Electricity Market Reform

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:36 pm on 3rd November 2011.

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Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Labour, Brent North 4:36 pm, 3rd November 2011

My pleasure at speaking under you as Chair, Mr Havard, is exceeded only by my awe at having to follow my own Chairman of the Select Committee, Mr Yeo, who in his 16 or 17 minutes did not canter but gallop through the entire report in the most comprehensive fashion.

I often think of the Minister, for whom I have the greatest respect, as sitting in his Department twiddling a Rubik’s cube. The trouble is that someone has peeled one of the colours off this particular Rubik’s cube and put the wrong colour in its place. No matter how hard he tries to get the six sides all looking as they should, the task is pretty impossible. I do not underestimate the challenge faced by the Minister.

We need to replace 25% of our existing generating plant by 2020 merely to keep the lights on—that is one side of the Rubik’s cube. We are obliged by the European Union to have 30% of our electricity come from renewable sources by 2020—currently it is only 7%—and that is another side of the cube, as is energy consumption in the UK being set to double by 2050 if we continue with business as usual. We also need to tackle fuel poverty and to keep prices low, and that is a big side of the Rubik’s cube. We need to decarbonise our economy to combat climate change—yet another side. The sixth side is that we need to incentivise £200 billion of investment in new capacity and infrastructure in the space of only nine years. The puzzle is intractable indeed.

Take any two of those sides at random, such as the renewables obligation and low fuel prices. Professor Dieter Helm, in his evidence to the Committee, dismissed the Government’s projection of only minimal rises in customers’ bills by 2020. He told the Select Committee that to think that energy efficiency and other demand reduction measures could balance the increased costs of low-carbon supply to the extent that the effect on consumers’ bills would be only 2%,

“is again really stretching one’s imagination.”

Let us pick another two sides of the cube: what of delivering £200 billion-worth of infrastructure and of decarbonising our economy? Investment analyst Peter Atherton told the Committee that

“it is going to be extraordinarily difficult to get non-recourse debt into new nuclear in the UK. That basically means that it all has to be done on balance sheet.”

The Government’s strategy is market driven. It is predicated on getting the right incentives and believing that the market will then arrive at the correct solutions.

There are four pillars. Feed-in tariffs will incentivise at two levels. First, by encouraging microgeneration and paying people for the energy they feed into the grid through their solar panels and domestic wind turbines. No doubt we will come back to solar panels later. Secondly, by giving a long-term contract to large-scale low-carbon generators like offshore wind farms. This will guarantee a better price to them in comparison with carbon-intensive generators such as coal or gas-fired power stations. Those are the “FITs”.

Carbon price support is like a tax on carbon, as the Chairman of the Energy and Climate Change Committee said. It simply makes the cost of generating electricity from fossil fuels more expensive, and that means that carbon-free generation like wind becomes relatively more attractive the higher the Government set the carbon price.

Capacity payments, the third of the four pillars, are the price the Government are willing to pay to ensure that back-up is always available. The system needs flexible generation that can respond to the peaks of demand and any gaps in supply. They propose payments to generators that will give them increased certainty of revenues if they guarantee to be available when other supply is not—for instance, when the wind does not blow.

Emissions performance standards is the fourth of the pillars: the final tool in the Government’s incentives box. In reality, the EPS is more a disincentive, because it simply proposes a ban on any generator emitting more than a certain level of CO2 per kWh. The Government want to set that limit at 600 grams of CO2 per kWh. In practice, this would stop only unabated coal—the coal-fired power stations that did not have CCS fitted to reduce their emissions. It would still be enough to allow gas-fired stations. That is not good enough, given the Committee Chairman’s earlier remarks about adopting the Committee’s fourth carbon budget with targets of between 40 grams and 60 grams per kWh.

If the banking crisis should have told politicians anything, it is this: a strategy of “incentivise and then sit back” ignores the fact that markets need more than incentives. Markets need certainty, capacity and regulation. Peter Atherton put it nicely when he told the Committee:

“I warn you that it is not a question of making the rewards more and more, because the more you make the rewards, the less trust investors will have that those rewards are going to be sustainable.”

He went on:

“There are really five big risks: planning, construction, power price, operation and decommissioning.”

The mistake that the Government appear to be making is to think that by putting greater and greater incentives on power price, they can resolve all the problems that need to come within electricity market reform.

The EMR set out three high-level objectives: decarbonisation of the electricity sector, energy security and affordability. I wish to focus for a moment on affordability, because it is becoming—certainly for my colleagues—one of the biggest issues that we find on the doorstep. One in every four households in the UK is now classed as fuel-poor. A fuel-poor household is defined as one where the expenditure required to maintain adequate warmth exceeds 10% of household income.

It is a measure of the number of households needing to make impossible decisions on expenditure just to meet their basic human needs.

If we look across Europe, there is no pan-European definition of fuel poverty. In other countries, fuel poverty might fall within general poverty alleviation programmes, or it may simply not be recognised as a major problem. Cross-country comparisons therefore are difficult and they need to employ indicators such as the winter variation in mortality levels or the number of people in arrears with their utility bill payments.

The Labour Government brought in winter fuel payments for the elderly to tackle fuel poverty, and no doubt my colleagues will point to figures that show that excess winter deaths plummeted from almost 50,000 in 1999-2000 to 25,000 in 2009-10. The truth is that while Labour can claim real success by acting to increase household income, if we look at the figures over an extended period, it becomes evident that the net effect of our winter payments strategy was only to hold winter deaths broadly static when otherwise they might have increased. If one goes back to 1993-94, one sees that excess winter deaths were again 28,630. In 1994-95, the figure was 29,720. It rose to a peak in 1999-2000, but in 2007-08 it came down to 27,480. That shows the danger of focusing on just one aspect of a problem.

Winter mortality in other European countries reveals some surprising trends. The countries with the highest winter death rate are Portugal and Spain. That is counter-intuitive, but easy to explain when one considers the low level of home insulation. What emerges clearly from such comparisons is that there is a strong correlation between thermal standards in housing and excess winter deaths. That excess winter mortality is almost twice as high in England as in Finland or Germany cannot be directly attributed to weather. However, precisely because of its cold climate, Finland already has very demanding thermal insulation requirements.

By contrast, the coalition Government have just introduced their warm home discount scheme where energy suppliers will be obliged to give rebates of £250 million in 2011-12, rising to £310 million in 2014-15, to vulnerable customers. It is astonishing that the UK continues to focus on financial solutions to what is essentially a technical problem of building standards. On the Minister’s overview of the industry, I urge him not to repeat the mistake of which I have already accused him once this afternoon by adopting a single focus solution to a problem. I fear that is what happens.

The Government have also failed to control the soaring costs of energy charged by the big six utility companies. Again, the Chairman of the Committee made strong reference to this in his remarks, because it is a major focus of our report. Household bills have increased on average by 71% in just five years. The latest attempts by Government to reform the electricity market once again let those companies off the hook by failing to break up the vertical integration of the companies.

Vertical integration allows a utility company to generate the electricity under one arm of the company, which it sells through an intermediary—often offshore—which they also own, and then on-sells to another arm of the corporation, which supplies it to us as the consumer. The result is a total lack of transparency in the true cost of electricity. All the big six operate similar structures, which prevent real competition and stop new entrants coming into the market.

When the Committee Chairman mentioned the big six and the break-up of the vertical integration of the market, he alluded to the announcement by Scottish and Southern. It is important to try to appreciate why what sounded like a major announcement from Scottish and Southern to auction all its electricity to household suppliers on a wholesale market is perhaps not the concession or big move that might have at first been perceived. One small supplier that it was supposed to help said that the move was “cosmetic” and will do little to help small suppliers gain market share. That is because the Scottish and Southern Energy Group is freeing up only short-term energy and not the long-term market on which small suppliers rely.

The big six gas and electricity firms buy and sell energy on the wholesale market, but energy is traded in two ways—first on the day-ahead price, which is where SSE said it will auction all its energy, and secondly, by smaller energy firms that trade with a longer view, buying up enough energy for up to two years so that they can guarantee a price for customers. The markets are complex and subject to many external factors that can affect price. First Utility, a small company, says that it buys less than 1% of its wholesale energy on the day-ahead market, and claims that smaller, newer suppliers buy wholesale energy on a much longer-term basis. That is why the move from SSE that by the Chairman of the Committee mentioned not free up the market and help liquidity in the way suggested.

Lack of skills is a problem in driving the investment that we need in industry. It is one thing to get £200 billion of investment, but providing the skills to deliver that is a much greater challenge. The Minister must respond clearly and tell the Chamber how he proposes to make skills available to meet the demand should such investment be obtained.