Saturday, October 1, 2016

Back Home* – Electricity Prices After the Mild Winter of 2015/2016

After a year away on my sabbatical in Botswana where I spent my time researching off-grid solar systems and learning about energy challenges in Southern Africa, I have returned home and am back to teaching and doing research at Franklin Pierce University. My time in Botswana was interesting, complicated, frustrating, and ultimately very rewarding. I had the opportunity to meet some very interesting people, I visited solar installations in some very unique and remote places, and was involved in the installation of a 20 kW photovoltaic system in a village just outside of Gaborone, the capital of the country. During my time in Botswana, I developed a far more nuanced understanding of the challenges associated with energy supply and demand in the developing world and learned to appreciate the reliable and inexpensive electricity and water supplies we have here in the US.  

Even though I plan to continue my interest in Southern African energy matters, I am now focusing again on NH energy issues. I thought it would be fitting to start where I left off a year ago and take a look at electricity prices and what the future might hold, especially after the mild weather experienced in New England last winter.

When looking at electricity prices, I always start by looking at wholesale prices. We have a very dynamic market for electricity in New England because we have a formal and well-run market organized by the independent system operator in New England, ISO-NE. (See my blog Extraordinary Machine to learn more.) We have 350 generators of electricity bidding to sell their electricity into the market. This includes nuclear power plants, coal, natural gas- and biomass-fired operations, as well as wind, solar, and hydro. This all makes for an interesting and dynamic market.

The figure below shows historical wholesale prices for electricity going back to 2010. It is interesting to note that, after three winters of spiking electricity prices, prices were very calm this past winter. This resulted from several factors.

Source: EIA

 First and most important, it was a mild winter – some have called it the winter that wasn’t (while I was away in Africa, my snow blower only received one workout). A good indication of how mild the winter was comes from examining the heating degree days (HDDs) (see A Hundred and Ten in the Shade for an explanation of heating degree days). The chart below shows HDDs for the past 12 years. We normally experience about 7000 HDD over a year (July to June) in NH and 6000 for the whole of NE; this past year, the values were ~15% lower, with values of 6000 and 5300, respectively. That was indeed a whole lot warmer, but I was taken by surprise that the HDD values for 2012/13 indicated an even warmer winter that year. Like many other folks, I tend have a short memory about past winters, except when they are extreme, but the data show that the winter of 2012/13 was the warmest in the past 12 years – at least as measured by HDDs values. An examination of the wholesale prices for that winter in the figure above shows some daily prices spikes, but nothing to the degree we experienced in the following three winters.
Source: ISO-NE

The other key driver for low electricity prices is low natural gas prices. Over the past winter, ~55% of the electricity produced in New England was from natural gas: as a result, natural gas prices had a big impact on what we paid for electricity. The two big uses of natural gas in NE are for home heating and electricity production. With the mild winter, there was enough natural gas to go around for both heating and generation. Daily prices did not spike, which was quite different from previous years. The figure below shows the extraordinarily tight correlation between natural gas prices and electricity prices in NE – when natural gas prices spike so do electricity prices.

Source: ISO-NE

Wholesale prices for electricity are presently of the order of 2 c/kWh. This is great, but what are the implications for us as retail electricity customers? Well, less positive than we would like. In NH this past winter, retail electricity prices were in the region of 18c/kWh, almost 9 times the wholesale rate, as shown in the figure below.

Source: EIA

It is important to appreciate that wholesale electricity prices are a small component of what we, as rate payers, shell out for electricity. Baked into the retail rates are a host of charges: there are charges to pay for the transmission and distribution networks; there are long-term contracts that the utilities have entered to purchase electricity (most likely at higher than 2 c/kWh); there are overheads, salaries for the utility company employees, etc.; and, in the case of Eversource, there is the cost of operating their generating facilities – which produce electricity for a whole lot more than 2 c/kWh. On top of this is the profit that the regulated utilities are allowed to earn on their investment in infrastructure. It is a long list of costs and additional charges that gets us all the way from 2 to 18 c/kWh and well worth a closer look in a future blog. It turns out that the utilities from which we buy our electricity end up buying a relatively small portion of their electricity from the wholesale market – a lot of their supply is from long-term contracts that they signed up for years ago. Of course, when wholesale prices are low we don’t like this but, when prices spike up to 45 c/kWh, as they did in the winter of 2013/14, we are quite grateful that our electricity suppliers have locked into lower cost long-term contracts.

Despite last year’s mild winter weather, if this upcoming winter were to be a very cold one, we should expect to see spikes in both natural gas prices and wholesale electricity rates that will impact what we pay for electricity. ISO-NE has taken some important steps in New England to mitigate these spikes through their winter reliability program and by increasing storage of liquefied natural gas, but we have not taken any steps to significantly increase natural gas supply. If we have a very cold winter again, we will see price spikes and then we will go through another round of handwringing and planning for increasing natural gas supply. The truth of the matter is that we do not have a long-term view about our energy supply here in New England. Plans to increase natural gas supply have been scuttled due to opposition or our desire to have the pipeline companies take all the risk. These are both good reasons for not increasing supply, but we must bear in mind that most existing energy infrastructure in the US has been built with some government intervention via regulated monopolies. Ultimately, every one of those infrastructure investments impacted somebody somewhere. If we do not want to invest in energy efficiency, we as energy consumers will end up paying in one of two ways: we will pay for infrastructure investments through costs and direct impacts on our property, our environment, and way of life, or we will suffer the consequences of not investing in infrastructure and creating unreliable supply conditions. Ultimately, it is our choice.

I like to take a look at what the futures markets are predicting for NE electricity prices and, even though futures markets are about looking forward, I also like to look back at their prices from the previous year and see how things have changed, especially with the warm winter we had. The figure below is a comparison of the future prices from last year with those at present. It is clear that there has been some change in the market’s view of upcoming electricity prices. As usual, we are seeing a market forecast of winter price spikes, but, compared with last year, the spikes are smaller and the base-line prices are also lower. This chart also gives one a sense of the challenges the utility companies face as they look to lock in sufficient electricity to supply us over the coming years. Do they secure long-term higher-priced electricity contracts, do they subject us to the whims of the short-term markets and maybe prices won’t spike again like last winter, or do they mitigate potential price spikes by buying insurance through futures contracts. These are important and challenging decisions that the utilities make under regulatory supervision because ultimately it is NH ratepayers that end up paying for whatever choice they make. What would you do?

Source: CME

As we consider the consequences of choices, I am going to wrap up this data-heavy post with an updated chart for default electricity rates for the four NH regulated electricity utilities. (Remember that default rates only reflect the retail costs of electricity and do not include the distribution costs.) These rates, shown below, are a direct reflection of the choices the utilities have made, under regulatory mandates, regarding the sourcing of electricity. Presently, PSNH default rates are substantially higher than those of Liberty, Unitil, and the NH Electric Cooperative. The rates for PSNH presently reflect the high costs associated with operating their own generation facilities, including the coal-fired Merrimack power plant. Even though there have been times that the rates for the other utilities have been higher than those for PSNH (due to wholesale market price spikes), their default rates have generally been lower. Now that the divestiture of the PSNH generating assets has finally started, it will be interesting to follow how PSNH’s rates in the future will compare with those of the other NH utilities.

Source: NH PUC

That wraps it up for this post. It is good to be back teaching in NH and learning about statewide energy matters. Feel free to email me to suggest topics for future blogs and, in the meantime, remember to turn off the lights when you leave the room.

Mike Mooiman
Franklin Pierce University

*Back Home A great upbeat singalong tune by Andy Grammar

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Next Year* - New Hampshire Electricity Price Update

While we are all enjoying the fine summer weather, I thought it would be useful to take a look back at electricity rates for this past winter and to think about what the coming winter might hold for us. Before we get into this topic, however, I need to note that this will be my last blog on New Hampshire energy issues for the next year. I am heading off to Botswana, Southern Africa, as a Fulbright scholar, where I will be studying energy matters in Botswana, with a particular focus on the solar energy field and storage technologies. As you can imagine, the energy issues in a developing country are quite different. Here in NH, we are all used to reliable, inexpensive electricity whereas, in Africa, two-thirds of the population do not even have access to electricity, it can be very expensive, and, when available, it is often not reliable. In NH, we sometimes seem intent on blocking the development of any energy projects, whereas in Africa energy infrastructure development is welcomed, encouraged, and supported. The energy field and the associated issues will be quite different and I am looking forward to learning more. While down in Southern Africa, I will be firing up a new blog, titled Energy in Botswana, so if you are interested in following my energy explorations in this part of the world, drop me an email and I will put you on a notification list. But back to NH energy matters…

In my last blog on electricity rates in NH, Gonna Take You Higher, I noted the following:
  • Wholesale prices (and thus retail prices) for electricity during the 2013/2014 winter increased due to natural gas pipeline constraints.
  • The three deregulated utilities—NH Electric Co-op, Unitil, and Liberty Utilities— substantially increased in their winter default service rates, with price increases ranging from 60 to 75%.
  • PSNH rates only increased by 4% and they ended up with the lowest rates in the state.
  • The increases were due to the fact that Unitil and Liberty Utilities were compelled to lock in electricity prices from the short-term 2014/2015 futures market for electricity where prices had skyrocketed due to the high prices of the 2013/2014 wholesale market.
  • I made the recommendation that the utilities should not be restricted to purchasing their future electricity supply to just six months out and that they be allowed to adopt a portfolio approach of both long- and short-term electricity supply agreements to mitigate the effects of short-term price spikes.

I thought it would be interesting to take a look at what actually happened over the winter and what has happened since then.

As shown in the figure below, wholesale electricity prices did spike over the winter but nowhere near the frequency, duration, or magnitude of the previous winter. Peak prices were even lower than those of the 2012/2013 winter.
Data Source: EIA

Compared with the previous two winters, prices increases this year were moderate and actual wholesale rates were lower than the futures prices at the start of the season. In October 2014, futures prices for the winter peak in January and February were ~18 c/kWh (see Gonna Take You Higher).  In January and February 2015, although the wholesale market prices peaked at ~12 c/kWh for January and 20 c/kWh for February, the daily averages for those months were a lot lower—at 8.7 and 13.7 c/kWh, respectively.

This means that when  the electrical utilities bought electricity on the futures market, it is likely they overpaid relative to actual day-ahead wholesale prices. However, this the essence of hedging (or locking in) the price of a commodity ahead of the time you actually need it:  if actual prices turn out to be lower, you end up overpaying, but, if prices end up higher, you are very pleased. Hedging is just like paying for insurance – you pay a premium to protect yourself: it is not about getting the lowest possible price; rather, it is about reducing risk and avoiding exposure to excessive price increases.

After those very large winter increases, the summer default rates plummeted and the three deregulated utilities ended up with rates lower than that of PSNH, which again had the highest rates in the state. The figure below gives an historical record of the default rates for the four NH electrical utilities.

Data Source: Courtesy of NH PUC

Futures prices for electricity for the upcoming winter are currently pretty low compared with those of years past (see the figure below).  The futures markets indicate prices of the order of 12 c/kWh for the Jan/Feb 2016 winter peak, with further decreases expected in the following winters. These lower futures prices are most likely a reflection of the changes that we are seeing in the New England electricity market. The local electricity supply coordinator, ISO-NE, has worked hard to mitigate the extent and duration of the winter spikes by implementing a winter reliability program in which owners of oil-based generating facilities and liquefied natural gas storage operations are paid to store fuel. This ensures a reliable and predicable backup supply of alternative fuels to generate electricity should there be bottlenecks in the natural gas supply from pipelines. 

Data Source: CME
My predictions for electricity rates for the next few years are that we will continue to see short-term winter spikes due to natural gas pipeline congestion during high demand periods but that these spikes will moderate over time as ISO-NE expands and improves its winter reliability program, as some the natural gas pipeline projects get implemented, and as more Canadian hydro power makes its way down to New England.

Since the deregulation of electricity supply in NH, customers are no longer compelled to purchase their electricity from their default provider. Given the big fluctuations in default energy rates and the availability of competitive suppliers, I thought it would be interesting to look at how customers have responded – are they flocking to competitive suppliers or are they staying with their default utility? I took a look at the customer migration numbers for PSNH – the largest NH utility. The chart below shows data for the past three years. The data in orange show that, from about July 2012, the number of residential customers purchasing their electricity from competitive suppliers started to accelerate, and this trend really kicked in in the first quarter of 2013 when there was big movement of customers to competitive suppliers. The numbers reached a peak at the end of 2013, when approximately 28% of PSNH residential electricity customers were supplied by other companies. Since then, there has been a slow decrease and, presently, some 20% of the electricity supply to residences comes from competitive suppliers. The data in blue, which is for all PSNH customers (including small and large commercial and industrial enterprises), show that, in October 2013, almost 60% of all electricity distributed by PSNH came from competitive supplies. The numbers have fluctuated since then but, this past winter, this number fell below 40%, corresponding to a big migration back to PSNH due to their lower default rates. There is now a slow movement away from PSNH again, as lower summer rates begin to appear attractive to the commercial and industrial enterprises. 

Data Source: NH PUC

Some months ago I wrote about a website called, which allows you to compare electricity costs from competitive suppliers in your service area. At that time, was only presenting information for suppliers who agreed to have their rates posted. has advanced since then and now provides details for a larger number of competitive suppliers. In my last blog on this topic, I noted that rates for only three competitive suppliers were listed for the Manchester service area. Yesterday, I noted that are now seven different suppliers listed, with 40 different plans, ranging from 1 to 36 months, and including various renewable energy sources. A few weeks ago, notified me of two electricity supply plans from competitive suppliers offering lower rates in the PSNH service area. This website is a good place to start if you are considering looking for a competitive supplier but I caution you to do your research and make sure that you understand the contract terms – remember that there can be costs for switching and the competitive suppliers can shunt you back to the service utility in your area at their discretion.

As I noted at the start, this will be my last blog until I return next year.* If you are interested in following my energy adventures down in Botswana, please drop me a note at my email address below. In the meantime, thank you for your interest in my work. Keep in touch, let me know what is happening in NH while I am away, and remember to turn off the lights when you leave the room.

Mike Mooiman
Franklin Pierce University

(*Next Year - A very appropriate song by the Foo Fighters featuring the ubiquitous Dave Grohl. Great video too. Enjoy Next Year.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Gimme Some Money* – The PSNH Divestiture Settlement Deal - Part 2

In my last post, I covered some of the details regarding the PSNH/Eversouce divestiture deal that rolls the three big outstanding PSNH matters – the scrubber costs and recovery investigation, the sell-off of PSNH generating assets, and the impact  of PSNH’s ownership of generating assets on its default service customers – into a single settlement. Legislation related to the deal, in the form of Senate Bill 221, made its way through the NH General Court.  This Bill is not an approval of the deal but does permit the securitization of stranded costs to take place once the PSNH electricity-generating assets have been sold. The details of the settlement have been outlined in the agreement between the State negotiating team and PSNH but it will be up to the NH Public Utilities Commission to finalize all the details and to figure out who will pay what and when.

In Last Fair Deal Gone Down, I laid out my general understanding of the big issues at stake in this complex deal. However, I have a particular interest in the numbers and where the various piles of money will end up once this particular money tree gets shaken. As is usual with utility rate cases, when the numbers are spread out over billions of units of electricity, kilowatt hours (kWh), they don’t seem so bad but, when the absolute dollar amounts are calculated, they can be staggering. In utility cases there are two sets of numbers that need to be tracked: the total dollar amount and then that amount divided by the number of kWh. Both are important and both are relevant.

Let’s start with some of the big kWh numbers.

According to the  PSNH customer migration reports, there were approximately 390,000 customers getting their electricity supplied through PSNH’s default electricity supply service in 2014. The total amount of electricity supplied through this service in 2014 was ~3.8 billion kWh. This means that the average amount of electricity consumed by each customer was 9800 kWh/year or 810 kWh/month. These so-called default-service (DS) customers are largely residential in nature along with a few smaller industrial and commercial customers.
However, PSNH also has another set of customers. These customers purchase their electricity from competitive suppliers but that electricity still has be delivered over PSNH’s transmission and distribution lines. This pool of transmission and distribution customers is larger because it includes the DS customers. There are some 504,000 transmission and distribution (T&D) service customers and, in 2014, the total amount of electricity transmitted through the PSNH lines was ~7.9 billion kWh. This means that 52% of the electricity transmitted by PSNH was supplied by their competitors. These non-DS customers are largely the big commercial and industrial users of electricity, however it is notable that ~20% of residential customers buy their electricity from competitive suppliers. Graphically, the two sets of customers appear as follows:

Now that we have a sense of PSNH’s two customer pools, let’s turn to the big piles of money that are involved in this deal.  Bear in mind that these numbers are approximate only and they will change as the calculations are refined. They are also very dependent on the exact timing of the approval and completion of the deal, the final sales price for PSNH’s generating assets, as well as when the sale of the generating assets actually takes place.

These are the big piles of money:
  1.  Lower DS Rates: Let’s start with the good news. The whole point of deregulation is to provide utility customers with access to lower cost electricity that should result from a competitive market. Generally speaking, default service rates from utilities that access electricity supply from the competitive wholesale markets in NE have been lower, as shown in the chart below.
    The other NH utilities—Liberty, New Hampshire Electricity Cooperative, and Unitil—completed their deregulation activities a while ago and sold off their generating assets. As can be noted from the chart above, their rates, in general, have been about 20% or 2 cents/kWh lower than the PSNH rates. This has not always been the case because competitive markets are subject to supply constraints and growing demand. As a consequence, prices can increase and sometimes quite sharply. We saw this just this past winter when the rates for these three deregulated utilities shot up above the PSNH rate. Going back to the historical savings of 2 cents/kWh, the hope is that, going forward, PSNH DS customers will benefit from these savings. If this is indeed the case, then this 2 cents/kWh savings multiplied by the 3.8 billion kWh of electricity sold to DS customers every year would result in annual savings of $76 million. This would end up in the pockets of DS service customers only. A nice chunk of change—but not at all guaranteed because this is very much subject to the constraints of the New England wholesale electricity market which, in turn, is held in check by natural gas supply and pricing. As mutual fund and investment gurus continually remind us, “Past performance is not an indicator of future results.”
  2. Stranded costs: This is the difference between the book value of PSNH assets and their eventual sale price. This is estimated to be of the order of ~$400 million. PSNH will get a check for this amount which will be funded by the issuance of rate reduction bonds (see Walking on the Wild Side) – which is the purpose of Senate Bill 221. In other words, PSNH customers—including those buying from competitive suppliers—will end up borrowing money at market rates, hopefully at about 4%, to pay PSNH for these stranded costs. PSNH customers will be on the hook for these costs for the next 15 years. The $400 million borrowed at 4% over 15 years will result in an annual cost of $35 million. Spread over the 7.9 billion kWh of electricity delivered to all PSNH customers annually, this will result in an increased cost to both DS and non-DS customers of about 0.44 cents/kWh.                                                                          
  3.  Deferred payments on the scrubber returns: The scrubber went into service in 2011. It was estimated then that the payments to PSNH to cover their operations and maintenance (O&M) costs as well as their return on the scrubber should have been ~$65 million per year. This cost would typically have been recovered through DS rates. However, as I have noted in previous posts, the scrubber costs have been controversial and a prudency review was initiated to investigate the cause of the cost overruns. In the meantime, an agreement was negotiated that allowed PSNH to recover 2/3 of the scrubber-related costs. These were built into the DS rates. PSNH has therefore not been collecting their full costs and return on the scrubber and that unpaid amount has been accumulating. By the end of this year, it will have grown to about $140 million. Per the proposed PSNH deal, these costs will be recovered from all PSNH customers over seven years. The annual cost is $20 million ($140 million/7 years) which, spread over the 7.9 billion kWh of electricity delivered to all PSNH customers, will result in an additional  0.25 cents/kWh for all PSNH customers. This amount will likely change as starting in January 2016, all scrubber costs, including the deferred amounts will go into the DS rates, until such time divestiture is complete.
  4. Power purchase agreements:  PSNH has long-term power purchase agreements (PPAs) for renewable energy with the Lempster wind project, owned by Iberdrola, and the converted Berlin paper mill that was turned into a large wood-burning electricity generator, Burgess Biopower, that need to be honored as part of the deal. The costs will be picked up PSNH customers. The consultant report commissioned by the PUC estimated that the Lempster PPA is contracted at close to market prices and there $5 million gain to PSNH if it were sold. The Burgess Biopower PPA, however, is an entirely different matter. The consultants have estimated that, if this agreement were sold, PSSH would have to pay the acquirer ~$125 million to compensate for the above-market prices. The costs for these PPAs are likely to be paid by all PSNH customers. These costs are estimated to be of the order of $10 million per year, which, when divided by the 7.9 billion kWh supplied to DS customers, results in a further cost of 0.13 cents/kWh. The annual costs will vary depending to market prices for electricity and renewable energy credits and could be higher.                                                      
  5. Two-year moratorium on T&D Rate Increases. As part of the deal  PSNH agreed to hold off on annual increases in their T&D rates for two years (except for reliability enhancement projects). This should result in an annual savings of $35 million, which is equivalent to 0.44 cents/kWh for all PSNH customers but just for two years.
All these savings and costs are summarized in the table below. The grey columns show the total savings or costs and how they will be spread between DS and non-DS customers. The green-highlighted columns show the costs in cents per kWh after dividing by the annual kWh in each customer pool.

It should be noted that my numbers differ somewhat from those that have been published in press releases. In the original press release, a savings of $300 million over five years was touted for DS customers. My calculations shows a savings to DS customers of  $273 million over five years – most likely because I used a higher interest rate for securitization. My estimate is that over the 15-year life of securitization, the savings to DS customers could be over $800 million dollars, but—and this is important—this is based on, as I noted earlier, a very squishy DS savings of $80 million per year.

This might all seem well and good for DS customers, however, it needs to be appreciated that these savings are occurring on the backs of the PSNH customers that are presently getting their electricity supply from competitive suppliers. These non-DS customers will not realize any savings – they will only pick up costs, as shown in the table above.  I have calculated that this will cost them about $128 million over the first five years and $373 million over the 15 years of the securitization. When you look at these numbers, it is clear why the large industrial electricity users who migrated to competitive suppliers many years ago are not at all impressed with this deal.

So there you have my understanding of where and how the big piles of money will end up in this deal. A lot of details need to be worked out and there is still much discussion and negotiation underway to determine how the various costs will be allocated between DS and non-DS customers. One of the proposals under consideration is that the DS customers will pick up a larger portion of the securitization costs.

This deal is a complicated matter but it seems to provide more certainty than the alternative which is not proceeding with divestiture. However, the time aspect of this deal cannot be overstated. The longer this is dragged out, the more expensive and more complicated it will become: interest rates will go up, the accumulation in the deferred scrubber cost account will increase, and costs will generally increase. Timely resolution would seem to be the prudent course of action.

Until next time, remember to turn off the lights when you leave the room.

Mike Mooiman
Franklin Pierce University

(*Gimme Some Money – A tune from one of my favorite rock movies “This is Spinal Tap”, the mockumentary of the fictional Spinal Tap rock group. Some great tunes in this movie and the famous Stonehenge scene still makes me chuckle. Gimme Some Money features The Thamesmen appearing on British TV, a la early Beatles and Stones. Enjoy and Go Nigel Go!) 

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Last Fair Deal Gone Down* – The PSNH Divestiture Settlement Deal

It has been some time since my last blog but I have been out and about, immersing myself in the solar energy field and working on combined heat and power consulting projects. There is an awful lot happening in the NH energy field – there are natural gas pipeline routing issues, there are grabs for renewable energy fund money to balance budgets, and there is the recently announced PSNH divestiture deal. In this blog, I am going to focus on the PSNH deal as I have written quite a bit about this topic in the past. (I know that PSNH and its parent company have been rebranded under the new name “Eversource” but I will continue to use the “PSNH” terminology as it is still useful.)

Overall, this is a big deal—and in more ways than one. The three big outstanding PSNH matters – the scrubber costs and recovery investigation, the sell-off of PSNH generating assets, and the investigation of PSNH ownership of generating assets on its default service customers are lumped together in a single settlement. It involves a lot of money, is complicated, and is likely to have an impact on all PSNH customers for a long, long time. A big deal indeed!

I have been trying to understand this settlement and learn more. For a deal of this complexity, I will remark that there is surprisingly little documentation: there is only the term sheet posted on the PUC website and a single press release. I have chatted to several people trying to understand more. For a deal so important to NH, PSNH electricity rate payers, and the New England electricity market, it certainly—at the moment—lacks transparency.  I hope that this will improve over time.

So this is what I know:

  • The deal bundles the scrubber settlement, divestiture of generating assets, stranded cost recovery, and a bunch of other odds and ends into one agreement. In so doing, it completes the deregulation process that started in 1996.  
  • PSNH will take a $25 million haircut on the cost of the scrubber. To recap: the original deal was supposed to cost $250 million but, by the time it was done, it cost $422 million and PSNH was looking to electricity ratepayers to pick up the entire tab and  to pay their ~10% return on the investment. PSNH had been partially successful in this regard and had negotiated to get ratepayers to start paying two-thirds of the costs. The $25 million in this deal is a discount of 15% on the cost overrun.
  • From Jan 2016, PSNH’s default electricity customers will be paying the full amount of the scrubber (minus that $25 million) over 7 years, while allowing PSNH to earn their 9.67% regulated rate of return. This will continue until the generating assets are sold.
  • However, since PSNH ratepayers have only been paying for 2/3 of the scrubber costs so far, the obligations and returns on the remaining one-third have been accumulating. The total in this account is now of the order of $105 million. Someone is going to have to pay for this in one way or another.
  • The deal requires PSNH to sell their generating assets but the new owners will be obligated to keep the plants in service for at least 18 months. PSNH has several generating assets (shown in the table below) and some of the new owners will want to keep them running. Some of the hydro-generating plants have been running for close to 100 years and probably could do so for another 100. The coal-fired power plants are, however, another issue. In a low-priced natural gas market, their value is marginal: requiring the new owners to keep them running for 18 months after purchase when they may have only salvage value could further depress the  price. Consider the table below, which presents data on the utilization of the PSNH plants. One has to question who would buy those plants and keep them running until they can be scrapped, redeveloped, or re-engineered to burn natural gas. They might have some value on the electrical-capacity market, but only time will tell. I don’t believe these old plants will be sold very easily or quickly – PSNH may even have to pay someone to take on those assets.

  • The difference between the book value and actual market value is termed “stranded costs”, because this is the amount that PSNH invested in generating assets that they are now obligated, due to deregulation, to sell at loss. PSNH will also not earn a return on the stranded costs.  By law, PSNH is eligible to recover these stranded costs from its ratepayers. In other words, PSNH is entitled to get a check for this amount that they can invest elsewhere to earn a return.
  • We have the book value, $660 million, of PSNH assets. From this, we subtract the value that PSNH may realize from the sale of the assets, ~$225 million, as well as the $25 discount on the scrubber. This leaves us with approximately $410 million of stranded costs.
  • The check for $410 million in stranded costs that must be paid to PSNH will be funded through a 15-year stranded costs securitization deal at a lower interest rate, which hopefully will be of the order of 3 to 4%.  This is exactly like refinancing a mortgage on a home – instead of continuing to pay PSNH their 9.67% on the depreciating book value of their generating assets, PSNH ratepayers are going to pay someone else 4%. My post Walking on the Wild Side discusses securitization of stranded costs in more detail. 
  • My stranded costs calculations do not take into account the fact that PSNH had entered into some pretty sweet long-term deals with the Lempster wind-power plant and with the wood-burning operation at the converted Burgess paper mill in Berlin. According to a consultant report commissioned by the PUC, the market value of these deals is a negative $120 million (!). These costs could be bundled into the stranded costs calculation and increase the amount that will need to be funded.
  • The odds and ends in this deal involve the setup of a $5 million renewable energy fund, another fund that will be used to compensate municipalities for the decline in property taxes that are sure to result from the decreased property valuations that will occur after the sale of the generating assets and some as-yet unquantified protections for union workers at the affected properties.

As I noted earlier, this is a complicated, messy, and expensive deal, with long-term obligations for PSNH ratepayers—but here is the rub. Ratepayers could get angry and annoyed and royally ticked off. NH legislators could fight it and try to renegotiate it and drag it out for the next few years, and then it will be taken through the courts which will take a few more years. In the meantime,  PSNH, as a regulated utility responsible for supplying default electricity to their customers, will charge their customers for the scrubber and those aging assets and coal plants. PSNH will be making money all the time while legislators try to renegotiate the deal. 

In meantime, it is highly likely that interest rates will rise and the very low interest rates that are currently available for refinancing will increase. Ratepayers will then have to pay more for the deal and—even though it might be viewed as unfair— the very pragmatic approach is to pay PSNH a big chunk of change as soon as possible so that NH can move along with deregulation. Some might view it as being in the utility’s best interest to drag along this process as long as possible but this is what happens when a process is not completed –someone ends up paying. 

There is another concern to consider if this deal drags out. PSNH’s default electric service rates this summer will most likely be above market rates, which could promote migration to competitive suppliers. Such a process has the potential to accelerate rapidly, leaving fewer and fewer PSNH customers on the hook for all of PSNH’s costs associated with those generation plants. This will increase prices for the remaining customers, which will promote more migration and eventually the one remaining PSNH customer is going to be responsible for all the PSNH costs. This so-called “death spiral” would create a crisis both for PSNH and for NH because someone is going to have to pick up the tab. I am not clear as to what the end game would be in this situation, but I do know that some nasty legal battles will ensue and a lot of money would be wasted in the process. There is clearly a price to be paid for dragging out this deal.

So what do PSNH default electricity rate payers get out of the deal if it closes soon? Well, they will have to pay PSNH for the stranded costs and enable PSNH to get their full return on the scrubber until the Merrimack plant is sold.  Over time, this deal should result in savings for PSNH default electricity ratepayers because they will benefit from the lower mortgage on those assets. They should also benefit from lower default service rates going forward because all of PSNH electricity supply will be sourced from the New England wholesale market. Various amounts have been touted for these savings. The PSNH press release indicated savings of $300 million over the first five years of the deal. I plan to dig deeper into these savings figures in a future blog.

However—and this is a big Howeverthis refinancing deal will only work if all PSNH customers pick up the tab, i.e., all residential, commercial, and industrial customers in the PSNH service areas, even if they buy their electricity from a competitor. The deal will not work if just default electrical service customers have to pay, because they can leave. Every time a default customer leaves, the remaining customers must carry a larger piece of the remaining costs. It is important that these charges cannot be bypassed. This means all PSNH customers, and especially the industrial and commercial customers who buy their electricity from other competitive suppliers, will be caught up in the payment net and will see their rates increase. The essence of the settlement is that to complete deregulation and to get the remaining PSNH default electricity service customers off the hook, all customers in the PSNH service areas are going to have to pay for the stranded cost recovery charges.

Here are some of the questions I have been asked about the deal.
  • Is this a good deal or a bad deal? – It all depends on your perspective and your level of pragmatism. Some may say “Hey, it's a deal”—which is better than no deal. Customers who migrated to competitive suppliers on the understanding that they would not be held responsible for the scrubber costs will now be gathered up in the net of payers. For large industrial and commercial customers, who feel the sting of high electricity prices acutely, this is going to be particularly painful. Their costs will rise and it will put them at a competitive disadvantage: some may even consider relocating to states with lower energy costs.
  • What is the alternative? – We take the deal off the table and continue with the scrubber cost prudency review. If the outcome is that PSNH overspent on the scrubber and are entitled to a smaller recovery, you can be assured that a long-winded legal battle will ensue. Perhaps in this process, PSNH will take a larger haircut on the scrubber than the $25 million that they have presently agreed to. In the meantime, default service rate payers will continue to pick up the tab, their rates will rise, and more will leave PSNH for competitive suppliers, pushing PSNH closer to that death spiral. Some larger users of electricity might see some benefits from this, because it pushes the obligations and costs of having to contribute to stranded cost recovery out into the future but it could end up being a lot messier and expensive in the process.
  • Does PSNH make out? – To a degree, but less than they were entitled to, as per the regulatory compact that we have with utilities and that they are entitled to by law. Monopolistic and regulated utilities are a necessary part of our energy infrastructure: this is the price we have to pay if we want the lights to turn on at a flick of a switch.
  • Do PSNH default customers save money? – Yeah. They will be paying a lower interest rate on the assets and there will now be a larger group of PSNH customers helping to pick up the tab. Default electricity customers, mainly residential customers, should eventually see some rate relief.
  • Will all PSNH customers and distribution and electricity supply customers pick up the tab? – Most probably.
  • Is there a better deal out there? – I’m not sure, but I do know that it will take years to negotiate and that, in the meantime, PSNH will continue to earn a return on the book value of their generating assets. Default electricity service customers pay above market rates and increasing migration could cause a crisis. Bear in mind that there are some looming environmental mandates out there, such as the EPA requirement for cooling towers at the Merrimack plant, which will further burden rate payers.
Some have characterized this deal as “suck it up, pay up and move on”. This might be a harsh characterization and, even though I do not have horse in this race, it might well be time for some well-considered pragmatism. This situation is a mess due to the stop/start approach to deregulation, poorly crafted legislation, lack of oversight and transparency on the scrubber costs, and some bruising utility related legal battles in the past in which the State of NH has not come out well. Indeed, there is plenty of blame to go around but, at this stage, I am not sure what is gained from digging up old graves and beating on the remains. Perhaps it is time to buy the expensive headstone, agree to pay for fresh flowers every month for the next 15 years, and put this matter to rest.  

When thinking about this deal, the words of the late great Robert Johnson, the blues guitarist, in his song “Last Fair Deal Gone Down”*, come to mind:

Ida Belle, don't cry this time
Ida Belle, don't cry this time
If you cry about a nickel, you'll die about a dime
She wouldn't cry, but your money won't mine

Until next time,  remember to turn off the lights when you leave the room. 

Mike Mooiman
Franklin Pierce University
(*Last Fair Deal Gone Down: A tune by the great blues guitarist Robert Johnson covered here by Eric Clapton on his 2004 Me and Mr. Johnson album.)