The visible hand in economics

Archive for the ‘Energy Economics’ Category

The world price of oil has now declined to under $50US a barrel, a third of it’s peak value (live prices here).

This takes me back to a post we did at the end of May – when fuel costs were pushing up at a rate of knots. The topic was covered in the name: Collusion, multiple equilibrium, and petrol prices.

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Every day I look at the blog and don’t think I will have anything to write about – then I read some of the things that are sold on the political blogs and I find myself writing posts.

Frog blog discusses the issues they have with Nationals energy policy (something I gave some early impressions on here). Now they do have some fair points (I can understand concerns surrounding the RMA – given that we don’t know what the changes will be). However, the language they use in several parts of their discussion betrays a unreasonable focus on governments ability to improve the industry.

Fundamentally, I take issue with the way they use the following two of their claims:

  1. consumers will be left entirely to the whims of the … market,
  2. businesses, which are inherently inefficient

Lets discuss these below:

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The NZ Herald has just posted up the points raised by National in its energy strategy, and I have to say, I agree with a lot of it (however, note that I have not read the actual policy document – so this is just a discussion of “the concepts”)

There are three main policies:

  1. Remove the ban on new gas power stations and introduce an ETS,
  2. Look at security of supply with greater demand estimates than the government currently uses,
  3. Loosen the RMA to take into account “national interest”.

Let me say what I think below the tab.

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Conjecture is rife regarding why petrol prices have risen so strongly. There are a number of common explanations:

  1. Rising demand for oil,
  2. The weak US dollar, increasing the US$ price,
  3. Peak Oil (Infometrics article requires a subscription),
  4. Negative real interest rates in the US (as not mining the oil is the same as investing in inventories),
  5. and speculation.

All these factors are playing a part in the saga of ever rising oil prices. However, Calculated Risk has suggested another, highly interesting way that fuel prices could have risen – a backward bending supply curve and multiple equilibrium.

This idea is pretty cool – so I thought I would spend a little bit of time explaining how it could work.

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It can get a bit depressing talking about negative externalities all the time. It’s important not to forget that solving problems like climate change isn’t just about internalising negative externalities, we can also harness positive externalities. Apparently a ‘green’ club is installing a dancefloor that will use the kinetic energy of people dancing to power the light show! Video after the jump. Read the rest of this entry »

From the Hive we see that the government may be having trouble getting its mandatory biofuel regulation through parliament. Anyone that knows me will know that this makes me glad, not because I’m a climate change denialist (I’m willing to trust the experts on this one), not because I’m concerned about biofuel not having a net positive impact on carbon emissions, but because I don’t think the scheme is properly synchronized with the fact that we have a “carbon price” (through the carbon-trading scheme).

Why does setting a price for carbon mean that we don’t need to make biofuel’s mandatory? In order to explain this I’ll look at the three main criticisms I might get for this position (I’m hoping more criticisms can be added in the comments ;) ):

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Lots of people are ripping in to Monica Prasad after her op-ed in the NYT on carbon taxes. She says that

Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden have had carbon taxes in place since the 1990s, but the tax has not led to large declines in emissions in most of these countries… [T]he insight they provide is that if reducing emissions is the goal, then a carbon tax is a tax you want to impose but never collect.

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Most debate surrounding climate change focuses on the best method of suppressing demand for carbon intensive technologies. However, as Hans-Werner Sinn points out at VoxEU, reductions in demand for carbon could result in perverse incentives on the supply side. In particular, the suppliers of oil, coal and other non-renewable, carbon rich resources could face an incentive to increase their rate of extraction.

This arises because of the special nature of exhaustible resources: since there is a finite quantity of the resource to make profits from, the extractor tries to sell it when the price is highest. If carbon reduction policies are successful then we should observe declining demand for these resources over time. Decreasing demand will cause prices to fall and, since the extractors of oil can anticipate the price drops, they’ll try to sell as much now as possible. The increase in supply will cause prices to drop straight away which will trigger countries who have not signed up to Kyoto to consume more carbon rich fuels now.

The two ways this could be avoided are to either force the entire world to conform to the same Kyoto-type standards, or to forcibly restrict the supply of carbon rich fuels. Failure to do either of these things could result in global carbon emissions actually rising as momentum builds behind the environmental movement. Sinn thinks that the only way to cope is to invest heavily in afforestation to offset the extra emissions. Given the rate of global deforestation it can only be hoped that political pressure and reputation effects will be enough to prevent cheap oil flooding the world market. Thankfully oil prices show no signs of diving since the advent of the Kyoto protocol. So far at least…

The government has decided to ban the construction of new fossil fuel plants for the next 10 years, as they believe that they are unnecessary.   However, I feel that this policy is unnecessary.

I do believe that if we left power generation to the free market, too much CO2 would be produced, and our liability under the Kyoto protocol would be ‘too high’.  But wasn’t that why the government introduced a carbon trading scheme?

In economics terms, the externality from fossil fuel plants is greater than the externality from Hydro, or wind power generation.  The government can try to fix this externality by putting an externality charge on unit production (which is what a tax or a carbon trading scheme does) or by directly regulating the industry.  As the carbon trading scheme is coming into place, the firm producing the power will have to pay the full social cost of producing the power.  In this case, if the firm still decides to build a coal power plant instead of a wind farm, it must be because the full social cost of the coal plant is lower than the full social cost of the wind farm.  As a result, banning the construction of fossil fuel plants seems unnecessary, as in this example, society is better off with this coal plant than with the wind farm.

Over the weekend, Australian Prime Minister John Howard said that countries who supported reducing GHG emissions must support nuclear energy. Of course the one does not presuppose the other (non-sequitur), and New Zealand politicians came back saying that it was not for New Zealand. In reaction, I note a number of ‘straw-polls’ on websites such as Stuff and NZHerald, where more than half of self-selecting participants said that they wanted nuclear power in New Zealand.

I am not against nuclear power in New Zealand if a robust economic case can be supported for its use, relative to other generation sources. This case would, of course, have to internalise the probability of a nuclear disaster multiplied by the expected costs of such a disaster, and also the real difficulties of disposing of nuclear waste. On the other hand, the emissions of alternatives (such as coal thermal generation) would need to be internalised as a negative for them in comparison to nuclear.

I support analysis that works to such a framework as being a crude but generally good way to rank alternative generation sources, taking into account all of the many pros and cons of each. Unfortunately, most New Zealanders seem to think that because the only raw materials used in generating power from nuclear is a plant and a bit of Uranium, it must be cheap in comparison to a wind farm or photovoltaic (solar) generation, let alone coal or other thermal generation sources – which in New Zealand just is not true. This was best exemplified by a column by Michael Laws in yesterdays Sunday Star Times. Besides describing George W Bush as a very smart man, it suggested that nuclear was more cost effective than wind power and geothermal power (among others), and that an oil price of $2million a barrel was needed to justify the costs of marine energy (plain wrong) and that solar is not an opportunity for future generation (actually, solar is currently non-viable, but not anywhere near as what Mr Laws suggests. In 10-15 years it will probably be a goer).

Let us get some perspective here. With current nuclear technology, the cost of nuclear generation is around twice the current cost of generation in NZ. Wind is actually much more efficient than nuclear, does not emit, generate nuclear waste, or risk catastrophe. There is some visual impairment. But the cost of this is much less than that of storing nuclear waste, or the risks of nuclear disaster. Indeed, marine would at the very least appear to be roughly as economic as nuclear for NZ (and in terms of scale is much more economic), without counting the risk of catastrophe and the costs and risks of nuclear waste disposal.

I am not against nuclear power for NZ per se, but the debate needs to be grounded in economic facts. New generation nuclear technology, probably emerging in 10-15 years may be more suitable for New Zealand than current technology. We should keep an open mind when this comes, but also not just jump on it as an easy fix and a solution to all of our problems – there are a lot of things to think about and internalise when comparing different generation options, and this should be done with care. Knee jerk opinions such as Mr Laws’, based on nothing but perception, do not represent good economic analysis.


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