In this blog we are going to talk about trends in the power industry and how they may affect utilities.  One of the ongoing themes of this blog is that to be leaders in the field, we need to be cognizant of what others are doing and how those actions might affect utility operations.  Power is a big cost for utilities – often 10-15% of the total operations costs where a lot of pumping is involved. In most communities, the utility system is among the largest consumers of power, which is why many utilities have load control agreements in place – power companies can off-load power demands by having the utilities go to onsite generators.  Our community’s building account for 70% or more of local energy use.

The need for power is expanding, albeit at a lower rate that population growth in many communities.  This is because new building construction measures tend to insulate better and install more energy efficient equipment.  Power companies often will subsidize these improvements to reduce the need for more expensive plant expansions.  Where expansions are needed, purchase/transfer agreements or renewables are often a convenient answer.

But long-term we are seeing that the power industry is changing in other ways too.  Already we see a migration away from coal for power generation.  This was occurring before the new regulations were in place for carbon dioxide.  Certain utility companies like NextEra, the largest wind and solar power generator in the US, and the parent of Florida Power and Light, have reduced greenhouse gas emissions from their plants by converting to other sources like combined heat and power (CHP), and increasing efficiency.  The typical oil or coal power plant is 30-35% efficient, while the newer gas turbine systems are up to 45% efficient.  That makes a big difference in costs as well as emissions when gas emissions are half the coal and oil emissions.  NextEra is well placed for carbon trading, a concept some fight, but the US had been emission trading since the early 1990s, so carbon trading markets are already in place.  The only thing needed is the regulations to put them into play.  Buy that NextEra stock now and hope for carbon trading!

But NextEra is not the only likely winner under this carbon trading scenario.  ExxonMobile is big into gas, Exelon is big in the nuclear power industry, Siemens and General Electric, which make wind and gas turbines, are also likely to see growth.  All have poised themselves years ago as the impact of carbon dioxide becomes more apparent.  Most of the industry executives acknowledge climate issues and recognize that people will expect the industry to do its part (the Koch brothers aside).  Many power generators like ConEd and FPL are making changes as well, in advance of the regulatory requirements to do so.  They see it as good business.  They also see it as a means to make more power at a given facility (by increasing efficiency) while reducing water use.  Water use can be a limiting factor, so we will discuss that in a couple days…

 

 


I thought I would post an amusing, but thought-provoking blog today.  In a recent class of mine we started talking about sentinel species and surrogate contaminants as a means to track public health impacts, or the potential for same, in people.  The discussion got into the commonality of wolves, sharks, alligators and snail kites as role players for ecosystem health.  In each case the top predator control the other species.  The most obvious example is wolves.  When returned to Yellowstone National park, the beavers returned.  AS opposed to hunting the beavers to extermination, it appears that the lack of predators cause the elk to feed closer to streams, thereby depriving the beavers of the aspens needed for beaver dames.  And thus the wetland ponds virtually disappeared as well.  A recent Sun Sentinel article noted that the Fish and Wildlife Service has shot an amazing 75,000 coyotes in the US last year!  Biologists noted that the coyote has expended into areas that wolves used to inhabit (including Alaska!).  They did it because there are no wolves – the wolves did not tolerate that competition. Without the wolves, there is not stopping them or their associated destruction of small animals.   We see hardhead catfish, a scourge of coastal fishermen, abundance now that baby shark populations have diminished.  The sharks consume the same stuff the catfish to, then move on.  The catfish, not so much and OW!!!  We change the top predator and the system changes, often irreversibly.  Which raises the question about the deadliest predator -us.  We’ve moved in everywhere we wanted after eliminating the competition.  The question is:  Are we wolves, or hardhead catfish?

 


The good news is that for many local governments, property values are up and so is the economy, especially in urban areas.  However that does not mean that the budget approval difficulties of 2009-2012 have passed or been resolved.  In fact the arguments may continue despite improvements in financial position.  Why?  There are a number of policies that were implemented in the recession years that were especially difficult for utilities:

  1. Borrowed or transferred water and sewer monies to avoid raising taxes against falling property values (note that raising taxes on falling values would have yielded a zero sum game, but raising taxes commensurate might have “un”elected a few people
  2. Failing to have long-term financial plan and even fewer have multiyear budgets.  Included are automatic rate adjustments that some are questioning or deferring now, despite having been approved several years ago
  3. Bad investments – public or private.  In either case, if the revenues are not realized, the local entity gains no benefit.  This can include public private infrastructure investments, privatization or investing cash.  Scenarios need to be created to figure out what happens when things don’t go as planned.
  4. Failing to save for a rainy day before the crash.  Our grandparents knew we need to save for a rainy day.  We talk about the lowered level of savings among Americans and the potential issues that could arise if economic difficulties occur.  So exactly why do our elected leaders think it is a great idea not to collect monies in good times for a rainy day?  Other than politics that is?

 

We have identified four errors in public policy at the local level.  The questions for the 2015 budget are:

 

  1. Can we repay those funds we “borrowed” from during the down years?
  2. Can we keep the total revenues increasing (may not mean a tax increase, but certainly not a rollback)?
  3. Can we develop realistic scenarios for public investments.  Nothing worse than stranded infrastructure like that $6milion parking garage that grossed under $100 in the last 6 months because no one uses it because there is not business need for it.
  4. Can we develop reserve policies that allow local governments and especially utilities to create and maintain repair and replacement funds, reserves, and “savings” for the next rainy day.  It’s coming.  At some point.
  5. Can we develop a 5 year plan of where the community vision is?

I think this would be a start for a lot of us.


We are all cognizant of the low grades on infrastructure given annually by ASCE and periodically by USEPA.  We spend about 1.8% of our GNP on infrastructure.  We used to spend twice that much and it is likely that we need to spend upwards of 2.4% to stay even.  Much or our infrastructure is “forgotten” because it is buried.  American Water Works Association published a book to highlight his problem – Buried No Longer.  But is it helping.  In a recent Roads & Bridges article, they noted that the bridge system continues to age faster than the repair rate.  The states with more than 15% deficient bridges are mostly Great Plains states, and the northeast.  The latter is no surprise because the infrastructure is generally much older in the northeast.  What was also interesting was that in a recent American City and County magazine, many of the states that have bridge issues, also have below average trust among the public.  And most of the areas with the bridge issues are rural states, like North Dakota and West Virginia.  This harkens back to a prior couple blogs when it was noted that poorer, less educated people tend to live rural lifestyles, and lobby for less taxes, yet expect government to be there to resolve crises.  Interesting….

 


In the last blog we discussed 10 planning steps for sea level rises.  When planning 50-100 years other factors can come into play as well.  As a result, to allow flexibility in the analysis due to the range of increases within the different time periods, an approach that uses incremental increases of 1, 2, and 3 feet of SLR is suggested.  Hence infrastructure is built to meet milestones, not arbitrary dates lessening the potential for stranded assets.. The increments can work as threshold values in planning considerations in terms of allowing planners the ability to know ahead of time where the next set of vulnerable areas will be to allow a for proactive response approach that can be matched to the observed future sea levels.

But prior to developing infrastructure plans, the local community needs to define an acceptable level of service (LOS) for the community. A level service would indicate how often it is acceptable for flooding to occur in a community on an annual basis.  1% is 4 days per years and for a place like Miami Beach, this is nearly 2 ft NAVD88, well above the mean high tide.  The failure to establish an acceptable LOS is often the cause of failure or loss of confidence in a plan at a later point in time.  The effects of SLR of the level of service should be used to update the mapping to demonstrate how the level of service changes, so that a long-term LOS can be defined and used for near-term planning.

With the LOS known, the vulnerability assessment is developed using a GIS based map of topography and the groundwater levels associated with wet and dry season water levels.  LiDAR is a useful tool that may be available at very high resolution in coastal areas.  Topographic maps must be “ground-truthed” by tying it to local benchmarks and transportation plans.  USGS groundwater and NOAA tidal data from local monitoring stations to correlate with the groundwater information. Based on the results of these efforts, the GIS-based mapping will provide areas of likely flooding.

GIS map should be updated with layers of information for water mains, sewer mains, canals, catch basins, weirs and stormwater facilities.  Updating with critical infrastructure will provide a view of vulnerability of critical infrastructure that will be funded by the public sector. Ultimately policy makers will need more information to prioritize the needed improvements.  For example, a major goal may be to reduce Economic Vulnerability.  This means identifying where economic activity occurs and potential jobs.  At-risk populations, valuable property (tax base) and emergency response may be drivers, which means data from other sources should be added.

The next step is to analyze vulnerability spatially, by overlaying development priorities with expected climate change on GIS maps to identify hotspots where adaptation activities should be focused. This effort includes identification of the critical data gaps which, when filled, will enable more precise identification of at risk infrastructure and predictions of impacts on physical infrastructure and on communities. The final deliverable will include descriptions of the recommended concepts including schematics, cost estimates, and implementation plan.

So why go through all this.  Let’s go back to the beginning.  It has to do with community confidence in its leaders.  Resident look at whether their property will be protected.  Businesses look at long-term viability when making decisions about relocating enterprises.  The insurance industry, which has traditionally been focused on a one year vision of risk, is beginning to discuss long-term risks and not insuring property rebuild is risk-prone areas.  That will affect how bankers look at lending practices, which likely will decrease property values.  Hence it is in the community’s interests to develop a planning framework to adapt to sea level rise and protect vulnerable infrastructure through a long-term plan.  Plan or….

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