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Budget blog - What might the Treasury say?

Posted By Gordon Edge, 15 March 2016
Updated: 24 March 2016

In all the frenzy about Brexit, one can be forgiven for forgetting that there is a rather important political/economic date imminent – the Budget. Given the apparent takeover of energy policy by the Treasury, the Budget this year is taking on even more significance, with some crucial announcements potentially on the cards.

The key issue to look out for is budget available under the Levy Control Framework (LCF), both in the immediate future and the longer term. This is a complicated area. Government’s recent policy changes have been primarily driven by a perceived need to rein in spending to within the current LCF envelope, which grows to £7.6bn in 2020 (in 2011 money). Early in the term of the current Government, figures were released indicating that they projected an overspend of £1.5bn above that figure. A number of factors were pointed at, including higher than expected demand for support through the Renewables Obligation and Feed-in Tariff, higher than expected load factors for offshore wind, and lower than expected electricity prices – this last driving greater draw on the LCF from the new Contracts for Difference (CfDs). However, Government has been less than fully transparent about how it has modelled the budget use, making assessment of whether there is any money left in the pot difficult.

We have been trying to model future LCF use within RenewableUK. With a number of the policy changes behind us, and the RO level set for 2016-17, the possible range of outcomes is narrower than it was in the middle of last year, but there are still uncertainties. However, best modelling efforts appear to indicate that budget use still overshoots the trajectory every year out to 2020. It’s worth noting that if the wholesale price projections that Government published when the LCF was set in 2012 (which are higher by about £20/MWh) were to be used instead, the story would be very different. There is a further problem, though: current and forward power prices are about 50% lower than those being used by DECC for the next two years. The risk is of further downward revision in DECC’s power price forecast and a worsening of the ‘overspend’.

So it appears unlikely that Treasury would sanction any budget for further CfD allocation ahead of 2020, unless there was an over-riding reason to do so, outside of meeting environmental or renewable energy targets. Security of supply could be one such reason, though a more pertinent one is likely to be to protect supply chains and project pipelines that will be needed post-2020, when new budget is available and tough decarbonisation targets need to be met. The things to look out for on Budget day are the latest OBR figures for the LCF, and any word on budget for the promised CfD allocation round later this year.

If Government determines that there is no more money before 2020, then budgets for future allocation rounds will have to come exclusively from the settlement that is made for the LCF post-2020 – and only projects delivering in the 2020s will have access. So far, that post-2020 budget has not been set out, and Budget would appear to be an obvious point at which to do so. While having clarity on that budget would be helpful, there is a worry with an imminent announcement: Government has made no attempt to consult with the industry about anything to do with the future level of budget, and nor has there been any indication of a change to the accounting for the CfD. The risk is that the structural problems of the current LCF are just continued, leading to a similar problem of uncertainty over the ‘buying power’ of the LCF as the volatile wholesale price leads to budget use depending on exogenous factors that are likely uncontrollable. The win-win opportunity of making the LCF a more dependable investment signal, reducing risk and therefore cost of capital and strike prices, would be lost. So look out for any statement on the LCF, but be careful to interrogate the meaning of a large budget number.

In all, there may be important news on Wednesday. It just may not be quite as good as it sounds.

Article originally posted on Business Green 14/03/2016

Tags:  2020  Budget  CfD  DECC  government  LCF  Treasury 

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What the Papers Say about our future energy market

Posted By Maf Smith, 15 February 2016
Updated: 18 February 2016
It’s been a busy media weekend for renewables. First up, Emily Gosden dug behind the exchange between Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom and Peter Lilley MP at DECC Questions on Thursday 11th February.

Peter Lilley asked the Minister about work on a no subsidy contract for difference, and asked if this will reflect the value of the electricity. For him the value of the electricity depends on the time that it is produced, where it is produced and how reliably it is produced and he is sceptical of the ability of renewable electricity to deliver.

In reply the Minister said “On the subsidy-free CfD, he is also right that we must take into account all the various costs. We are looking at the matter very closely. I am not making any promises here, but, alongside other subsidies and other CfDs, we are looking carefully at the proposition.”

Emily Gosden’s incisive Telegraph article looked at this issue in detail. What is interesting for me is how some are mistakenly thinking this is a debate about future support for wind. But it isn’t – it’s about how to make sure our energy market works properly to deliver a reliable, diverse supply at lowest cost.

My brief appearance in the article was to highlight that an energy market which excludes technologies like wind or solar would be anti-competitive. And if you look at the different views in the article you can see there is a lot of common ground hidden behind the contrasts.

The UK’s energy challenge is how to keep the lights on at lowest cost, while keeping within carbon reduction commitments. This means moving away from dirty coal toward low carbon options like renewables, CCS and nuclear.

One problem Government has is that wholesale energy price is a weak price indicator not strong enough to encourage new investment. It is effective as a “dispatch signal” in the day ahead and hour ahead markets; making sure that the lowest price options are used first each day. But it cannot work as a long term price signal to encourage the construction of any new power plants. Anyone who insists that only new power plants which can build at this wholesale cost is wishing on the UK an era of power station blackouts and instability. Instead Government is using an auction system to provide longer term price certainty for new power plants in a way that minimises cost to the consumer.

Everyone in this debate agrees that subsidies must end. They would like to see markets strengthened rather than undermined, so that competition forces innovation and reduces cost better than it is doing now. And they would like to see the market recognise the full costs of that energy system. Where the parties differ is that renewable generators want to see the cost of carbon, and the full system costs of different energy types both factored in. Others though only want to talk about the latter.

We can see that there is a lot of agreement on the principles, but disagreement on how to embed these into the market in practice.

The last five years have seen some significant changes in the energy market with auctions introduced to contract for new generation and subsidy programmes such as the Renewables Obligation all now scheduled for closure. This shift is necessary, but not complete. Innovation is transforming how we use energy, and there is no going back to a time when we simply relied on big power stations providing power via big energy utilities.

And this shift is what Danny Fortson lays out in his excellent piece about the future of energy utilities. It’s quite a coup to get two Big Six CEOs saying that the model needs to change, and they echo the views of National Grid CEO Steve Holliday who said last year that “The idea of large power stations for baseload is outdated.”

Both Emily Gosden and Danny Fortson are sketching out the fast evolution of our future energy market and the debate we need to have about this. Advocates of renewable energy want to see their technologies able to compete, and are confident they can deliver on cost and performance. They will do this because renewables costs are falling and new innovations are coming to market which better price in different system benefits and costs. They are also making energy generators and users more responsive to price signals. The question then is: why stand in the way of greater competition?

We already use the Capacity Market to ensure capacity adequacy and Contract for Difference auctions to provide low carbon power. Some further tweaks to these will make sure we can deliver lowest cost power free of any subsidy.

Commentators like Policy Exchange and the Conservative Environment Network are clear that onshore wind and solar are already cheaper than new gas plant. If we make sure that new gas plant pays its way and is not subsidised, then there is no reason not to continue these capacity and power auctions. Leadership from Government means action to ensure a stable power market: we can then be confident that consumers have the lowest cost route to a secure and low carbon source of power. This is something everyone wants.

Tags:  CfD  DECC  electricity  government  markets 

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Where next for People Power?

Posted By Maf Smith, 16 December 2015
Updated: 15 March 2016

Sometime before Christmas, and probably this week, the UK renewables industry expects our Government to publish the results of the Feed-in Tariff Review. The signs are not promising.

At the end of August Government launched its review and sought responses to its proposals to radically change the Feed-in Tariff, which I blogged about here.

Industry and the wider public responded, and in two months Government received some 55,000 responses. In the last 6 weeks a small group of officials in DECC will have been through them all.

There are apparently “only” a few hundred substantive responses. That is still a lot of detail for Government to consider. And while the other 54,500 odd may have been generated by wider public campaigns, I hope that the Government has taken note. This stuff is popular.

A cynic might say, of course it's popular, who doesn’t like subsidy? But they’d be missing the point. People simply want to see more renewable energy in use in our homes, on our farms, on our factory and office roofs and car parks. People get it, they like it, they want more of it. Asked recently by the National Infrastructure Commission what type of infrastructure they saw as most important the public said simply: investment in renewables. Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem voters all listed renewables as the type of infrastructure we should be investing more in.

I hope that the consultation has at least alerted Government to the fact that UK voters from all walks of life see renewable energy as important.

These same people would also agree that Government is right to worry about energy bills. And these same people know that renewables can add to our bills. But it’s not the case that the public doesn’t know what it wants. What the public wants is for Government to show leadership and to square the circle; supporting renewable energy but finding ways to make it cheaper and getting it on a sustainable path where it doesn’t require subsidy.

Unfortunately though, the Feed-in Tariff review did not set out a plan to move industry off subsidy. Its tone was that “there is no money”, “enough is enough” and “please close the door behind you”. There was no positive vision to be found anywhere in its 62 pages.

And so ready was Government to paint industry as little better than a group of subsidy junkies, they failed to notice that within the UK renewables sector is a group which is up for a difficult conversation. That could have been started by Government using the Review to say “look, we’ve spent what funding we had available. This is a great success, but in the current climate something has to give. Here are our thoughts for how we change the Feed-in Tariff scheme and some options for how we can support you in the future without giving you a subsidy”.

Our hope is that the significant public response, and the creative, mature way in which many have replied, has given Government cause to reflect. So despite the lateness of the hour, and despite getting off to a bad start in the original review, there is still time for Government to conclude this Feed-in Tariff review in a meaningful way. How? Well here are some things we will be looking for when Government publishes its response.

  1. Government must come clean and admit that while it is right that costs have been falling, the cost assessment made was very poor, and supporting some renewable technologies still requires a level of support.
  2. Government can be clear that the future has to be a subsidy free one. Renewable experts agree, but need help to get there. However, there should be an acknowledgement that there are wider benefits to small scale renewables, including helping communities and rural businesses manage energy costs, opening up the market to a diverse mix of generation and supply, and drawing people in to doing their bit to tackle climate change. These are worth supporting and this can be done without subsidy.
  3. Government should re-profile what funding is available to provide a sustainable glide path of funding for these subsidised technologies that is spread over the next two (rather than four) years. Doing this means using any available money more usefully.

Building on this, the most important thing we need from Government is that any statement on the Feed-in Tariff is not the beginning of the end for renewables, but the beginning of an open conversation about what next.

What industry needs is an opportunity to work with Government, with an open discussion about options to back small scale renewable energy without subsidy. If Government moves fast this could be done before the March budget. How good would it be to have a Chancellor use his next budget to set out how Government is supporting people, farms and businesses in being able to install renewable energy, manage costs and do their bit, without adding more money onto customer bills?

A response like this would be good politics. It would be Government leading on protecting consumers, while working with industry to identify solutions, and giving the public both things they want.

Alternatively, the Government could decide that it simply wants to phase out the Feed-in Tariff and avoid any discussion about what comes afterwards. In doing this it could talk up the money it is saving consumers. But it could not credibly claim to have a low carbon plan. The frustrating thing is that within many of the 55,000 responses, there is a credible plan that offers both these things. Let’s just hope that that’s the plan which captured their attention, as it deserves to be the blueprint for the way ahead.

Tags:  DECC  Feed-in Tariff  government  subsidy 

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Leadership abroad leads to leadership at home

Posted By Maf Smith, 14 December 2015
Updated: 15 March 2016

Many people have already given thanks for this weekend’s Paris deal. This significant international agreement shows how countries can choose to work together for their own short and long term ends, and take action which we all know to be necessary.

Speaking after the deal to an assembled press conference, Amber Rudd was clear that in the end the thing which secured the deal was political will, and the politicians there who showed leadership and signed up to an agreement that was far from perfect, but still vital. Having said this, Amber clearly didn’t want to imply that the contribution of others wasn’t important, but she was right to point out that at the end of the day only politicians could close the deal.

An important treaty like this shows the value of that mysterious thing – political leadership. Often allusive, it’s sometimes hard to track down, but obvious when it shows itself. A lot of political leadership has been witnessed in Paris these last two weeks.

An example of such leadership in the run up to Paris was the work of Philip Hammond in the FCO, who travelled the globe stitching a deal together and who has started to build a dialogue with Republican climate sceptics. Let’s hope that he keeps this vital work up.

What we need now though is political leadership at home. The recent energy reset speech has helped steady some nerves but there remain more questions than answers about Government priorities. Ongoing concerns over energy efficiency, renewable and CCS programmes show that problems are wide ranging and the continued lack of a clear narrative causes many people to question which direction Government wants to take us in.

The Committee on Climate Change has shown that in the next decade we will need to take out twice as much carbon from our electricity system as we are set to do this decade, which is a long way from the “we’ve done enough position” some would have us believe.

Its fifth carbon budget, recently submitted to Parliament, suggests a continued growth of renewable energy in the 2020s. The CCC has seven scenarios about our path to decarbonisation. All involve a substantial increase in onshore and offshore wind generation. Their least cost pathway sets out a significant increase of wind energy between today and 2030.

In contrast to the CCC, in DECC’s own scenarios, updated alongside the recent “reset” speech, DECC proposed capping renewables at 2020 levels and instead seems to suggest we rely on additional interconnection to keep the lights on and cut carbon. Relying on the French, Dutch and Norwegians isn’t credible. And it’s not leadership.

Government now needs to make up its mind though. The Paris deal and the new Fifth Carbon Budget gives the UK a chance to set out a fresh plan and a clearer Conservative carbon narrative.

Former Energy Minister Greg Barker has written that ‘sceptic voices on the Tory backbenches are finally starting to recede into the rear view mirror of history’ and along with those sceptic views must be left behind the old arguments and false choices between growth and low carbon.

All of us want to know how Government will look to use markets to drive down costs and drive out carbon; how it wants to use better, leaner regulation to deliver innovation; and how it wants to broker private sector investment and expertise to minimise risks to the public sector and the public purse.

In the UK’s renewable industry Government has a partner willing to take on this role. We now see that with the Paris deal we know what some in Government have sometimes seemed unwilling to say - that it is committed to climate change action at home and abroad, today and tomorrow – cannot be doubted. We know that deeds will have to follow from this.

Tags:  2020  Amber Rudd  CCC  DECC  Paris 

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