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Ofgem on storage as generation (On the way to a smart, flexible energy system? Part 2)

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On 29 September 2017, Ofgem published two storage-related consultations on possible modifications to the standard licence conditions of electricity generation and distribution licences.

Ofgem and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) are minded to classify storage as a sub-set of the regulatory category of generation.  Clarifying the regulatory framework for electricity storage: licensing elaborates on this proposition and comes with a full set of generation standard licence conditions marked up to show the resulting changes.

Consistent with this approach, Ofgem takes the view that distribution network operators (DNOs) should not operate storage facilities – just as (with only minor exceptions) they are not permitted to operate generating stations.  Enabling the competitive development of storage in a flexible energy system: changes to the electricity distribution licence provides some more detail in this area and includes a draft standard licence condition 43B to keep generation and storage generally separate.

Take generation first. To begin with, Ofgem gives us a definition of storage: “the conversion of electrical energy into a form of energy, which can be stored, the storing of that energy, and the subsequent reconversion of that energy back into electrical energy”.  This comes with a list of technologies that Ofgem thinks the definition covers, which seems fairly comprehensive.  The definitions of “generating station”, “generation business” and “generation set”, would all be revised to include reference to storage.

A huge number of generating stations that are connected to DNO networks in GB operate without holding a generation licence. Clearly it would not be practicable for every household with a few solar panels on its roof to be required to hold a generating licence, but plenty of commercial generation operators also benefit from the statutory licence exemption regime.  Exemption from the obligation to hold a generation licence is more or less automatic up to 50 MW and is frequently granted by BEIS up to 100 MW.  It is generally thought that a licence-exempt generator stands to gain more than it loses by not holding a licence.  Licensees must shoulder a greater regulatory burden, complying with a range of industry codes such as the Balancing and Settlement Code.  This potentially gives them a voice in industry self-governance, but few small generators have the resources to make much of that opportunity, and many prefer simply to avoid the associated costs of code compliance.  Among the other, relatively limited perks of licensed status is the ability to use compulsory purchase powers against recalcitrant landowners in order to develop infrastructure.

It is conceivable that some storage providers may find those compulsory purchase powers useful. Of perhaps more general interest is the prospect that as a licensed storage operator, you would not be subject to “final consumption levies” (FCLs) – the charges that are imposed on suppliers (and therefore in most cases passed through to their customers) to fund the Renewables Obligation, Feed-in Tariffs, Contracts for Difference and Capacity Market payments to generators / capacity providers.  That could persuade some who would not otherwise have to apply for a new storage-friendly generation licence to do so: the rationale is that those who are only operating an intermediate stage in the value chain between generation and final consumption should not be liable for FCLs just because their interaction with the wholesale electricity markets comes through a licensed supplier.

But this is where it starts to get tricky. Storage technology, particularly some kinds of batteries, are becoming significantly cheaper.  Ofgem does not want every large industrial user, for example, to go out and buy a battery as a way of avoiding FCLs.  So a new Condition E1 is proposed: “The licensee shall not have self-consumption as the primary function when operating its storage facility.”  But as Ofgem notes, the notion of a facility’s “primary function” could be defined in many ways.

More generally, it is unfortunate that BEIS and Parliament do not currently have time to regularise matters fully by incorporating the new generation and storage definitions into the relevant legislation, but on balance, Ofgem’s approach of starting with the licence provisions seems a legitimate and pragmatic first step given the importance of clarifying this area.

Turning to the DNOs. According to Ofgem, the existing rules “are clear that the DNOs cannot directly own or operate large-scale storage over 100MW. However, because generation below this threshold does not require a generation licence, there is a grey area where DNOs can own smaller scale storage”.  The underlying rationale of Ofgem’s approach is that since they “control the infrastructure needed to trade energy and flexibility services”, DNOs “have the ability to restrict the activities of market participants by denying (or otherwise impeding) their network access”.  DNOs should therefore not operate storage facilities, as they may be tempted to use their position to gain an unfair advantage over competing storage providers.

This extends the conventional thinking that DNOs should not operate generating stations, and the principle that the monopoly and competitive parts of the electricity supply chain should be kept in separate hands – embodied in the “unbundling rules” set out in EU and UK legislation. Exceptions to the general principle are made in the case of emergency equipment such as uninterruptible power supplies.  These would continue.  It would also be possible for a company that formed part of a DNO’s corporate group to operate a storage facility subject to suitable legal separation from the DNO business and compliance with the existing unbundling rules.

Ofgem does not close the door on a third category of exception to the general rule, which would have to be individually applied for where the market is not able to provide an efficient solution, storage is the most economic and efficient solution, and conflicts of interest are minimised. Guidance is proposed to flesh out these principles.  Meanwhile, a way will be found to deal with the existing DNO owned and operated storage facilities built under Low Carbon Network innovation funding.

DNOs are particularly well placed to know where storage would be most useful in their networks. It must make sense to regulate in a way that encourages competition in providing storage, even where its primary purpose is to improve the functioning of a DNO network.  But the intensity of that competition will be determined in part by other ongoing regulatory workstreams (for a list, see the previous post in this series).