The Great Policy Reset

Everything in the UK world of energy hit a kind of slow-moving nightmare when the Department of Energy and Climate Change stopped replying to emails a few months ago, claiming they were officially ordered to focus on the “Spending Review” – as known as “The Cuts” – as ordered by George Osborne, Chancellor of Her Majesty’s Treasury.

We now know that this purdah will be terminated on 25th November 2015, when various public announcements will be made, and whatever surprises are in store, one thing is now for certain : all grapevines have been repeating this one word regarding British energy policy : “reset”.

Some are calling it a “soft reset”. Some are predicting the demise of the entire Electricity Market Reform, and all its instruments – which would include the Capacity Auction and the Contracts for Difference – which would almost inevitably throw the new nuclear power ambition into a deep dark forgettery hole.

A report back from a whispering colleague regarding the Energy Utilities Forum at the House of Lords on 4th November 2015 included these items of interest :-

“…the cost of battery power has dropped to 10% of its value of a few years ago. National Grid has a tender out for micro-second response back up products – everyone assumes this is aimed at batteries but they are agnostic … There will be what is called a “soft reset” in the energy markets announced by the government in the next few weeks – no one knows what this means but obviously yet more tinkering with regulations … On the basis that diesel fuel to Afghanistan is the most expensive in the world (true), it has to be flown in, it has been seriously proposed to fly in Small Modular Nuclear reactors to generate power. What planet are these people living on I wonder ? … A lot more inter connectors are being planned to UK from Germany, Belgium Holland and Norway I think taking it up to 12 GWe … ”

Alistair Phillips-Davies, the CEO of SSE (Scottish and Southern Energy), took part in a panel discussion at Energy Live News on 5th November 2015, in which he said that he was expecing a “reset” on the Electricity Market Reform (EMR), and that the UK Government were apparently focussing on consumers and robust carbon pricing. One view expressed was that the EMR could be moved away from market mechanisms. In other discussions, it was mentioned that the EMR Capacity Market Auction had focussed too much on energy supply, and that the second round would see a wider range of participants – including those offering demand side solutions.

Energy efficiency, and electricity demand profile flattening, were still vital to get progress on, as the power grid is going to be more efficient if it can operate within a narrower band of demand – say 30 to 40 GW daily, rather than the currently daily swing of 20 to 50 GW. There was talk of offering changing flexible, personal tariffs to smooth out the 5pm 17:00 power demand peak, as price signalling is likely to be the only way to make this happen, and comments were made about how many computer geeks would be needed to analyse all the power consumption data.

The question was asked whether the smart meter rollout could have the same demand smoothing effect as the Economy 7 tariff had in the past.

The view was expressed that the capacity market had not provided enough by way of long-term price signals – particularly for investment in low carbon energy. One question raised during the day was whether it wouldn’t be better just to set a Europe-wide price on carbon and then let markets and the energy industry decide what to put in place ?

So, in what ways could the British Government “reset” the Electricity Market Reform instruments in order to get improved results – better for pocket, planet and energy provision ? This is what I think :-

1. Keep the Capacity Mechanism for gas

The Capacity Mechanism was originally designed to keep efficient gas-fired power plants (combined cycle gas turbine, or CCGT) from closing, and to make sure that new ones were built. In the current power generation portfolio, more renewable energy, and the drive to push coal-fired power plants to their limits before they need to be closed, has meant that gas-fired generation has been sidelined, kept for infrequent use. This has damaged the economics of CCGT, both to build and to operate. This phenomenon has been seen all across Europe, and the Capacity Market was supposed to fix this. However, the auction was opened to all current power generators as well as investors in new plant, so inevitably some of the cash that was meant for gas has been snaffled up by coal and nuclear.

2. Deflate strike prices after maximum lead time to generation

No Contracts for Difference should be agreed without specifying a maximum lead time to initial generation. There is no good reason why nuclear power plants, for example, that are anticipated to take longer than 5 years to build and start generating should be promised fixed power prices – indexed to inflation. If they take longer than that to build, the power prices should be degressed for every year they are late, which should provide an incentive to complete the projects on time. These projects with their long lead times and uncertain completion dates are hogging all the potential funds for investment, and this is leading to inflexibility in planning.

3. Offer Negative Contracts for Difference

To try to re-establish a proper buildings insulation programme of works, projects should be offered an incentive in the form of contracts-for-energy-savings – in other words, aggregated heat savings from any insulation project should be offered an investment reward related to the size of the savings. This will not be rewarding energy production, but energy use reduction. Any tempering of gas demand will improve the UK’s balance of payments and lead to a healthier economy.

4. Abandon all ambition for carbon pricing

Trends in energy prices are likely to hold surprises for some decades to come. To attempt to set a price on carbon, as an aid to incentivising low carbon energy investment is likely to fail to set an appropriate investment differential in this environment of general energy pricing volatility. That is : the carbon price would be a market signal lost in a sea of other effects. Added to which, carbon costs are likely to be passed on to energy consumers before they would affect the investment decisions of energy companies.

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