there was a need to do something in the short term to get over the problem [of thin generation margins].The idea of “reserve generation” has always seemed crazy. Electricity generation typically implies relatively high capital costs relative to operating costs, so the idea of commissioning a plant with the express purpose of having it lie idle except in the event of a one-in-sixty-year drought seems extraordinary. Add to that Parker’s view that it was only needed to get over a problem in the short term, then the period over which that capital cost can be amortised is also short.
Let’s do some back of the envelope calculations. According to the article, Whirinaki cost $150m and has been sold 7 years later for $33m, so depreciation costs are approximately 11%. Add in a very conservative 5% opportunity cost on the $150m (nominal interest rate since the purchase and sale prices are nominal), and to get a 16% opportunity cost of capital which equates to $24m per year. Again using the figures from the article, it has operated less than 4% of the time, which is roughly 350 hours per year. Whirinaki has a capacity of 155 MW, so if (another heroic assumption that understates the costs), it was running at full capacity for each of the 350 hours, it would have produced a bit over 54,000 MWh. To cover the capital costs, therefore, this would have required a price of around $450 per MWh in excess of operating costs. The Wolak report estimated that the marginal operating cost for other thermal plants at full capacity to be around $50/MWh, but it is acknowledged that Whirinaki was more expensive than this, so we would need a price of in excess of $500/MWh to enable Whirinaki to cover its costs. And this is without considering maintenance costs and general staffing throughout the year. There is no way that wholesale prices were consistently that high during the period Whirinaki was operating. Of course, this is hardly surprising since no private companies were clamouring to build it based on market prices, and funding had to be through a compulsory levy.
The other statement by Parker that caught my eye was this:
The real criticism that should be levelled here is what was wrong with the so-called “market solution” that left New Zealand short of generation capacity.There are two quick responses here. First, as above, if New Zealand was genuinely short of generation capacity, why could the government not successfully enter the market and run Whirinaki at a profit rather than through a compulsory levy? Second, if you want to make the criticism that the problem with the New Zealand market in the early years of the century was that we were short of generation capacity, then you must also emphatically reject the conclusions of the Wolak report that claimed $4.3b of market-power overcharging based on an analysis that depends totally for its numbers on an assumption of excess generation capacity in New Zealand. In other words, you can’t say this
“The Commerce Commission report (22 May 2009), based on an in-depth study by Professor Wolak of Stanford University, a world authority, found NZ$4.8b (sic) of overcharging by electricity companies, equivalent to 18 per cent overcharging”, David Parker said.(For more on why I think the Wolak report is wrong, see Working Papers 11/08, 11/09, and 11/10 here.)