Coal Tattoo

This is a special guest post, cross-posted from the Energy Forward Blog at the West Virginia University College of Law’s Center for Energy and Sustainable Development.

By James VanNostrand, Director, WVU College of Law Center for Energy and Sustainable Development

As reported by Ken Ward Jr. in the Charleston Gazette, a number of questions are being raised about FirstEnergy’s proposal to transfer ownership of 80% of the Harrison coal plant to Mon Power. The Harrison coal plant is a huge, 1984-megawatt (MW) facility built in the early 1970s in Haywood, West Virginia. Mon Power currently owns 20% of the plant, and the remaining 80% is owned by an unregulated FirstEnergy affiliate, Allegheny Energy Supply Company. Due to coal plant closings, Mon Power is purportedly 938 MW short of capacity, and is proposing to acquire the 1576 MW installed capacity in Harrison that it does not already own. (As part of the deal, Mon Power is proposing to sell 100 MW of capacity in its Pleasants Power Station to AE Supply, for a net capacity addition of 1476 MW.) Approval of the proposed deal is currently pending before the West Virginia Public Service Commission (PSC).

From this author’s analysis of the application to the PSC, the proposed deal is a bad one for Mon Power ratepayers (and the author is one such ratepayer), and should be rejected by the PSC. Perhaps the terms of the deal can be rehabilitated through conditions that the PSC could attach to its approval. As currently proposed, however, the application is sorely deficient, and fails to meet the “public interest” standard necessary for its approval. The deficiencies include the following:

The Proposed transaction would give Mon Power more capacity than it needs, thereby precluding any role for energy efficiency, natural gas-fired generation, or wholesale market purchases. As noted above, Mon Power claims to be 938 MW short of capacity in 2013, and the transaction would add 1476 MW of new capacity (1576 MW from Harrison, less 100 MW of Pleasant being sold). Thus, Mon Power’s capacity needs will be much more than filled by additional coal plant capacity. Given the excess capacity situation that would be created, there will be a strong disincentive for FirstEnergy to promote energy efficiency (which would simply exacerbate the excess capacity position). Moreover, there will be no room in Mon Power’s resource strategy for the possibility of including some natural gas-fired generation in its portfolio of resources. Finally, there will be no room in Mon Power’s resource strategy for wholesale market purchases, which are substantially cheaper than the Harrison plant acquisition. PJM wholesale prices are down 29% over the past year, due largely to cheap natural gas-fired generation, and wholesale prices are likely to remain relatively low for the foreseeable future. By filling its entire capacity needs (and then some) with the Harrison plant purchase, Mon Power will be precluded from pursuing other, cheaper options, such as energy efficiency, natural gas-fired generation, and purchases from the wholesale market. The Center for Energy and Sustainable Development has prepared a Discussion Paper on Integrated Resource Planning that highlights the reasons for a diversified portfolio mix, including natural gas-fired generation, renewable energy resources, and energy efficiency.

FirstEnergy completely ignores energy efficiency as an alternative, even for a portion of the needed capacity. FirstEnergy’s “Resource Plan” states that “demand side resource options are not a viable solution capable of meeting Mon Power’s obligations . . . [as they] do not address energy shortfalls as significant as the shortfall faced by Mon Power.” [Resource Plan, p. 56] Admittedly, energy efficiency programs cannot be ramped up quickly enough to make up a [claimed] capacity deficit of 938 MW. But energy efficiency, at 3-4¢/kWh, is substantially less than the 7.4¢/kWh that FirstEnergy is proposing to charge Mon Power customers for Harrison’s output. FirstEnergy needs to start treating energy efficiency as a resource, alongside supply-side options; this is a good proceeding to illustrate the comparative advantages of investments in energy efficiency versus buying an over-priced 40+ year-old coal plant. FirstEnergy has virtually no energy efficiency program offerings for its West Virginia customers, to help them manage their energy costs. First Energy’s energy efficiency programs in West Virginia were established to save 0.5% in 5 years, which is lower than the level being achieved in 40 other states. As far as actual results, FirstEnergy didn’t even reach 0.1% savings in the first year. The Center for Energy and Sustainable Development has prepared a Discussion Paper on Energy Efficiency that makes the case for increased investments in energy efficiency in West Virginia, and by FirstEnergy in particular.

The price for the Harrison plant acquisition is inflated far above what utility regulators ever would allow, by reference to generally accepted ratemaking principles. The net book value of the plant, based on “original cost depreciated” (the basis for ratemaking under the FERC Uniform System of Accounts, and followed by virtually every PUC in the country), is $574 million [$1.24 billion less $667.3 million in accumulated depreciation]. FirstEnergy is proposing to include an “acquisition adjustment” of $589.6 million that would more than double the acquisition cost of the plant for West Virginia ratepayers, to $1.163 billion. This “acquisition adjustment” is purportedly based upon “a purchase accounting fair value measurement component . . . related to the completion of the FirstEnergy/Allegheny merger in February 2011.” [Wise Testimony, p. 7] FirstEnergy claims that without PSC approval to include the unamortized portion of the acquisition adjustment in rate based until it is fully amortized, “Mon Power will not proceed with the transaction.” [Wise Testimony, p. 7] As a regulatory attorney for 22 years in the Pacific Northwest who has handled the regulatory approvals for 7 different merger deals in front of 6 different PUCs in the West, this author can represent that these “fair value adjustments,” also known as “goodwill” adjustments, are NEVER recovered from utility ratepayers. Regulatory ratemaking principles simply do not allow it; rates are based on original cost depreciated of rate base assets, not some “fair market value adjustment” based on some utility deciding to overpay to acquire another utility. There is no basis for ratepayers being burdened with FirstEnergy’s foolish decision to overpay to acquire Allegheny. Most regulatory approvals of mergers, and all 7 of the deals in which this author was involved, impose conditions precluding the utility from ever seeking to recover such acquisition adjustments in rates. While this author has not personally reviewed the order approving the FirstEnergy/Allegheny merger, it is my understanding that FirstEnergy agreed to such a condition in connection with receiving regulatory approval of the merger.

The numbers for the transaction defy common sense, apart from what generally accepted ratemaking principles or the Uniform System of Accounts require. The value of the 20% of the Harrison plant already owned by Mon Power on its books is $319/kW, while the proposed purchase price for the remaining 80% is $767/kW. This price disparity is inexplicable, given that there is nothing physically different in the four-fifths of the plant not owned by Mon Power versus the one fifth of the plant that Mon Power already owns. Are the electrons coming from the Allegheny Energy Supply side of the plant really worth 2½ times the value of the electrons from the Mon Power side of the plant? Try explaining that to the average FirstEnergy ratepayer in West Virginia.

The price for the Harrison plant acquisition is substantially overstated and does not reflect the current value of the plant. Recent, comparable coal plant transactions provide some guidance on what used coal plants are selling for these days. It is interesting that FirstEnergy claims an upward $589.6 million adjustment to the price of Harrison based on “accounting fair value” at the time of the FirstEnergy/Allegheny merger, yet does not want to consider what the Harrison plant’s fair market value might be today. Such an “accounting fair value” adjustment would go in the other direction, as Harrison is currently worth far less than the price being sought by FirstEnergy from Mon Power ratepayers. Based on recent transactions, even the original cost depreciated figure of $574 million is substantially higher than market value, and a bad deal for Mon Power customers.

  • In a transaction announced in March 2013, Dynegy is acquiring 4561 MW of super-critical coal capacity from Ameren for $825 million, or a cost per kW of $180.88
  • In a transaction announced in March 2013, Energy Capital Partners is acquiring 2868 MW of super-critical coal capacity and 1424 of natural gas-fired capacity from Dominion for $650 million, or a cost per kW of $130
  • In a transaction announced in August 2012, Riverstone Holdings is acquiring 2265 MW of super-critical coal capacity from Exelon for $400 million, or a cost per kW of $176.60

Under FirstEnergy’s proposed transaction price of $1.163 billion, the cost per kW is $785.91, or almost 5 times higher than the average per kW price from recent transactions. Even using original cost depreciated for Harrison of $574 million, the cost per kW would be $388, or almost 2½ times higher than the average per kW price from recent transactions. The market value of Harrison, based on the average price from the above recent transactions ($171.45 per kW) is $253 million.

FirstEnergy’s “resource plan” fails to consider and properly evaluate the various alternatives. FirstEnergy included a “resource plan” in its filing, which attempted to justify the purchase of the Harrison plant as an outcome preferred to other “alternatives” purportedly analyzed in the document. Market purchases, or relying on power purchases from the wholesale market, was the primary alternative identified in the “resource plan.” But the wholesale price projections used in FirstEnergy’s “resource plan,” and upon which FirstEnergy rejected market purchases as an alternative, are based upon outdated, inaccurately high—about 30% too high—projections of Henry Hub natural gas market prices. On this point, compare Figure 16 on page 21 of the “resource plan” with recent natural gas price forecasts from the Energy Information Administration and the difference in obvious. The effect? The “analysis” substantially overstates the cost of the “alternative,” which makes the Harrison plant transaction look relatively cheaper by comparison.

Moreover, the “analysis” in the “resource plan” fails utterly to evaluate the risks associated with exclusive reliance on coal-fired generation. If the Harrison plant transaction is approved, it would preclude any diversification in Mon Power’s energy supply portfolio, which would be virtually 100% coal-fired. Mon Power would be dependent on two 40-plus year old coal plants (Harrison and Ft. Martin) for 90% of its internal generation. That lack of diversification very likely puts the ratepayers at risk for significant cost increases when replacement capacity is needed for those plants. The “resource plan” also does not analyze the risk to ratepayers from coal price volatility, even though they will be extremely exposed if this transfer goes through.

The transaction appears to be an integral part of FirstEnergy’s financial restructuring. Why should West Virginia ratepayers be expected to bail out FirstEnergy’s management for bad resource acquisition decisions? FirstEnergy’s baseload capacity factor was 64% in 2012, down from 84% in 2008. Low natural gas prices are clearly hurting FirstEnergy’s competitive generation segment. FirstEnergy is also targeting substantial debt paydown this year in its competitive generation segment ($1.4 billion), which appears to be a major driver of the Harrison plant transaction. In addition to selling off Harrison, it has announced plans to sell off some pumped hydro units and possibly additional assets.

The transaction, if approved, should reflect terms that are fair to West Virginia ratepayers, and that accommodate some resource diversity for Mon Power. The transaction, as currently proposed, is a bad deal for Mon Power customers. Mon Power would be substantially overpaying for a 40-year old coal plant that is in excess of its capacity needs, and the acquisition would preclude Mon Power from pursuing cheaper alternatives, such as natural gas-fired generation, wholesale market purchases, and energy efficiency. There is some sentiment, of course, for Mon Power “stepping up” to acquire this plant, given that most of the coal burned at the plant is from the nearby Robinson Run #95 mine, owned by Consol Energy. The argument is that failure to “do this deal” would jeopardize the plant’s future operation, and the mining jobs that are directly associated with the plant’s fuel supply.

These arguments miss the point, however, with respect to the impact on Mon Power ratepayers. The transaction, as currently proposed, is nothing but a financial bail-out for FirstEnergy’s shareholders. The plant will not cease operating if Mon Power does not do this deal. No coal miners will lose their jobs if Mon Power does not do this deal. Rather, FirstEnergy will be subject to the wholesale power marketplace, and will be forced to sell the output at competitively determined prices rather than the inflated price – 7.4 cents/kWh – FirstEnergy is proposing in this transaction. The transaction as currently proposed puts the consequences of FirstEnergy’s imprudent resource acquisition decisions on the backs of the Mon Power ratepayers, and that is an unjust and unreasonable outcome. FirstEnergy’s shareholders, not Mon Power ratepayers, should bear the consequences if the Harrison Plant output must be sold into the wholesale power markets at prices that fail to capture the profit margin that FirstEnergy’s unregulated affiliate deems necessary. The Public Service Commission needs to step up on this one and make a decision that is in the best long-term interests of Mon Power customers, and that properly places the impact of the Harrison Plant’s apparent uneconomic competitiveness on the backs of the FirstEnergy shareholders, where the risk belongs.

If the Commission decides that Mon Power should expand its ownership of the Harrison Plant beyond its current 20% share, that acquisition should be (1) scaled down in price to reflect no more than the current market value of the plant, and (2) scaled down in size to correspond with Mon Power’s current capacity needs, while leaving some room for cheaper alternatives such as natural gas-fired generation, wholesale market purchases, and energy efficiency. The best solution would be to require Mon Power to issue a Request for Proposals, to really test the market for the alternatives that currently exist to meet Mon Power’s existing capacity needs. The RFP process would allow FirstEnergy to offer a portion of the Harrison Plant on terms that need to be competitive with other market-based alternatives, and FirstEnergy’s shareholders would bear the consequences of any shortfall between covering the Harrison plant costs and the competitively derived price. And by scaling down the magnitude of the acquisition to something more closely corresponding to Mon Power’s claimed capacity needs – about 900 MW – rather than the 1476 MW proposed in the transaction, Mon Power would have the flexibility to pursue cheaper alternatives that are in the best long-term interests of its customers, such as natural gas-fired generation, wholesale market purchases, and energy efficiency.