1. Skip to navigation
  2. Skip to content
  3. Skip to sidebar

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

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

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

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

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

2016 progress of bidding chart

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

2015 progress of bidding chart

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

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

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

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

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

, , , , , , , , ,

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

Market investigation: just what UK energy markets need?

It has been widely reported that Ofgem has referred the “Big 6” UK energy companies for investigation by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).  That is of course not strictly true, for three reasons.

  • First, and most trivially, the CMA, which will take over the functions of the former Office of Fair Trading (OFT) and Competition Commission, currently only exists in “shadow” form, and does not assume its statutory functions until next month.
  • Second, although the prospect of a market investigation reference has been canvassed for some time, Ofgem have not yet made a reference.  They are consulting on a proposal to do so.  The consultation ends on 23 May 2014.  As any administrative lawyer will tell you, a decision-maker must not consult with a closed mind, so we are probably still at least 3 months away from the start of a CMA investigation.  It would be possible for Ofgem to agree “undertakings in lieu of a reference” from players in the market if it felt that would adequately address the problems it is concerned about without the need for a market investigation – although at present that seems an unlikely outcome.
  • Third, as is normal with a market investigation, the proposed terms of reference do not refer to individual companies.  What Ofgem proposes that the CMA should investigate is no more and no less than the supply and acquisition of energy (i.e. electricity and gas) in Great Britain.

Market investigations are the oldest and in some ways the most powerful tool in UK competition law.  In their modern form they are governed by the Enterprise Act 2002, a piece of legislation enthusiastically promoted by the then Chancellor, Gordon Brown, as destined to make the UK economy more competitive by the more vigorous application of competition law.  They exist to deal with markets which appear to be insufficiently competitive, but whose problems do not appear to come from cartels or other anti-competitive agreements between firms, or the abuse of a dominant position – all of which obviously anti-competitive kinds of behaviour are prohibited under UK and EU law in any event.  A market investigation aims to find other features of a market which prevent, restrict or distort competition and then to devise a means or remedying, preventing or mitigating those effects, taking account of any incidental benefits which those features may bring to customers.  In a regulated market such as gas or electricity, the CMA may also need to have regard to the statutory functions of the sectoral regulator concerned.   The powers which the CMA can deploy in devising remedies for any problems it finds are extremely wide, and – unless Ministers legislate under the Act to give themselves a role – are formulated and imposed without any political sanction.  They can include everything from price regulation to divestment of a business – such as the forced sale of Stansted Airport that took place following a market investigation into airports.

Back in 2002, it was expected that there would be between two and four market investigation references a year.  In fact there have been slightly fewer: 17 completed investigations.  Back in 2002, some questioned whether economic sectoral regulators such as Ofgem would ever use the power that was being given to them to make a market reference in respect of their own sectors (otherwise, the power to refer a market rests with the OFT, or, in an extreme case, Ministers): would referring the market that it was their function to regulate not look like an admission of defeat?  Ofgem’s proposed reference, if made, will be the first to be made by an economic regulator into the very heart of the markets which it is responsible for regulating.

Ofgem have published a consultation on the proposal to make a reference and, separately, a state of the market assessment containing the fruits of its own investigation, with the OFT and CMA, into the current state of competition in energy markets.  Both are well worth reading (as is the Secretary of State’s statement to Parliament on the Ofgem announcement).  Don’t be put off by the apparent length of the state of the market assessment, as a large amount of its more than 100 pages is taken up with rather striking graphs and charts.  I particularly liked Figure 14, which shows that the proportion of consumers who said they have not switched supplier because they are “happy with their current supplier” fell from 78% in 2012 to 55% in 2013; the proportion who claimed to have checked prices and found that they were on the best deal rose from 9% to 12%; and the proportion of those honest enough simply to say that switching was too much of a hassle rose from 20% to 27%.

The points that Ofgem have highlighted as reasons for proposing a market investigation are mostly what economists would regard as potential symptoms of competition problems rather than the actual features of the market that are giving rise to those problems.  They are, however, symptoms traditionally associated with uncompetitive oligopolies, which is what market investigations are meant to be good at tackling: high levels of apparent customer dissatisfaction, but low levels of customer switching; static market shares of incumbent firms; possible “tacit collusion” (e.g. co-ordinating in the timing and size of price changes); possibly high profits; and potential barriers to entry.  The last of these is the most significant, but the assessment document is notably circumspect in its conclusions: “In the time available…we have not been able to examine in depth the claimed benefits and reasons for vertical integration for the suppliers and the implications for barriers to entry, and assess the net impact on consumers of vertical integration overall.”.

The big question of the effect of the Big 6’s high shares of both the supply and generation markets is therefore left for the CMA to consider in the greater depth that its procedures and wider powers to compel the provision of information allow.  Another big question in any regulated market is of course the effect that regulation itself has on competition.  Here, the CMA will really have its work cut out, because the regulatory landscape in the energy sector is in a more than usually fluid state just now, with various significant Ofgem reforms about to take effect and DECC in the process of finalising the radical upheaval that is Electricity Market Reform (EMR).  The CMA will have a ring-side seat as the first allocations of EMR Contracts for Difference take place and the EMR Capacity Market is launched, expected to be later this year.

That in turn raises the question of timing.  Some have been calling for an energy market investigation for some time.  Others suggest that with so much change, such an investigation can only add to uncertainty and further inhibit decision-making on new infrastructure that is sorely needed to keep the lights on.  What is certain is that market investigations can, and frequently do, take up to two years (not counting any further time taken up in legal challenges to the outcome).  There are often good reasons for that, but even apparently uncompetitive markets can change over time.  What appear to be problems at the start of an investigation may not still be there at the end.  How relevant will the CMA’s findings be in 2016, a year after an election that may be won by a Labour Party which has announced its intention of making a series of further regulatory changes, including the abolition of Ofgem and the separation of generation and supply businesses?  In any event, if the CMA do find that there are features of the regulation of energy markets that are part of the competition problem, that is one area in which it may not be able to impose remedies, and may instead have to limit itself to making recommendations to the sector regulator or the Government of the day.  So those welcoming Ofgem’s announcement as an end to “the politics” around the issues and the start of a dispassionate, technocratic process may have spoken too soon.

, , ,

Market investigation: just what UK energy markets need?