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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

Energy Brexit: initial thoughts

In the energy sector, as elsewhere, it is far too early to give any definitive view on the effects of the UK electorate’s vote to leave the EU, or to offer a comprehensive analysis of the merits of the options now facing the UK Government. Here we offer some initial thoughts on these subjects.  Further posts will follow in the coming weeks, months and years.  No doubt some of what we say here and subsequently will turn out in retrospect to have been wide of the mark, but this is an occupational hazard of providing current commentary in a fast moving area.

This is a rather long post. We hope that those that follow will be shorter.

  • We begin by looking briefly at the relationship between EU and UK energy policy to date.
  • We then consider the EEA as a possible model for developing that relationship post Brexit.
  • After glancing at the anomalous position of nuclear power, we move on to consider how the UK could reinvent parts of its energy policy if it were free of EU / EEA law constraints.

Overall, our conclusions are not surprising.

  • EU and UK energy policies are in many ways closely aligned.  Yet EU membership undoubtedly constrains UK policy choices in a way that some find detrimental to UK business and/or consumer interests.
  • Most of those constraints would remain if the UK were to leave the EU but remain a member of the European Economic Area (EEA).  But even this limited change would bring with it a need, or at least the opportunity, to re-evaluate quite a large number of (in some cases fairly significant) pieces of law and regulation.
  • If the UK were to seek its fortune outside both the EU and the EEA, Government would be able, at least from a legal point of view, to introduce some very radical changes to current energy policies – and in some cases it might well be tempted to do so (although it would still face some international law constraints and would no doubt need to factor in the effect of doing so on the terms that could be negotiated with other states and the tariffs that might be imposed as a consequence).
  • There will be no substitute, as energy Brexit unfolds, for keeping a close eye on what is proposed in relation to each policy area (even if it is not presented directly as a response to Brexit).  Even if “this country has had enough of experts”, Government will need clear advice from the energy industry more than ever over the next few years.

Putting things in perspective

This Blog will focus on how Brexit affects energy law and policy. We recognise that for many with interests in the UK energy sector, the most immediate concerns may well be about other aspects of Brexit: for example, how it affects their willingness to invest in Sterling assets; whether there will be positive adjustments to the UK’s tax regime; how it could affect the employment status of their non-British workers; or how the post-referendum ferment will simply delay key Government and business decisions.  We are happy to discuss any of those issues with you, but for now, an analysis of Brexit in areas of law and policy specific to the energy sector seems as good a place as any to start to appreciate the complexities opened up by the result of the 23 June 2016 referendum.

Common ground and policy continuity?

A few days after the referendum, Amber Rudd, then Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, began a speech by saying: “To be clear, Britain will leave the EU”, and then went on to itemise at some length why this should not mean any big shifts in UK energy policy.  As she put it: “the challenges [securing our energy supply, keeping bills low and building a low carbon energy infrastructure] remain the same.  Our commitment also remains the same”.

It is not hard to find examples of the fundamental objectives of EU and UK policy being aligned.

  • The UK has been a leading advocate since the 1980s of the kind of liberalisation of electricity and gas markets that is now fundamental to the EU’s internal energy market rules.
  • EU and UK policy has favoured open and transparent markets in which free competition is promoted as a way of delivering lower prices and other benefits to consumers.
  • Both the EU and UK have sought to control the adverse environmental impacts of energy industry activities.  More recently, the threat of dangerous climate change has given added impetus to efforts to promote decarbonisation, renewables and energy efficiency.
  • In practical terms, the UK has been the most open of EU markets to the ownership of energy sector assets by foreign companies (although the most notable cases have involved acquisition rather than simply EU companies relying on freedom of establishment).
  • The UK can claim to have been promoting electricity generation from renewable sources for some time before the EU had an effective renewables policy.
  • The UK, having adopted the first national scheme of “legally binding” greenhouse gas emissions targets in the Climate Change Act 2008, played a leading role in developing the EU’s position on the CoP21 agreement reached in Paris in December 2015.

The first tangible indication of post-Brexit policy continuity came with the Government’s announcement on 30 June 2016 that it would implement the independent Committee on Climate Change’s recommendation for the level of the Fifth Carbon Budget, covering the period 2028-2032.  (It would perhaps be uncharitable, in the circumstances, to suggest that on a strict view of the Climate Change Act 2008, the relevant Order should have been debated by Parliament and made by 30 June 2016, and not simply laid before Parliament for approval by that date.)

Sources of irritation

Broad principles are one thing and the detail of regulation is another. There are plenty of examples of tension between EU energy sector policy and regulation and UK preferences.  We are not aware of any poll data on how many of those who voted to leave the EU had energy policy on their minds, but there have certainly been times when EU regulation has not developed as the UK Government would have wished.  At other times, the existence of EU law requirements of one kind or another as a constraint on freedom of action by the UK authorities has given some ammunition to those who argue that as it is a national Government’s function to “keep the lights on” (at a reasonable price) and choose the fuel mix, the EU’s energy policies have impermissibly eroded an aspect of UK sovereignty.

  • The UK was a strong proponent of the enlargement of the EU into Central and Eastern Europe, but the accession to the EU of countries such as Poland may well have helped to ensure that the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS) has never set as tight a cap on emissions, and therefore as high a price on CO2 emissions, as the UK would like in order to drive decarbonisation of the power sector and industrial energy use.
  • Various EU rules on environmental, state aid, renewables and single market matters can arguably be blamed for fatally increasing the power costs of UK energy intensive industries to a point where the UK has hardly any steel or aluminium producers left.
  • EU Directives on industrial (non-CO2) pollution have driven a cycle of closures of coal-fired generating stations which some would see as having prematurely diminished the UK’s security of energy supply and limited its ability to benefit from cheap US coal prices.
  • Opposition to the granting of planning permission for onshore wind farms in many parts of the UK (or at least England and Wales) was probably materially intensified by developers arguing (supported by Labour Government policy) that planning authorities were under a duty to grant permission so as to facilitate the achievement of Renewables Directive targets.
  • Since the UK (unlike Germany, for instance) has no domestic PV manufacturing interests that it wishes to protect, it would prefer not to pursue the current EU policy of imposing a “minimum import price” on Chinese solar panels (thus helping the UK solar industry to come to terms more quickly with the Government’s decision to curtail subsidies to it).
  • Generally, as the body of EU energy regulation has grown in strength and reach, and as UK Government energy policy has involved increasing amounts of intervention in the market (for example so as to promote low carbon generation), EU law has become a significant constraint on how the UK Government achieves its objectives, even when those objectives are consistent with EU objectives.
  • The tension between EU and UK policies can be seen in the case of Capacity Markets.  The European Commission, which has no voters worried about “the lights going out” to answer to, sees these as essentially unwarranted interferences with market mechanisms which threaten artificially to partition the EU single market for electricity.  DG Competition is reviewing Capacity Markets in a number of EU Member States (not including the UK, whose regime it has approved under state aid rules already).  It is ironic that the Commission’s work at several points highlights the UK’s approach as a model of good practice, when many in the UK consider that its Capacity Market has failed in some of its primary objectives, and partly blame decisions taken to secure clearance from the Commission for the regime’s defects.
  • There is also a lingering suspicion that the UK sometimes makes matters worse for itself by taking a more conscientious approach to the implementation of EU law requirements (even those it does not entirely support) than some other Member States.

No doubt the UK is not the only Member State dissatisfied with aspects of EU energy policy and regulation. But for now, no other EU Member State has set itself on the course of withdrawal from the EU.

It is unlikely that energy policy will determine the UK Government’s Brexit implementation strategy. However, focusing just on this one area, if one assumes that the UK will not radically change the overall direction of its energy policies and will remain committed to tackling all three challenges of the familiar security-decarbonisation-affordability trilemma referred to by Amber Rudd, how might the UK Government and others seek to maximise the opportunities opened up by Brexit?

Back to the future?

We must begin by considering the “EEA option(s)” – putting to one side, for present purposes, the question of whether a way can be found to preserve existing free trade arrangements with the EU without continuing to allow all EEA nationals their current rights of free movement into the UK.

In 1972 the UK left the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) to join the European Economic Community, forerunner of the EU.  Subsequently, the remaining members of EFTA entered into bilateral trade agreements with the EU, many joining the EU.  The European Economic Area (EEA) was formed by an agreement concluded in 1993 between the European Community (not yet officially the EU), its Member States, and three of the four remaining EFTA states (Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein – Switzerland remained outside the EEA).  What would it mean for the UK to leave the EU and become a party to the EEA as an EFTA state once more?

First, consider the other members of the club that the UK would be (re-)joining.

  • In 2015, the UK had a population of 65 million and a nominal GDP of $2,849 billion.  The four current EFTA states had a combined population of less than 14 million (more than half of which is made up by non-EEA Switzerland) and GDP of just over $1,000 billion (of which, again, Switzerland accounted for more than half).
  • In 1992, Switzerland voted by a 0.3% margin not to join the EEA in 1992 and Norway voted by a 2.8% margin not to join the EU.  Iceland dropped its bid to join the EU in 2015: fisheries policy (not covered by the EEA Agreement) was a sticking point, not for the first time.
  • Norway is the EU’s second largest supplier of both oil and natural gas.  It accounts for almost 30% of EU gas imports, as compared with Russia’s 39%.  But virtually all of its electricity is generated from renewable sources (overwhelmingly hydropower).
  • Market structures in the energy sectors of EFTA States are somewhat different from those in the UK.  Norway and Iceland are both characterised by a degree of state ownership than has not been familiar in the UK for many years.  Switzerland’s power sector is highly fragmented.
  • Both Norway and Iceland could export considerable amounts of power via interconnectors.  For potential importers such as the UK, this is attractive because, unusually, most of these countries’ renewable power output, being hydropower or geothermal, is “despatchable” on demand rather than being a “variable” source of supply like wind or solar power.
  • Switzerland has electricity interconnection capacity approximately equal to its peak power demand.  It exports and imports power equivalent to more than half its total consumption to and from its EU Member State neighbours.  The UK is making progress on interconnection, but is still some way from meeting a 2005 EU target of 10% of installed capacity.
  • Norway, although not subject to the EU legislation that underpins the EU’s electricity cross-border “market coupling” regime, nevertheless manages to participate in it.  (Note that Switzerland is reported to have been excluded from the same mechanism after its referendum vote against “mass migration” – i.e. free movement of people.)

Next, consider how the EEA works legally.

  • The EEA Agreement sets out the basic “free movement” rules as they were in the EC Treaty in 1993 so as to create an extended free trade area.  This does not extend to all the goods covered by the EU single market, and it only applies to products originating in the EEA.  Most importantly, it does not include the provisions which create the EU customs union, so that the EFTA states are not obliged to maintain the same tariffs in respect of products from third countries as the EU does under its “common commercial policy”.
  • If the UK were within the EEA, other EEA states would not be able to discriminate against energy products which the UK exported, provided that they “originated” in the UK.  That would cover, for example, power generated in the UK and exported over an interconnector. The implications of the rules on origination for trading in oil and gas extracted in non-EEA countries but entering the EEA in the UK would need to be considered (along with applicable WTO rules) if the EU were to raise its tariffs for those products from its current level of zero.
  • Most EU legislation is comprised of Directives and Regulations.  These are proposed by the European Commission, negotiated by representatives of the EU Member States (the European Council), with amendments typically being proposed in parallel by the European Parliament and a political compromise being reached between Council, Parliament and Commission on a final text in the so-called “trilogue” procedure.   Once they have been adopted in this way, Regulations in principle do not require national implementing measures, because they are directly applicable throughout the EU, whereas Directives generally require Member States to enact specific legislation to implement them.
  • EEA law is meant to correspond to EU law within the scope of the EEA Agreement.  All EEA law originates from the EU legislative process described above and the EFTA States only have the right to be consulted on its terms – they have no representation in the European Council or Parliament, and they have no vote on the final text.
  • However, EU legislation does not have any effect in the EFTA States just by being adopted at EU level.  Once an EU Directive or Regulation has been adopted, it must first be determined whether it falls within the scope of the EEA Agreement.  The EFTA Secretariat leads this work, which is not always straightforward.  For example, the EEA Agreement essentially takes (parts of) the EC Treaty as it was after the Single European Act but before the Maastricht, Nice Amsterdam or Lisbon Treaties.  As such, it does not include a provision equivalent to Article 194 TFEU, which has formed the legislative base for a number of measures in the energy sector.  This immediately makes it harder to determine whether any Article 194-based measure is within EEA scope.
  • If a measure is in scope, Article 102 of the EEA Agreement states that it is to be adopted by the EEA Joint Committee “to guarantee the legal security and homogeneity of the EEA”.  In most cases, measures are adopted in their entirety with no substantive amendments.  However, amendments are possible if it is agreed that they do not affect “the good functioning” of the EEA Agreement.  Adoption, and any amendment, is recorded by making entries in the various topic-based Annexes to the EEA Agreement.  Energy is dealt with in Annex IV (which can be compared with the European Commission’s list of measures covered by its DG Energy), but Annex XX (Environment) and others are also relevant.  There is a helpful online facility for tracking what point a given piece of EU legislation has reached in the process of EEA adoption – or otherwise.
  • The EEA Joint Committee takes decisions “by agreement between the [EU], on the one hand, and the EFTA States speaking with one voice, on the other”.  Article 102 is in effect an “agreement to agree”.  Absent such agreement, it allows the relevant part of the relevant Annex to the EEA Agreement to be “suspended” – so far, apparently, an unused mechanism.
  • In order for an adopted measure to take effect within the laws of all the individual EFTA States, national implementing legislation is required.  Note that this is the case regardless of whether the original EU measure is a Directive or a Regulation, since Norway and Iceland apparently could not accept, as a matter of constitutional law, a process by which Regulations automatically take effect in their jurisdictions without national implementation (and the Norwegian and Icelandic legislatures do not appear to have been able to find a solution to this problem along the lines of the UK’s s.2(1) European Communities Act 1972).
  • Compliance with EEA laws that are brought into force in this way is enforced both by national courts in EFTA States and by the EFTA Surveillance Authority (ESA), whose position is analogous to that of the European Commission in that respect.  Amongst other things, the ESA performs the function of determining whether cases of state aid are compatible with the EEA Agreement just as the Commission does in respect of EU law.
  • Finally, the EFTA Court is there to hear cases brought by EFTA States against each other or by or against the ESA as regards the application of the EEA Agreement.  As in the case of EU law, failure by a Member State to implement EEA requirements can result in infringement proceedings before the Court.
  • Although the EEA legislative process is somewhat slower than that of the EU (see below), both the ESA and the EFTA Court tend to process cases more quickly than their EU counterparts (but then, so far, they have also had notably lighter workloads).

The EEA Agreement in action

The way in which some familiar pieces of EU legislation have been processed for the purposes of the EEA Agreement provides some interesting examples of how the EEA works in practice.

It can take a long time to adopt some measures.

  • The EU adopted its “Third Package” of electricity and gas market liberalisation measures in 2009 and they came into force in the EU in 2011: the process of EEA adoption has not progressed beyond submission of a draft decision to the European Commission (in 2013).
  • The REMIT Regulation on energy market transparency, adopted and in force in the EU since 2011 is still “under scrutiny” by EFTA.  Neither of the general Directives on energy efficiency, 2006/32/EC and 2012/27/EU, yet appears close to being adopted.
  • The EU Emissions Trading Scheme Directive of 2003 and the Industrial Emissions Directive of 2010 had to wait until 2007 and 2015 respectively for adoption into the EEA Agreement.  However, in the latter case, the process could at least package the adoption of the Directive itself with that of a large number of implementing measures taken under it at EU level.

Other EU energy measures have been considered to fall outside the scope of the EEA.

  • The Directives on security of gas or oil supply, such as the Oil Stocking Directive, 2009/119/EC do not form part of the EEA Agreement.
  • Since tax harmonisation falls outside the scope of the EEA Agreement, the Energy Products Taxation Directive has not been adopted by the EFTA States.
  • The EU’s continuing sanctions measures against Iran (those adopted “in view of the human rights situation in Iran, support for terrorism and other grounds”), like other EU Common Foreign and Security Policy measures, are not part of EEA law.

How flexible is the application of EU law in the EEA?

  • In some cases, adoption of EU measures has included significant derogations, such as for Iceland in relation to the energy performance of buildings and geothermal co-generation, and for Liechtenstein in relation to rules on renewable energy.  Derogations and other amendments involve a more protracted process of approval on the EU side, since they are a matter for the Council and not just for the Commission.
  • There have been a number of ESA proceedings in respect of alleged state aid of various kinds.  As is the case with European Commission decisions, these sometimes exhibit rigorous application of economic principles, and sometimes, to a cynical eye, could be thought to carry a slight hint of political expediency.

How would the UK fit in to the EEA / EFTA energy sector?

If the UK were to become an EFTA / EEA State tomorrow, it would find itself, by virtue of its generally fairly scrupulous past compliance with its obligations as an EU Member State, considerably ahead of its EFTA peers in implementing EEA law.

As in every other area of policy, legislating for Brexit at UK level involves, at least in theory, a large number of choices. Any domestic legislation that implements a Directive could in principle either be left as it is, amended or repealed.  The Government would also have to decide whether to legislate, if only on a transitional basis, to preserve (with or without amendment) the application of each EU Regulation that currently has effect in the UK without any implementing domestic legislation.

In some cases (such as the Regulations which impose the minimum import price for Chinese solar panels in the UK), allowing such Regulations to cease to have effect on Brexit would be an easy choice. In other cases (for example REMIT, or the various Regulations made under the Energy-using Products Directive that impose labelling requirements on electrical goods based on their energy efficiency), there could be a strong case for preserving their effect as a matter of domestic law even as they ceased to apply as a matter of EU law.

But for a Government of Ministers who have long harboured ambitions of doing more to “get rid of red tape”, Brexit is likely to be too good an opportunity to pass up. In so many previous attempts to shrink the statute book, Ministers have had to accept – however reluctantly in some cases – that measures which implemented EU law were untouchable.  This time, there will be pressure to get rid of some of those.  In each case where a straight repeal is contemplated, the consequences of having a regulatory vacuum in the relevant area should be carefully considered and the views of relevant stakeholders taken into account.  Business may need to be alert to what is proposed and ready to engage fully at short notice whenever this process takes place – which could either be in parallel with Brexit negotiations or after they are concluded.  It would make sense for the default position at the start of the UK’s EU-non membership to be one in which the effect of pre-Brexit Directives and Regulation is preserved, at least for an initial transitional period, by a widely-drafted general saving clause in the legislation that undoes s.2(1) of the European Communities Act.

However, if the Government plans to join the EEA as an EFTA State, the task of sifting through decades of EU legislation on this “pick ‘n’ mix” basis should arguably only be a priority in relation to two classes of measure: (i) those that fall outside the scope of the EEA Agreement; and (ii) those that have yet to be adopted at EEA level, to the extent that there would be a clear UK advantage in disapplying them or modifying their effect on a temporary basis.

In the first category (measures outside EEA scope) it is not clear there would be many “quick wins”.

  • One possible example is the suggestion made by Brexit campaigners during the referendum that leaving the EU would enable the Government to abolish VAT on domestic energy bills – a move that would help to offset the increases in electricity bills driven by levies on suppliers to pay for the cost of renewable electricity generation subsidies.
  • In other areas highlighted above as falling outside the scope of the EEA Agreement, it is less clear what would be gained by an immediate move away from the existing EU-based law.  For example, on the whole UK levels of taxation on energy products exceed the minima set out in the Energy Products Taxation Directive – although it may help to have additional room for manoeuvre in reforming business energy taxation.  As regards sanctions against Iran, the factors to be taken into account probably go well beyond energy policy considerations.  It is possible that increased flexibilities from the removal of Oil Stocking Directive requirements would assist the struggling UK refineries sector, but the UK would still remain subject to the parallel requirements of the International Energy Agency’s International Energy Program Agreement.  Refineries might benefit more from the removal of rules implementing the Industrial Emissions Directive (but, as noted above, this is part of the EEA Agreement, and so unlikely to be disapplied if the plan is to join the EEA).

In the second category (candidates for possible temporary disapplication), there may be more scope for opportunistic (de-)regulation, but it is not obvious what the overall strategy would be.

  • Pragmatically, the disapplication of a requirement based on EU law that the UK authorities do not like may be an unnecessary step to take in some cases.  For example, if the UK has left or is about to leave the EU and it looks as if the target set for reducing the energy consumption of public sector buildings in Regulations implementing the Directive 2012/27/EU is not met in 2020, and the Directive has not yet been adopted into the EEA Agreement, would the Government bother to repeal the Regulations, or simply do nothing?  That said, it is too early to be sure that the European Commission will abandon or slow-track any infringement proceedings against the UK for non-implementation of EU law: after all, it might, for example, be part of the arrangements for the UK’s withdrawal that, where the UK was subject to infringement proceedings at the time of leaving the EU – particularly in respect of failure to implement a measure that is also part of the EEA Agreement – those proceedings could be carried on to their conclusion, whether by the EU or EFTA authorities.
  • Similarly with Directives which have been adopted at EU level, and may be required to be implemented before the UK leaves the EU: the UK could take the view that it need not implement them unless and until they are included in the EEA Agreement.  The Medium Combustion Plant Directive, with a transposition date of 19 December 2017, could perhaps safely be included in this category – although there have been indications that in order to prevent undue exploitation of the Capacity Market and other incentives for distributed generation by diesel-fired plant, the Government may actually wish to implement this early.
  • Timing is everything in this context.  EU Regulation 838/2010 imposes a cap of €2.5/MWh on average electricity transmission charges in the UK.  This has been implemented in a provision of National Grid’s Connection and Use of System Code, which previously split the charges 27:73 between generators and suppliers, but now requires suppliers to pay a >73% share and is also the subject of some dispute because of the artificiality of imposing an ex ante Euro-denominated cap on a market that operates in Sterling.  After Brexit, the cap could simply be removed (at least until the Regulation becomes part of the EEA Agreement), but unless the current modification processes move very slowly or the Brexit negotiations move very fast, Ofgem is likely to have to grapple with the issues that it raises sooner than that.  Incidentally, this example illustrates two further points about implementation: (i) that it is sometimes necessary or appropriate to make provision in domestic law to give effect to an EU Regulation; and (ii) that (in the energy sector at least) it is not just the conventional categories of statute law (Orders and Regulations) that need to be combed when reviewing the implementation of EU law: licence conditions, industry codes and other regulatory documents are also part of the picture.

Another important question in this scenario, and one which there is not space to pursue in any depth here, is the impact of Brexit on the EU’s Energy Union project.  Some elements of the proposed Energy Union package may well fall outside the scope of the EEA Agreement, which will no doubt please those who were concerned that “UK business gas supplies could be diverted to households in Europe, under EU crisis plan” (referring to the proposed new principle of “solidarity” in the Commission’s gas security of supply proposals).  Other elements are likely to result in what would amount to a Fourth Package of internal electricity and gas market measures – parts of which the UK might wish to implement before the other EFTA States have  implemented the Third Package, but in the negotiation of which, even if it is completed during the time of the UK’s remaining EU membership, it is hard to see the UK playing a decisive role.  Amongst other things, Energy Unions is likely to confer more power on ACER, the collective body of EU energy regulators.  Yet there is no guarantee that Ofgem would retain its position within this body if the UK were no longer an EU Member State (even if it were an EEA State, unless and until the EEA adopted the new rules).

Confused? You won’t be alone.  But note in passing that one difference between the Second and Third Packages is that only the latter imposes an obligation to roll out smart meters to 80% of customers by 2020 (subject to a positive cost-benefit analysis).  Surely nobody would use the UK leaving the EU, and thus (even if temporarily) not being obliged to follow this requirement as a reason to repeal or not enforce Condition 39.1 of the Standard Licence Conditions of Electricity Supply Licences, which implements it in UK law?

For the avoidance of doubt, if the UK were to join the EEA as an EFTA state, it would remain subject to EU state aid rules, under which state aid which distorts competition is unlawful and liable to be repaid if it is not first cleared by the European Commission / ESA. Many of the UK’s key current energy policies, such as the Capacity Market and Contracts for Difference (CfDs), involve an element of state aid.  State aid clearance for them by the European Commission has been very carefully negotiated, and the need to seek clearance for any significant changes to them has been a constraint on recent policy development.  The ESA has adopted guidelines on state aid for energy and environmental protection that are effectively identical to those of the Commission and it is likely to take a similar view of UK energy policies involving state aid.

In the field of climate change, the UK would no longer be represented by the EU at future UNFCCC conferences. Like the other EFTA States, it would be required to submit its own nationally determined contribution (NDC) towards the achievement of the goals of the CoP21 Paris Agreement, rather than coming under the umbrella of the general EU-wide NDC.  The mechanisms of the Climate Change Act 2008 should provide a sound basis for this.

In short, in the “EEA scenario”, the energy sector is unlikely to see big changes from the UK side as a result of Brexit, but as there may be a sustained effort by Ministers to make the most of even temporary flexibilities, the industry will need both to be alive to the detail of proposed changes and prepared to advise the Government on how the inherent flexibilities described above can best be used in UK policy changes. It is also possible that the arrival of the UK would put some aspects of the way that the EEA operates under strain, both within EFTA itself and in its relations with the EU.  One can imagine the UK sometimes being impatient at the slowness of EEA adoption of some EU law and at other times wanting to push the boundaries of EFTA independence further than the EEA Agreement will easily tolerate.  Inevitably, a recalcitrant UK would be a bigger problem than a recalcitrant Liechtenstein.

Nuclear options?

It is a fair bet that very few voters on 23 June were asking themselves whether a vote to “leave the EU” was meant to suggest to the Government that it should cease to be a party to the Euratom Treaty establishing the European Atomic Energy Community. For what it is worth, in strict legal terms, Brexit should not necessarily imply leaving Euratom, since it, alone of the three original “European Communities” has not been terminated or submerged in the EU.  (It also forms no part of the arrangements between the EU and EFTA States in the EEA Agreement.)

The UK Government may feel that these subtleties are not to be relied on in implementing the “will of the people”.  “Article 50” notices of an intention to withdraw could presumably be served in respect of both Euratom and the EU Treaties (relying on Article 106a Euratom as to Euratom).  Would leaving Euratom be a problem?  The UK had a nuclear industry (arguably a more successful one) before it joined the EEC in 1972, and for many years some of the key international safety, liability and other industry-specific rules were to be found only in the relevant IAEA Convention and not in any European Directive.  Ceasing to be party to Euratom would not affect those.

However, it is hard not to see leaving Euratom as a backward step for a country whose Government has strong nuclear aspirations.   For example, the ability to continue to participate in European nuclear research projects, including on nuclear fusion, is something that the Government would presumably want to safeguard, but beyond the next few years, it would not be guaranteed outside Euratom.  An alternative (if it was felt to be too politically uncomfortable for the UK to stay in Euratom) might be for the UK to suggest to the remaining Euratom States that they make use of Article 206 Euratom to conclude an association agreement with the UK (if that is politically acceptable to all parties) – although this could presumably have the disadvantage of the UK being obliged to follow rules and policies which it would not have input into on an equal footing.

Meanwhile, only time will tell whether French Government support for EDF’s proposed Hinkley Point C nuclear power station will survive Brexit. At this stage it is hard to say that there is any legal reason for the project not to go ahead if the UK is no longer an EU Member State, but Brexit could provide an excuse for either Government if they wanted to terminate the project for other reasons.  EDF’s Chinese partners, may, of course, have a view about that.

The Energy Community

Unlike in some other sectoral areas of law affected by Brexit, energy has the benefit of a ready-made multilateral precedent for the EU and non-EU states to enter into a “single market” agreement which does not (at least explicitly) involve free movement of persons. The Energy Community was formed in 2005 by a treaty between the European Community and a number of Balkan states.  It now comprises the EU, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Serbia and Ukraine.  Georgia is in the process of joining; Armenia, Norway and Turkey are observers.

Some, but not all of these countries are candidates for EU membership and/or have signed up to forms of EU association agreement that commit them to comply with core single market rules, but with only limited provision for the free movement of persons. The Energy Community Treaty and associated Legal Framework commit the Contracting (non-EU) Parties to implement a number of key EU law energy provisions, including the Third Package, security of gas and electricity supply rules, the Renewable Energy Directive, energy efficiency rules, the Oil Stocking Directive, competition and state aid rules and key air pollution and environmental impact assessment rules.  Although supervision of the implementation of Contracting Parties’ obligations is by a Ministerial Council rather than an independent regulatory agency or court, there are sanctions for persistent and serious non-compliance (suspension of Treaty rights).

If energy was our only industry and the UK Government wanted to spare itself the pain of taking decisions on what to do with all current EU energy law applicable in the UK, the Energy Community might be a more attractive club to join than the EEA. But in practice, that option may not be available and other industries may rank higher in terms of political priority in negotiating Brexit.

Freedom and sovereignty

Those who campaigned for Brexit had relatively little to say specifically about energy matters.  But their general pitch to voters was that Brexit would give businesses operating in the UK freedom from unduly burdensome regulation and that it would restore to UK voters, or at least the UK Government, power to determine the UK’s economic and industrial policies.

Given the constraints that EEA membership would impose on the UK Government’s freedom of action in many areas of energy policy, it is necessary to consider what use it could make of the additional freedom or “sovereignty” it could acquire in energy matters if it chose, or was obliged, to forego the ready-made packages of the EEA Agreement and Energy Community for a non-EU law-based model.

Here are some changes that it would probably only be possible to make in a non-EEA UK.  We are not here speculating on whether the Government would be inclined or likely to follow any of these approaches: they are discussed only to illustrate the extent of the potential flexibility that may be available to change current policy.

  • The Government could abandon any further attempt to stimulate private sector investment in new renewable electricity generating capacity, or the uptake of other forms of renewable energy, on the basis that it would no longer have a 2020 target to meet and that it would be better for the UK to wait until renewable technologies have become cheaper by virtue of wider deployment elsewhere in the world.  It could impose a moratorium on all new consents for such projects and suspend or abolish all remaining subsidies for new projects (and it would not have to carry out a Strategic Environmental Assessment before doing so, as EU law would currently require).  Before taking this line, which would help to deliver lower increases in consumer bills over time, the Government would have to weigh carefully: the impact on UK jobs; the potential damage to the UK’s reputation as a place with a stable and supportive regime for energy infrastructure investment (arguably already damaged by the politically driven abolition of onshore wind subsidies and cancellation of support for the commercialization of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS)); damage to the UK’s reputation as a leader on climate change issues; and the prospect of objectors being able to construct a successful legal challenge to one or more of the steps taken in pursuit of such a policy by arguing that it would make it impossible to keep within one or more of the UK’s carbon budgets, so breaching the Climate Change Act 2008.  (Although note that if a future Government were to wish to repeal that Act, it could do so whether the UK was in or out of the EU / EEA, if it was prepared to live with the resulting  damage to its international reputation.)
  • If the Government was content to carry on subsidising renewable power to some extent, it could – free from EU state aid rules – adopt a less even-handed approach to the allocation of CfDs to new projects.  This may make it easier for the Government to follow what may in any event be its natural inclination to make subsidies available only for offshore wind farms and a few much less established technologies.  Equally, it could choose to subsidise a further coal-to-biomass conversion at Drax even if the Commission’s current state aid scrutiny finds that the existing CfD terms offered to Drax are too generous to be given state aid clearance.  And it may be more able than it is under EU law to give substantial weight to “UK content” in the plans put forward by developers when awarding CfDs.  On the other hand, it could adopt a simpler form of CfD for smaller projects, rather than subjecting 5 MW generating stations to a form of contract much of which was developed for a 3.2 GW nuclear facility.
  • On the other hand, Government could take the view that the low carbon option that really needs subsidising is heat networks, and it could divert all funds notionally earmarked for renewable electricity generation into the provision of heat network infrastructure instead –  subsidising it to a degree that would not be given state aid clearance in order to give a real boost to a market that has been slow to develop for a long time.
  • A different approach would be to focus subsidy entirely on energy storage, with a view to enabling as much variable generating capacity as possible to become, in effect, despatchable.  This is arguably the next frontier for wind and solar power and by boosting demand for storage it could help to reduce its costs in the same way as subsidies have helped to do for solar panels in particular.  That much could possibly be achieved within the EU rules, but it might also help, in such a scenario, to make storage a regulated utility function, and to allow National Grid to invest in storage capacity in a way that EU unbundling rules at present may either not allow, or make it unduly difficult for it to do (if storage is classed as “generation”).
  • It seems unlikely that Brexit would constitute a Qualifying Change in Law (QCiL) for the purposes of the standard terms of CfDs, such that it would entitle the CfD Counterparty to terminate any CfD which has already been entered into solely because of Brexit, because a QCiL must, in essence, have an effect on a particular project, rather than all or most projects, or the whole economy.
  • Government has been disappointed, from an energy security point of view, at the failure of the Capacity Market auction system to produce a clearing price that can serve as the basis for financing large-scale CCGT power stations.  However, in its proposals to change the approach to be taken in the next two auctions, it did not feel able to go as far as to suggest an auction just for CCGT capacity, as this would be incompatible with the existing state aid clearance for the Capacity Market (which is subject to legal challenge).  With no state aid rules to follow, Government could choose to hold a CCGT-only auction.  Other more radical variants on the current rules could include separate auctions for CHP plant (or handicaps in the auction process for non-CHP generating units).
  • Without the constraints of the Industrial Emissions Directive, it might be possible for Government to allow coal-fired plants to follow a gentler path towards closing by 2023/2025 (as its current policy envisages that they will) in which they were allowed to run for a longer period of time without adapting to tighter emissions limits.  However, this might militate against new CCGT development (as well as carbon budget targets).
  • Unconstrained by state aid rules, Government could allow and encourage National Grid to develop an offshore pipeline system to distribute carbon dioxide to potential permanent storage sites under the North Sea, as part of its regulated business, so as to kick-start a CCS industry.
  • Government could escape the flawed EU ETS with its apparently inevitably too-low carbon price and join an emissions trading scheme that delivers a higher carbon price.  There is an increasing number to choose from internationally, from California to China.
  • If Government were to take the view that establishing some form of state-backed entity was the best way to make the decommissioning regime in the North Sea oil and gas industry work effectively, or to ensure that there was a “buyer of last resort” for strategically vital assets whose current owners lack the incentive to carry on running and maintaining them, this is something that would be easier outside the EU / EEA state aid rules.
  • Finally, if the Competition and Market’s Authority’s current proposals for a limited price cap for some domestic energy supply contracts, which were to some extent constrained by EU law, prove inadequate, future regulatory action could go further in this direction.

Depending on which horn of the energy / climate change trilemma you think is most inadequately served by current UK Government policy, you may find any of the above, or other steps that an EU / EEA UK could not take, very attractive. What we would emphasise here, though, is that removing the constraints of EU / EEA law could lead to significantly more volatile energy policy-making in the UK, and greater politicisation of energy regulation.  Note that even Ofgem’s independence is currently underpinned by requirements of EU law, as well as fairly consistent UK tradition.  If the UK were to go down the out-of-EU-and-EEA route, we would suggest that the Government, however radical any departures it decides to take from current energy policies may be, should take steps to ensure that they develop within a stable overall framework, in which business can plan sensibly for the long term.  It may be necessary to impose some more home-grown constraints (like carbon budgets) to make up for the EU ones which would have been shaken off.

A special deal with the EU?

There may be some who dream of the UK reaching a form of accommodation with the EU (going beyond the energy sphere) which is sui generis and somehow the best of all possible worlds.  Leaving aside the question of whether that is politically feasible, it is important to bear in mind that the Commission and the Governments of the other EU Member States may not be the only people to whom such a deal would have to be sold.  On other occasions where the EU has departed from established legal norms it has found itself having to deal with the unsolicited and not necessarily positive input of the Court of Justice of the EU: indeed in the case of the EEA, parts of its founding Treaty had to be renegotiated to accommodate the Court’s concerns.  This may complicate matters.

Non-EU / EEA law constraints imposed by international law

A non-EU / EEA UK would not be constrained by EU / EEA law, but it would not be free of other international law constraints that have a bearing on regulation of the energy sector. We will consider this topic in more detail in a later post, but for now, note the following examples.

  • If the UK were to negotiate and become party to a free trade agreement with the EU / EEA other than the EEA Agreement, it is likely that (as other such agreements have), it would include requirements to enforce competition law and a prohibition on state aid.  Accordingly, all the non-EU / EEA UK energy policy options referred to above which would be contrary to EU state aid rules could be the subject of disputes under a UK-EU / EEA free trade agreement if they were implemented.  If, on the other hand, the UK were not to negotiate such a bespoke free trade agreement and were to rely instead on WTO rules, such measures may still fall foul of the WTO rules against subsidies.
  • The decommissioning of oil and gas infrastructure is regulated by the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic (more familiarly known as the OSPAR Convention), one of a number of international conventions relevant to the environmental aspects of the energy industry.
  • The Energy Charter Treaty and bilateral investment treaties to which the UK is a party may offer protection for those who invest in the UK energy sector, and cause the Government to refrain from taking action that would create claims against it under them.

More generally, if the UK were to follow this path, it is possible that any radical departures in energy policy could affect the terms of trade deals that could be negotiated with other states, and any tariffs imposed by them.

Co-operating with EU / EEA countries outside the EU / EEA

It is to be hoped that Brexit will not mean the end of useful co-operation on energy matters between the UK and other EU / EEA States acting individually. We note in this context that the UK did not sign up to the recent political declaration by North Sea countries regarding their initiative on co-operation to develop a more co-ordinated approach to the development of offshore electricity transmission infrastructure in the North Sea (known as NSCOGI), despite having previously supported this initiative.  No doubt the fact that the document was signed less than three weeks before the June 23 referendum did not help, but given the potential strength of the UK’s offshore wind industry and the savings that could be made by developing offshore links on a “hub and spoke” rather than “point to point” pattern, it would be a pity if the UK were to drop out of NSCOGI.

Closer to home

This Blog, like many similar publications, has talked in bland terms about “the UK”. This overlooks:

  • the possibility that Scotland will ultimately leave the UK rather than the EU;
  • the fact that the devolved government in Northern Ireland has (nominally) complete and (practically) very extensive powers to make its own rules on energy matters;
  • the existence of a Single Energy Market across the island of Ireland and a single set of electricity trading arrangements (BETTA) across England, Wales and Scotland; and
  • the fact that post-Brexit the Republic of Ireland will be the only EU Member State whose connection to the EU single market in gas runs entirely through non-EU territory.

There will be more to say on these points, and on other intra-UK energy Brexit issues, in later posts.

On a practical level, businesses would do well to review those parts of their key existing contracts (and any important contracts under negotiation) that contain provisions where rights and obligations could be triggered by the occurrence of Brexit: obvious examples include provisions on force majeure, change in law, material adverse change, hardship and currency-related matters. Again, more on this to follow.

(Provisional) conclusions

EU and UK energy regulation have become so intertwined over the years, and the energy industry is so international in a variety of ways that it is inevitable that Brexit will affect all parts of the UK energy sector to some degree. And those parts of it that are arguably not so directly affected are themselves subject to other massive regulatory interventions at present in any event (notably the energy supply markets in the wake of the Competition and Markets Authority’s investigation).

What will change in the energy sector as a result of the UK electorate voting to leave the EU? At this stage, it is tempting to say simply: “If we stay in the EEA, nothing will really change.  If we try to go it alone, who knows?  The only certainty is years of uncertainty”.  We hope that the preliminary observations in this post have shown that the position is rather more complex and dynamic, and the range of issues to be addressed and possible outcomes is wider than is sometimes supposed.

For now, we would suggest that it is important to follow the details closely, because unless you believe that the result of the referendum will somehow not be implemented, there is no more justification for complacency about the ultimate consequences of Brexit for the energy sector than – if one supported remaining in the EU – there was about the result of the referendum itself.

If you have questions about the issues raised in this post, or about other aspects of Brexit as it relates to your business, please get in touch with the author or your usual Dentons contact.

 

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Energy Brexit: initial thoughts

CfDs: not unduly distorting the market, but not best value for money?

The European Commission’s state aid decision clearing the UK’s “enduring regime” of renewables contracts for difference (dated 23 July, published on 2 October 2014) confirms the CfD regime as a model example of the kind of renewables support scheme that the Commission wants to encourage, as described in its April 2014 Guidelines on state aid for environmental protection and energy.

The decision is littered with cross-references to the Guidelines, reflecting the fact that key details of the CfD regime were effectively developed in dialogue with the Commission.  Among the key points in favour of the regime as far as the Commission is concerned are that the strike price mechanism limits the ability of generators to benefit from very high prices; that “the strike price paid will be established via a competitive bidding process”; and that it cannot be higher than the administratively set strike price, which is based on “the levelised costs of eligible technologies and reasonable hurdle rates”.  Other points to note include future measures to ensure that generators do not have an incentive to generate electricity when prices are negative and details of the treatment of biomass conversions and imported renewable electricity.

Given the Commission’s emphasis on the benefits of strike price competition, it is interesting to note the parallel clearance for the award of early “FID-enabling” CfD “investment contracts” – outside the enduring regime, and with no competition on strike prices – to five UK offshore wind farms (Walney, Dudgeon, Hornsea, Burbo Bank and Beatrice).  For the Commission, the award of these contracts was justified because “the Commission was able to verify that the amount of aid for each project is limited to what would be necessary to allow the project to reach a reasonable rate of return” and “the Commission further notes that…the notified projects are all reaching an IRR below the central value of the hurdle rates considered by the UK”.  However, as if DECC needed to be reminded that it cannot please everybody all the time, within a day of the release of the two state aid decisions, the Public Accounts Committee published a report that criticised the investment contracts as poor value for money, repeating a number of points first made in a National Audit Office report in June.

The PAC’s headline criticism is that the investment contracts will consume up to 58% of the total funds available for renewable CfDs to 2020/2021 – without accounting for a correspondingly large proportion of the new renewable generating capacity that is to be funded by CfDs.  They argue that committing so much of the overall CfD budget to the five offshore wind projects and three biomass projects (which have yet to receive state aid clearance) was both unnecessary (because the 2020 targets for renewables deployment could have been met in any event) and represents poor value for consumers, because the enduring regime, with its more competitive allocation processes, can be expected to deliver more MW of renewable power per £ of subsidy.  Ultimately, as both the PAC and NAO acknowledge to some extent, the effect of the investment contract regime may have been to ensure the continuing healthy development of the offshore wind industry in the UK, albeit potentially at the cost of support for some later offshore wind (and possibly other) projects.

Whilst there may be a wider political context to the line taken by each of the Commission and the PAC, their different appraisals of the investment contracts regime also reflect their different functions.  The Commission, in reviewing proposed state aid measures, is properly concerned only with their impact on competition within the EU internal market.  It is not in the business of telling Member States that one renewable technology or project is better or worse value than another for UK consumers, provided that neither is being given more aid than is strictly necessary to remedy the market failure that inhibits its development in the absence of aid.  If gaining state aid approval were simply a matter of comparing the level of subsidy per MW of new generating capacity, the investment contracts for the biomass conversions at Drax and Lynemouth (with an estimated CfD level of support of £2.6m/MW and an assumed load factor of 64.5%) would not still be awaiting clearance when the aid to the five offshore wind farms (with estimated CfD levels of support of between £3.4m/MW and £4.4m/MW and an assumed load factor of 37.7%) has been approved.

 

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CfDs: not unduly distorting the market, but not best value for money?

State aid for Hinkley Point C (3): What hope for “no aid” arguments?

This post is the third in a series on the European Commission’s initial assessment of the package of measures by which the UK Government proposes to provide financial support for the proposed new nuclear generating station at Hinkley Point (HPC) by NNB Generation Company Limited (NNBG).  In this post we focus on the Commission’s analysis of the UK Government’s arguments that its support for HPC does not constitute state aid within the meaning of Article 107(1) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union and that HPC would be performing a service of general economic interest (SGEI), effectively meaning that it fell outside the state aid rules (for a summary of the overall framework of the Commission’s appraisal, click here).

As noted in the previous post, any “no aid” decision, or categorisation of the HPC as an SGEI, effectively turns on the application of the so-called Altmark criteria.  The quality of the Commission’s arguments in this strategically important area is variable. 

The Commission begins by making the point that it sees a service of general economic interest (SGEI), such as the Government claims would be provided by NNBG, as a service which an undertaking would not supply if it were considering its own commercial interest, and which serves a general economic interest.  In the context of HPC, the Commission’s starting point is that NNBG’s service would be to supply (baseload) electricity; yet that, the Commission says, is “normally considered a commercial activity and a market in which competition takes place”.  It suggests that nuclear generation is no exception to this principle, noting the “nuclear plants which are operated commercially” in the UK by NNBG’s parent EDF, and the “UK’s own assessment” that “private investors [would]…invest in nuclear energy in the UK by 2030 at the latest.  Finally, if the service which would not be provided without aid is the construction of HPC by an earlier date than the private sector would otherwise build new nuclear capacity, the Commission suggests that the UK has not made a convincing case for such early construction being in the general economic interest on security of supply or decarbonisation grounds.  

Almost every assertion that the Commission makes in the two pages or so which it takes to reach these provisional conclusions on “the existence of a SGEI” is questionable in terms of its accuracy or its relevance.  Electricity generation is indeed a commercial activity.  That does not mean that the construction of a new nuclear reactor is a service that will be provided without state aid.  Nor does the existence of the UK’s legacy nuclear fleet help the Commission’s case, constructed as it was by the CEGB in the days of nationalisation.  The Commission’s dismissal of security of supply and decarbonisation as interests served by the putative service of constructing and operating HPC is similarly one-sided.  For example, it effectively denies that there is any benefit in securing decarbonisation sooner if you think the market will decarbonise a few years later, and it ignores the effects on both security of supply and decarbonisation in both the longer and the shorter term which assurance about the viability of HPC (in the form of state aid clearance) could have.

The first Altmark criterion (which is also key to any attempt to justify a measure under Article 106(2)) is that the beneficiary be entrusted with a public service obligation (PSO).   The Commission argues that provisions of the CfD which limit the return which NNBG can make on its investment in HPC or penalise it for late delivery of the project are not capable of being PSOs.  The best claim that the CfD has to being regarded as placing NNBG under an obligation is that if it does not build HPC (or delivers it late), it will receive no money (or less money) under the CfD.  The Commission appears to be suggesting that in order to be a PSO, an obligation (e.g. to commission HPC by a certain date) has to be “enforceable” by some means other than the payment or non-payment of aid.  If the Commission is right about this, it may have implications for the design of the CfD contract terms more generally.  However, the Commission only engages very briefly with the case of Fred Olsen, which appears to offer some support to the UK Government’s view.  In that case, which concerned ferry services, the Court of First Instance remarked that the fact that an operator “unilaterally abandoned or altered the conditions for the operation of some maritime routes indicates at most” that it “failed to honour some of the obligations imposed on it by the provisional arrangements”, and seems to have found that not even the fact that an operator was subsidised at its own request prevented it from satisfying the first criterion.   

Looking beyond the particular circumstances of HPC, what the Commission seems to be saying here could have implications for the financing of other CfD-subsidised schemes.  If the Altmark criteria do truly require the state to have the means of enforcing compliance with requirements, such as the construction of HPC, that go beyond the stimulus provided by the absence of CfD revenues if no electricity is generated, it may not be possible to construct bankable CfDs which satisfy those criteria.  Elsewhere, in the analysis of Article 106(2) arguments, the Commission suggests that the absence of a true PSO is what excuses the UK from having to comply with the public procurement rules in respect of letting a CfD in respect of HPC, and that, conversely, if the requirements imposed on NNBG could be shown to constitute a PSO, the UK Government would have failed in its alleged obligation to follow the public procurement rules.

The Commission broadly accepts that the second Altmark criterion is satisfied – i.e. that the parameters on the basis of which the compensation is calculated are established in advance in an objective and transparent manner.  However, when it comes to the third criterion, that the compensation cannot exceed what is necessary to cover the costs incurred in the discharge of the PSO, its assessment is much less favourable.  Moreover, some of the arguments which emerge here also read across into the Article 106(2) and Article 107(3) analysis.

The Commission is concerned, firstly, that the Government does not appear to have a firm view of what the costs of discharging the PSO are (making the level of compensation by definition hard to assess); secondly, that the level of profit that NNBG can expect to earn over the lifetime of the CfD was negotiated with NNBG rather than being “established by reference to the rate of return on capital that would be required by a typical undertaking considering whether or not to provide the alleged SGEI”; and thirdly, that because the 35 year lifetime of the CfD is shorter than the 60 year lifetime of HPC, NNBG could earn super-normal profits in years 36 to 60. 

It is hard to comment on the first two of these points as far as HPC is concerned without access to the UK’s submissions to the Commission, although in response to the second one might ask: what is a “typical undertaking” considering whether or not to build HPC, let alone (as the Commission goes on to elaborate) “the average cost structure of efficient and comparable undertakings in the sector under consideration” – none of which have been built under exactly the same regulatory regimes as HPC would be built and operate under?  Moreover, for much of the period during which the Government was negotiating with NNBG, it was simply the only undertaking willing to contemplate any form of investment in new nuclear build in the UK.  On the other hand, prospective recipients of aid under enduring CfD regime for renewables in mind regime may take some comfort in this context from the fact that their strike prices will not be the result of bilateral negotiations. 

But the Commission’s point about the duration of the comparative lifetimes of the CfD and the generating station is something on which we can comment in the HPC context.  The strike price, we are told, has been set at a level which is designed to ensure that NNBG covers the costs of construction and operation and makes a return of 9.87% on the project as a whole over its lifetime (in post-tax, nominal terms).  Yet, as the Commission points out, once the CfD expires, the profitability of the plant is uncertain because the level of revenue accruing to the operator from the sale of electricity is no longer controlled by the strike price mechanism.  This makes it harder for the Commission to rule out the possibility of overcompensation during the post-CfD period of the plant’s operation.  The Commission suggests two ways of dealing with this problem: making the CfD coterminous with the life of the plant, or providing some means for the state to recover any overcompensation within the CfD itself (effectively a gain-share provision for the period when the strike price mechanism no longer applies).  One problem with the first of these, if taken in isolation, is that it is not possible to predict the lifetime of a plant with certainty when the strike price is initially calculated.  

In principle, it would seem that this arguments is not unique to the case of HPC and could be applied to the wider CfD regime.  The differences are that the periods of time involved – both CfD durations and plant lifetimes – are shorter for non-nuclear projects, so that the calculations are less dependent on very long range predictions of electricity prices; and that there is more comparative data on which to assess technology costs.  Whether the Commission will consider these differences to be sufficient for it to take a more favourable view of this aspect of the wider CfD regime than it has so far in the case of the HPC package remains to be seen.  In this context it is curious that the Commission states that “nuclear production, which requires very high levels of capital for the investment in the construction and hence before revenues can be generated, while also being characterised by a relatively low level of operating costs once the plant has been built, has few, if any, equivalents in commercial activities”: the CfD regime as a whole is surely predicated on the assumption that all the technologies it covers (renewable, nuclear, CCS) have in this sense a similar cost profile.

The fourth Altmark criterion is that where the undertaking which is to discharge a PSO is not chosen through a public procurement process, the level of compensation must be determined on the basis of an analysis of the costs which a typical, well run, undertaking would have incurred.  Here again, the problem is in finding the appropriate comparator.  Unsurprisingly, the Government has commissioned a review of NNBG’s cost estimates to determine whether they are “reasonable”.  The Commission says that this is not what the Altmark criterion requires.

The final sections of the Commission’s analysis of the UK’s “no aid” arguments deal with the credit guarantee and the proposal to compensate NNBG in the event of a “political shutdown” of HPC.  On the credit guarantee, the Commission essentially reserves judgment owing to the lack of detail available.  However,  it does lay down a marker when it observes that the guarantee “seems to differ from ordinary debt guarantees in that it would be drawn before equity, apart from equity already spent…It would therefore appear that [it] might diminish the risks borne by equity holders”.  The Commission appears prepared at this stage to accept the UK’s argument that political shutdown proposals do not constitute state aid, subject to the provision of more information “on whether this compensation…would also be available to other market operators placed in a similar situation”.  This is intriguing.  It is presumably possible that the UK Government would be prepared to offer a similar deal on political shutdown to another nuclear operator, but such a deal is clearly not on the table for operators of renewable technologies, for example, and whilst a political shutdown of UK wind farms may be a more remote possibility than something like the German reaction to Fukushima, will that point be sufficient to satisfy the Commission that the enduring regime for renewables should not in this respect be “levelled up”, to confer on its beneficiaries the additional protection offered to NNBG?

It is clear that the Commission is highly reluctant to reach a finding that there is “no aid” in the HPC package, or to find that there is an SGEI within the meaning of Article 106(2).  It does not want to treat nuclear power as a special case.  Yet unless it is prepared to recognise that nuclear power is not just another source of baseload electricity, how could the Commission find that there is no aid (or that there is a SGEI) in a CfD negotiated directly between a Government and the beneficiary undertaking which includes a generous strike price, a 35 year term and investor protection in the event of political shutdown – and still realise its ambition of cutting back on subsidies for renewables? 

To go by the evidence of the Commission’s initial assessment, the Government would – rightly or wrongly – have to do a lot more work both in terms of scheme design (including changing some features of the currently proposed CfD arrangements) and in terms of arguing its corner with the Commission if it is to persuade the Commission that there is “no aid” to NNBG.  It is possible that the Court of Justice might be more sympathetic to the Government on some of these points, but EU litigation would not help the timeliness of the delivery of EMR objectives.

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State aid for Hinkley Point C (3): What hope for “no aid” arguments?