Energy Spending Priorities: Investors and Consumers

Part of Department of Energy and Climate Change – in the House of Commons at 7:57 pm on 4th July 2016.

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Photo of Angus MacNeil Angus MacNeil Chair, Energy and Climate Change Committee 7:57 pm, 4th July 2016

I would first like to thank a number of people for this debate, and particularly for its timing. The Chair of the Justice Committee, Robert Neill—I see that he is still in the Chamber—was very kind indeed to arrange the schedule so that this was the later of the two debates, which enabled me to get down from Barra in time. Had it been the earlier debate, I am afraid I would not have been on time. I would also like to thank the staff of Loganair, who got me an earlier plane that got me down in time; many thanks before I go too far, taking two planes to get down today. [Interruption.] One of my colleagues says that this is like the Oscars. Well, this is the high point. The tears will be starting shortly.

It is a pleasure to introduce this evening’s debate on energy spending priorities. I will discuss this in relation to three reports from my Energy and Climate Change Committee produced in the past few months on investor confidence, carbon capture and storage and home energy efficiency.

We heard a lot in the run-up to the EU referendum about the impact that a vote to leave would have on investor confidence in the UK, and how businesses craved stability, transparency and certainty to plan for their spending on production, research and jobs. That presupposed that prior to the vote to leave the EU, the policy landscape was somehow calm, tranquil and settled. It is certainly not calm, tranquil or settled now, and we know that the Brexiteers deliberately had no plan in order to avoid scrutiny. That is another debate, which is taking place on television in Scotland tonight, and I will leave that where it is.

In relation to energy policy, the landscape was anything but tranquil, calm and settled. There has been considerable upheaval since the Government assumed office last year. Last June, the Department of Energy and Climate Change announced the early closure of the renewables obligation subsidy for onshore wind, citing manifesto commitments. Although it was only one line, a fact check of three pages was required to work out what it meant, so woolly was the wording. Last July, DECC announced cuts to the renewables obligation for solar PV and biomass, and changes to the feed-in tariff accreditation.

That is just a few of the policy changes that took place last summer, but it is what happened between those announcements that exercised many in the sector and contributed to the decision of the Energy and Climate Change Committee, after extensive consultation with a range of stakeholders, whom I thank for their contribution to our work, to launch our inquiry into investor confidence in the UK energy sector. I thank Jenny Bird, the senior Committee specialist, for the hard work and diligence she put into this report, and I wish her well in her new post at the centre on innovation and energy demand at the University of Sussex.

Early last July, the Office for Budget Responsibility published figures relating to the levy control framework: a notional cap on the renewable energy subsidies that consumers pay through their energy bills which covers the renewables obligation, its successor, the contracts for difference, and feed-in tariffs. Part of the Government’s objective, quite rightly, is to put affordability at the heart of energy policy. The OBR projected in its July assessment that there would be a significant increase in levy control spending compared with its March 2015 assessment. Its March 2015 assessment, the figure was £7.6 billion. By July—in the space of four months—it had increased by £1.5 billion to £9.1 billion. It adds much fuel to the fire of claims and counter-claims about the OBR and the accuracy of its work when it produces such wildly different figures over a four-month period. That clearly influenced the energy policies that were announced over the summer.

Some felt that the increase had not been adequately explained by DECC or the OBR. E.ON told my Committee that

“the evidence around cost overruns…is questionable and not transparent;
publication of detailed analysis of the status of the LCF should be a priority.”

ScottishPower said that

“it will be important for the industry to have better visibility of the underlying assumptions and calculations under the LCF so as to enable efficient long-term planning.”

The key word there is “efficient”.

Freedom of information requests have been unsuccessful owing to commercial confidentiality, and questions to Ministers have hit the same buffers. I have therefore raised the matter with the National Audit Office. I am pleased that the NAO has announced a new review of the LCF, which will examine, among other things, the reason for the changes in forecast expenditure. The NAO can jump over the iron curtain that is the commercial confidentiality statement.

Two years ago, the NAO looked at how DECC modelled LCF spend and identified weaknesses that prevented it from having the highest degree of confidence in the model forecasts. Further elements of the LCF forecast need unravelling too, because if spend is set to increase by the amount the OBR has forecast, increased spend under the LCF may not automatically result in increased costs to consumers. A recent FOI request revealed that the Government had forecast that consumers would pay more towards subsidies under the LCF in 2020, but that the average total bill would come down because of lower wholesale prices. In part, that is down to the introduction of wind and solar power, which increase generation capacity at a negligible marginal cost and, therefore, lower the overall cost of wholesale electricity—the well-touted merit order effect.

It was noted by the Committee that increased uncertainty may increase premiums, and we raised that with Ministers recently. The cuts to renewable energy might therefore be counterproductive, as they are reckoned to be by many, because of the added costs of investment due to the Government’s sudden lurches in policy.

During the inquiry, we heard many voices in the industry that were disturbed by the rapid and unforeseen changes to feed-in tariffs and the renewables obligation. Concerns about the lack of detail as to when the second round of auctions for the renewables obligation’s successor, the contracts for difference, would take place have added to the uncertainty. The latest we have heard is that it will be in the last quarter of this year.

Returning to increased bills, Roger Harrabin of the BBC asked DECC to deny that the cuts to energy subsidies would put bills up, but it did not. That shows the merit order effect at work. There was an understanding in the past that money spent was an investment, not a cost. Money spent in the present should also be seen as an investment, not a cost.

We now have more clarity on the timing of the auctions—they will be in the fourth quarter of this year —but we need to know when in the fourth quarter they will be, because companies need to plan and to project. The fourth quarter of the year might be any time between 1 October and 31 December. That is simply not good enough when we are in the seventh month of the year.

We heard that subsidy reductions had created challenges for renewable investors, with new projects in early development suffering the most. Mitsubishi bank told us that it was having 95% fewer conversations with onshore wind developers. Perhaps as damaging could be the risk premium that is now attached to the UK’s green economy as a result not of the changes themselves, but of the way they were made, with little notice of consultation. Indeed, the consultation happened after the announcements. It is no surprise that our witnesses hankered for a clear, longer-term steer from the Government on, for example, what form the LCF would take post-2020.

That is encapsulated in the Ernst & Young renewable energy country attractiveness index, which ranks 40 countries according to the attractiveness of renewable energy investments. The UK slipped from eighth place in June 2015 to 11th in September 2015. That was the first time since the index was established in 2003 that the UK had been placed outside the top 10. Since our report was published, the UK has fallen to 13th—unlucky for some and particularly for the investors. Ernst & Young attributed our fall to the Government’s

“non-committal, if not antagonistic, approach to energy policy”.

I am afraid that the idea of an antagonistic approach to energy policy chimes with the frustrations that I hear from many stakeholders in the energy space when they talk to me. Our report noted the root causes of this crisis of confidence. The first was:

“Sudden and numerous policy announcements”.

The second was:

“A lack of transparency in the decision-making process”.

Thirdly, there was

“insufficient consideration of investor impacts”.

The fourth was policy inconsistency, such as

“claiming to want to decarbonise at lowest cost while simultaneously halting onshore wind” and choosing more expensive forms of renewable generation. Fifthly, there was:

“The lack of a long-term vision”.

The last was what we called the policy “cliff-edge” in 2020.

My Committee recommended that Ministers clarify the assumptions and methodologies behind their levy control framework calculations. It would be advisable to do that before those assumptions and methodologies come out kicking and screaming from the work of our friends at the NAO. We said that Ministers should set out the post-2020 LCF budget in the context of the fourth and fifth carbon budgets to ensure that the available funding was consistent with meeting our longer-term carbon commitments. We recommended that they develop their carbon plan to achieve the fifth carbon budget in full consultation with investors, using transparent methodology and with clarity about how transitions would be managed as new technologies become established, including the intended “glide path” out of subsidies, rather than their being pushed over a cliff edge.

It is usual practice in these debates to refer to the Government’s response to the Committee’s recommendations, but I am afraid that I am unable to do so. Initially, I thought that would be because the Government had failed to produce a response, despite our report being published four months ago. It is actually because we decided, as a cross-party Committee, to send the response that we did receive last Tuesday straight back to the Government. Our report contained 14 detailed recommendations, based on extensive evidence from stakeholders and experts, including the estimate from one of our witnesses that Government policies could raise the cost of financing projects by £3.14 billion a year. None of that was responded to. Instead, we were afforded only loose replies to themes set out in the report’s summary. Indeed, it was unclear from the response whether anyone at the Department of Energy and Climate Change had read beyond page 4 of the 47-page report in the four months since its publication—a rate of one page a month.