Monday, January 29, 2007

No to Broadwater, but Yes to What?

Currently, Broadwater Energy is attempting to build a Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) platform in Long Island Sound, about 10 or 11 miles from the Connecticut coast on one side and 9 to 10 miles from the New York coast on the other. This platform would be, according to Long Island Business News, 1200 feet long and eight stories high. Various distance-to-the-horizon calculators I tried on the web show that something that is 85 feet high can be seen for about 11 miles, so I guess if you were to stand on the beach, you could just see the structure.

Tanker ships would come into Long Island Sound, and the liquid natural gas would be heated into gas, where it would flow into a pipeline, and be used primarily by electricity generation facilities in New York City and on Long Island, but some gas would evidently also flow to Connecticut.

This has of course made the NIMBYites all upset. Well, they're not really NIMBYites, since this platform would be 11 miles away in the middle of the water. I don't really know if their objections are valid or not, as I'm not a maritime expert, energy expert, or anything. But one thing I've noticed is that while just about every politician seems to be against this, none of them has ever said what they might be for. However, every single one of them feels the need to say that something has to be done.

Let's take a look:

State Senator Judith Freedman (R-Westport): "No one is disputing the need for more, and more reliable, sources of energy. But in seeking better energy, we cannot lose sight of the need to protect our environment, the public's safety, and the best interests of Connecticut's citizens. The outcome of this project will affect Connecticut for years to come. FERC has a moral obligation to listen to what we have to say about it." (Source: Redding Pilot, January 29, 2007).

US Senators Dodd and Lieberman, as well as Representatives DeLauro, Larson, Murphy and Courtney (all Democrats) wrote a joint letter to FERC, and said, "While we understand and appreciate our nation's and this region's need for additional energy resources, we do not believe that the Broadwater project is the best way to meet these needs." (Source: Greenwich Post, January 23, 2007).

In a Press Release, US Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-New Haven) said, "“Let me be clear, I do not believe that the Broadwater proposal is the right answer to addressing our region’s energy needs. Yes, there is clearly a need for additional energy infrastructure in New York , Connecticut , and the New England Region. However, it cannot come at the cost of one of our region’s and this nation's most precious natural resources." (Source: US House of Representatives, January 16, 2007).

State Rep. Tom Drew (D - Fairfield) said, "We should not even be considering something this extreme until the U.S. government has a realistic plan to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels. This isn't necessary and approving it will cause irreversible damage for generations to come." (Source: Westport News, January 19, 2007). I wonder if Rep. Drew would favor more nuclear power plants? Or if he'd be ok with a windmill farm in the sound? Or on land in his town?

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, which is opposed to the platform, said, "People don't just place a high value on Long Island Sound. They place the highest value on it. We want more energy. . . . but we want an energy plan that doesn't destroy what we love." (Source: Newsday, January 11, 2007)

Lonnie Reed, a Branford RTM member, said, "We oppose Broadwater not because we are anti-energy haters but because we are convinced we can get natural gas in a cleaner, safer way." (Source: New Haven Independent, January 9, 2007). There was no mention of what this cleaner, safer way might be in the article.

One of the reasons politicians cite for the opposition to Broadwater is that the terminal is not needed, as pipelines could bring in whatever natural gas was needed. Since Broadwater Energy's parent companies, TransCanada and Shell, are probably not in the business of building unnecessary infrastructure, I'm inclined to believe that it is needed. Otherwise, Shell and Transcanada are going to have some serious explaining to do to their shareholders, since this terminal is going to cost about $1 billion to build. Some of the opposition to Broadwater says that there are other terminals under construction that could handle the distribution. Again, if that's the case, why is Broadwater prepared to spend $1 billion?

A lot of politicians said this would "industrialize" the sound. Aren't commercial fishermen industrializing the sound? What about commercial ships that bring stuff into the sound?

Some would say it would be an eyesore. Well, you'd hardly be able to see if from land, so I guess it'd be an eyesore for boaters. Are boaters that sensitive? What if they see a barge or a cargo ship with the containers not symmetrically stacked? Do they have an equally bad reaction?

The safety issue seems a bit odd. This facility would be 10 miles from anything, with water in all directions. Even if it blew up, it couldn't hurt anyone on shore. Some have said terrorists would target it. Seems like a pretty poor project to target.

Some of the opposition points seem to have some merit, like who is going to bear the costs. But to those who are opposed to the project, give some realistic proposals for how we're going to get more energy. Hoping that congress is going to wean us off fossil fuels isn't a realistic proposal. If existing pipelines or LNG platforms under construction elsewhere are going to solve the problem, why in the world is Broadwater spending $1 billion to build an LNG platform? Broadwater is only going to build the platform if they think it'll be used, because if it isn't going to be used, they'll never get their investment back.

Connecticut has the highest electric costs of any state except Hawaii. We need a realistic proposal to get more energy here.

Monday, January 01, 2007

NIMBY and Electricity Costs

Recently, Connecticut utility United Illuminating (UI) was awarded a 50% price increase. Connecticut will supposedly, after this price increase takes effect, have the highest electrical rates in the country.

I became interested in this phenomenon: why does Connecticut have such high rates? First, I am not a UI customer: UI handles the relatively small area between Bridgeport and New Haven. Connecticut Light & Power (CL&P) is my utility, and covers almost all areas of the state that UI doesn't cover, although there are a few very small municipal utilities. In Connectict, UI and CL&P don't actually generate power: they instead buy the power and then distribute it.

In the course of trying to read up on why electric rates were so expensive, I stumbled on a newspaper article (link since deleted) about UI's proposal to build a substation in Trumbull, with local NIMBY types strongly opposed to the proposed location. While this was seemingly an unrelated article that I found because I typed "United Illuminating" into Google, this story provides a good example of one reason why electrical rates are so expensive: high real estate costs.

As far as I can tell here is what's happened. There is no substation in Trumbull, and in peak periods in the summer, the substations in Bridgeport and Shelton were loaded to 107% of capacity. So a new substation needs to get built. A substation is where the voltage is stepped down so it can be distributed to the local users.

UI owns about five acres of land in a residential area, and proposed to build a substation on this property, which would cost $17.3 million. There would be some woods buffer between some houses, but not on all sides. The local residents were understandably upset that a substation was going to get built there, and a neighborhood committee formed to protest the new substation.

Another property in a more industrial area was proposed instead. UI doesn't own this property, but the owner said he'd sell it for $7.5 million. The town offered open space it owned, but after residents near that space complained, that parcel became a nature preserve.

The additional cost to locate in the industrial area is about $11.6 million: $7.5 million to buy the property, with the remainder for additional costs in construction, materials, overheads, and transmission. I guess the difference comes from the fact that the industrial property is further from the power source than the property in the residential area.

It appears to me that UI owned the land where it wants to build the substation long before most of the surrounding houses were built. (This of course makes sense: why would UI buy land in a residential area before it was clear that it could get permits to build a substation there).

UI made an operating profit of $31.6 million last quarter, and $19.7 million in net income (i.e., after interest payments on its debt). So while it certainly can afford an extra $11.6 million expense, it isn't trivial. UI is going to, somehow, pass these costs on to its users. Maybe UI could also sell off the property in the residential area it owns and get something for that, if it could be zoned for new houses. Of the extra $11.6 million that UI would have to spend, the $7.5 million price for the property would not be tax deductible, as land is usually not something you can depreciate. The other $4 million should be tax deductible, but I'm not an accountant.

I don't necessarily think that anyone is in the wrong here, although I imagine that the industrial area property owner sees an opportunity to make a killer profit. But I think this episode is useful to show one reason why electricity costs a lot in Connecticut. Real estate is very expensive, and as a result, costs for goods and services that require real estate will be higher in Connecticut than in states with lower real estate prices.

There are of course a bunch of other reasons why electricity is expensive in this state: generation capacity, demand for the electricity, reliance on natural gas over coal, taxes, a regulatory structure (often called "deregulation") that prevents distributors from owning their own generation plants, etc. But real estate, and the general high cost of doing business here, is going to help make electricity more expensive.

I've heard many Republicans, Democrats, Liberals and Conservatives all demand that the Connecticut legislature DO SOMETHING about high electric rates. While there are certain things they can do, the fact is that with Connecticut's high land prices, and the ability of local residents to stall and block infrastructure projects, there are many things that the legislature simply cannot do. In Trumbull, UI had land for future use, but then the people moved in and all of the sudden these new people didn't want UI to build the infrastructure. Now UI may have to spend an additional $11.6 million.

One thing I am curious about is if UI and CL&P were owned by the state of Connecticut, do you think that local neighborhood groups could stop infrastructure projects like they can now? Or would the siting council and zoning boards have less sympathy for local groups fighting not a for-profit corporation but the state government? Could a utility owned by the state use eminent domain more frequently to put substations and high voltage lines where it saw fit?

Anyway, I think it's an interesting episode that gives some clues about why electric rates are so expensive in Connecticut.

Updated minor grammatical and spelling errors on 1/29/07