2006) than any other US metropolitan area. Its high score stems from the multiple layers of rigorous, lengthy review by both state and county governments for all new development projects.

A fourth factor that might be helping to keep Honolulu’s housing prices high is the “home voter” hypothesis, an idea first developed by the urban economist William Fischel in 2001. The idea is that high housing prices induce homeowners to vote for city and county officials who support regulations on residential development and to lobby against more development in their neighborhoods. This feedback effect from high home prices to even higher levels of regulation serves to maintain housing prices at elevated levels and protect home owners’ wealth. The economist Albert Saiz has found some empirical support for the home voter hypothesis in the overall U.S. sample. No direct evidence for the home voter hypothesis exists for Honolulu. Qualitative evidence is more abundant, as virtually any proposed new housing project or extensive redevelopment have encountered opposition in the courts, neighborhood, the Hawaii State Land Use Commission, or the Honolulu City Council.

-Sumner La Croix


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