CO2 Model Malfunction: 2 + 2 = 237?!

September 19, 2014
Mike Jacobs
Senior Energy Analyst

Back in June, this blog celebrated the work of the grid operator Midcontinent ISO in describing scenarios for future power supply that met projected needs with a tripling of wind energy, 23% reduction in CO2, and almost no higher costs than “business-as-usual.” This week, something bad happened.

Low-Carbon Generation Shift for Midcontinent electricity supply. Source: MISO

Low-carbon Generation Shift for Midcontinent electricity supply (click to enlarge). Source: MISO

In reporting basic study results regarding the EPA Climate Protection Plan, MISO suggested just a doubling of wind energy would be the most expensive means to reducing carbon in their region, almost 5 times more than using natural gas. How can this be?

Wind and gas are about equal cost

As we have reported elsewhere, electricity from wind is nearly the same cost as electricity from natural gas. When the goal is reducing carbon emissions, a quick comparison for checking the MISO results suggests natural gas and wind are again roughly equal, megawatthour for megawatthour. (In simple terms, a megawatthour (mwh) of wind with zero emissions displaces either a gas-fired mwh with roughly 1000 lbs/mwh CO2 or a coal-fired mwh that has roughly 2,000 lbs/mwh CO2 emissions. At best, a gas-fired mwh with 1000 lbs emissions can displace a coal-fired mwh with 2000 lbs/mwh, saving 1000 pounds).

We know MISO can do better

The results MISO discussed this week are so far from what others have found, including recent analyses by MISO and neighboring grid operator PJM, we must ask MISO what went wrong. And we are asking that they withdraw these results.

This spring, MISO showed a case of “Generation Shift” for year 2030 with 22% of the region’s projected electricity need coming from windpower. Coal use dropped from 68% to 39%, 19,000 MW of additional windfarms would be built, and natural gas plant additions would be 1,200 MW more than projected for the business-as-usual (BAU) scenario. When counting all the new costs for wind and gas plants, and recognizing the fuel savings, the cost of Generation Shift was reported as 1% different from BAU. MISO has been testing the role of a carbon-price adder, shown as gold in the chart, which are not a cost to society when revenues are returned to the same people that are billed for them.

Turning away from savings

Yesterday, MISO described modeling for year 2030 with the “building blocks” of the EPA carbon plan that had wind providing 12% of energy needs. There was so little detail, less than provided in June, that we can’t say where MISO went wrong. The results that were reported in $/ton CO2 reduction are 10 times higher for wind, and for energy efficiency, than have been seen anywhere else.

The grid operators have great capabilities to see and understand how electricity is supplied, with preparations for every known contingency. Handling new energy supplies like wind and solar have not brought great difficulties, despite claims from many fossil-fuel interests. While MISO has the right tools for running the grid, these tools are not designed to plan how to change the power supply 15 years in the future.  Modeling the power system for 15 states is not a simple chore.

Do over

MISO must go back and do this again. They are the reliability planner for far too many citizens to let something this far off be used in any discussions about the future of our energy supply and climate preparations. From what little has been shared by MISO, we see uncertain assumptions about when the changes are made, and how well they produce cleaner energy. These were done well in June. What happened, MISO?

Posted in: Energy

About the author

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Mike Jacobs is leading the Union of Concerned Scientists’s work on electricity markets and regulatory reform. He develops proposals in an effort to shape federal, regional and state electricity markets, regulation and policies to encourage the expansion of renewable energy resources and the reduction of coal-fired generation.