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Benchmarks

Fortnightly Magazine - January 15 2000

Are developers building more power generation capacity than U.S. markets can bear?

NEWGen, a new database from RDI Consulting, reveals that U.S. developers and utilities propose 180,000 megawatts of new capacity nationwide. Of this amount, 10,000 MW is in operation. An additional 11,000 MW has been postponed indefinitely or canceled. That leaves 159,000 MW of competing projects in a market that most likely can absorb only 15,000 to 17,000 MW of additions per year.

As has been widely discussed, nearly 50 percent of all development activity is concentrated in the western United States, Texas and the Northeast. Only 10 percent of all proposed projects in the West, however, are in operation or under construction. Developers are having much more success in Texas, where 41 percent of all proposed capacity has moved off the drawing board and into the ground.

Of course, "success" in getting through the development stage does not guarantee success in generating markets. In both Texas and New England, current capacity additions far outstrip demand. In Texas, the amount of new capacity either online or under construction totals about 20 percent of today's demand for electricity. In New England, online or in-construction capacity totals 22 percent of current peak demand. RDI expects that reserve margins in New England and Texas could reach 35 percent by 2001 - even assuming a decline in development activity.

Such excess capacity in New England indicates a significant possibility that prices will never reach the levels needed to provide investors with an adequate return. However, according to NEWGen, developers and their investors are not necessarily the parties facing price risk.

NEWGen shows that nationwide, approximately 55 percent of online or under-construction capacity is subject to price risk. In Texas, long-term contracts have been secured for at least 35 percent of the online or under-construction capacity. In those cases, the developers have signed long-term contracts for plant output with large-end users, or tolling agreements with marketers. A marketer then arranges all fuel supply, markets the power produced from the fuel and provides the developer with a fixed payment for the right to convert fuel into electricity. In that manner, electricity price risk is transferred to the marketer. Some tolling arrangements have committed marketers to 30-year obligations. Development activities by regulated utilities also mitigate operational risk for new capacity.

Some regions are heading toward a capacity glut. Other regions need additional capacity beyond the capacity additions already in advanced development. The Midwest and Southeast still may face shortages, even with large amounts of new capacity in advanced development. NEWGen indicates that developers looking toward the Northeast and Texas may want to shift their focus quickly before those regions also attract too much development.

Christopher D. Seiple is a principal at RDI Consulting.

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