Big bet: Billionaire Warren Buffett. Photo: Abaca
Warren Buffett's $US26 billion (A$28 billion) bet on western US power plants, transmission lines and wind farms is poised to pay off.
The energy unit of Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway, with the help of California's grid operator, is moving to unite the holdings under a single market capable of dispatching power across seven states every five minutes. The system, designed to handle sudden swings in supply and demand, would revolutionise the markets from Oregon to Nevada, where 38 transmission operators manually balance their territories on an hourly basis.
The move would be a game-changer for the renewables that Berkshire Hathaway Energy has accumulated over the past decade, including two of the world's largest solar farms, and for other clean-power producers, according to those who trade in the region's markets. Berkshire's plants stand to run for longer periods of time, and its NV Energy and PacifiCorp utilities will save as much as $US63.9 million annually by 2017, Energy and Environmental Economics reports show.
Tilting at turbines.
"It would be huge if all 38 balancing authorities joined," Sean Breiner, a market design analyst for energy trader Viasyn, said by telephone June 2. "Instead of having these balkanised regions, you'd have resources from Idaho to Wyoming all flowing into one kind of large spot market."
Transmission operators across the US are struggling to manage record volumes of variable resources such as wind and solar coming online to meet state renewables mandates. Power prices, already weighed down by a 66 per cent drop in natural gas since July 2008, can slide to zero or negative at times when output unexpectedly surges, pressuring profits for gas, nuclear and coal generators.
California has a goal of securing 33 per cent of power from clean energy by 2020. By next year, the California Independent System Operator Corp. expects renewables to meet almost a quarter of demand. In the Northwest, renewables are nearly 7 per cent of total supply, excluding hydropower.
The market, scheduled to start Oct. 1 pending approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, would use hourly bids from generators to match the cheapest resources with supply, demand and transmission changes every five minutes. It would initially include the territories of the California ISO and PacifiCorp -- spanning 42,200 miles of transmission lines in six states from California to Wyoming, extend to NV Energy's Nevada network a year later and could accommodate all operators in the region.
Those who join would be trading in a "Model T for a Ferrari," Stefan Bird, senior vice president of PacifiCorp's commercial and trading operations, said in a May 27 interview at one of the company's wind farms in Washington. "A human, even a really good one, can't handle so many plants."
Public power agencies have opposed a western-wide system since the energy crisis a decade ago that left thousands without power and caused prices to surge to record.
Their hesitation also stems from an age-old "fear" of the FERC, Jon Wellinghoff, who joined the law firm Stoel Rives after resigning as the longest-serving chairman of FERC last year, said at a conference in San Francisco on May 29. "It will give FERC some authority and power over their operations."
Bonneville Power Administration, an agency that markets hydropower for the federal government and operates transmission ties between California and Oregon, has no intention of joining and is involved in an effort to improve markets in the Northwest alone, Doug Johnson, a BPA spokesman in Portland, said by telephone May 28.
Bob Gravely, a spokesman for PacifiCorp in Portland, and Shawn Elicegui, NV's vice president of regulatory affairs in Reno, Nevada, said their decisions to join the market were made individually.
Berkshire's acquisition of NV last year didn't "seal the deal," Elicegui said by telephone May 29.
On a recent morning, PacifiCorp dispatcher David Landis's eyes darted between seven computer screens, a half-eaten meal shoved aside, as he worked to balance fluctuations across the utility's six-state system. A screen at his desk in Portland flashed wind forecasts.
"You can only put so much weight on them," he said, pointing to a chart showing wind output fell 150 megawatts below forecast. "That's enough to light a lot of Portland."
The balancing system would take those fluctuations off Landis's hands so he could focus on more forward-looking markets, Bird said.
Berkshire Hathaway Energy's spending in the western states included $US10.7 billion to acquire PacifiCorp and NV Energy, $US8.7 billion in renewable investments, a $US6 billion Northwest transmission project and at least $US568 million on the Lake Side natural gas-fired power plant being completed this year in Utah, according to company filings.
Power generators and transmission operators in other parts of the US already participate in real-time markets run by grid operators from the Northeast to Texas. California runs a five-minute market within its own territory. Should all the authorities in the western US join the new system, it would become the nation's largest geographically.
Analyses prepared by San Francisco-based Energy and Environmental Economics show the real-time market would save the California ISO area as much as $US74.3 million, PacifiCorp $US54.4 million and NV $US9.5 million in the year 2017.
More than half of Berkshire Hathaway Energy's revenue is generated from assets in the western US, its website shows. The company is spending $US5.2 billion to build the world's two largest solar farms in California.
To bring this growing collection of renewables onto the grid, "you really need to have better tools -- situational awareness, speed and wide areas of diversity," PacifiCorp's Bird said. "The West lacks that, and this, from our point of view, is critical."