Enron, Fudging and the Magic Flute

Allegedly, the United Kingdom is about to break free from the Dark Ages of subsidies, and enter the glorious light of a free and light-touch regulated, competitive electricity market.

The Electricity Market Reform is being sold to us as the way to create a level playing field between low carbon electricity generation technologies, whether they be established or new, baseload or variable, costly-up-front or cheap-and-quick-to-grid.


Personally, I do not accept the mythology of the Free Market. I do not accept that a fully competitive, privatised energy sector can be delivered, regardless of the mechanisms proposed. The Electricity Market Reform is less Englightenment and more Obscurantism, in my view – the call of the Magic Flute is going to fall on deaf ears.

Who will play the pipe ? Who will call the tune ? Who will be the Counterparty ?
At the National Grid’s Future Energy Scenarios day conference-seminar on Thursday 27th September 2012, I listened carefully to several spokesmen from the companies, quangos and agencies deny that they would have anything to do with determining, underwriting or administering deals for the EMR’s proposed “Contracts for Difference” (CfD) – essentially setting a guaranteed lowest price for selling electricity to the grid, regardless of market movement. Mark Ripley of the EMR team at National Grid was very clear “National Grid will not be the contractual counterparty for the CfD”. I asked Jonathan Brearley of the UK Government Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) at a break who would be independent enough to set the “strike price” – the minimum price for which electricity generators could expect to sell electricity ? He suggested that perhaps the UK Government would set up an independent governing body – gesturing at arm’s length. I asked him rhetorically who could reasonably be expected to be seconded to this new quango – how could they be truly independent…I did not get an opportunity to ask how the CfD revenues and payouts would be administered. I didn’t know at that time about the rumours that Ofgem – the current electricity generation quango regulator – could be closed down under a new Labour Government.

The shadow cast by the nuclear industry
During the presentation by Jonathan Brearley of DECC, he indicated that back room discussions are going on between large potential electricity generation investors and the UK Government. Even before the ink has hit the paper on the EMR draft, it seems the UK Government is inviting large investors to come and talk to them about deals for guaranteed generation sales prices. As far as my notes indicate, he said “The first nuclear project has already approached us for a contract.” I asked him directly in the break if this kind of pre-legislation arrangement was going to allow the nuclear industry to cream off subsidies. He denied that Contracts for Difference would be allocated for current nuclear power plants. He did not admit that there are strong indications that the so-called Capacity Mechanism of the EMR could be applied, propping up the profits of the nuclear power plants already running, and encouraging them to apply for extension licences for their cracked reactors to keep running after they should have been shut down for safety reasons.

After the National Grid meeting, I went to an EcoConnect meeting, where Eric Machiels of Infinis said, in reference to the strong influence of EdF (Electricite de France) in proposing new nuclear reactors in the UK, “The EMR was set up to meet two requirements. [First] to justify incredibly high investments. [And] nuclear – if you need to invest £10 billion or more, 10 years away, you need regulatory certainty…[But you have to know, decisions on nuclear development] will rely on decisions made in the Elysee Palace and not in Number 10.”

Well, it seems clear that the steer is still towards the UK taxpayers and billpayers stumping up to support the ailing French atomic power fleet.

A bit of a big fudge
There is no reason to believe that the Curse of Enron will not haunt the UK energy trading halls if the EMR goes ahead with its various microeconomic policies. Everybody will play for profits, and the strength of over-competitive behaviour between the current market actors will not encourage or permit new market entrants.

At the EcoConnect meeting, Diane Dowdell of Tradelink Solutions warned of the risks of going back to the kind of electricity markets of former decades, “Unless you worked under the Pool, you wouldn’t know how it works. It is a derivative…DECC need to look at Ireland – their Pool system has been utterly destroyed. Please don’t follow in the footsteps of Ireland – get the balancing right.”

The big issue is the macroeconomic need to incentivise investment in new electricity generation plant and infrastructure – something that will not be achieved by flipping microeconomic market trading conditions to benefit low carbon generators. How can new low carbon generators come onto the grid ? By placing focus on investment decisions. New generation has to clear a higher hurdle than how much it can sell green power for on the half-hourly market. Funds and financing are not going to be directed to choose low carbon investment just because marginal costs (the Carbon Floor Price and the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme) are applied to high carbon players already in the market. The guarantees of profits into the future from the institution of Contracts for Difference (Feed in Tariff) and the Capacity Mechanism will maybe trigger a slice of investment in new nuclear power, but it won’t ensure that new gas-fired power plants are built with Carbon Capture and Storage.

At the EcoConnect meeting later on, another DECC man reported back on the UK Government’s call for evidence on the EMR. DECC’s Matt Coyne said that amongst the conclusions from the consultation with industry there were concerns about the conditions for Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) under the EMR. (Securing a PPA is the guarantee that investors need to be able to commit to backing new electricity generation capacity). He said that developers are finding it hard to secure finance for new generation investment and that it was a widely-held view that the EMR would not improve that, although he said that “it is our view that the Contracts for Difference will improve things.” Other people at the meeting were not so sure. Diane Dowdell said, “I desperately hope the EMR works. It’s got to work. [Conditions] seem to be edging out the small- and mid-sized players.” Eric Machiels said, “The Big Six vertically integrated energy suppliers are in the best position to retain their position.”

In my notes, I scribbled that Michael Ware, a dealmaking matchmaker for renewable energy projects, offered the view that “Government does resemble toddlers driving a steam train – there are lots of buttons to push…[The UK is] just a rainy little island at the edge of Europe. Capital is truly international. It all feels much easier to do business elsewhere. [The EMR looks] almost designed to turn off investors.”

There were several calls to retain the Renewables Obligation – to oblige energy suppliers to keep signing up new clean power from smaller players if they couldn’t make it themselves.

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