Monday, October 20, 2014

Energy Policy: Large-scale Unintended Consequences

Wherever you look, 21st century energy policy has been hatched by people who know far less than they need to about the subject in hand.

It's sometimes necessary to diagree with the 'experts'.  Prior to liberalisation of the energy markets, the experts - all wedded to the extremely comfortable monopoly model - declared with absolute certainty that gas and electricity were inevitably and essentially matters for monopolies to control.  Not really commodities at all: something magical and different.  Competition ?  Trading ?  No, these were simply impossible.  Trust us.  We are as efficient as it is possible to be. (© Denis Rooke, 1985)

On that, the experts were utterly wrong.

But that doesn't give a licence to greenish, or green-appeasing politicians and civil servants, to announce that electricity grids can be run on windfarms and wishful thinking for zero CO2 emissions, when people who genuinely know better can prove otherwise.  Sadly this is not enough to stop them giving it a try, armed with vast amounts of our money.  But it ain't gonna work: and the harder they try, the more bizarre will be the unintended consequences.  To list a few that had already made themselves apparent a year or so back:
  • Germany, which has gone further and faster than any country (and, some would say, with the least planning) has seen record levels of expenditure on renewables, record high power prices to residential customers, and, yes, rising CO2 emissions
  • ... and, yes, rising CO2 emissions in the UK also
  • ... and around 50% of 'renewable' energy in the EU coming, not from the antiseptic, sunlit windfarms / solar farms / hydro plants of the brochures, but filthy biofuels, whose only claim to reducing CO2 emissions comes from the fact that they are deemed to do so, irrespective of the truth (which is that in most cases they don't)
And now we have the UK 'capacity market' in the electricity sector, being introduced this year to rectify the problem that in an era when no-one moves without a subsidy, no-one seems willing to build unsubsidised power plants to relace the coal stations that are closing with each passing year.  I may write on the technicalities of this 'market' another time, but for now we need simply to look at the recently published details of who are bidding into the auction process for being awarded 3-year or even 15-year wads of 'capacity payments' (i.e. standing charge contracts) for the 'new capacity' they promise to bring onto the UK grid.  

A fair chunk (by volume) of the bids are made by would-be developers of new CCGTs (large gas turbines in their most efficient configuration).  This is what the government hoped for.  But new CCGTs are costly, and unlikely to win at auction, because even more capacity is on offer from other sources, e.g. bids from companies offering to put old, mothballed CCGTs back into service (again, anticipated and welcomed by DECC).

Then come the unintended consequences.
  • one of the largest 'new build' CCGTs is in fact two-thirds already built, and starts up next year anyway, whether it gets a capacity contract or not!  (The capacity payments don't start until 2018)
  • a large chunk of the bids comes from owners of existing coal plants, offering 'new capacity' by way of eking out extended and better performance from their ageing kit
  • the biggest bidder is bloody EDF, hands out again, pretending that its long-announced life-extension projects for its existing UK nukes are also 'new capacity'.  Again, these are money-for-old-rope projects that will go ahead anyway

Needless to say, this is not what DECC or the greens initially expected from the capacity market, though the logic of it had begun to dawn on them over the summer.  The howls of outrage greeting the coal projects in particular are hilarious to hear.  Anyone could have told them: it's always cheaper to refurbish existing capacity than build new plant.

Looking back at several years' worth of energy postings, I find I have invoked reductio ad absurdum several times: and it is time to roll out this venerable tool of formal logic once again.  The absurdities are there for all to see.   The logicians' answer is that the original assumptions must be wrong.  That's the correct conclusion, and one we urgently need DECC to draw.

Nick Drew

This post first appeared on the Capitalists@Work blog 


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Sackerson said...

Is this another case of what Burning Our Money used to call "The Government Shopper"?

Nick Drew said...

Yup, that's the chap!

in this capacity auction, (s)he'll be buying (a) too much, (b) at much too high a price, and (c) including soe capacity that is going to be built / refurbished anyway

easily conned, this eejit!

A K Haart said...

"It's sometimes necessary to diagree with the 'experts'."

The word could even end up as a term of abuse.