New model projects energy policy impacts

By Anna Austin | May 31, 2010
Posted July 13, 2010, at 1:18 p.m. CST

The Great Plains Institute has released a new Web-based energy modeling system that models the interaction of a wide range of federal and state energy data and policies in order to provide a context for the simulation of economic decisions between now and 2050.

The Energy Choice Simulator allows a user to compare or enter assumptions (such as feedstock availability, natural gas/electricity prices, annual state economic growth or fuel costs) about a state or region, experiment with policies (fuel subsidies, state taxes, low-carbon fuel standards or state efficiency mandates) that are or may be implemented by a state, and simulate outcomes based on those assumptions and policies. Assumptions and policies are different, explained GPI Energy Policy Analyst Dane McFarlane, as assumptions define the environment within which the policies operate.

Outcomes created by interacting sets of assumptions and policies are labeled as model scenarios, McFarlane said. Scenarios can be compared with one another and by state to assess their relative impact on variables such as greenhouse gas emissions, energy usage and spending. "Users can compare potential scenarios imposed by specific policies in a given state or region, such as taxes on feedstocks or particular technologies, moratoriums on various fuel pathways, or any other policies that might affect them."

McFarlane said a key feature of the ECS is that it is of an open source nature. "If you see anything you disagree with, you can click on the assumptions tab, search for your parameter and then filter out all assumptions related to that," he said.

The tool, co-developed by GPI, Forio Business Simulations Inc. and the University of Minnesota, currently only caters to the Midwest. It took two years to develop, and involved input from hundreds of stakeholders from many sectors including environmental nongovernment organizations, electric utilities, public utility commissioners, state legislators, conservation organizations, oil companies, agriculture and biofuel producers, labor unions and investors, according to McFarlane. Through meetings, conference calls, and webinars, the participating stakeholders helped guide the development of policy recommendations.

In terms of relevance to a state's biomass industry, could the ECS help a user understand how biomass materials would be best used in producing renewable energy in a given area-whether it may be more economic to make fuel, electricity or biogas? "There's no one answer to that question, because it depends on the relative prices [of feedstocks]," said Brendan Jordan, GPI bioeconomy and transportation policy initiative manager. "The model won't give you a single answer, but it will allow you to explore the implications of using biomass to make each product, based on relative prices and what the fuel is."

"[the model] does look at the amount of available biomass-grass, corn waste or livestock waste-and makes an economic decision every year as to how much to put into electricity, ethanol or any other energy use," McFarland added. "It won't tell you straight out what the best use of biomass is, but you can see what is implied by the model based on availability and economics."

To access the Energy Choice Simulator, visit