Comparing the Risk Profiles of Renewable and Natural Gas Electricity Contracts: A Summary of the California Department of Water Resources Contracts

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Electricity markets in the United States have witnessed unprecedented instability over the last few years, with substantial volatility in wholesale market prices, significant financial distress among major industry organizations, and unprecedented legal, regulatory and legislative activity. These events demonstrate the considerable risks that exist in the electricity industry. Recent industry instability also illustrates the need for thoughtful resource planning to balance the cost, reliability, and risk of the electricity supplied to end-use customers. In balancing different supply options, utilities, regulators, and other resource planners must consider the unique risk profiles of each generating source. This paper evaluates the relative risk profiles of renewable and natural gas generating plants. The risks that exist in the electricity industry depend in part on the technologies that are used to generate electricity. Natural gas has become the fuel of choice for new power plant additions in the United States. To some, this emphasis on a single fuel source signals the potential for increased risk. Renewable generation sources, on the other hand, are frequently cited as a potent source of socially beneficial risk reduction relative to natural gas-fired generation. Renewable generation is not risk free, however, and also imposes certain costs on the electricity sector. This paper specifically compares the allocation and mitigation of risks in long-term natural gas fired electricity contracts with the allocation and mitigation of these same risks in long-term renewable energy contracts. This comparison highlights some of the key differences between renewable and natural gas generation that decision makers should consider when making electricity investment and contracting decisions. Our assessment is relevant in both regulated and restructured markets. In still-regulated markets, the audience for this report clearly includes regulators and the utilities they regulate. In restructured markets, the role of regulatory oversight of resource planning is more limited. Nonetheless, even in restructured markets, it is increasingly recognized that regulators have a critical role to play in directing the resource planning of providers of last resort – electric suppliers that provide service to those customers who choose not to switch to a competitive supplier. Our review of electricity contracts may also have educational value for those unfamiliar with the typical contents of these agreements. Details of our findings are provided in the body of the paper, but this summary is written to provide a concise alternative to reading the full report.

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