Expanding production of the United States' shale gas reserves in recent years has put downward pressure on natural gas prices across the nation, prompting massive fuel-switching from coal- to gas-fired generation.
Though arguably a near-term positive for both consumers and the environment, this "dash for gas"–and, specifically, its corresponding suppression of wholesale power prices–has made it harder for wind energy and other renewable power technologies to compete on price alone (despite recent improvements in their cost and performance).
As wind power finds it more difficult to compete with gas-fired generation on the basis of price, it may increasingly need to rely on other attributes, such as its "portfolio" or "hedge" value, as justification for continued deployment in the power mix.
Against this backdrop, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) released a new report, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), that investigates the degree to which wind power can still serve as a cost-effective hedge against rising natural gas prices, given the reduction in gas prices in recent years, coupled with expectations that gas prices will remain low for many years to come.
Drawing on a sizable sample of long-term power purchase agreements (PPAs) between existing wind projects and utilities in the U.S., the report compares wind power prices that have been contractually locked in for decades to come with a range of long-term natural gas price projections.
It finds that–even within today's low gas price environment–wind power can still provide a cost-effective long-term hedge against many of the higher-priced future natural gas scenarios being contemplated. This finding is particularly evident among the more-recent contracts in the PPA sample, whose power sales prices better reflect recent improvements in the cost and performance of wind power.
With shale gas likely to keep a lid on domestic natural gas prices in the near-term, the report's focus is decidedly long-term in nature. "Short-term gas price risk can already be effectively hedged using conventional hedging instruments like futures, options, and bilateral physical supply contracts, but these instruments come up short when one tries to lock in prices over longer durations," notes report author and scientist Mark Bolinger of Berkeley Lab's Environmental Energy Technologies Division. "It is over these longer durations where inherently stable-priced generation sources like wind power hold a rather unique competitive advantage."