PART 3 ET FIN
In 2009, OFGEM belatedly realized that the “energy-only” electricity trading system that it set up in 2002, was no longer fit for purpose. This trading arrangement, called NETA, replaced the “energy + capacity” trading system put into place at privatization. Under NETA, generators have no incentive to invest in spare capacity. Now OFGEM and the Government have become aware that a completely new tariff structure will be needed to fund a properly diversified mix of privately owned, dispatchable generating capacity needed to meet the ambitious targets of the Climate Change Bill and the 20-20-20 targets, while also delivering energy security. Far too late, they are realizing that dispatchable “low carbon” capacity does not come cheap.
In fact, according to a recent news report, generators are now discussing with the government massive subsidies (to the tune of £10 billion) to build back-up gas-fired power plants that will stand idle for most of the time.
In all, it is estimated that between £100 and £200 billion of investments in offshore wind, transmission lines and back-up capacity are needed to realize the green dreams of the UK government. At this moment, the new Coalition government is studying a proposed Electricity Market Reform (ERM) that will determine the new tariff structure. This is merely the latest round in an endless series of “public consultations” and energy and global-warming related “white papers” that have been produced by the government in the last 14 years since liberalisation. (This included an announcement in 2003 that no new nuclear build was needed to achieve the UK’s climate targets followed by one in 2006 that said that nuclear energy is vital.)
The effect of all these U-turns and consultations has been to make the market extremely wary of committing money into the generation sector. The “money men” have not forgotten the introduction of the NETA energy trading system when many billions were lost by private generators who had invested in the UK generating sector under the old rules. The nuclear industry was bankrupted and had to be nationalized. Europe’s largest generator, Drax Power, was only saved by its bankers taking a longer view but at a huge cost to its then owner, AES.
The new trading rules that the Coalition is preparing come at a sensitive time, when the media are full of horror stories about price rises while millions per month are being spent by National Grid for compensating wind turbine owners whose output is being curtailed because of network congestion. OFGEM has said the investment required to ensure UK energy security and to decarbonise the power industry to 2020 could see consumer bills increase by anything between 23 and 52 per cent - equivalent to adding between £250 and £600 to today's average annual bill. There is a real risk that consumers “can’t pay and won’t pay”. Under these circumstances, the chances of separating £200 billion of private capital from its owners to be invested in the UK’s long-term “low carbon” vision must be slim indeed.
The challenges described in this paper cannot be fixed as long as they remain unrecognized by the people that we elect to write and abolish legislation. Elaborate roadmaps to 2050 and lofty-sounding calls for emission targets in the mid-2020s will be as pointless and useless to future generations as any such “road map” for the nation would have been if written in (say) 1910 or 1934.
Among the chief dangers that the UK faces in 2011 is the critical obsolescence of its electricity infrastructure, its essential bankruptcy and the absolutely unrealistic aspirations of almost its entire political class, although not its population, for a new, low-carbon, high-growth, job-creating, tax-paying economy.
The imminent closure of 16 GW of coal, oil and nuclear power plants and the realization that these simply cannot be replaced by the equivalent - or even much greater - wind power capacity, (even if it could be built, which is doubtful) is widely recognized in most senior echelons of the UK’s financial, manufacturing and engineering companies. Speaking at the recent Economist Energy Summit in London, Sam Laidlaw, CEO of Centrica, said: "We are rapidly approaching a tipping point in the energy story of this country and there is a risk that society is not being realistic about the path ahead. (…) Over this next decade three forces are coming together - our growing dependence on increasingly volatile world energy markets; our commitment to make serious cuts in carbon emissions; and our obligation as a society to ensure that energy remains affordable at a time of huge pressure on household incomes."
The problem is not unique to the UK. Major energy and concomitant trade deficits and even national bankruptcy are facing countries all over Europe. Europe cannot afford much more of the same.
It is probably pointless to try and get this message through to the EU’s present energy establishment, fixated as it is on perpetuating Kyoto and writing endless “2050 road-maps”. But given the extreme fragility of the UK’s economy, and the imminence of an electricity supply failure, it may still be possible to bring to the attention of the UK’s financially embattled Coalition, the extreme danger of its chosen policies, before the financial plug is pulled and its emission-related targets are exceeded by industrial ruin.
There can be no doubt that the UK must evolve an energy strategy that will liberate the economy from hydrocarbons as fast as possible. But its resources and financial circumstances are increasingly modest. The energy aspirations of its politicians are incoherent and technically illiterate. All this is about to come to a head with the transparent reluctance of international financiers to invest in the “green” economy. A huge U-turn lies ahead when it will have to plead with its EU partners for a derogation on the closure of the coal capacity and with EdF to keep the old nuclear fleet on the road, while developing a more realistic energy plan. This must almost certainly require the electrification of almost everything and the speeding up of nuclear capacity build, wherever possible innovating technically and reducing the costs by depending more on South Korea and China than our partners across the Channel in France.
Hugh Sharman is editor and co-founder of the Energy Blog DimWatt, a ‘campaigning web site dedicated to keeping the lights on affordably, maintaining mobility and the UK’s position as a manufacturing power in a fast-changing world’. DimWatt aims to bring together utility management personnel, academics, politicians, civil servants, professionals and concerned citizens ‘who are committed to rational discussion and debate on the challenges facing UK's energy infrastructure today’.
Sharman is also owner and managing director of the Denmark-based technical energy consultancy Incoteco, which he founded in 1986. He has over thirty years’ experience of expertise in providing consultancy services to industries and governments in the fields of energy and the environment. Recently he was the main author for the report “Wind Energy – The Case of Denmark”, published by the Danish think tank CEPOS. His current commercial focus is on the use of stationary electricity storage for integrating intermittent energy sources into grid systems. Most of his work in this area is on behalf of PD Energy which is developing the vanadium redox battery. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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