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Xcel Energy’s Versatile, Profitable Carbon Tax

To my knowledge, Colorado is the only state in which regulators allow utilities to incorporate a carbon tax into the economic models used to make resource acquisition decisions (see here and here). Ratepayers can’t see it in their monthly bill, but the tax is used in the models, and the models dictate spending. It’s the worst kind of virtual reality: The carbon tax leaps from computers to ratepayer wallets.

The Colorado Public Utilities Commission was authorized to allow for a carbon tax in 2008 with the passage of HB 1164 by the General Assembly. The legislation was advertised as an essential component of former Governor’s Bill Ritter’s environmentalist “New Energy Economy,” but, in practice, the carbon tax has served as an accounting loophole through which Xcel Energy, the largest investor-owned utility in the State, has awarded itself big time profits. In a previous post, I explained in some detail how Xcel uses the carbon tax. Here are a few examples:

  • One of Xcel’s priorities is winning market share from independent power producers on the wholesale electricity market. Older natural gas plants are Xcel’s fiercest competitors, because they have already paid off their capital costs, so they can bid electricity prices relatively low. The $20/ton carbon tax eliminates this advantage, because new plants are more efficient than older plants. It tilts the playing field to Xcel’s favor.
  • In implementing HB 1365, the Clean Air Clean Jobs Act, 2010 legislation mandating fuel switching from coal to gas for almost 1,000 megawatts of electricity along the Front Range in Colorado, Xcel used the $20/ton carbon tax to obfuscate the price impact. The carbon tax inflated by scores of millions of dollars the baseline rate against which the costs of the law were calculated.
  • On HB 1001, Colorado’s renewable electricity standard, Xcel employed the $20/ton carbon tax to circumvent the 2% rate cap that lawmakers had implemented to protect consumers. The effect of the carbon adder is to significantly expand Xcel’s annual expenditures, which increases the pool from which the company can reap profits.

A recent flip flop by Xcel demonstrates the utility’s cynical manipulation of the carbon tax. As part of the 2007 Electric Resource Plan, Xcel committed to building a 250 megawatt concentrated solar power plant in the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado.  That deal was finalized in late summer, 2009. Less than a year later, in June, 2010, Xcel petitioned the PUC for permission to abandon its commitment to build the plant.

Investor-owned utilities like Xcel play a delicate balancing act when it comes to capital expenditure. Generally speaking, the more Xcel spends, the more profit it makes, so it has an incentive to press for as much capital construction as possible. However, if the utility builds too much, and prices rise too fast, then it risks a backlash from the legislature, which could lead to the enactment of policies inimical to the utility. The 250 megawatts of concentrated solar power was so ridiculously expensive that Xcel realized it could upset this balance, and thereby risk blowback from the General Assembly.

Altering an Electric Resource Plan is no small matter. There are serious due process issues inherent to unilaterally changing a PUC-approved order. So Xcel needed a good reason for backing out of the solar deal. Specifically, it had to demonstrate that solar power is egregiously cost-ineffective relative to conventional power generation.

For accounting purposes, Xcel calculates the cost of renewable energy relative to natural gas generation. And in calculating the cost of natural gas, Xcel should be bound by the procedures established by Phase 1 of the 2007 Electric Resource Plan, which included, for the first time, the carbon tax. But that would have harmed Xcel’s argument, because the carbon tax would make gas much more expensive vis a vis a carbon free energy source, like concentrated solar power. So Xcel dropped the carbon tax. Here’s how Xcel’s Kurtis J Haeger, Managing Director of Wholesale Operations, justified Xcel’s decision in April 14, 2011, testimony before the PUC.

“We attempted to use the approved resource planning methodologies and factors from the last resource plan as we are directed to do…and in this case, the assumption used in the ’07 Resource Plan was for a carbon tax or carbon proxy to go into effect in 2010. Sitting in 2011, I know that didn’t happen…We updated the assumptions because the carbon assumption we had in the original modeling was not valid anymore.” [Transcript from April 14 PUC hearing, p 19 lines 19-21, 25; p 20 lines 1-4, 12-14]

This rationalization is bogus. It’s been apparent that the Congress won’t put a price on carbon since the fall of 2009, when the Senate shelved a cap-and-trade scheme that had been enacted by the House the previous summer (the legislation was the American Clean Energy and Security Act), yet this didn’t stop Xcel from using the carbon tax in its models.

Fattened profits are a much more plausible reason for Xcel to suddenly flip-flop on the carbon tax. Quite simply, when use of the carbon tax benefited Xcel, the utility wanted to use it. And now that the carbon tax no longer benefits Xcel, the utility doesn’t want to use it.

William Yeatman is an energy policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute