Archive for the ‘prices’ category

Price Pressures are Building in the U.S. Economy

August 10, 2018

There is disagreement among economists over how big a threat is rising inflation. A tame consumer price index and modest U.S. wage growth have many economists arguing against further interest rate increases in 2018. But there are signs that higher prices are working their way into the economy. The most obvious example is in goods that are affected by the trade war (skirmish?) between the U.S. and just about every other nation on earth.  Steel, aluminum, lumber, and washing machines are examples that have increased the price of building materials for new homes, laundry equipment, beverages in cans, and some other consumer goods. Even if the self-inflicted harm of a trade war disappears, however, consumers are likely to begin feeling price hikes. So much of what consumers purchase is transported via truck that recent increases in transportation costs (see graphic), unless abated, will soon affect consumer prices.

Truck Transportation Prices

We see this with gasoline price spikes and their resulting impact on grocery prices. Today, strong demand and worker shortages in the trucking industry are dramatically raising the cost of truck transportation services that will eventually work their way into consumer prices.

The Stone Age Didn’t End Because of a Shortage of Stones

January 24, 2013

The operator of the New England power grid (ISO New England) issued a media release yesterday noting that because of the decline in natural gas prices, overall, wholesale electricity prices in the region dropped in 2012.  Reader”s” (if there is more than one) of this blog know I write a lot about energy issues and have noted the trends and benefits of natural gas to energy prices in the region (here, here, here, and here as well as in posts about other energy issues).

Increased U.S. production of natural gas has resulted in price declines and price declines are resulting in more fuel switching that will put more pressure on the price of natural gas unless production increases faster than increased demand.  U.S. production of  natural gas is likely to continue to increase faster than other fossil fuels (see chart below), but increased fuel switching will put more pressure on natural gas prices.

US fossil fuel production

One problem for New England is that our infrastructure for delivering natural gas to the region is the weakest of any region of the country and one result is that unless or until that changes, we won’t benefit as much as other regions from increased production.  The chart below shows a forecast of real, inflation adjusted fossil fuel prices to 2040.  Nationally, natural gas prices will rise faster than coal, but more slowly than oil.  The natural gas price trends here are for prices at Louisiana’s  Henry Hub distribution point (the reference price for natural gas prices), New England prices are higher but the question is, how much faster or slower will they grow in New England?  Improved infrastructure would help.

US fossil fuel prices

Coal is abundant and prices will grow relatively more slowly, but the economics of coal as an energy source still don’t give it an advantage over gas.  Over the next 3-5 years over 200 coal-fired electric generating plants will be retired according to a coal trade group.  They blame environmental regulations but there is more to it than that.  Besides the greatly narrowed gap in fuel costs between natural gas and coal, the fact is most people don’t want coal used, or have it used near them.  The cost of burning coal more cleanly is relatively high (it’s not just regulators that impose those costs, it’s the only way a majority of the public will support coal and if it costs too much they wont support it as long as there are more competitively priced alternatives – as there are now). Finally the cost of constructing a coal plant, compared to combined-cycle natural gas power plants is much higher (even without the new equipment required to reduce emissions) and they take longer to build 4-5 years compared to 2-3 years for natural gas, making financing of such projects more difficult.

I am not a coal hater.  Although I have worked on many more combined-cycle natural gas electric generating plants, I have also worked on two or three electric generating projects that burn coal, most recently one involving super-critical clean coal technologies and carbon capturing,  but phasing out older, less efficient, coal-fired plants makes perfect sense and can be done over time without jeopardizing the reliability of the grid if new natural-gas fired plants are built.  Relying just on natural gas doesn’t solve our  CO2 problem but it helps (ok deniers, let loose – I am a believer that CO2 is a problem that needs to be addressed).

The point of this post (by now you are probably asking if there is one) is that fossil fuels are not going away anytime soon.  Not too long ago there were apocalyptic predictions about the availability of fossil fuels in the future.  Those predictions aren’t proving accurate but at some point fossil fuels will run out.  Not in my lifetime, which is a good thing for my business as long as I still can get hired to work on natural gas or (gasp) coal-fired electric generating projects.   But more abundant fossil fuel doesn’t (or shouldn’t) lessen environmental concerns over its usage.  The stone age didn’t end because of a shortage of stones and the fossil fuel age shouldn’t wait to end until we run out of it.  Somebody will have to pay for developing new technology that ends the fossil fuel age.  Unless we start now,  the cost of the U.S. debt that we pass down to future generations will look small compared to the costs of developing new energy technologies that we will be passing down in the face of genuine declines in fossil fuels.  It is not just a matter of  increasing renewable energy,  although that will help.  Solar and wind and even hydro generation suffer from over/under demand issues.  Balancing power output to need is extremely problematic once you try to get renewable power above 20% of total generation, new technologies need to be developed.

The stone age was replaced because newer and better technologies were developed despite an abundance of stones, lets hope the same is true for the fossil fuel age.

The Coming “Consumerism” of Residential Electricty Customers

January 9, 2013

It is no secret that the price of electricity in New Hampshire in relation to prices in most of  the U.S. is high.  That is true for all types of consumers of electricity, residential, commercial, and industrial, but prices for industrial customers were especially high compared to prices across the country.  New England is known for high energy prices but New Hampshire’s electricity prices compare more favorably to the region than they do to other regions and states.  Industrial consumers of electricity in NH, however,  seemed to pay relatively higher prices in comparison to industrial consumers across New England.  Over the last half of the past decade that  changed.  Either because of competition for industrial customers, special rates, or other reasons, the relative price of electricity for industrial customers in NH fell significantly in relation to average prices in New England and are now (through 2011) just below the regional average.  For residential consumers price trends are different.  Compared to the New England average, prices per kwh were relatively low for NH’s residential consumers, but they have been rising and are now (through 2011) just above the New England average.

NH Electricity Prices as a Pct of NE

The price competition that has benefited industrial consumers of electricity in NH is likely partially responsible for the rising prices and higher relative prices facing residential customers. Prices for residential consumers seemed to rise more just as  prices for industrial consumers fell.   As a result, as is being reported in a number of media outlets, competition is becoming more robust in NH for residential consumers of electricity.  That will eventually result in lower or more slowly growing average electricity prices for NH’s residential customers.   Competition does lower prices but it will only do so  for those who actively  participate in the competitive market.  Just like a car dealer,  electric utilities will look for someone to pay the full “sticker price” for every consumer who gets a “deal”.

The Disconnect Between the Cost of Generating Electricity and Retail Prices

October 24, 2012

It is hard for consumers of electricity to understand why retail prices are what they are and how they are determined.  It is beyond one blog entry to fully describe the process but in overview, the suppliers  of electricity (generating companies) in a region offer to supply electricity to the market at a given price and the offers are accepted beginning with the lowest cost providers first, until enough energy is supplied to meet expected demand in the region.  The price of electricity offered by the last electricity generator needed to meet the regional demand determines the market price paid by companies that supply the electricity to businesses and consumers.  Retail prices are a function of the market price of electricity, plus many other costs such as transmission, special infrastructure charges, and profits by suppliers, among others.  Much of these costs are determined at the state level by regulators, as well as the characteristics of the retail electricity market in the state (competition) and the practices and policies of the companies that supply electricity to retail markets.

The end result is that retail prices for electricity in any state bear only a limited relationship to the cost of generating electricity in the state.  The chart bellow shows that the cost to generate 1 million BTUs of electricity in New Hampshire is about in the middle of all 50 states.  Vermont is also relatively low.  Both states have a relatively lower generating cost per million BTUs because a significant portion of the electricity produced in their state is from nuclear generators.

The correlation between the fuel costs to generate electricity in a state and retail prices per 1 million BTUs is modest, explaining less than one-third of the price per million BTU at the retail level.  The chart below show that despite fuel costs that are in the middle of the pack,  NH, VT and CT have high retail prices per million BTU of electricity.   The regional nature of electricity markets along with the policies of state governments and the actions of individual retail sellers of electricity all play a role in disconnect between costs for generating electricity  and prices at the retail level.  We don’t have much control over the  supplies of electricity beyond our state but we do have some control over the mix of suppliers of electricity which determine the cost of fuel for generation and we have a lot of control of the structure of retail markets and many other factors that determine the non-generating costs of electricity in the state and ultimately prices at the retail level.


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