The polar vortex weather phenomenon may have passed weeks ago, but the effects are still rippling through the power industry.
The most recent victim is the severely affected Clean Currents, a green energy retailer that operated in Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania. Clean Currents was not adequately hedged for soaring winter energy prices and has gone out of business.
“Recent extreme weather, which sent the wholesale electricity market into unchartered territories, has fatally compromised our ability to continue to serve customers,” Clean Currents co-founders Gary Skulnik and Charles Segerman wrote on the company’s website.
Although Clean Currents is a clean energy company, it is still at the mercy of wholesale energy market prices, which are heavily influenced by the natural gas and coal that still dominate the fuel mix. During the streaks of bitter cold weather in January, wholesale electricity prices spiked across much of the U.S. due to natural gas constraints and peak electricity demand.
Like many electric customers, Clean Currents’ customers pay a flat rate no matter what’s happening on the wholesale market, so the retailer must make up the difference when prices surge. Prices in PJM, which are usually under $50 per megawatt-hour, spiked to hundreds of dollars during the polar vortex and topped out at $1,000 per megawatt-hour. Clean Currents, which had about 15,000 residential customers and 3,000 commercial clients, was not properly hedged to cover the difference.
In PJM, natural gas constraints were part of the problem, as they were in New York and New England, as well as in the Midwest grid systems. But the shortage of gas also came as some traditional generation failed, crippled by the sub-zero temperatures. At one point during the polar vortex, about 20 percent of PJM’s generation was offline, about half of which was sourced from coal-fired power plants.
The downfall of Clean Currents is not necessarily just about the failure of a cleantech company, but rather an example of the challenges that electric retailers face as prices push upward in markets year-round.
Ironically, in some of the regions where Clean Currents does not operate, renewable energy was a key asset as traditional thermal generators failed. The Midwest Independent System Operator, for example, had about 8,000 megawatts of wind power available, according to the American Wind Energy Association. Wind generation fared pretty well in PJM compared to traditional generation, but it was not enough to make up the shortfalls of thermal generation that sent prices sky-high.
Although renewable energy helped in some regions, there is another asset that helped the grid operators: demand response.
PJM called on more demand response than it ever had in wintertime, and recently got approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to change tariffs for demand response in the auction process. Limited-availability demand response, which was once categorized as a summer asset, will now be offered into PJM’s capacity auction for the entire year. In Texas, which also saw prices jump during the cold weather, the market cap is far higher than PJM and will continue to rise until it hits $9,000 per megawatt-hour in 2015.
The higher prices and larger role for demand response in some markets means that retailers may start to offer more robust options for customers on variable pricing plans to curb their energy use when prices jump, or they may offer flat-rate customers incentives to be a part of demand response programs to hedge their power purchasing needs during peak.
Although Clean Currents’ failure was not due to the fact that it offered clean energy, the Washington Post questioned whether some of its customers might worry about the risk associated with clean energy, even though the risk was that Clean Currents was a small company that did not have the capital necessary to ride out the price spikes.
Clean Currents was certainly not alone in focusing on clean energy solutions for its customers. NRG Energy, one of the country’s largest power companies, owns one of the largest renewable energy retailers, Green Mountain Energy. Many incumbent utilities and other retailers also have a renewable energy offering, which can vary from all wind to a mix of various clean energy sources.
While no other retailers have announced that they are going out of business due to the price spikes, the high prices will likely make many smaller players rethink their hedging strategy and could give deep-pocketed retailers a chance to pick up more customers if others follow in Clean Currents' footsteps.