Fortnightly Magazine - April 2008

Snake Oil & Smart Meters

Customers deserve the straight truth about electricity costs.

The utility industry faces the difficult task of trying to educate the general public about the realities of delivering electricity service in the 21st century. California’s recent experience trying to put smart thermostats into the state’s building code provides a cautionary example.

Making Peace With Nuclear

When Patrick Moore left Greenpeace—the environmental advocacy group that he helped to create in the early 1970s—some activists labeled him a traitor and a corporate shill. It didn’t stop him, however, from becoming one of the environmental community’s most outspoken advocates for nuclear power development—and one of the harshest critics of anti-nuclear activists. Fortnightly caught up with Moore in February to discuss the state of anti-nuclear advocacy in America.

People

Southern Company named Ronnie Labrato vice president, internal auditing. FirstEnergy’s board of directors elected Gary R. Leidich executive vice president and president of FirstEnergy Generation, and Richard R. Grigg executive vice president and president of FirstEnergy Utilities. Exelon named Ian P. McLean to lead its finance and markets organization. And others...

Letters to the Editor

Taming the Wind is a pleasure to read. The article captures just about perfectly the value of forecasting in cost-effectively and reliably integrating wind power, of balancing in large markets, of geographical spread, and more. It also looks at what the future could hold.

Depreciation Shell Game

Accounting reforms might force regulators to abandon their live-now, pay-later practices.

When an advisory committee of the SEC voted recently to phase out special accounting treatment for various industries, it signaled the end may be near for power plant depreciation deferral mechanisms. Such mechanisms are a mainstay of regulatory accounting in many states, and their discontinuation could send plant owners and regulators back to the drawing board to find a new, GAAP-compliant way to recognize asset depreciation in financial reports.

Flying Through Turbulence

Volatile markets are causing delays, but most deals are moving forward.

Although problems in the power business grabbed the headlines early this decade, the industry now seems fundamentally strong. In contrast to their ratings of banks, rating agencies appear to have recently upgraded more of the electric sector than they have downgraded. It remains a strong investment grade, usually BB or BBB. For an index of 68 electric utilities, the debt-to-equity ratio averaged only 55:45 and return on equity exceeded over 13 percent through January.

Storage Surge

New gas projects help globalize the U.S. market.

Underground storage allows gas users and traders to hedge against price volatility. Building more capacity will help North America fully integrate into global gas markets.

Facing Compliance Risks

Enforcement trends call for a proactive approach to complying with market rules.

Federal regulators have penalized wholesale energy market participants with fines ranging from $300 thousand to $300 million over the past two years. The magnitude of the penalties, along with uncertainty over how to effectively mitigate the risk of any civil action by regulators, has raised concern about how companies are approaching their regulatory obligations.

Selling the Smart Grid

Special report on public support for smart metering and demand response.

Smart metering is entering the public consciousness. But gaining support from consumers is tricky business, as evidenced by the recent backlash in California. Customers will accept dynamic pricing and demand-response capabilities only if regulators and utilities take a soft-sell approach.

Selling the Smart Grid - The Backlash

California learns painful lessons from its proposal to mandate demand response.

When the California Energy Commission (CEC) proposed to include programmable communicating thermostats in the state’s new building codes, it expected some push-back from home builders. It didn’t expect what it got: a major public outcry.