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UK government looks forward to 2030 (and beyond) with CfD consultation

On 2 March 2020, the UK Government issued a consultation on proposed changes to the contracts for difference (CfD) regime of support for renewable electricity generators. The item that attracted most attention was that onshore wind (in GB as a whole, rather than just on Scottish islands) and solar will be allowed to apply for CfDs again in 2021, but there are other points worth noting too. There are proposals to change aspects of the CfD regime relating to offshore wind and biomass conversions, as well as cross-cutting proposals (on areas including negative pricing, non-delivery incentives and “supply chain plans”) that would affect all technologies.

Offshore for net zero

The CfD regime is becoming mature. It was first consulted on in 2010; was legislated for in 2013/2014; saw the first, “FID enabling”, contracts awarded in 2014; and held its first auction in 2015. Already, more than 20 projects with CfDs have been commissioned and are receiving payments under them. They have a combined capacity of more than 4 GW. A further 10 GW is expected to be added by 2026, based on the delivery of projects that were awarded CfDs in the first three auctions. Offshore wind is, increasingly, the dominant technology in the CfD portfolio.

As of June 2019, the UK has a target of net zero emissions by 2050. And before then, the government wants to achieve 30 GW (as per the March 2019 Offshore Wind Sector Deal), or even 40 GW (as per the December 2019 Conservative manifesto) of offshore wind capacity by 2030. The most recent CfD auction saw just under 5.5 GW of offshore capacity awarded CfDs for delivery between 2023 and 2025, but – assuming that this is all delivered – can such levels of activity be sustained? Even if they are, with auctions occurring every two years and projects bidding to deliver in five or six years’ time, it is not certain that the higher of the two 2030 targets would be reached.

Get off the bottom and go with the float

Although the costs of offshore projects have fallen significantly, and it has become feasible to build them much further from the shore than was once the case, there are concerns about whether it will be possible to fulfil the high ambitions for 2030 while relying entirely on monopile, jacket or suction bucket foundations into which the turbine tower is built. These “fixed bottom” arrays cannot readily be deployed in waters more than 60 metres deep. As the industry grows, and occupies more of the available areas of shallower water, the cumulative impact of each new project on e.g. seabird mortality increases, potentially posing more problems under nature conservation legislation. The Crown Estate recently announced a plan-level Habitats Regulations Assessment of its fourth leasing round of sites for offshore wind development, with a view to addressing these issues.  

So the government would like to stimulate more rapid adoption of floating offshore wind technology. Just as the construction of North Sea oil rigs progressed from fixed bottom to floating structures, the expectation is that offshore wind can do the same. If it does so successfully, it will become possible to locate turbines over a wider area. This would reduce cumulative adverse environmental impacts and likely increase security of supply (reducing the risk of loss of generation because the wind happens to have slackened or stopped blowing in the areas where turbines are located). The consultation document also suggests that floating turbines could provide clean electricity for offshore oil and gas infrastructure. Moreover, with an eye to export markets, at a global level, the technology will become much more useful in markets such as Japan and California that do not have shallow coastal waters.

Floating wind can of course already apply for a CfD, but in its current state of development, the technology is unlikely to win against fixed bottom and the other technologies that it would compete against in the “Pot 2” category. At present, the CfD regulations do not recognise floating offshore wind as a separate technology. The government proposes to change that, by introducing a new concept of a “floating offshore wind CfD Unit” – defined as consisting entirely of floating turbines. It would then be possible in future auctions to set a framework that effectively reserved part of the budget to such units – or at least ensured that they were not in direct competition with low-cost fixed bottom developments.

In a class of its own?

The government proposes to retain the current 1500 MW cap on phased offshore wind projects, “to strike a balance between economies of scale and facilitating new entrants to the market”. But a final notable proposal in relation to offshore wind is that in future auctions, offshore wind projects might only compete against each other, rather than – as previously – against other “Pot 2” technologies such as advanced conversion technologies, or against “Pot 1” technologies like onshore wind and solar. Whilst it is arguable that offshore wind no longer fits the “less established” designation of Pot 2, the very large scale of the fixed bottom projects now coming forward does make it somewhat mismatched with other technologies. As the consultation document notes, such a restructuring of the Pots would require “regulatory approval”, but there is plenty of precedent for mechanisms designed to offer support specifically to offshore wind projects being approved under the EU state aid rules, and there is unlikely to be any lack of competition for CfDs in an offshore-wind only category.

Meanwhile, back on dry land…

The extent to which the fortunes of the onshore wind industry have been restored by this consultation should not be overstated. Previous governments took more than one decision that curbed its growth. As well as deciding not to include onshore wind in the second and third CfD allocation rounds (unless they were on remote Scottish islands, in the case of the third round), and accelerating the closure of the previous subsidy regime, the Renewables Obligation (RO see here and here), they adopted a planning policy that restricted the pipeline of new consented projects in England. The promise to include onshore wind and solar in the next allocation round, to be held in 2021, does not change that.

However, it is still likely that a significant number of consented sites have been “awaiting construction” primarily because of the lack of RO or CfD support or any adequate substitute for the revenue stability they provide. There should be plenty of competition for the next auction in Pot 1, not least in Scotland, where there is plenty of wind and there has been no Scottish Government policy similarly restricting the pipelines of consented projects since the closure of the RO. The consultation notes that, although there are unsubsidised “merchant” solar and onshore wind projects being constructed, “there is a risk that if we were to rely on merchant deployment of these technologies alone at this point in time, we may not see the rate and scale of new projects needed in the near term to support decarbonisation of the power sector and meet the net zero commitment at low cost”.

The consultation does not suggest how much money might be offered to the part of any future auction in which onshore wind and solar would compete (“Pot 1”). We note, however, that there are some illustrative figures in the accompanying impact assessment (albeit they are expressly “not an indication of future allocation round parameters”) that seem to envisage that in a future round where about the same amount of offshore wind was awarded CfDs as was the case in the third allocation round (5.5 GW, with strike prices of £45/MWh at 2012 prices), 300 and 700 MW of onshore solar and onshore wind might be similarly successful (with strike prices of £33 and £34/MWh). In the first CfD auction in 2015, the largest successful solar project was 19 MW – today, the whole of a hypothetical 300 MW of solar CfD capacity could be swallowed by a single development.

It’s not just about the clean energy

The consultation also focuses on the importance of renewables projects benefiting local communities. It proposes updating existing guidance and creating a register of projects’ community benefits. It also cites some examples of good practice and asks for further ideas in this area. Previously, it has proved difficult, particularly for larger commercial projects, to deliver what might be the most obvious community benefit (cheap, clean, locally-generated power) directly to the communities that host them, because of the way that the GB electricity industry and its licensing and network charging regimes are structured. But it may be that the commoditisation of battery storage could help going forward.

A key element for CfD projects with a capacity of more than 300 MW has been the requirement to submit a “supply chain plan” as part of the application process. The intention has been to ensure that the development of the renewables industry – and the offshore wind sector in particular – delivers some benefit to the UK industrial base. The consultation notes that Ministers can take account of an applicant’s failure to implement a supply chain plan when considering subsequent applications. Potentially, all partners with a 20% or greater share in a project can find themselves excluded from an allocation round as a result. It further notes that the government wants to ensure that the regime contributes to the Grand Challenges of its Industrial Policy and “advances the low carbon economy in places which stand to benefit the most by boosting productivity, driving regional growth”. It is therefore asking how it could strengthen the supply chain policy so as to ensure it remains “fit for purpose”.

Among the possibilities mentioned in the consultation document are: increasing the quality of supply chain plan commitments and closer monitoring of their implementation; extending the requirement to provide a supply chain plan to projects below the current 300MW threshold; and “considering the carbon intensity within supply chains and how this could be measured and/or reported, and taken into account, as we transition to a net zero economy”. The last of these points reflects a familiar tension between free markets / free trade and environmental policy that the EU Green Deal also seeks to address, and that could, potentially, be resolved by a scheme of carbon pricing that incorporated border adjustments on goods imported from countries with less stringent carbon emissions regimes.

After the end of coal-fired power – the end of its afterlife

A significant chunk of current CfD funding (as of RO funding before it) goes to former coal-fired capacity that has been converted to burn biomass. The CfDs awarded to biomass conversion projects have a shorter duration than other renewable CfDs, being scheduled to end in 2027. The government is “reviewing the role of biomass conversions and…seeks views on the proposal to exclude new biomass conversions from future CfD allocation rounds”. The consultation document points out that “since the government’s 2012 Bioenergy Strategy we have been clear that coal-to-biomass conversions have been supported as a transitional, rather than long-term technology” and that those “which are not otherwise subsidised may apply to participate in the Capacity Market”.

What does this mean? At present, there are only five coal-fired plants remaining in operation in the GB market. Of these, Fiddler’s Ferry and Aberthaw B are scheduled to close by the end of March 2020. Drax recently announced that its remaining coal-fired units would not operate beyond 2022. The operators of West Burton B and Ratcliffe have yet to announce plans to close them before the government’s deadline of the end of 2025 for ceasing GB coal-fired generation. That deadline, although confirmed policy, has yet to be specifically enacted as legislation, although limits imposed by EU law on the eligibility of higher emissions fossil fuel plant to participate in capacity markets are expected to make it hard for them to operate economically (a consultation of July 2019 that sought to address the detail of implementing this restriction has yet to see a government response).

Against this background, one can see why it is possible that some remaining or recently closed coal-fired plants might be interested in the prospects of biomass conversion. The attraction of biomass in the earlier phases of promoting renewable electricity generation, and particularly in the form of conversion from coal, was that it could deliver large amounts of renewable power that was not intermittent (like wind and solar) and made use of existing generation and transmission infrastructure. At the same time, there has always been a debate about how truly sustainable the burning of large amounts of solid biomass can be, particularly if it is imported from e.g. the other side of the Atlantic. Then again, if it is accepted that biomass combustion can be carbon neutral, combining it with carbon capture, use and storage (to make so-called BECCS), offers the prospect of “negative emissions”, as part of the drive to offset some of the hard-to-remove emissions that would otherwise stop us meeting the net zero target.

Since the government is considering the CfD as a mechanism for funding CCUS power projects, would it be legitimate to infer that the government does not expect future BECCS projects to be conversions of coal-fired plant? Not necessarily: the CfD legislation currently treats “biomass conversion” and “CCS” (the latter being defined without reference to the fuel that is used to power it) as distinct categories of “eligible generating station”. So it may be that excluding biomass conversions from future auctions would still leave the way open for a BECCS CfD.

Clearing the road to 2030

The government plans to hold the next allocation round in 2021 and to hold subsequent rounds every two years thereafter. In order to further provide long-term certainty to developers investing in bringing forward new projects and to support the level of ambition needed to meet the 2050 net zero target, it proposes to extend the CfD legislation’s definition of “delivery years” to go as far as 31st March 2030.

It’s never too early to think about decommissioning

There are already almost 2,000 offshore wind turbines in the sea around the UK. Decommissioning costs for those in operation or construction in 2017 alone has been estimated at £1.28bn-£3.64bn (in 2017 prices). Against this background the government wants “to ensure developers give appropriate consideration to decommissioning during the development stage”, so as to minimise the risk to taxpayers of the government having to act as decommissioner of last resort, and it is considering “whether it would be appropriate to include specific decommissioning obligations in the CfD regime”.

Administrative strike prices

The government is considering changing the method that it uses to calculate the administrative strike prices that function as “reserve prices” in CfD auctions. The current method produces administrative strike prices that are too far adrift from auction bids for some technologies.

Never mind the carrot, is the stick big enough?

The government is considering sharpening the incentives to deliver CfD projects, and do so on time. It is concerned that as “prices come down and the greater benefit of CfDs shifts from providing subsidy towards offering the support for successful applicants to secure finance for their projects, there may be an increasing risk that a generator does not proceed to deliver on its contract but considers it preferable to deliver on a merchant or other basis”. This, the government says, would be unfair on other generators who might have wanted to make use of the CfD support if they had had the opportunity. It proposes to extend by three years the period during which the site of a project that has allowed its CfD to lapse or had it terminated is “sterilised” for the purposes of a further auction.

Consultees are invited to suggest other potential mechanisms to guard against non-delivery. One model that is mentioned is that of bid bonds such as are used in the Capacity Market (applicants pay an amount based on the project’s capacity, to be forfeited if it is not delivered under the CfD regime).

Negative pricing

One of the things that has changed over the last five years is the extent to which increasing amounts of intermittent renewable capacity is driving – and is, in the future, expected to drive – negative pricing in wholesale electricity markets. In 2015, the government thought that this might happen 0.5% of the time in 2035. With 30 GW or more of offshore wind, it now thinks it could happen 4.5% of the time.

As part of its clearance of the CfD regime under the state aid rules, the European Commission required that support should be capped at the level of the strike price in periods of negative pricing, and that if these persist for six hours or more, “the difference amount under the CFD Contract will be set to zero for the entirety of that period”. The government would now like to remove any incentive on CfD generators to generate when there is oversupply in the market. It therefore proposes to “extend the existing negative pricing rule so that difference payments are not paid to CfD generators when the Intermittent Market Reference Price is negative”.

What else is in store?

One of the ways that CfD generators might, at least hypothetically, wish to mitigate the risks associated with periods of negative pricing – and one of the ways in which they might be able to play a part in restricting the incidence of such periods – would be if they could generate, but not immediately export (or be treated as having exported) their power, by making use of storage facilities. Storage is, more generally, as the consultation document acknowledges, “a means to mitigate some of the potential negative impacts of intermittent renewable generation on the system”.

The government therefore asks three quite open-ended questions: “What storage solutions could generators wish to co-locate with CfD projects over the lifetime of the CfD contract? What, if any, barriers are there to co-location of electricity storage with CfD projects? What, if anything, could be changed in the CfD scheme to facilitate the colocation of storage with CfD projects?”.

Co-location of storage with renewables projects already takes place in the GB market. Some large wind projects (onshore and offshore) have relatively small associated small storage facilities. Some smaller projects such as solar farms have proportionately larger amounts of associated battery capacity. Their storage facilities can enable these projects to earn supplementary revenues in the ancillary services markets or the Capacity Market, and help to optimise their assets in other ways.

What is arguably missing are incentives for the development of much larger scale facilities that could be capable of absorbing, for example, a significant proportion of several windy nights’ worth of offshore wind generation for which there is no immediate demand. Also useful, perhaps, would be incentives to develop commercial scale electrolysis facilities into which surplus power could be diverted for conversion into “green” hydrogen that could be substituted for hydrocarbons in power, heat or transport applications. But whether the CfD regime would be a suitable vehicle for such incentives (and, if so how it would need to be adapted to provide them), is another question.  

Conclusion

The two most prominent pillars of GB’s early 2010s Electricity Market Reform regime, CfDs and the Capacity Market, are now established features of the landscape. The present CfD consultation, and the recent five year review of the Capacity Market, appear to confirm that no fundamental changes to or replacement of either regime (such as was proposed by Dieter Helm) is planned – although it should be noted that the consultation on effectively replacing CfDs as the subsidy route for new nuclear projects, which would be a significant change to the EMR vision, has yet to be responded to by government (nuclear goes essentially unmentioned in the present consultation document).

At the same time, there is a recognition that – like any element in the complex ecosystem of energy regulation – the performance of the CfD regime needs constant monitoring, and there is a willingness to consider potential improvements. As the regime enters its second decade (counting from the first consultation) or its second five years (counting from the first auction), this is not a bad place to be.

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UK government looks forward to 2030 (and beyond) with CfD consultation

A smart carbon tax: the silver bullet for the (just) energy transition?

There is a broad consensus among economists that, globally, over time, reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 will cost less than not reaching net zero.[1] In that very broad, long-term, high-level sense, it is clear that there is no conflict between carbon neutrality and economic interests. But if everybody thought it was already in their economic interests to aim for net zero today, we would probably not be so far off track from achieving that goal as we currently are.[2]   

Researchers working within the framework set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have mapped out four indicative pathways to net zero.[3] They all involve at least halving global consumption of fossil fuels by 2040. That is not quite the future that most oil majors, and governments with a stake in the industry, seem to be planning for.[4] Others argue that net zero in 2050 is compatible with fossil fuels still dominating the global energy sector at that time, but that this would depend on massive shifts in investment – for example, into new technology to reduce the carbon footprint of fossil fuel extraction, hydrocarbon supply chains and use of fossil fuels. The majority of the industry is as yet not visibly committed to such shifts.[5]

To persuade people to take action that seems to be against their economic interests, at least in the short term, you need to change the balance of incentives.

Again, the economists have a straightforward answer: you put a price on carbon. You make it more expensive to produce and/or consume fossil fuels and products with a heavy carbon footprint. People then pay up front for the otherwise unpriced damage caused by their emissions, which means that they have a reason to choose lower carbon products and forms of energy.

There is no shortage of support for the principle of carbon pricing, which has been endorsed by royalty, the European Commission and senior bankers, to name but a few.[6] However, in practice, existing carbon price mechanisms have had limited effect, and there are serious risks in seeking to decarbonise with policy instruments that could impose significant costs on those least able to afford them. Any tax based on consumption risks having a regressive effect, and people with proportionally more carbon-intensive lifestyles often lack the financial means to switch to lower carbon options. The gilets jaunes protests in France began with an increase in carbon taxes.[7]

Carbon pricing may take the form of a straight tax on emissions, or of an emissions trading scheme. The former is arguably the better approach. For example, setting a tax rate is not always easy, but it is easier to make adjustments to a tax than to a market mechanism, where it can be difficult to recover from an initial miscalculation of the optimum number of emissions allowances to issue at the outset, as in the case of the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS).

The ideal carbon tax would be economy-wide, and have three further key features. 

  • The price of emissions would start considerably higher than in most current carbon pricing schemes, and increase over time in a carefully calibrated way.[8]  
  • To ensure popular support, government would pay back some or all of the tax receipts in the form of a “carbon dividend” in a fiscally redistributive way.[9]
  • To make it possible to start with a national, rather than a global version of the tax, and to avoid exporting the taxing country’s emissions to countries without a carbon tax, it would be necessary to charge a “border carbon adjustment” tariff on goods imported from jurisdictions with no equivalent tax.

Such an approach has plenty of heavyweight intellectual support.

  • Just over a year ago, the Wall Street Journal carried a self-styled “largest public statement of economists in history” in which no fewer than 3,558 US economists espoused something along these lines that was proposed from a US perspective. This is the “Baker-Schultz” plan, re-branded in February 2020 as the “Bipartisan Climate Roadmap”.[10]
  • In October 2017, leading UK regulatory economist Dieter Helm put a carbon tax at the heart of his report to the UK government on how to address the rising cost of energy in the context of its climate change policy goals.[11]
  • In July 2018, the UK think tank Policy Exchange produced The Future of Carbon Pricing: Implementing an independent carbon tax with dividends in the UK, with a foreword jointly authored by a former Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer and a former Conservative Foreign Secretary.[12]

Of course, any attempt to implement such a tax would need to address a great many issues, both in terms of high level design and practicalities.

  • Do you just tax fossil fuels, or do you also tax products in whose manufacture fossil fuels have been consumed? In the case of fossil fuels, at what point(s) in the chain between the upstream producer and the final downstream user should the tax be levied? For example, you could impose a tax on upstream hydrocarbon producers or refinery operators that was based just on the emissions from their activities, rather than from the presumed activities of end-users of refined petroleum products, such as electricity generators or motorists.
  • At whatever point(s) a tax is applied, at what rate should it be levied? What assumptions about the emissions intensity of downstream processing and/or use should underpin the calculation of that rate? How do you ensure that the imposition of the tax, and any increase in the rate, has the desired effect of incentivising changes in behaviour (i.e. shifts to lower carbon technology)? Will taxing the ultimate consumer more heavily incentivise the upstream or midstream operator to reduce emissions from flaring or fugitive methane? If I fill up my car with fuel from a retailer who promises to offset the emissions that my driving will cause, should I get a rebate on the tax element of my purchase?
  • Tax law has a natural tendency to become complicated. Take for example the Climate Change Levy (CCL) legislation, that supplements the EU ETS in UK domestic law. In outline, this is quite a simple scheme: electricity and certain fossil fuels are “taxable commodities” and a levy is charged on “taxable supplies” of them. But quite quickly, the desire to incentivise, protect, or discourage particular activities turns the scheme into an abstruse and intricate mesh of exemptions, exclusions, and exceptions from exemptions or exclusions.
  • Both fossil fuels and products manufactured using them are traded internationally, but carbon taxing is currently national (or in the case of the EU ETS, regional), and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. In order to encourage other countries to adopt similar regimes, and to stop its domestic industry being undercut until they have done so, a taxing country will want to impose a carbon border adjustment on imports. This may involve charging tax at a point further down the value chain than would be the case with domestic industry. For example: you apply a domestic carbon tax on electricity, which increases the costs of aluminium smelters, so you need to apply the carbon border adjustment to imports of aluminium from a country that does not levy a similar carbon tax on electricity or aluminium production.
  • But suppose there are two aluminium producers in the aluminium exporting country: one powered entirely by renewable energy, and the other by a coal-fired power station. And suppose that some of the aluminium that reaches the aluminium importing country arrives in the form of finished products. If two identical stepladders are imported, one made of “brown” aluminium and the other of “green” aluminium, the tariff charged on the latter should be lower.

This prompts some further reflections on the kind of system that is needed. 

  • To work well, our hypothetical carbon tax needs to be very granular. That means handling a lot of data, and mining that data for insights – for example, about how particular applications of the tax affect the behaviour of particular groups or economic sectors.
  • You will also need to be able to keep records. Suppose somebody is awarded a rebate but it turns out they should not have had it. Suppose you want to allow people to borrow against their future carbon dividends in order to invest in making their homes more energy efficient. You may well want to track supply chain emissions – including for the oil & gas industry itself.   
  • Very soon, you are looking at information flows that are too numerous and diverse to be managed by a central counterparty.
  • This points to a system that can facilitate large numbers of transactions automatically, within set parameters – in other words, smart contracts.
  • That system must be very secure, and capable of encouraging parties who do not have direct contact with each other to trust each other.
  • Above all, you need a system that records, in immutable form, every transaction that is made within it.

This sounds like a job for some kind of distributed ledger technology (sometimes, but strictly inaccurately, referred to by the generic label “blockchain”). No jurisdiction in the world has yet implemented the ideal version of a carbon tax. But if and when they do, it should arguably be a data-rich, deeply digitalised, regime that can be integrated with smartphones and the internet of things: capable of tracking individual products through the supply chain, and perhaps distinguishing between hydrocarbons from different sources on the basis of the emissions intensity of the processes by which they have been extracted, transported and refined.

The Policy Exchange paper referred to above highlights the role of “blockchain” in this regard. It also points out that the UK’s withdrawal from the EU provides it with a potential opportunity to strike out on a new course in terms of carbon pricing. Research by the UK energy regulator Ofgem shows that even the UK’s existing carbon pricing tools, the much-criticised EU ETS and its domestic supplement, the Carbon Price Support element of the CCL, have been the single most effective regulatory driver of decarbonisation in the UK power sector.[13]

However, a government consultation issued in May 2019 on the future of UK carbon pricing was essentially focused on how to replace the EU-derived existing regime with something similar but UK-only.[14] It made no reference to the kind of ideas put forward by Policy Exchange, the 3,558 US economists, or Prof. Helm as regards a carbon tax. It is to be hoped that the new government will be prepared to reconsider this approach and look seriously at some of those ideas.[15] At the same time, the UK government will need to think how to respond to the EU’s plans, as part of the European Green Deal proposals of the new European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen,[16] to establish an EU border carbon adjustment to avoid “carbon leakage” through the importing of cheaper products of energy intensive industries from countries with weaker carbon emissions controls.[17]   

In the energy sector, distributed ledger technology, smart contracts and related innovations are not just of interest to wonkish proponents of better carbon pricing. Oil companies and others in the sector have a keen interest in all these developments, because they have the potential to save them huge amounts of money.[18]

  • By exploiting existing sub-surface data, upstream oil and gas players can make the exploration process less hit-and-miss by identifying good prospects and likely dry holes before drilling. Earlier this year, the UK Oil & Gas Authority released 130 terabytes of data about the North Sea. They think that making good use of this data could reduce exploration costs by 20%.[19] 
  • Using blockchain and smart contracts they can reduce the costs and cost-overruns of building new infrastructure – some would argue, by up to 50%.
  • There is potential to make upstream facilities operate more efficiently by making better use of all the data they gather.  Wood MacKenzie estimate that US shale producers could reduce operating expenses by 10% and add $25 billion of value by putting mature wells on smart production management systems.[20]
  • Physical oil and petroleum product trading can be made much more efficient by replacing the old paper-based trade finance system with a distributed ledger.[21]  

It is perfectly possible to find oil and gas industry veterans who are sceptical of these developments. But their reason is not that they doubt the technology. Their response tends to be more along the lines of: “It sounds great, but when the oil price is high, we don’t need to cut costs, and when it’s low, we have other things to worry about”.

However, a digitalised carbon tax could provide the constant, incremental pressure that is needed to get the industry to exploit the power of digitalisation to decarbonise.   

And the industry needs to do this, because it faces all sorts of other challenges. By some measures, its energy return on investment is declining.[22] It may become vulnerable to climate change litigation. It may face competition from lower carbon alternatives that are cheaper and more effective substitutes for what it offers than are currently available.[23] But if the industry saves costs, it will become less risky, and it will be more able to invest in areas where its expertise will be crucial, like hydrogen and carbon capture and storage, that can give it a longer-term future.

Bring on the smart carbon tax of the future, then, and everyone should be a winner. In the meantime, even if the fully digitalised and personalised kind of platform outlined above lies too far in the future to be relied on as the only way forward, there is still plenty of scope to make more widespread use of carbon pricing, at higher and therefore more incentivising levels, and with redistribution and carbon border adjustment elements – and there is a strong case for doing so urgently.

The author is extremely grateful to the World Energy Council (Austria) and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe for inviting him to speak on the subject of “carbon neutrality vs. economic interests” at the 2nd Vienna Energy Strategy Dialogue in November 2019 (which was themed around “The Impact of Big Data in Energy, Security and Society”). This article is a version of his contribution on that occasion.


[1] The proposition that, as regards climate change, mitigation of undesirable outcomes before they materialise is cheaper than adaptation to them once they have arrived, was authoritatively stated in the Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change, commissioned by the UK government and published in 2006. The UK government’s independent advisory body on climate change, the Committee on Climate Change, found in its 2019 report recommending the adoption of a “net zero” target for UK greenhouse gas emissions in 2050 that this would not cost any more than the previous statutory target of an 80% reduction against 1990 levels (itself partly triggered by Stern’s conclusions).

[2] The gap between the emissions trajectories of current and announced policies and what is needed to avert unacceptable adverse impacts of climate change has been highlighted in many places, including the IPCC’s 2018 special report on Global Warming of 1.5ºC and the UN Environment Programme’s 2019 Emissions Gap Report.

[3] See page 90 of the Committee on Climate Change report on net zero for graphics and full citation.

[4] See for example The Production Gap Report (2019), produced by the Stockholm Environment Institute and others.

[5] See for example the International Energy Agency’s 2020 report, The Oil and Gas Industry in Energy Transitions, and a number of publications by consultancy Thunder Said Energy.

[6] See for example the article by Gillian Tett in the Financial Times, UK edition for 24 January 2020, “The world needs a Libor for carbon pricing”.

[7] See for example the article by Philip Stephens in the Financial Times, UK edition for 24 January 2020, “How populism will heat up the climate fight”.

[8] See the Report of the High-Level Commission on Carbon Prices chaired by Joseph Stiglitz and Nicholas Stern (Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition, May 2017): https://www.carbonpricingleadership.org/report-of-the-highlevel-commission-on-carbon-prices. Among the Commission’s conclusions: “Countries may choose different instruments to implement their climate policies, depending on national and local circumstances and on the support they receive. Based on industry and policy experience, and the literature reviewed, duly considering the respective strengths and limitations of these information sources, this Commission concludes that the explicit carbon-price level consistent with achieving the Paris temperature target is at least US$40–80/tCO2 by 2020 and US$50–100/tCO2 by 2030, provided a supportive policy environment is in place.” (Emphasis added.)

[9] For an analysis of the different ways of implementing a “carbon dividend”, see D. Klenert, L. Mattauch, E. Combet, O. Edenhofer, C. Hepburn, R. Rafaty and N. Stern, “Making Carbon Pricing Work for Citizens”, Nature 8 (2018), 669-677.

[10] The “Economists’ Statement on Carbon Dividends” was signed by, amongst many others, 4 former Chairs of the Federal Reserve, 27 Nobel Laureate Economists and 15 Former Chairs of the Council of Economic Advisers. See now also https://clcouncil.org/Bipartisan-Climate-Roadmap.pdf.

[11] Helm’s report was commissioned by the then Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Greg Clark. At the time of writing, the government had yet to issue a substantive response to it.

[12] See https://policyexchange.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/The-Future-of-Carbon-Pricing.pdf.

[13] Ofgem, State of the Energy Market 2019, page 129 (figure 5.10).

[14] See https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/the-future-of-uk-carbon-pricing.

[15] At the time of writing, a government response had not yet been issued in respect of the majority of this consultation.

[16] See https://ec.europa.eu/info/strategy/priorities-2019-2024/european-green-deal_en.

[17] For commentary, see Sandbag’s report, The A-B-C of BCAs An overview of the issues around introducing Border Carbon Adjustments in the EU. The ultimate relationship between the UK as a whole and the EU ETS remains to be determined, but the agreement between the UK and the EU on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU requires the EU ETS rules to continue to be applied in Northern Ireland as part of the basis for continuing the operation of the Single Electricity Market on the island of Ireland. If the EU border carbon adjustment is implemented as part of the EU ETS regime, the UK may be under pressure to adopt a similar measure.

[18] For a general survey of the distributed ledger technology and its potential applications in the energy sector, see https://www.dentons.com/en/insights/guides-reports-and-whitepapers/2018/october/1/global-energy-game-changers-block-chain-in-the-energy-sector.

[19] See https://www.ogauthority.co.uk/news-publications/news/2019/the-oil-and-gas-authority-launches-one-of-the-largest-ever-public-data-releases/.

[20] See https://www.woodmac.com/press-releases/digitalisation-in-us-lower-48/.

[21] There are various examples in the publication cited in note 19 above, but see also https://www.gazprom-neft.com/press-center/news/gazprom-neft-and-s7-airlines-become-the-first-companies-in-russia-to-move-to-blockchain-technology-i/.

[22] See https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/07/190711114846.htm.

[23] See https://www.climateliabilitynews.org/2019/12/23/climate-litigation-threat-financial-filings/.

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A smart carbon tax: the silver bullet for the (just) energy transition?

The “net zero” debate: UK General Election 2019 (and beyond)

Climate and energy issues are clearly very important to many voters, even if what the parties say on these issues may be unlikely ultimately to be a decisive factor in determining the outcome of the election.

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Read more »
The “net zero” debate: UK General Election 2019 (and beyond)

Germany takes the first steps towards the end of coal-fired power

In 2018, the German government appointed a Commission on Growth, Structural Change and Employment, known as the Kohlekommission or Coal Commission with the task of evaluating a roadmap for the phase-out of coal-fired power production in Germany. The Coal Commission’s conclusions have now been published, setting the agenda for the next stage of the German energy transition (Energiewende).

Germany has been a pioneer of the mass deployment of wind and solar power generation. In 2018, its share of electricity generated from renewables (40.3 percent) exceeded that generated from coal (37.5 percent) for the first time. But 37.5 percent is still a lot of coal-fired power. On 26 January 2019, the Coal Commission passed its final (non-binding) resolution accompanied by a 336 page report. We summarise the effect of implementing its recommendations below.

1. Phase-out of coal-fired power production by 2038

The Coal Commission recommends the end of 2038 as the deadline for the phase-out of coal-fired power production in Germany. An integrated “opening clause” enables the phase-out date to be brought forward to 2035 in consultation with the operators if the electricity market, labor market and economic situation allow. This will be reviewed in 2032. In 2023, 2026 and 2029, the phase-out plan will also be evaluated in terms of security of supply, electricity prices, jobs and climate targets.

2. Gradual shutdown of coal power plants

At the end of 2017, Germany had operational coal power plants with a net capacity of 42.6 gigawatts (GW). They are gradually being taken off the grid anyway, however, the phase-out is supposed to be implemented earlier. 12.5 GW are expected to be taken off the grid by 2022, of which 3.1 GW are fed-in by lignite power plants that are particularly harmful to the climate. By 2030, no more than 17.0 GW may remain on the market. By 2038, all coal-fired power plants are to be shut down.

3. Compensation for (potentially) increasing electricity prices for consumers

To compensate for any increase in electricity prices triggered by the phase-out, the Coal Commission recommends reducing grid charges for private households from 2023 on. These grid charges can account for about a fifth of private households’ electricity bills, and the Coal Commission even goes so far as to suggest a subsidy for these network charges. The compensation would amount to approximately EUR 2 billion per year. But there shall be no new levies or taxes.

4. Compensation for (potentially) increasing electricity prices for companies

Energy-intensive industries are to be permanently relieved of costs arising from the price of CO2 pollution rights that coal and gas-fired power plants have to buy under the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU allowances). The current relief scheme for these indirect costs will expire in 2020. The government wants to apply to the EU (under state aid rules) for an extension of this compensation. Most recently, the relief amounted to almost EUR 300 million per year. Since EU allowances have become significantly more expensive, the sum will be higher in the future. The so-called electricity price compensation is to be extended until 2030.

5. Financial support for coal mining regions

Coal mining regions affected by the coal phase-out are to receive structural aids (Strukturhilfen) amounting to approximately EUR 40 billion by 2040. In addition to numerous transport projects, the establishment of federal authorities is being encouraged, which could create around 5,000 new jobs within the next ten years. Also, an investment subsidy for entrepreneurs is proposed.

According to the Coal Commission’s proposal, the aid could follow the Berlin/Bonn Act, which mitigated the impact of relocating the capital from Bonn to Berlin. By the end of April 2019, the cornerstones for a law of measures shall be in place that specifies how the German government will precisely promote structural change. Future federal governments of the individual German states are to be bound to it. The Coal Commission estimates the individual costs at EUR 1.3 billion per year over 20 years. In addition, EUR 0.7 billion is to be provided to the federal states that are not tied to specific projects. Furthermore, a special financing programme as well as an immediate programme amounting to EUR 1.5 billion in total will be set to improve the transport system. These expenses are already included in the federal budget until 2021.

6. Compensation for lignite power plants

The Coal Commission recommends contractual arrangements with power plant operators and compensation for decommissioning up to 2030, which should include both compensation for operators and socially acceptable arrangements. The older a lignite power plant is, the less compensation will be paid. If there is no contractual agreement with the operators by July 2020, the exit shall be subject to regulatory law also including compensation.

The Coal Commission also suggests that the amount of compensation should be based on amounts already paid in the past. Lignite power plants have already been taken off the grid and transferred to a reserve for climate protection purposes in the past. At that time, around EUR 600 million were paid per GW output. Of the currently more than 40 GW of coal-fired power plants still connected to the grid, about 21.8 GW are fuelled with lignite.

7. Compensation for hard coal power plants

There shall also be compensation here. However, since these power plants yield less return, a decommissioning premium shall be obtained by a series of tenders. In simple terms, this could work as follows. The German government specifies how much capacity is to be decommissioned. Power plant operators apply for this with bids for compensation. In each tender, whoever demands the lowest compensation or saves the most CO2 by shutting down the power plant will win the contract.

8. Support of coal workers and symbolic preservation of Hambacher Forst

For employees in the coal industry aged 58 and over who have to bridge the time until retirement, there will be an adjustment allowance and compensation for pension losses. Estimated costs amount to up to EUR 5 billion which employers and the state could jointly bear. Terminations of employment for operational reasons are excluded. There should be training and further education for younger employees, placement in other jobs and help with wage losses.

A piece of forest at the Hambach open-cast mine has become a symbol of the anti-coal movement. The report states that the Coal Commission considers it desirable that the Hambach Forest should remain. RWE wants to cut down the forest for brown-coal mining which was stopped by court order. Other villages and areas are also affected by opencast mining. The Coal Commission recommends a dialogue with the affected areas on the resettlements in order to avoid social and economic hardship.

9. Hedge of power supply

In order to avert the risk of blackouts due to a lack of electricity generation, the security of supply should be monitored more closely. The approval of more environmentally friendly gas-fired power plants is to be accelerated. Besides, investment incentives shall be created.

Conclusion

The publication of the Coal Commission’s report is only the start of the process of coal phase-out. In order to implement the recommendations into national and therefore binding law, many details will have to be worked out, and both the German government and parliament have to agree on their adoption. Nevertheless, it marks a hugely important step in the Energiewende, as Germany moves from merely being a champion of renewable power generation to pointing the way towards the kind of net zero carbon economy that climate science shows that we need to achieve sooner rather than later.

Germany takes the first steps towards the end of coal-fired power

Court rules Ofgem’s “embedded benefits” decision not flawed

In a judgment dated 22 June 2018, the High Court (Lavender J) dismissed a challenge brought by a number of electricity generators (the Claimants) against a decision of the Gas and Electricity Markets Authority (Ofgem) to approve proposed modifications to the Connection and Use of System Code (CUSC), under which charges for use of the GB transmission network are levied.

Ofgem’s decision

The modification proposals were formally made in May 2016; Ofgem’s decision was taken in June 2017; and it came into force on 1 April 2018. Its most noted effect was to remove (over a three year period) a key element of the revenues of small “embedded” generators (i.e. those connected to a distribution network rather than directly to the transmission network).

Under one part of the transmission charging framework, known as the Transmission Demand Residual (TDR) charge, payments are effectively made in respect of the amount by which the supply of power from small embedded generators reduces consumption of electricity from other, mostly transmission-connected, sources in the periods of peak demand (known as “Triads”) from which the charge is calculated. These negative charges, commonly referred to as “Triad payments”, are typically made to electricity suppliers (as the small embedded generators themselves are not parties to the transmission charging arrangements), but the suppliers typically pass on about 90% of their value.

The overall costs of the transmission network have increased significantly in recent years. So too have TDR charges and the amount of Triad payments accruing to small embedded generators.  The Claimants, some of whom had made the development of small generating plants designed to capture Triad payments into a business model, argued that the system was rewarding them fairly for reducing the need for investment in the transmission network.  Ofgem, drawing on work that had been done in preparing the CUSC modifications and a series of consultations leading up to its decision, formed the view that the small embedded generators were being rewarded excessively, ultimately at the expense of consumers of electricity.  Whilst Ofgem acknowledged that they do make some positive contributions in reducing the amount of reinforcement necessary at Grid Supply Points, it drastically reduced the level of transmission charging related benefits that will be available to them in the future.

The judgment

The judgment of Lavender J is worth reading.  At 36 pages, it is as concise a free-standing account of both the issues and the decision-making process as you are likely to find.

The Claimants were refused permission to challenge Ofgem’s decision on grounds of irrationality. Their remaining grounds were that Ofgem failed to take account of material considerations and/or facts; and that the decision unjustifiably discriminated against the small embedded generators.

On the first point, Lavender J found that rather than failing to take account of a material consideration by not understanding the argument the Claimants were making, Ofgem had engaged adequately with them and disagreed with their assessment of the contribution made by small embedded generation. (This had been in part a battle of expert economic appraisals, in which Ofgem’s decision was buttressed by LCP/Frontier Economics whilst the Claimants found support in criticisms of Ofgem’s approach made by NERA/Imperial College.)  It was also not an error of law for Ofgem to require the Claimants to provide evidence in support of their case rather than making its own inquiries to find such evidence.

The second point had two limbs. The Claimants argued that Ofgem should have treated them in the same way as providers of behind the meter generation (BTMG) and commercial demand side response (DSR), which, like them, reduce a supplier’s net demand for electricity – but that it had not done so.  They also argued that it was unlawfully discriminatory to treat small embedded generators as if they were in a comparable position to transmission-connected generators – when they were not.

The judge was satisfied that “looking in the round” there was “enough of a relevant difference between” small embedded generators and BTMG / commercial DSR on the one hand and transmission-connected generators on the other, to justify their different treatment by Ofgem.

What next?

On a reading of the judgment with no more knowledge of the parties’ submissions than the judgment itself reveals, it does not seem very likely that it will be successfully appealed. Some readers may disagree with some of the judge’s reasoning, for example in support of his findings of “relevant differences” between the small embedded generators and BTMG / commercial DSR / transmission-connected generators.  But as he points out, there will be scope to remedy any perceived unfairness in the context of Ofgem’s ongoing Targeted Charging Review: Significant Code Review.

Ultimately this is one of those judicial review cases that serves as a reminder of the limits of judicial review as a mechanism for challenging decisions by economic regulators, as the court deferred to the expert regulator and did not appear to have thought that there was anything so bad in the decision under challenge or its results as to justify any attempt to use the essentially procedural categories of judicial review more creatively to strike it down. One can speculate whether the reasoning, if not the result, would have been different if Ofgem’s decision had been one that was subject to review by the Competition and Markets Authority rather than the court (like another recent Ofgem decision on a CUSC modification in the case of EDF Energy (Thermal Generation) Ltd v. Gas and Electricity Markets Authority, but even that process does not amount to a substantive reopening of the decision that is being challenged.

When the CUSC modification was originally proposed, some may have felt that it was an attack on the small embedded generators by those seeking to develop new transmission-connected generation. For them, the Triad revenues of smaller generators enabled the latter to bid down the clearing price in Capacity Market auctions to a level which made it impossible for e.g. new combined cycle gas turbine projects to stay in the auction – thus losing their chance of a subsidy that would allow them to be built.

However, two years on, the most recent Capacity Market auctions have not produced the higher clearing prices that might have been expected if the price was effectively set by small embedded generators and the latter depended to a material extent on the Triad payments they were about to lose as a result of Ofgem’s decision. This would suggest either that small embedded generators had more confidence in the Claimants’ case than appears to have been justified; or that, for whatever reason, Ofgem’s decision may be less harmful to their interests than it may at first have seemed.

Meanwhile, Ofgem’s Targeted Charging Review has a long way to run, and it will be interesting to see whether it reaches its conclusion without legal challenge or two along the way.

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Court rules Ofgem’s “embedded benefits” decision not flawed

Must FERC weigh GHG emissions in pipeline reviews?

In the 2004 case of U.S. Department of Transportation v. Public Citizen,[1] the Supreme Court established an important limiting principle under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) on the extent to which a federal agency must consider indirect environmental effects in completing NEPA-required reviews of planned agency action. It held that unless an agency has statutory authority categorically to prevent a particular environmental effect, its order cannot be viewed as a legally relevant cause of that effect, thus relieving it of any obligation to gather or consider information on the effect.[2]

As in Public Citizen, this principle often comes into play where the actions of two or more governmental agencies have a role in potentially “causing” a particular environmental effect. If the agency with NEPA responsibilities lacks statutory authority categorically to prevent the indirect effect, it has no obligation to evaluate it under NEPA.[3]

Public Citizen receives substantial play in the orders of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) authorizing pipeline and gas infrastructure under Sections 3 and 7 of the Natural Gas Act (NGA).[4] As the shale gas boom and accompanying buildout of increased gas-fired power generation and LNG export capability have spurred unprecedented demand for new pipelines and gas infrastructure in recent years, they also have sparked unprecedented opposition to gas infrastructure projects by well-organized and well-funded environmental groups like the Sierra Club promoting a climate change/renewable energy agenda.

Such opposition leans heavily on challenges to the sufficiency of the Commission’s reviews under NEPA, giving special emphasis to the claim that, in evaluating new pipeline projects to serve power generation load, FERC must consider the effects on climate change of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from the end use of the gas in the power plants served by the pipeline.

Relying on Public Citizen, FERC for the most part[5] has not attempted to quantify such indirect environmental effects, maintaining that its authorization of a pipeline is not the legally relevant cause of the GHG emissions resulting from downstream consumption of natural gas in power plants.

The D.C. Circuit Panel Decision in Sabal Trail

But in the recent case of Sierra Club v. FERC,[6] the majority of a panel of the D.C. Circuit disagreed. In reviewing FERC’s authorization of the Sabal Trail Pipeline designed to serve new gas-fired power plants in Florida, the panel held that the GHG emissions from the power plants are an indirect effect of FERC’s order approving the pipeline and that “because FERC could deny a pipeline certificate on the ground that the pipeline would be too harmful to the environment, the agency is a ‘legally relevant cause’ of the direct and indirect environmental effects of pipelines it approves. Public Citizen thus did not excuse FERC from considering these indirect effects.” [7]

The panel vacated and remanded FERC’s order authorizing construction and operation of the pipeline, pending FERC’s completion and review of the additional environmental studies on the power plant GHG emissions.[8]

In a strong dissent, Judge Janice Rogers Brown disputed the majority’s application of Public Citizen. Relying chiefly on a trilogy of recent D.C. Circuit decisions that had rejected the need for FERC to undertake NEPA consideration of downstream GHG emissions in its authorization of LNG export terminals,[9] Judge Brown pointed out that in those cases: “we held the occurrence of a downstream environmental effect, contingent upon the issuance of a license from another agency with the sole authority to authorize the source of those downstream effects, cannot be attributed to the Commission; its actions ‘cannot be considered a legally relevant cause of the effect for NEPA purposes.'”[10]

While the downstream effects in the LNG terminal cases were contingent on DOE’s authorizing exports of natural gas, the downstream effects in Sabal Trail were contingent upon authorization of the construction and operation of the power plants by the Florida Power Plant Siting Board, a duly authorized agency of the state of Florida with exclusive authority over the licensing of new power plants in Florida. Without the licensing of the power plants, there would be no power plant operations and no resulting GHG emissions.

Significance of Sabal Trail

Sabal Trail is significant on multiple levels. On a practical level, the vacatur and remand to FERC opens a Pandora’s box of NEPA review for the Commission. Although FERC’s environmental staff has performed upper-bound estimates of GHG emissions from downstream gas use associated with new gas pipeline projects since mid-2016, there are no readily available standards to guide such determinations, and its assessments to date have not been tested on judicial review.

The additional required analysis has the potential not only to further delay an already burdened FERC approval process, but also to inject added complexity in sorting out (i) the proper estimates of GHG emissions to use in determining the impact of using gas in the power plants; (ii) the significance of such GHG emissions, especially since there are no readily available metrics to gauge “significance;” and (iii) whether the Commission  should employ the “Social Cost of Carbon” tool developed by the Obama-era Council on Environmental Quality,[11] now withdrawn by executive order[12] in favor of reliance on the metrics set forth in OMB Circular A-4,[13] to evaluate the impact of the GHG emissions and the benefits and detriments generally of a proposed pipeline project.

These challenges portend greater uncertainty and possibly increased likelihood of error in the commission’s evaluations, potentially heightening investor risk in pipeline projects and dampening deployment of capital in the pipeline sector.

Efforts to reach consensus on the proper response to Sabal Trail in the proceedings on remand have already divided the Commission along party lines. In its March 14, 2018, Order on Remand Reinstating Certificate and Abandonment Authorization, the three-Republican majority adhered to the methodology the Commission environmental staff first introduced in mid-2016, employing upper-bound estimates of GHG emissions with explanations of the inherent difficulty in providing more granular detail. It also declined, as in past orders, to employ the Social Cost of Carbon tool, noting the inherent difficulties of meaningfully employing the Social Cost of Carbon in the Commission’s decision-making.[14]

Lastly, the majority questioned whether the Commission has authority to deny a certificate because of concerns about GHG emissions from the end use of gas, noting that Congress or the executive branch, not the Commission, is responsible for deciding national policy on the end use of natural gas.[15]

The two Democratic Commissioners dissented separately, asserting that the order on remand should have included more granular assumptions in the evaluation of GHG emissions, adopted the Social Cost of Carbon to evaluate both the impact of GHG emissions from downstream gas use and the public convenience and necessity of projects generally, and determined that the impact on climate change of GHG emissions from downstream gas use must be factored into the determination of the public convenience and necessity of a new project.[16]

But far and away, Sabal Trail‘s greatest significance is that the panel majority’s application of Public Citizen does not appear defensible, making the case worthy of U.S. Supreme Court review, especially in light of the current administration’s desire to expedite the authorization and construction of new infrastructure. If Sabal Trail is reviewed and reversed by the Supreme Court, FERC will have a far clearer path through its NEPA process in pipeline certificate cases.

Where the Sabal Trail Panel Majority May Have Gone Wrong

The panel majority appears to have misapplied Public Citizen in two separate respects: (i) on the statutory authority of FERC, in presupposing that the Commission has authority under the NGA to deny a pipeline certificate because of concerns about GHG emissions from the end use of the gas transported by a pipeline, and (ii) on causation, as noted by Judge Brown, in wrongly attributing to FERC causation of GHG emissions by the power plants served by the FERC-authorized pipeline, when a separate state agency had sole authority to license the construction and operation of the power plants that are the source of such emissions, and categorically to prevent such emissions by refusing to issue a license.

Whether FERC has statutory authority to deny a pipeline because of concerns about GHG emissions from power plants served by the pipeline

Although the panel majority correctly articulated the touchstone of Public Citizen that “[a]n agency has no obligation to gather or consider environmental information if it has no statutory authority to act on that information,”[17] it failed to apply that limitation in the context of the Commission’s statutory authority to act on the information claimed to be necessary.

To justify collecting information on downstream power plant emissions, the panel needed first to determine that the Commission has statutory authority to deny a certificate to a new pipeline because of concerns about the effects on climate change of GHG emissions from the power plants proposed to be served by the pipeline. Because the panel majority never addressed that issue, the statutory authority element of Public Citizen is missing.

The proffered justification that “FERC could deny a pipeline certificate on the ground that the pipeline would be too harmful to the environment”[18] is insufficient, as it fails to define FERC’s statutory authority in the context of the specific information sought on downstream GHG emissions from the end use of the gas.

Having no express statutory authority to regulate the end use of gas, the Commission’s power to affect end use in certificate cases derives from its authority under Section 7(e) to determine that a proposed service is required by “the public convenience and necessity.” However, the precedent to date indicates that the Commission’s latitude in exercising such authority is limited, confined to furthering Congress’ purpose in enacting the NGA to assure interstate consumers “an adequate and reliable supply of gas at reasonable prices.”[19]

For example, in the leading case, FPC v. Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line Corp.,[20] the Supreme Court upheld the authority of the Federal Power Commission (FERC’s predecessor) to deny a certificate for the transportation of gas from the Gulf Coast to New York City to alleviate inner-city air pollution because of the Commission’s overriding concerns about the end use of the gas for power generation.

Because other fuels could be readily substituted for natural gas under steam boilers, the Commission  determined that using a wasting resource like gas in power plants was an “inferior use,” whose adverse effects on the availability and price of gas to other interstate consumers would be exacerbated if power plant supply deals like the one proposed in Transco were allowed to proliferate.[21]

Whereas the basis for the Commission’s exercise of authority in Transco can be readily linked to the NGA’s statutory purpose and, as the Supreme Court found in Transco, to Congress’ intent in the 1942 amendments to NGA Section 7 to permit the Commission to take account of the potential “economic waste” of gas in exercising its certificate authority,[22] no such statutory grounding is evident to support the notion of denying a pipeline certificate because of concerns about the effects on climate change of emissions from the end use of the gas transported by the pipeline.

Nowhere does the NGA authorize the Commission to regulate the emissions of downstream gas users, much less establish de facto emissions standards for such users to address climate change through exercise of its authority under Section 7(e) to condition or deny pipeline certificates. Lacking any apparent statutory authority to deny a new pipeline based on GHG emissions by downstream gas users, it appears that the Commission had no obligation under NEPA to gather or consider information on power plant GHG emissions in authorizing the Sabal Trail Pipeline.

Whether authorization to operate the pipeline or authorization to operate the power plants is the legally relevant cause of the GHG emissions from the power plants

Judge Brown’s dissent correctly explains why Public Citizen requires that FERC’s certificate order not be found the “legally relevant” cause of the GHG emissions of the power plants served by the Sabal Trail Pipeline. Instead, as Judge Brown explained, the legally relevant cause is the authorization granted by the Florida Power Plant Siting Board to construct and operate the power plants.

Simply put, the GHG emissions are the byproduct of power plant operations and would not occur separate and apart from the licensing of the power plants by the Florida Power Plant Siting Board. And only the Siting Board, not FERC, has the legal authority to prevent such operations. True, the denial of a FERC certificate could make power plant operations more difficult, but it would not affect the legal authority of the owners to continue operations using other supplies of natural gas or alternative fuels to run the generating equipment.

In these circumstances, the chain of causation as to the Commission’s responsibility is broken, meaning that the GHG emissions cannot be attributed to its action. Accordingly, it was not required to consider the indirect effects of GHG emissions from operation of the power plants in its review of the pipeline certificate application under NEPA.

Lastly, to end where we started, Public Citizen is on point. The issue there was whether the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) was required to consider the environmental effects of increased truck traffic between the U.S. and Mexico in instituting its truck inspection program following President Clinton’s lifting of the moratorium on the entry of Mexican trucks into the US. Because the FMCSA lacked statutory authority categorically to prevent the cross-border operations of Mexican trucks, the court determined that it was not the relevant cause of such environmental effects.

Similarly, in Sabal Trail, the issue is whether FERC must consider the environmental effects from the operation of power plants served by a gas pipeline in authorizing the pipeline. By the reasoning of Public Citizen, because FERC lacks the statutory authority categorically to prevent the operation of such power plants, it cannot be viewed as the legally relevant cause of the environmental effects of such operations.

Conclusion

Reversal of Sabal Trail will help to restore rationality to the NEPA review process for new gas pipelines. The panel majority’s suggestion that a new pipeline “causes” new power plants served by the pipeline reverses the commercial reality of project development, putting the fuel supply cart before the market demand horse as the determinant of new pipeline expansions. The fact is that new pipelines do not get proposed or built without market demand for the gas proposed to be transported.

Reversal will also restore restraint in the conception of FERC’s statutory authority to act in the “public convenience and necessity” under NGA Section 7(e). As Transco suggests, FERC’s authority to affect the end use of gas is limited to actions related to advancing the NGA’s statutory purpose; it does not include the power to control directly or indirectly the GHG emissions of downstream end users of gas. Not that control of such emissions is not important or is in some way affected with the “public interest” — it is just that Congress or other agencies, not FERC, have the authority to regulate them.

Lastly, reversal will restore a sensible understanding of Public Citizen. As Judge Brown points out, where another agency has the authority categorically to prevent the GHG emissions from power plants served by a new pipeline by refusing to issue the license for construction and operation of the power plants, FERC’s more limited action in authorizing a pipeline to serve the power plants cannot be viewed as a legally relevant cause of such emissions.

Such recognition of FERC’s authority as limited will also extend comity to requisite state and federal agency actions in the integrated resource planning of new power generation at the state level and the air permitting process at the state and federal levels for GHG and other emissions from power plant operations.

The original version of this article was published by Law360.  James M. Costan is a partner in Dentons’ energy practice. Jay represents clients on a wide range of public utility and energy matters, including energy transactions and federal and state regulation of the sale and transmission of electricity, natural gas and LNG and the licensing of energy projects.  The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients, or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

[1] 541 U.S. 752 (2004) (Public Citizen).

[2] Id. at 767-69.

[3] Sierra Club v. FERC, 827 F.3d 36, 49 (D.C. Cir. 2016) (Freeport).

[4] 15 U.S.C. §§ 717b and 717f.

[5] In mid-2016, FERC environmental staff started preparing “upper-bound” estimates of GHG emissions from downstream gas use to support NEPA reviews. Such estimates assume that the full delivery capacity of the pipeline will be consumed 24/7 for gas-fired power generation.

[6] 867 F.3d 1357 (D.C. Cir. 2017) (Sabal Trail).

[7] Id. at 1373 (citations omitted).

[8] The vacatur and remand had minimal effect on pipeline operations, because most construction had been completed by the time of the D.C. Circuit’s decision in late August 2017. Thereafter, issuance of the mandate was held in abeyance pending completion of the rehearing process in late January and then was stayed until late March, affording FERC sufficient time to complete a supplemental environmental impact statement and issue an order reinstating the Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity on March 14, 2018. Florida Southeast Connection LLC, 162 FERC ¶ 61,233 (2018) (Order on Remand).

[9] Freeport, supra; Sierra Club v. FERC, 827 F.3d 59 (D.C. Cir. 2016) (Sabine Pass); Earth Reports Inc. v. FERC, 828 F.3d 949 (D.C. Cir. 2016) (Earth Reports).

[10] Sabal Trail, 867 F.3d at 1381 (Judge Brown dissenting), quoting Freeport, 827 F.3d at 47, Sabine Pass, 827 F.3d at 68; and Earth Reports, 828 F.3d at 952.

[11] See 81 Fed. Reg. 51866 (Aug. 5, 2016), Final Guidance for Federal Departments and Agencies on Consideration of Greenhouse Gas Emissions and the Effects of Climate Change in National Environmental Policy Act Reviews, available at https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2016/08/05/2016-18620/final-guidance-for-federal-departments-and-agencies-on-consideration-of-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and.

[12] See 82 Fed. Reg. 16576 (April 5, 2017), Withdrawal of Final Guidance for Federal Departments and Agencies on Consideration of Greenhouse Gas Emissions and the Effects of Climate Change in National Environmental Policy Act Reviews, available at https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2017/04/05/2017-06770/withdrawal-of-final-guidance-for-federal-departments-and-agencies-on-consideration-of-greenhouse-gas.

[13] https://www.transportation.gov/sites/dot.gov/files/docs/OMBW020Circular0/020No.0/020A-4.pdf.

[14] Order on Remand at PP 22-51.

[15] Id. at P 29.

[16] Id. (separate dissents of Commissioners LaFleur and Glick).

[17] Sabal Trail, 867 F.3d at 1372, citing Public Citizen, 541 U.S. at 767-68.

[18] Id. at 1373.

[19] E.g., California v. Southland Royalty Co., 436 U.S. 519, 523 (1978); NAACP v. FPC, 425 U.S. 662, 669-70 (1976).

[20] 365 U.S. 1 (1961) (Transco).

[21] Similar concerns about the need to husband gas supply for high priority end uses drove the Commission ‘s directive that pipelines institute end-use curtailment plans to address the nationwide gas shortage in the 1970s. See FPC v. Louisiana Power & Light Co., 406 U.S. 621 (1972).

[22] Transco, 365 U.S. at 10-22.

 

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Must FERC weigh GHG emissions in pipeline reviews?

Trump’s response to Harvey, Irma, Maria and Sandy: more subsidies for coal-fired power

Those who wondered how President Trump would make good on his promise to put coal miners back to work now have their answer. On September 28 2017, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry dusted off a rarely used power in the Department of Energy Organization Act 1977 (DOEOA) and sent the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) a proposal that it make a rule to “establish just and reasonable rates for wholesale electricity sales”. By this he appears to mean allowing coal-fired (and nuclear) plants to charge higher prices based on their contribution to the resilience of electricity suppliers. (Click here for the text of the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NOPR)).

Background

For many, the salient feature of US energy markets over recent years has been the astonishing ability of the unconventional gas industry to produce cheap fuel for power generation that allows new gas-fired plants to out-compete existing coal-fired or nuclear power stations. This new abundance of cheap gas has transformed not just the US, but arguably world energy markets, and along the way it has produced dramatic reductions in US greenhouse gas emissions.

Conventional wisdom recognizes the importance of what are generally thought of as baseload generating plant in markets with increasingly high proportions of (often intermittent) renewable generation, and it has two answers to the question of how to make sure there is enough power when there is a risk that the lights may go out because there is not enough plant on the system that can run regardless of whether the wind is blowing, the sun is shining, or gas supplies have been disrupted as a result of extreme weather events. The first is to let the market function freely and hope that the ability of the most secure generators to supply power in extreme conditions will enable them to charge sufficiently high peak prices (albeit on a very infrequent basis) in the wholesale electricity market to allow them to remain in business. The second is to create a “capacity market” alongside the wholesale power market. The capacity market is then designed so as to ensure that resources that will ensure security of supply are maintained at times when it is threatened, by providing sufficient incentives to sufficiently reliable sources of capacity to remain available to keep the lights on. Rather than just waiting for a chance to charge extremely high prices at a few moments when other generators are unable to satisfy demand, they are paid a regular (but lower) premium for being available “just in case”.

Politicians and politically sensitive regulators, if not free-market purists, tend to prefer the capacity market route, because it helps prevent wholesale prices from rising to what might seem excessive levels, and carries less risk that you will have to wait until the lights have gone out a few times before sufficiently reliable generators will act on the electricity market’s signal that it is worthwhile remaining in the market. As a result, capacity markets have been a feature of the US power industry for a number of years. Although subject to frequent rule-changes, one of their guiding principles, in theory if not always in practice, is to try to maintain a level playing-field between the different potential sources of capacity – which can include not only all forms of generation, but also demand-side response. The NOPR is a radical departure from this technology-neutral approach.

Reliability and resilience

The NOPR follows on from the Department of Energy (DOE) Staff Report to the Secretary on Electricity Markets and Reliability commissioned by Perry earlier this year (downloadable here). One of the conclusions of that report was: “Markets recognize and compensate reliability, and must evolve to continue to compensate reliability, but more work is needed to address resilience.” It drew a distinction between reliability (“the ability of the electric system to supply the aggregate electric power and energy requirements of the electricity customers at all times, taking into account scheduled and reasonably expected unscheduled outages of system components”) and resilience (“the ability to reduce the magnitude and/or duration of disruptive events, [which] depends upon [the ability of infrastructure] to anticipate, absorb, adapt to, and/or rapidly recover from a potentially disruptive event”).

Reliability has sometimes been seen as synonymous with dispatchability – the ability of certain technologies to produce power on demand (as compared to “variable” renewables like wind and solar). Resilience on the other hand has often been seen more in terms of the power system as a whole, and the need to improve the resilience of power transmission and distribution networks in the face of increasingly frequent and more severe extreme weather events has been a major driver of increases in network spending. Whereas some would regard gas-fired, coal-fired and nuclear generation as equally reliable, the report, and the NOPR, shift the focus onto resilience and see that quality in terms of the security of a generator’s fuel supplies. In simple terms, coal-fired and nuclear plants are more likely to carry stocks of fuel than gas-fired plants, which tend not to store reserves of fuel, but rely on pipeline supplies. Interestingly, however, despite the NOPR’s focus on “fuel-secure” plants that can store a 90-day supply of power on-site, such as coal and nuclear, the DOE Staff Report noted that “[m]aintaining onsite fuel resources is one way to improve fuel assurance, but most generation technologies have experienced fuel deliverability challenges in the past.  While coal facilities typically store enough fuel onsite to last for 30 days or more, extreme cold can lead to frozen fuel stockpiles and disruption in train deliveries.”  There appears to be a disconnect between the DOE Staff Report’s conclusions regarding fuel supply challenges for all forms of generation and Secretary Perry’s proposal to promote coal and nuclear plants, specifically, which might lead one to draw the conclusion that the move is more motivated by politics and the negative economic consequences to communities resulting from the loss of the retiring coal and nuclear generators and less by the attributes those resources offer the electric grid.

The proposed rule

The DOE’s proposed rule would require all regional transmission organizations (RTOs) and independent system operators (ISOs) (like MISO) to adopt market rules that would establish a rate applicable to generators able to store a 90-day supply of fuel on-site (i.e. coal and nuclear generators) that ensures that those generators recover their costs and a fair return on equity (the traditional cost-of-service pricing standard in the U.S.).  In short, because coal and nuclear resources have not been able to compete in markets dominated by low-cost natural gas, the DOE is requesting/directing FERC to establish market rules that will pay them more in an attempt to stop the trend of the retirement of coal and nuclear plants.  It is a surprisingly blatant attempt to have FERC, which has traditionally favored technology-neutral market rules, set up rules that subsidize specific technologies in order to prop them up.

New York and Illinois have already started moving toward establishing a credit for nuclear generators as part of their programs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in their states.  So there may be some support at the state level for nuclear as a cleaner form of power.  States have not been moving toward providing credits or subsidies for coal, however (except, perhaps, for those states whose economies are somewhat reliant on the coal industry), so we would expect to see some significant pushback from state governments as to the subsidy for coal.  Also, to the extent that state programs are creating incentives for renewables to enter the market and FERC is creating incentives for coal and nuclear to stay in the market, ratepayers ultimately end up paying for both, even if both are not needed from an energy standpoint.

If you accept the principle that coal and nuclear need “extra help” beyond what they can obtain from the current capacity market, to support their continued operation, there are of course many different ways that such help could be provided. There are also legitimate policy questions to be considered about the risks that in compensating such generators for the service they can provide in particular circumstances, you end up unnecessarily distorting competition in the wholesale power market as a whole. In short, an alternative approach to the resilience problem would be to continue with efforts to enhance co-ordination between wholesale gas and power markets and the development of gas storage capacity, and to improve interconnection between the US’s different regional power markets.

What next?

In response to the NOPR, FERC staff have put together a list of 30 questions (many of them in several parts) for interested parties to comment on, teasing out both the principles behind the proposal and the potentially tricky details of its implementation (click here for the list). But there is apparently little time for either stakeholders or FERC to ponder all these questions, since the DOE has set forth a very aggressive timeline for this matter.

  • It is directing FERC to take final action in the matter within 60 days, or in the alternative to adopt the DOE’s proposed rule as an Interim Final Rule subject to further change after opportunity for public comment.
  • It states that the comment period will be 45 days or whatever period FERC sets out, if FERC can issue a notice establishing a comment period within 2 business days.
  • The DOE also proposes that any final rule adopted by FERC become effective 30 days after it is issued and would require RTOs to submit a compliance filing proposing their tariff revisions to FERC within 15 days of that date.

This is an extraordinarily accelerated timeline, particularly given the issues at stake and that most RTOs have a lengthy stakeholder process for developing new tariff revisions.  Under the DOEOA, FERC is required to “consider and take final action on any proposal made” by the DOE expeditiously in accordance with reasonable time limits set by the Secretary of Energy.  However, while FERC must act upon the proposal, it has exclusive jurisdiction, and thus complete discretion to accept, reject, or modify the DOE’s proposal.  So FERC could issue an order rejecting the DOE’s proposal but initiating a similar rulemaking effort on a more realistic timeline. FERC issued a notice inviting interested parties to file comments on the DOE proposal by October 23, and reply comments by November 7.

Unsurprisingly, much of the industry is far from happy about all this.  The trade associations have by and large rolled out in opposition to the accelerated timeline.  Within a few days of the NOPR, a joint motion of industry associations was filed proposing a 90 day initial comment period and a 45 day reply comment period by the following industry associations:  The Advanced Energy Economy, American Biogas Council, American Council on Renewable Energy, American Petroleum Institute, American Public Power Association, American Wind Energy Association, Business Council for Sustainable Energy, Electric Power Supply Association, Electricity Consumers Resource Council, Energy Storage Association, Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, Natural Gas Supply Association, and Solar Energy Industries Association. (here)

It is remarkable to see the oil and natural gas associations on the same pleading with the municipal utilities, coops, independent power producers, consumer groups, and renewable energy associations.  Their motion argues that the proposed reforms laid out in the notice of proposed rulemaking would result in one of the most significant changes in decades to the energy industry and would unquestionably have significant ramifications for wholesale markets under FERC’s jurisdiction, and that the time frame allowed is far too short to consider such a significant change.  Answers in support of their motion were also filed by the Transmission Access Policy Study Group, Industrial Energy Consumers of America, National Association of State Utility Consumer Advocates, Northwest & Intermountain Power Producers Coalition, and the American Forest and Paper Association. However, in spite of this unusual amount of industry consensus, FERC has denied the request for an extension of time and is holding fast to its October 23 and November 7 deadlines.

It seems unlikely that FERC will be able to take any substantive action within the time frame set forth by the DOE (unless it rejects the proposal outright).

  • Acting Chairman Chatterjee (Republican) issued a statement in response to the August DOE Staff Report on Electricity Markets and Reliability that FERC would remain focused on the wholesale electric capacity market price formation issues, so there may be some will at FERC to proceed with this rulemaking, but there is likely to be strong state resistance, and as the trade associations point out, it is not going to be an easy matter to figure out how to insert a cost-of-service pricing regime for coal and nuclear resources into otherwise competitive wholesale markets.
  • One of the other Commissioners, Republican Robert Powelson, addressed the issue in a speech he gave this week, reaffirming FERC’s independence from the DOE and promising not to “blow up the markets.” He is quoted as saying “We will not destroy the marketplace.  Markets have worked well and markets need to continue to work well.”
  • The third sitting Commissioner, Democrat Cheryl LaFleur, endorsed Powelson’s comments on Twitter.  FERC staff have indicated that the agency is moving forward with the proposal and will take “appropriate action” within the 60-day timeframe requested by DOE (as noted above “appropriate action” does not necessarily mean “substantive action”).

It remains to be seen whether FERC will seriously entertain the DOE’s proposal, it could very well reject it quickly and go about business as usual, or (more likely) it could open an alternative proceeding to see if capacity and resiliency issues can be addressed through a better vehicle. Secretary Perry has stated that his intent in filing the proposal was to “start a conversation.”  FERC is one of the federal agencies that is typically the least impacted by changing political tides, and we do not expect to see the type of radical change in direction that has been seen in other agencies, such as the DOE, EPA and Interior.  Further, as described above, the commissioners have been telegraphing that they support markets and are unlikely to “blow them up,” but they have generally acknowledged that there have been significant changes in the industry that have put new pressures on the markets that may warrant taking a new look at whether there are attributes that the market is not pricing now that should be priced.  Earlier this year FERC conducted a two-day technical conference on the topic of how FERC’s markets are impacted by state goals (such as increasing reliability and decreasing emissions) and whether FERC markets should remain completely independent of such goals, seek to accommodate them, or seek to accomplish them.  Making predictions in the volatile scene of U.S. politics has become an increasingly dangerous game in recent months, but it seems that the most likely course of action for FERC to take regarding the DOE’s filing will be to wrap it up into the ongoing considerations of the markets and establish a more robust rulemaking to consider whether any and all of the attributes that the DOE and states are seeking to promote should be priced in the markets, most likely through a technology-neutral mechanism.

 

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Trump’s response to Harvey, Irma, Maria and Sandy: more subsidies for coal-fired power

Strong and stable, or storing up trouble? The outlook for energy storage projects in the UK

While strength and stability have taken rhetorical centre stage in the run-up to the UK’s snap General Election on 8 June, the GB energy system faces radical uncertainty on a number of fronts at a time when its stakeholders need it least. So far, the main election focus on energy has inevitably been price caps for household gas and electricity bills. But once the excitements of the campaign and polling day are over, the new government will need to make up for lost time on some less potentially vote-grabbing issues that are central to the continued health of the GB energy sector. None of these is more pressing than how to respond to the possibilities opened up by energy storage technology.

This post will summarise the benefits of energy storage as an enabler of system flexibility, look at the technology options and market factors in play and consider both some of the practical issues faced by developers and the regulatory challenges that – General Election and Brexit notwithstanding – urgently need to be addressed by the government and/or the sector regulator Ofgem.

Benefits of energy storage

The most widely cited benefit of energy storage is the ability to address the intermittency challenge of renewable sources. For more than 100 years, the general lack of bulk power storage in the GB electricity system (other than a small amount of pumped hydro capacity) did not matter. Fluctuations in demand could easily be met by adjusting the amount of power produced by centralised fossil fuel plant that generally had fairly high utilisation rates. But in a power industry transformed by the rise of wind and solar technology, things are different. As a greater proportion of the generating mix is made up of technologies that cannot be turned on and off at will, often in areas where grid capacity is limited, storage offers the possibility that large amounts of power could be consumed hours or days after it is generated, reducing the otherwise inevitable mismatch between consumers’ demands for electricity and the times when the sun is out, the wind is blowing or the waves are in motion.

In a world that increasingly wants to use low carbon sources of electricity which are inherently less easy to match to fluctuations in demand than fossil fuelled generation, storage reintroduces an important element of flexibility. More specific advantages of energy storage range across value chain.

  • For generators, power generated at times of low demand (or when system congestion makes export impossible) can be stored and sold (more) profitably when demand is high, exploiting opportunities for arbitrage in the wholesale market and potentially also earning higher revenues in balancing markets. But storage does not just help wind and solar power. It can also help plants using thermal technologies that work most efficiently operating as baseload (such as combined cycle gas turbines or nuclear plants), but which may not find it economic to sell all their power at the time it is generated. Even peaking plants can use storage to their advantage by avoiding the need to waste fuel in standby mode (using e.g. battery power to cover the period in which they start up in response to demand).
  • For transmission system operators and distribution network operators, energy storage can mitigate congestion, defer the need for investment in network reinforcement and help to maintain the system in balance and operating within its designated frequency parameters by providing a range of ancillary or balancing services such as frequency response.
  • For end users, particularly those with some capacity to generate their own power, and providers of demand-side response services who aggregate end users into “virtual power plants”, energy storage can increase household or business self-consumption rates. And in a world of tariffs differentiated by time of use (enabled by smart metering), storage opens up the possibility of retail-level arbitrage or peak shaving: buying power when it is cheaper (because not many people want it) and storing it for use it at times when it would be more expensive to get it from the grid (because everybody wants to use it).

What could all that mean in practice? Estimates in National Grid’s Future Energy Scenarios 2016 suggest that over the next 25 years, deployment of storage in the UK could grow at least as rapidly as deployment of renewables has grown over the last 20 years. Also in 2016 the Carbon Trust and Imperial College London published a study that modelled the implementation of storage and other flexible technologies across the electricity system, and showed projected savings of between £17 billion and £40 billion between now and 2050. In a consultation published in May 2017, distribution network operator Western Power Distribution (WPD) invited comment on its proposed planning assumptions for the growth of storage in GB from its current capacity of 2.7 GW (all pumped hydro plants): these are a “low growth” scenario that anticipates 4-5 GW (6-15 GWh) by 2030 and a “high growth” scenario of 10-12 GW (24-44 GWh) by that date. Growth of storage at that higher rate would see it outstripping or close to matching current government estimates for the development of new gas-fired or nuclear generation, or new interconnection capacity over the same period. (Although it should be noted that the government’s own projections for the growth of storage are more in line with WPD’s low growth scenario: see this helpful analysis by Carbon Brief.)

Technology options

As is the case in Europe and the rest of the world, energy storage in the UK is currently mostly supplied by pumped hydropower plants, which account for almost all storage capacity and are connected to the transmission system. Until very recently, the much less frequently deployed technique of compressed air energy storage (CAES) was the only other commercially available technology for large-scale electricity storage. The two technologies are similar in that both use cheap electricity to put a readily available fluid (water or air) into a state (up a mountain or under pressure) from which it can be released so as to flow through a turbine and generate power. They differ in that pumped hydro requires a specific mountainous topography, whereas CAES can use a variety of geologies (including salt caverns, depleted oil and gas fields and underground aquifers).

But it is batteries that are currently attracting the keenest investor interest in storage. There are many different battery technologies competing for investment and market penetration. Those based on sodium nickel chloride or sodium sulphur have made advances, but most storage attention surrounds batteries based on lithium-ion structures, also the battery of choice for the electric car industry, where competition has driven down costs. Just before the General Election got under way, the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) announced £246 million of funding for the development and manufacture of batteries for electric vehicles. Electric car batteries need to be able to deliver a surge of power far more rapidly than those deployed in the wider power sector: in Germany, car manufacturers are already exploring the use of electric car batteries that no longer up to automotive specifications in grid-based applications. In the North East of England, distribution network company Northern Powergrid is collaborating with Nissan to look at how integration of electric vehicles can improve network capacity, rather than just placing increased demands on the grid.

The cost of batteries has come down because of improvements in both battery chemistry and manufacturing processes, as well as the economies of scale associated with higher manufacturing volumes such as with Tesla and Panasonic’s new battery Gigafactory in Nevada. Underlining rising global expectations about low cost and set-up time for battery production, in March 2017 Tesla’s Elon Musk offered to build a 100 MWh battery plant in Australia within 100 days, or to give the system away for free if delivery took any longer.

Batteries are ideally suited to many applications, but they also have some drawbacks. They are less good at providing sustained levels of power over long periods of discharge, and on a really large scale, than CAES or pumped hydro. The non-battery technologies also have other selling points. For example, CAES also has a unique ability, when combined with a combined cycle gas turbine, to reduce the amount of fuel it uses by at least a third. Given the likelihood that the UK power system will continue to need a significant amount of new large-scale gas fired plant, even as it decarbonises, and given the current slow development of carbon capture and storage technology, the potential reduction in both the costs and the carbon footprint of new gas-fired power that CAES offers is well worth consideration by both developers and government. Finally, as regards future alternative technology options, hydrogen storage and fuel cells are the subject of significant research efforts and funding. Most enticing from a decarbonisation perspective, is the prospect of electrolysing water with electricity generated from renewables to produce “green hydrogen”, which can then be used to generate clean power with the same level of flexibility as methane is at present.

Models and market factors

In the abstract, it might be thought that energy storage projects could be categorised into five basic business models:

  • integrated generator services: storage as a dedicated means of time-shifting the export of power generated from specific generating plants (renewable, nuclear or conventional), with which the storage facility may or may not be co-located, and so optimising the marketing of their power (and in some cases, where there are grid constraints, enabling more power to be generated, and ultimately exported, than would otherwise be the case);
  • system operator services: providing frequency response and other ancillary or balancing services to National Grid in its role as System Operator (and potentially, in the future, to a distribution system operator that is required to maintain balance at distribution level): a distinction can be made between “reserve” and “response” services, the latter involving very quick reaction to instructions designed to ensure frequency or voltage control;
  • network investment: enabling distribution networks to operate more efficiently and economically, for example by avoiding the need for conventional network reinforcement. This was notably successfully demonstrated by the 6 MW battery at Leighton Buzzard built by UK Power Networks (UKPN). The results of WPD’s Project FALCON were a little more equivocal, but it is trying again, using Tesla batteries to test a range of applications at sites in the South West, South Wales and the East Midlands);
  • merchant model: a standalone storage facility making the most of opportunities to buy power at low prices and sell it at high prices, with no tie to particular generators, and perhaps underpinned by Capacity Market payments (see further below);
  • “behind the meter”: enabling consumers to reduce their energy costs (retail level arbitrage or peak shaving, as noted above, as well as maximising use of on-site generation where this is cheaper than electricity from the grid).

These models are far from being mutually exclusive. Indeed, at present, they are best thought of as simply representing different categories of potential revenue streams: the majority of storage projects will need to access more than one of these streams in order to be viable. Some will opt to do so through contracts with an aggregator, for whom a relationship with generation or consumption sites with storage, particularly if they have a degree of operational control over the storage facility, offers an additional dimension of flexibility.

In the short term, the largest revenue opportunity may be the provision of grid services. The need for a fast response to control frequency variations is likely to increase in the future as a result of the loss of coal-fired plant from the system.

Growing interest in energy storage also owes much to the decline in the UK greenfield renewables market, with the push factor of the removal or drastic reduction of subsidies previously available for new renewable energy projects and the pull factor of the battery revolution. According to a report published in May 2017 by SmartestEnergy, an average of 275 solar, wind and other renewable projects were completed in each quarter between 2013 and the last quarter of 2016, when the figure plummeted to 38. Only 21 renewable projects were completed in the first quarter of 2017.

So why, when UKPN, for example, report that between September 2015 and December 2016 they processed connection applications from 600 prospective storage providers for 12 GW of capacity, is the amount of battery capacity so far connected only in the tens of MW?

Tenders and auctions

It may help to begin by looking at another very specific factor that drove this extraordinary level of interest in a technology that had been so little deployed to date. This was National Grid’s first Enhanced Frequency Response (EFR) tender, which took place in August 2016. A survey by SmartestEnergy, carried out just before the results of the tender were announced, found that 70 percent of respondents intending to develop battery projects in the near future were anticipating that ancillary services would be their main source of revenue.

National Grid were aiming to procure 200 MW of very fast response services. Although “technology neutral”, the tender was presented as an opportunity for battery storage providers and as expected, storage, and specifically batteries, dominated. All but three of the 64 assets underlying the 223 bids from 37 providers were battery units. Perhaps less expected were the prices of the winning bids: some as low as £7/MWh and averaging £9.44/MWh. The weighted price of all bids was £20.20/MWh.

This highly competitive tender gave the UK energy storage market a £65 million boost. The pattern of bids suggested that alongside renewables developers and aggregators, some existing utilities are keen to establish themselves in the storage market, and are prepared to leverage their lower cost of capital and accept a low price in order to establish a first mover advantage.

Independent developers who regard storage as a key future market might also have been bullish in their calculations of long-term income while accepting lower revenues in the near term to compete in a crowded arena. For all bidders, one of the key attractions was the EFR contract’s four-year term, which makes a better fit with their expectations of how long it will take to recoup their initial investment than the shorter duration of most of National Grid’s other contracts for balancing / ancillary services.

Aspiring battery storage providers also responded enthusiastically to the regular four year ahead (T-4) Capacity Market (CM) auction when it took place for the third time in December 2016. To judge from the Register for the T-4 2016 auction, some 120 battery projects, with over 2 GW of capacity between them, were put forward for prequalification in this auction. (This assumes that all the new build capacity market units (CMUs) described as made up of “storage units” and not obviously forming part of pumped hydro facilities were battery-based.) Although almost two-thirds of these proposed CMUs are described on the relevant CM register as either “not prequalified” or “rejected”, of the remaining 33 battery projects, no fewer than 31 projects, representing over 500 MW of capacity between them, went on to win capacity agreements in the auction.

There are a number of points to be made in connection with these results.

  • Taking the CM and EFR together, the range of parties interested in batteries is noteworthy, as is the diversity of motivations they may have for their interest.  It includes grid system operators (UKPN), utilities (EDF Energy, Engie, E.ON, Centrica), renewables developers (RES, Element Power, Push Energy, Belectric), storage operators, aggregators / demand side response providers (KiWi Power, Limejump, Open Energi) and end-users, as well as new players who seem to be particularly focused on storage (Camborne Energy Storage, Statera Energy, Grid Battery Storage).
  • Developers of battery projects are evidently confident that the periods during which they may be called on to meet their obligations to provide capacity by National Grid will not exceed the length of time during which they can continuously discharge their batteries – in other words, that the technical parameters of their equipment do not put them at an unacceptable risk of incurring penalties for non-delivery under the CM Rules: a point that some had questioned.
  • The CM Rules are stricter than those of the EFR tender as regards requiring projects to have planning permission, grid connection and land rights in place as a condition of participating in the auction process. This is presumably one reason why fewer battery projects ended up qualifying to compete in the T-4 auction as compared with the EFR tender.
  • For batteries linked to renewable electricity generation schemes that benefit from renewables subsidy schemes such as the Renewables Obligation (RO), the EFR tender was an option, but the CM was not, since CM Rules prohibit the doubling up of CM and renewables support. So, for example, the 22 MW of batteries to be installed at Vattenfall’s 221 MW RO-accredited Pen-y-Cymoedd wind farm was successful in the EFR tender but would presumably not have been eligible to compete in the CM.
  • Accordingly, CM projects tend to be designed to operate quite independently of any renewable generating capacity with which they happen to share a grid connection. But some of these projects are located on farms that might have hosted large solar arrays when subsidies were readily available for them. Green Hedge, four of whose projects were successful in the T-4 2016 CM auction, has even developed a battery-based storage package called The Energy BarnTM. Others CM storage projects are located on the kind of industrial site that might otherwise be hosting a small gas-fired peaking plant. UK Power Reserve (as UK Energy Reserve), which has been very successful with such plants in all the T-4 auctions to date, won CM support for batteries at 12 such locations.
  • The Capacity Market may be less lucrative than EFR, measured on a per MW basis, but it offers the prospect of even longer contracts: up to 15 years for new build projects.
  • Batteries are still a fairly new technology. The clearing price of Capacity Market auctions has so far been set by small-scale gas- or diesel-fired generating units using well established technology. In a T-4 auction, the CMUs, by definition, do not have to be delivering capacity until four years later – although the Capacity Market Rules oblige successful bidders to enter into contracts for their equipment, and reach financial close, within 16 months of the auction results being announced. Other things being equal (which they may not be: see next bullet), it will clearly be advantageous to developers if they can arrange that the prices they pay for their batteries are closer to those prevailing in 2020 than in 2016. It has been pointed out that although internationally, battery prices may have fallen by up to 24 percent in 2016, the depreciation of Sterling over the same period means that the full benefit of these cost reductions may not yet be accessible to UK developers.
  • The proportion of prequalified battery-based CMUs that were successful in the T-4 2016 CM auction was remarkably high. But may not have been basing their financial models solely or even primarily on CM revenues. In addition to EFR and other National Grid ancillary services, such as Short Term Operating Reserve or Fast Reserve, and possible arbitrage revenues, it is likely that at least some projects were anticipating earning money by exporting power onto the distribution network during “Triad” periods. This “embedded benefit” would enable them to earn or share in the payments under the transmission charging regime that have been the main source of revenue for small-scale distributed generators bidding in the CM, enabling them to set the auction clearing price at a low level and prompting a re-evaluation of this aspect of transmission charges by Ofgem. From Ofgem’s March 2017 consultation on the subject, it looks as if these payments will be drastically scaled down over the period 2018 to 2020. This may give some developers a powerful incentive to deploy their batteries early (notwithstanding the potential cost savings of waiting until 2020 to do so) so as to benefit from this source of revenue while it lasts. Those who compete in subsequent CM auctions may find that the removal of this additional revenue leads to the CM auctions clearing at a higher price.
  • As with EFR, some developers may be out to buy first mover advantage, and most already have a portfolio of other assets and/or sources of revenue outside the CM. But what they are doing is not without risk, since the penalties for not delivering a CMU (£10,000, £15,000 or £35,000 / MW, depending on the circumstances) are substantial.
  • Meanwhile, a sure sign of the potential for batteries to disrupt the status quo can be seen in the fact that Scottish Power has proposed a change to the CM Rules that would apply a lower de-rating factor to batteries for CM purposes than to its own pumped hydro plant.

Finally, one other tender process, that took place for the first time in 2016, could point the way to another income stream for future projects. National Grid and distribution network operator Western Power Distribution co-operated to procure a new ancillary service of Demand Turn Up (DTU).

The idea is to increase demand for power, or reduce generation, at times when there is excess generation – typically overnight (in relation to wind) and on Summer weekends (in relation to solar). DTU is one of the services National Grid use to ensure that at such times there is sufficient “footroom” or “negative reserve”, defined as the “continuous requirement to have resources available on the system which can reduce their power output or increase their demand from the grid at short notice”.

National Grid reports that over the summer of 2016, the service was used 323 times, with “10,800 MWh called with an average utilisation price of £61.41/MWh”. The procurement process can take account of factors other than the utilisation and availability fees bid, notably location. Successful tenders in the 2017 procurement had utilisation fees as high as £75/MWh.

At present, the procurement process for DTU does not appear to allow for new storage projects to compete in DTU tenders, but once they have become established, they should be well placed to do so, given their ability to provide demand as well as generation. They could be paid by National Grid to soak up cheap renewable power when there is little other demand for it. If National Grid felt able to procure DTU or similar services further in advance of when they were to be delivered, the tenders could have the potential to provide a more direct stimulus to new storage projects.

Battery bonanza?

Those who have been successful in the EFR or CM processes can begin to “stack” revenues from a number of income streams. And the more revenues you already have, the more aggressively you can bid in future tenders (for example for other ancillary services) to supplement them.

But even if all the projects that were successful in the EFR and CM processes go ahead, they will still represent only a small fraction of those that have been given connection offers. Moreover, it looks as if the merchant and ancillary services models are the only ones making significant headway at present.  Why are we not seeing more storage projects integrated with renewables coming forward, for example? Why, to quote Tim Barrs, head of energy storage sales for British Gas, has battery storage “yet to achieve the widespread ‘bankable status’ that we saw with large-scale solar PV”?

Technology tends to become bankable when it has been deployed more often than batteries coupled with renewables have so far in GB. But even to make a business case to an equity investor, a renewables project with storage needs to show that over a reasonable timeframe the additional revenues that the storage enables the project to capture exceed the additional costs of installing the storage. What are these costs, over and above the costs of the batteries and associated equipment?  What does it take to add storage to an existing renewable generating project, or one for which development rights have already been acquired and other contractual arrangements entered into?

  • The configuration and behaviour of any storage facility co-located with subsidised renewable generation must not put the generator’s accreditation for renewable subsidies at risk because of e.g. a battery’s ability to absorb and re-export power from the grid that has not been generated by its associated renewable generating station. The location of meters is crucial here. According to the Solar Trade Association, only recently has Ofgem for the first time re-accredited a project under the RO after storage was added to it. While an application for re-accreditation is being considered, the issue of ROCs is suspended. Guidance has been promised which may facilitate re-accreditation for other sites. Presumably in this as in other matters, the approach for Feed-in Tariff (FIT) sites would follow the pattern set by the RO. For projects with existing Contracts for Difference (CfDs), there is no provision on energy storage. For those hoping to win a CfD in the 2017 allocation round, the government has made some changes to the contractual provisions following a consultation, but, as the government response to consultation makes clear, a number of issues still remain to be resolved.
  • An existing renewables project is also likely to have to obtain additional planning permission. There may be resistance to battery projects in some quarters. RES recently had to go to appeal to get permission for a 20 MW storage facility by an existing substation at Lookabootye after its application was refused by West Lothian Council. It will also be necessary to re-negotiate existing lease arrangements (or at least the rent payable under them), and additional cable easements may be required.
  • Unless it is proposed that the battery will take all its power from the renewable generating station (which is unlikely), it will be necessary to seek an increase in the import capacity of the project’s grid connection from the distribution network operators. Even if the developer does not require to be able to export any more power at any one time from the development as a whole, in order to charge the battery at a reasonable speed from the grid it will need a much larger import capacity than is normal for an ordinary renewable generating facility. The ease and costs of achieving this will vary depending on the position of the project relative to the transmission network. There may be grid reinforcement costs to pay for: UKPN has noted that there are few places on the network with the capacity to connect a typical storage unit without some reinforcement. They will also treat the addition of storage as a material change to an existing connection request for a project that has not yet been built, prompting the need for redesign and resulting in the project losing its place in the queue of connection applications.
  • A power purchase agreement (PPA) for a project with storage will need to address metering. For the purposes of the offtaker, output will either need to be measured on the grid side of the storage facility (the same may not be true of metering for renewable subsidy purposes), or an agreed factor will need to be applied to reflect power lost in the storage process. Secondly, in order to maximise the opportunities for arbitrage by time-shifting the export of its power, a project with storage may want more exposure to fluctuations in the wholesale market price, and even to imbalance price risk, than a traditional intermittent renewables project. The detail of how embedded benefits revenues are to be shared between generator and offtaker may also require to be adjusted if the addition of storage makes it more likely they will be captured.

For the moment, most renewables projects probably fall into one of two categories with regard to integrated storage.

  • On the one hand, there are those that are already established and receiving renewable generation subsidies, or which have been planned without storage and now simply need to commission as quickly as possible in order to secure a subsidy (for example, under RO grace period rules for onshore wind projects). For them, introducing storage into an existing project may be more trouble than it is worth for some or all of the reasons noted above. They have little incentive to deploy storage unless it is an economic way of reducing their exposure to loss of revenue as a result of grid constraints or to imbalance costs: these have been increasing following the reforms introduced by Ofgem in 2015 and will increase further as the second stage of those reforms is implemented in 2018, but for many renewable generators are a risk that is assumed by their offtakers.
  • On the other hand, for projects with no prospect of receiving renewable subsidies, it would appear that the cost of storage is not yet low enough, or the pattern of wholesale market prices sufficiently favourable to a business model built on  time-shifting and arbitrage to encourage extensive development of renewables + storage merchant model projects. If it was generally possible easily to earn back the costs of installing storage through the higher wholesale market revenues captured by – for example – time-shifting the export of power from a solar farm to periods when wholesale prices are higher than they are during peak solar generating hours, the volume and profile of successful storage + renewable projects in the CM and elsewhere would be different from what it now is.

However, battery costs will continue to fall, and wholesale prices are becoming “spikier”. It may only be a matter of time before GB’s utility-scale renewables sector, whose successful players have so far built their businesses on the predictable streams produced by RO and FIT subsidies, can get comfortable with business cases that depend more fundamentally on the accuracy of predictions about how the market, rather than the weather, will behave. Moreover, there is nothing to stop a storage facility co-located with a renewables project that has no renewable subsidy from earning a steady additional stream of income in the form of CM payments.

Arguably, the UK has missed a trick in not having adopted pump-priming incentives for combining storage with renewables, such as setting aside a part of the CfD budget for projects with integrated storage. But with the door apparently generally closed for the time being on any form of subsidy for large-scale onshore wind or solar schemes in most of GB, it is probably unrealistic to hope for any such approach to be taken in the near future.

Regulatory challenges

There are undoubtedly already significant commercial opportunities for some GB storage projects, but it does not feel as if the full power of storage to revolutionise the electricity market is about to be unleashed quite yet. This is perhaps not surprising.

Almost as eagerly awaited among those interested in storage as the results of the EFR tender was a long-promised BEIS / Ofgem Call for Evidence on how to enable a “smart, flexible energy system”, which was eventually published in November 2016. This Call for Evidence, the first of its kind, represented a significant step forward for the regulation of storage in the UK, but although it pays particular attention to storage and the barriers that storage operators may face it is not just “about” storage. It ultimately opens up questions about how well the current regulatory architecture, designed for a world of centralised and despatchable / baseload power generation, can serve an increasingly “decarbonised, distributed, digital” power sector without major reform. (At an EU level, the European Commission’s Clean Energy Package of November 2016 tries to answer some of these questions, and there is generally no shortage of thoughtful suggestions for reforming power markets, such as the recent Power 2.0 paper from UK think tank Policy Exchange, or the “Six Design Principles for the Power Markets of the Future” published by Michael Liebreich of Bloomberg New Energy Finance.)

However, whilst it is important to take a “whole system” approach, it would be unfortunate if the breadth of the issues raised by the Call for Evidence were to mean that there was any unnecessary delay in addressing the regulatory issues of most immediate concern to storage operators. Government and regulators have to start somewhere, and it is not unreasonable to start by trying to facilitate the deployment of storage since it could facilitate so many other potentially positive developments in the industry.

On 25 April Ofgem revealed that it had received 240 responses to the Call for Evidence, with around 150 responses commenting on energy storage. Barriers to the development of storage identified by respondents include the need for a definition of energy storage, clarity on the regulatory treatment of storage, and options for licensing. The response from the Energy Storage Network (ESN) offers a good insight into many of the issues of most direct concern to storage operators. Some of the other respondents who commented on storage also demonstrated an appetite for fundamental reform of network charging (described by one as “probably not fit for purpose in its current form”) and for significant shifts in the role of distribution network operators.

Interest in a definition of energy storage is unsurprising. It is arguably hard to make any regulatory provision about something if you have not defined it. But at the same time, the Institution of Engineering and Technology may well be correct when it says in its response to the Call for Evidence: “lack of a definition is not a barrier in itself…as the measures are developed to address the barriers to storage, it will become clear whether a formal definition is required and at what level…agreeing a definition should be an output of regulatory reform, not an input.”. In other words, how you define something for regulatory purposes – particularly if that thing can take a number of different forms and operate in a number of different ways – will depend in part on what rules you want to make about it.

Under current rules, energy storage facilities end up being classified, somewhat by default, as a generation activity – even though their characteristic activity does not add to the total amount of power on the system. But because storage units also draw power from the grid, they find themselves having to pay two sets of network charges – on both the import and the export – even though they are only “warehousing” the power rather than using it. Both these features of the current regulatory framework are strongly argued against by a variety of respondents to the Call for Evidence.

Treating storage as generation complicates the position for distribution network operators wishing to own storage assets. Under the current unbundling rules (which are EU-law based, but fully reflect GB policy as well), generation and network activities must be kept in separate corporate compartments. These rules are designed to prevent network operators from favouring their own sources of generation (or retail activities). The issue is potentially more acute when you have a storage asset forming part of the network company’s infrastructure and regulated asset base, but having the ability to trade on the wholesale power and ancillary services markets in its own right as well as to affect the position of other network users (by mitigating or aggravating constraints). UKPN considers that the approach it has adopted with its large battery project could provide a way around this problem for others as well – essentially distinguishing the entity that owns the asset from the entity responsible for its trading activity on the market. However, such an arrangement is not without costs and complexity, both for those involved to set up and for the regulator to monitor. The ESN has also made proposals in its response to the Call for Evidence about the conditions under which distribution network operators should be permitted to operate storage facilities.

It may be that the most useful contribution that transmission and distribution network operators could make to the development of storage would be to determine as part of their multi-year rolling network planning processes where it would be most beneficial in system terms for new storage capacity of one kind or another to be located. But the underlying question is whether at least some storage projects should be treated more as network schemes with fixed OFTO or CATO-like rates of return rather than being regarded as part of the competitive sector of the market along with generation and supply. (Similar concerns about the status of US network-based storage projects, admittedly in a slightly different regulatory environment, have been addressed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in a recent policy statement and notice of proposed rulemaking.)

If storage is not to be treated as generation or necessarily part of a network (and required to hold a generation licence where no relevant exemption applies), what is it? Should it be recognised as a new kind of function within the electricity market? In which case, the natural approach under the GB regulatory regime would be to require storage operators to be licensed as such (again, subject to any statutory exemptions). That would require primary legislation (i.e. an Act of Parliament) to achieve, at a time when Parliamentary time may be at a premium because of Brexit – and then there would need to be drafting of and consultation on licence conditions and no doubt also numerous consequential changes to the various industry-wide codes and agreements.

The ESN’s Call for Evidence response has some helpful suggestions as to what a licensing regime for storage might look like. But is the licensing model is a red herring in this context? After all, the parallel GB regulatory regime for downstream gas includes no requirement for those wishing to operate an onshore gas storage facility to hold a licence to do so under the Gas Act 1986. And it is entirely possible to trade electricity on the GB wholesale markets (a key activity for storage facilities), without holding a licence under the Electricity Act 1989 (or even engaging in an activity requiring such a licence but benefiting from an exemption from the requirement to hold a licence).

As for some of the current financial disadvantages facing storage, it is encouraging that in consulting on its Targeted Charging Review of various aspects of network charging in March 2017, Ofgem provisionally announced its view that some double charging of storage should be ended. It consulted on a number of changes that, taken together, should have the effect of ensuring that “storage is not an undue disadvantage relative to others providing the same or similar services”. However, although welcome, these Ofgem proposals so far only cover the treatment of the “residual” (larger) element of transmission network charges for demand (applicable to distribution-connected projects), in respect of storage units co-located with generation. It remains to be seen whether – and if so, what – action will be taken to deal with other problems in this area, such the payment of the “final consumption” levies that recover the costs of e.g. the RO and FIT schemes by both the storage provider and the consumer on the same electricity when a storage operator buys that electricity from a licensed supplier. Storage operators can at present only avoid this cost disadvantage if they acquire a generation licence, which does not seem a particularly rational basis for discriminating between them in this context.

Speaking in March, the head of smart energy policy at BEIS, Beth Chaudhary, said that ending the double counting of storage “might require primary legislation”, adding that Brexit has made the progress of such legislation “difficult at the moment”. The General Election has only added to concerns of momentum loss, a sense of “circling the landing strip” in the words of the Renewable Energy Association’s chief executive, Dr Nina Skorupska.

“The revolution will not be televised”…but it probably needs to be regulated

What is the storage revolution? Storage will not turn the electricity industry into a normal commodity market, like oil, overnight – or indeed ever. We will still have to balance the grid. As before, what is being exported onto the grid will need to match what is being imported from it at any given moment. It’s just that storage will provide an additional source of power to be exported onto the grid (which was generated at an earlier time) and it will also facilitate more balancing actions by those on the demand side where they have access to it. It is also likely that increased use of micro grids, with the ability to operate in “island mode” as well as interconnected with the public grid, will result in the public grid handling a smaller proportion of the power being generated and consumed at any given time.

Of course, one could look at this and say: “Fine, but what’s the hurry?”. The UK developed a renewables industry when it was still a relatively new and expensive thing to do. Thanks to the efforts made by the UK and others, renewables are now both “mainstream” and relatively cheap. Those countries that are only starting to develop sizeable renewable projects now are reaping the benefit of the cost reductions achieved by the early adopters. Would it be such a bad thing if a GB storage revolution was delayed for a year or two while other markets experiment with the technology and help it to scale up, reducing the costs that UK businesses and consumers will pay for its ultimate adoption in the UK?

After all, we have to be realistic about the number of large and difficult issues the UK government and regulators can be expected to focus on and take forward at once. Is it not more important, for example, to reach agreement with the rest of the EU on a satisfactory set of substitute arrangements for the legal mechanisms that currently govern the UK’s trade in electricity and gas with Continental Europe (and the Republic of Ireland)? In addition, the General Election manifestos of each party prioritise other contentious areas of energy policy for action, such as facilitating fracking and reducing the level of household energy bills.

We do not deny the importance of these other issues, and BEIS and Ofgem resources are, of course, finite, but we would argue that storage and the complex of “flexibility” issues to which it is central should be high on the policy agenda after 8 June in any event.

  • GB distribution network operators have already done lot of valuable work on storage, much of it funded by various Ofgem initiatives (notably the Innovation Funding Incentive, Network Innovation Allowance and Low Carbon Networks funding). This has generated a body of published learning on the subject which continues to be added to and which it would be a pity not to capitalise on as quickly as possible.
  • Depending (at least in part) on the outcome of Brexit, we may find ourselves either benefiting from significantly more interconnection with Continental European power markets, or becoming more of a “power island” compared with the rest of Europe. In either case, a strong storage sector will be an advantage. Storage can magnify the benefits of interconnection but it would also help us to optimise the use of our own generating resources if our ability to supplement them (or export their output) through physical links to other markets was limited.
  • The UK has in some respects led the world on power market reform.  We have complex, competitive markets and clever companies that have learnt how to operate in them. Looking at storage from an industrial strategy point of view, the UK is may not make its fortune after by the mass manufacture of batteries for the rest of the world, but the potential for export earnings from some of the higher value components of storage facilities, and the expertise to deploy them to maximum effect, should not be neglected.
  • On the other hand, if the UK wants to maintain its position as an attractive destination for investment in electricity projects, it needs to show that it has a coherent regulatory approach to storage, both because storage will increasingly become an asset class in its own right and because sophisticated investors in UK generation, networks or demand side assets will increasingly want to know that this is the case before committing to finance them.
  • As the Call for Evidence and the other attempts to address the challenges of future power markets referred to above make clear, everything is connected. There is, arguably, not very far that you can or should move forward on any aspect of generation or other electricity sector policy without forming a view on storage and how to facilitate it further.
  • Finally, because some of the policy and regulatory issues are hard and resources to address them are finite, this will all take time, so that with luck, the regulatory framework will have been optimised by about the same time as the price reductions stimulated by demand from the US and other forward-thinking jurisdictions have started to kick in.

Almost whatever problem you are looking at, whether as a regulator or a commercial operator in the GB power sector, it is worth considering carefully whether and how storage could help to solve it. Storage has the potential, as noted above, to change the ways that those at each level in the electricity value chain operate, and with the shift to more renewables and decentralised generation, it has a significant part to play in making future electricity markets “strong and stable”. The “trouble” alluded to in the title of this post is change either happening faster than politicians and regulators can keep pace with, or innovation being stifled by the lack of regulatory adaptation as they find it too difficult to address the challenges it poses when faced with other and apparently more urgent priorities. Because the ways in which generators, transmission and distribution network operators, retailers and end users interact with each other is so much a function of existing regulation of one kind or another, it is very hard to imagine storage reaching its full potential without significant regulatory change. These changes will take time to get right, but since ultimately an electricity sector that makes full use of the potential of storage should be cheaper, more secure and more environmentally sustainable than one that does not, there should be no delay in identifying and pursuing them.

 

 

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Strong and stable, or storing up trouble? The outlook for energy storage projects in the UK

UK “early” Capacity Market auction produces cheapest prices yet

The provisional results of the “early” Capacity Market auction held last week have now been published.

This was an auction exclusively of 1-year capacity agreements, primarily to cover Winter 2017/18, after the UK Government decided that it did not want National Grid to carry on ensuring security of supply during Winter periods by means of a Contingency Balancing Reserve (CBR).  The CBR involved auctions open to generators who would not otherwise be operating in a given Winter period and to demand side response providers.  A Government consultation in March 2016 noted that the prices National Grid were paying under the CBR were increasing and that it introduced distortions into the market.

From Winter 2018/19, of course, the Capacity Market itself will ensure security of supply.  Those with capacity agreements beginning in 2018 will be the capacity providers who bid successfully in a four year ahead auction held in 2014, supplemented by those who win capacity agreements in any subsequent one year ahead auction for delivery in 2018.  Last week’s “early” auction was a one-off bridge between the CBR (now operating for the last time to cover Winter 2016/17) and the fully-fledged Capacity Market regime.  The key difference between the CBR and the Capacity Market is that the CBR (or at least the major part of it) focuses on securing capacity that would otherwise not be in the market, to fill the potential gap between existing generation and projected peak demand, whereas the Capacity Market provides a reliability incentive to all eligible generators and demand side response providers on the market.

Commentary on previous Capacity Market auctions (such as this post from December 2016) has tended to focus on the failure of the four year ahead auctions to result in the award of 15 year agreements to meaningful amounts of large-scale new gas-fired generation projects.  With new projects competing against almost all existing thermal generation, and new reciprocating engine projects able to bear much lower Capacity Market clearing prices than a CCGT project, the auctions have produced low clearing prices, but no obvious successors to the existing big coal-fired plants that the Government wants to close by 2025.

How to evaluate the results of the “early” auction, then?  The provisional results indicate capacity agreements going to 54.43 GW of capacity, at £6.95 kW / year, suggesting total costs to bill payers of around £378 million.  This might look like spectacularly good value compared with the results of the last four year ahead auction (for delivery starting in 2020), where the clearing price was £22.50 kW / year for 52.43 GW of capacity.  But that isn’t really a fair comparison, since about a quarter of the capacity that was awarded agreements for 2020 was new build, whereas less than 4 percent of the capacity awarded agreements in the “early” auction falls into this category.  All the rest will be paid £6.95 for just continuing to operate – which presumably most of them would have done anyway. 

An alternative point of comparison might be with the costs of the CBR.  The most recent Winter for which these are available is 2015/16, when National Grid spent just over £31 million on procuring, testing and utilising less than 3 GW of CBR capacity.  Obviously a much inferior system. 

 

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UK “early” Capacity Market auction produces cheapest prices yet

Close but no cigar? What’s different about the T-4 Capacity Market auction results of 2016?

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so rather than writing a lengthy post on the provisional results of the four-year ahead GB Capacity Market Auction, published on 9 December 2016 by National Grid, we are focusing on two pictures and inviting you to spot the difference between them.

The first, immediately below, shows the progress of bidding in the 2016 auction.  In simple terms:

  • the process starts with all prequalified potential providers of capacity “in” at the cap price of £75/kw/year and the price then goes down by £5 with each round;
  • the auction clears when the purple line, whose progress from right to left shows how many bidders are left in after each round, converges with the red line “demand curve” drawn on the graph by the Government as part of the auction parameters;
  • all bidders still in at that point get a capacity agreement at the clearing price.

The big right to left moves occurred when the price moved between £35 and £30 and below £25.  In particular, each of these moves saw 6GW of capacity drop out.

2016 progress of bidding chart

Now look at the equivalent presentation of results from last year’s auction.  The purple line slopes more gradually, and the biggest right to left moves happen much earlier on in the bidding, between £60 and £50.  (The picture from 2014 is very similar to the 2015 one.)

2015 progress of bidding chart

It’s only an educated guess, of course, but it seems likely that much of the big leftward shifts in both auctions represented the exiting of bidders with plans to build large-scale proposed combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT) plants.  As a group, they are almost certain to have higher per MW development costs than other categories of new build projects competing for capacity agreements (small gas or diesel projects based on reciprocating engines, open-cycle gas projects, or battery based storage).  And the amount of capacity involved corresponds roughly with the big CCGT projects in the auction.

If the above is correct, why were proposed new big CCGT plants apparently prepared to tolerate prices almost 50% lower this year?  Perhaps they were hoping that a price between £30 and £35 would be where the auction cleared this time, on the basis that:

  • the clearing price is effectively set by the bidding behaviour of a sub-set of the smaller-scale, distribution-connected, fossil fuel generators;
  • on top of their power sales revenue, these smaller-scale generators have two main projected sources of income: capacity agreements and so-called residual demand TNUoS benefits;
  • Ofgem has issued what amounted to a warning that residual demand TNUoS benefits could be very sharply reduced by the time plants bidding in this year’s auction are commissioned;
  • the anticipated loss in residual demand TNUoS benefit revenue would be enough to push the smaller-scale generators to want a significantly higher capacity market price than the clearing prices seen in 2014 and 2015, both of which were below £20;
  • lower gas prices and slightly higher projected wholesale power prices may make a low capacity market price more bearable for CCGT plant, and there may other ways to mitigate merchant risk through innovative trading arrangements.

Maybe Ofgem’s warning wasn’t strong enough.  Maybe the smaller-scale generators reckon that Ofgem’s bark will turn out to have been worse than its bite on this.  In any event, the outcome has shown that for now, simply expanding the amount of capacity to be procured under an auction, as the Government appeared to be hoping when it adopted a limited change of approach to the 2016 auction, isn’t enough to ensure that some new GB CCGT plant is financeable and gets built.  Instead, a somewhat higher price will be paid to all successful bidders, including existing plant, for a larger amount of capacity than the Government thought we really needed.

As usual on these occasions, the Government has professed itself happy with the result of the auction, and it is fair to note that of the two new gas-fired plants with a capacity of around 300 MW that have been successful in the auction, one is described in the Capacity Market register as being CCGT.  But if a new generation of big CCGT plants is an important part of our new lower carbon power mix, there is some way to go.  A possibly more promising approach to using a capacity market to stimulate new CCGT build is suggested by the European Commission’s recent Winter Package of Energy Union proposals: set a date beyond which existing coal-fired plant will be ineligible for capacity market payments.  This is not among the options canvassed in the Government’s recent consultation on achieving the closure of coal-fired plant by 2025.  There would of course be an element of risk in adopting such an approach (coal plant might stay open because it can still make money without a subsidy, resulting in overcapacity, or alternatively coal plant might close immediately, before the new CCGT plant is built, leaving a generation gap), but it might be worth considering.

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Close but no cigar? What’s different about the T-4 Capacity Market auction results of 2016?