Sunday, April 21, 2013

It Don’t Come Easy* - Wood-Fired Electricity in New Hampshire – Part 2

As I have been learning about the wood-based electricity industry in New Hampshire, I have come to appreciate that this industry is an important part of the State's economy. The wood-fired power plants generate electricity from a renewable energy source we harvest right here in NH and, in the process, they support the livelihoods of foresters, wood harvesters, equipment dealers, sawmills and many other associated industries. As important as these biomass plants are, they are facing some significant operating challenges. In an earlier post, Songs from the Woods, I noted that operating wood-fired electricity plants in NH were built in the late 1980s and, through state renewable energy incentive programs, were able sign 20-year contracts with our largest electrical utility company, Public Services of New Hampshire (PSNH), to sell electricity at attractive and pre-agreed rates. 

Twenty years have now gone by, and a few years ago many of these contracts came to the end of their terms. At this time, PSNH did not want to extend the purchase agreements as the contracted purchase price of electricity was higher than what PSNH could get selling that electricity on the local wholesale electricity market in New England, known as ISO-New England. At the same time, the plans for the large Berlin biomass electricity plant were coming together, and the developer of this plant began negotiating with PSNH for a power purchase agreement, which was a critical step in getting funding for the project. The operating wood-fired power plants took advantage of the opportunity, and in 2010 and 2011 they campaigned against PSNH signing a rate order to purchase electricity from the Berlin wood-fired power plant. In a compromise with PSNH, five of the six smaller biomass plants managed to negotiate for 20-month power purchase agreements to sell electricity direclty to PSNH, thereby giving them some additional time to adjust to selling electricity at prevailing wholesale electricity prices. These agreements allowed PSNH to contract with Berlin Biopower and the project was able to secure financing and move forward.

This year we come to the end of those 20-month power purchase agreements. The wood-fired power plants are now faced with the reality of having to sell electricity into the New England wholesale electricity market just like any other merchant electricity producer. Like any other business, these biomass power plants are faced with the two most fundamental issues that any for-profit enterprise has to deal with: the first is the price they can sell their product for and the second is the cost of producing that product.
Let's start with the price for their product. Later this year these wood-fired power plants will only be able to sell the electricity they produce at the prevailing rates in the ISO-New England wholesale market. These prices do fluctuate and the historical values for wholesale energy prices for NH are shown in the chart below. Over the 10-year span of the data, it can be seen that there is considerable fluctuation in prices and even recently, in January and February of this year, we had a spell where prices spiked. This particular price spike occurred because we are heavily dependent on natural gas for electricity generation in New England and during the cold spells there is additional demand for natural gas for home heating. With limited natural gas pipeline capacity and increased demand, prices for natural gas spiked and electricity prices followed. However, despite these occasional spikes, there is an overall downward trend in wholesale electricity prices over the past decade. This is show by the red linear trend line I have overlaid on the price data: it is clear that we have gone from an average price of $62 per megawatt hour (MWh) to $49/MWh – a 20% decrease in the price of electricity. (A megawatt hour is roughly the amount of electricity an average US home uses per month.) This downward trend has, in large part, been driven by low natural gas prices. This past summer, wholesale prices were even lower and averaged about $30/MWh. Natural gas prices have risen substantially from their market lows last year and, as a result, we are not likely to see electricity prices this low for a while.

Lower prices for their product is part of the headwind that the wood-fired power plants are facing. Fortunately, they have access to another source of revenue. Because burning wood to generate electricity is considered to be renewable energy production, these operations are able to sell the renewable attributes of their production to counterparties who need these attributes to meet certain obligations. These renewable energy attributes, called renewable energy certificates (RECs) or green tags, are traded separately from the underlying electricity. For example, a NH wood-fired electricity plant can sell each megawatt hour of electricity for the prevailing price on the wholesale electricity market, say for $50 a megawatt hour, and then they can sell the renewable energy attribute for each megawatt of renewable energy produced. Each megawatt of renewable electricity gets assigned a unique certificate number and a date of production and it then becomes a tradable instrument - a REC that can be bought and sold like a stock or bond. The counterparty who buys this REC could, for example,  be a state-regulated utility in Connecticut that is required to produce 20% of their electricity from renewable energy sources. If the utility does not have the renewable operations to meet that goal, they can purchase the renewable energy certificates from a facility out of State that does produce renewable energy.
If the state-regulated utilities do not meet their renewable energy quotas, they are required to make what are termed "alternative compliance payments" to their state for every megawatt hour of renewable energy they did not produce or source. These alternative compliance payments are essentially fines to encourage the utilities to produce or support renewable energy, but one thing they do do is put a cap on the REC market. Once REC prices exceed the alternative compliance payments, the utility will elect to pay the fine, i.e., the alternative compliance payment. Generally speaking, the REC market is a complicated one as there are different classes in each state for these RECs, depending on how the renewable energy is produced; there are different local markets in each state and there are also different alternative compliance payments in each state. This is a topic we can perhaps cover sometime in a future blog.
As it turns out, a great deal of the RECs from the wood-fired power plants in NH are sold into the Connecticut market, where local utilities purchase them in order to meet their renewable energy obligations. If these utilities cannot generate sufficient renewable power themselves or purchase the equivalent RECs, they have to pay an alternative compliance payment of $55 per MWh to the State of Connecticut. As I have discovered, sales for these RECs go through brokers who work to match buyers and sellers and, in the process, they take a commission. Much of the trading information on these RECs is considered to be proprietary and it proved to be difficult to find recent market data. However, a call I made to a broker who deals in RECs for the Connecticut market, indicated that he had a shortage of NH biomass-based RECs and was willing to pay up to $55/MWh (the cap price created by the alternative compliance payment) for 2012-based RECs.
For the biomass electricity producers in NH this is good news as the REC market is presently in their favor. This has not always been the case. The chart below shows how pricing in the various state-based REC markets has fluctuated over the past few years. This chart only shows information to May 2012 but it does indicate that in 2010/2011 there was a fallow period when the RECs in the New England market were trading at a low of $15/MWh. Since then prices have increased. The most current data on this chart indicate that RECs in the Connecticut market were trading for $48 in May 2012 and, as I noted above, prices have now risen further to close to $55/MWh.

Prices have risen because demand for NH-based biomass RECs exceeds the supply, which is always a good situation for a supplier of a product. I was not able to determine how large the NH biomass REC demand overhang was, but, as an operating producer of biomass electricity in NH, I would be concerned about the start-up of the Berlin biomass plant. Wood burning-wise, this plant is a behemoth, and is three to four times the capacity of the average NH wood-burning plant. This plant will be producing a great deal of renewable energy and a boatload of NH biomass RECs. There is likely to be considerable impact on the REC market when this additional supply becomes available.
When we look at the revenue stream for these biomass plants, it is clear that they have two products to sell. They have electricity which they will be selling into the wholesale market, where prices are now of the order of $50/MWh, and they have the associated RECs that they sell into the New England state compliance markets and where prices are presently close to $55/MWh. So, in total, the NH biomass plants are earning approximately $100 to $105/MWh, which is certainly more than what a fossil fuel-based electricity generator, that can only sell electricity with no accompanying RECs, will earn. In some respects biomass plants are better off, revenue-wise, than a fossil fuel plant but there is some apprehension associated with their revenue streams. Specifically, their concerns are:
  • There has been a long-term downward trend in the price of electricity with some recent large decreases driven by cheap natural gas. With the recent increase of natural gas prices, electricity producers are hoping that local wholesale prices may stabilize or even see an increase.
  • The REC market for NH biomass has improved since 2011, but the availability of a lot of RECs from the large Berlin biomass plant could put downward pressure on REC pricing later this year.

On top of these revenue concerns, biomass plants also have to deal with the second central business issue and that is the cost of producing electricity. Even here, the biomass plants are facing challenges. Prices for their fuel, wood chips, have increased, and the Berlin biomass plant is certain to put  additional upward pressure on this market - but that is the topic for next week's post. Clearly, it don't come easy* if you are running a biomass electricity plant in New Hampshire.

Until next time, remember to turn off the lights when you leave the room. You will be saving energy, water and trees.

Mike Mooiman
Franklin Pierce University

(* It Don't Come Easy was a 1971 hit record for Ringo Starr recorded after the breakup of the Beatles and it has become his signature tune. It was written by George Harrison and the original recording featured Steven Stills on piano. Here it is from the Concert for Bangladesh and it was also recorded by the Smithereens, a highly underrated and still performing New Jersey group from the 1980s.)



  1. Nice job on this post. The lack of transparency in REC pricing is strange. With state governments having created this subsidy for renewable energy producers, one would think the state would at least track REC prices and make them publicly available? Doesn't the public have a reasonable expectation of transparency here?

    1. The challenge with the REC market is that there is not one single clearing house for trades where one can go and get the information, like we can for stock or commodity prices. Instead we have all these small state based markets where a limited amount of trading is done between brokers who are looking to match buyers and sellers. This is not unlike the corporate bond market where trading is largely by institutions working through brokers. As the students in my Financial Management class learn, bond information is hard to come by as there is no central clearing house, there are a lot fewer transactions (compared to the stock market) and the trading is broker to broker based. With that said, over the past few years transparency in the bond market has started to improve and price information is more readily available. Perhaps we can hope for the same in the REC markets in the future.

  2. Have just encountered your page and I guess you should be complimented for this piece. More power to you!


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