Reshaping the electricity sector

Is the electricity sector facing major disruption due to technological innovation, including the falling costs of renewables and energy storage, along with tougher environmental policies and regulatory reform?

Antony Froggett argues in a Chatham House report that as technology and installation becomes cheaper, non-hydro renewables accounted for 61% of all the new installed power capacity across the world in 2017. While the construction of wind and solar was initially stimulated by decarbonisation policy, now it is driven by economics. As renewables continue to be deployed, they become ever cheaper to build and install. Solar is already at least as cheap as coal in Germany, Australia, the US, Spain and Italy. By 2021, it is also expected to be cheaper than coal in China.

However, integrating this new power may become costly. Centralised coal or gas power stations, can more easily be switched on and off to ensure supply meets demand. This is more challenging when renewables are involved, as the sun doesn’t always shine, and the wind doesn’t always blow.

Electricity storage systems could be a key part of the solution and the development of electric vehicles, to address climate change and localised pollution, should drive down the price of batteries. Similar batteries can be used for home storage linked to solar panels.

Digitalisation is likely to be another disruptive change. Smart meters allow energy firms to better monitor and understand their customers, which enables even more flexibility. Algorithms like those already used by Google and Amazon could result in energy supplies tailored to individual households and times of day. Blockchain technology could also enable a peer to peer energy market, allowing neighbours to sell excess power to one another.

Before we get too carried away there are a few challenges. A Westminster parliamentary group recently reported that people who have smart meters installed are expected to save an average of £11 annually on their energy bills, much less than originally hoped. As many of us warned, the piecemeal rollout has been hit by repeated delays and cost increases, with suppliers now almost certain to miss the 2020 deadline. I have a none too smart meter that doesn’t work because I switched supplier – and I am not alone.

The relentless rise of renewables is also not guaranteed. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has reported that fossil fuels increased their share of energy supply investment for the first time since 2014, to $790bn, and will play a significant role for years on current trends. Investment in coal power dropped sharply, but was offset by an increase in oil and gas spending. Fossil fuels’ share of energy investment needs to drop to 40% by 2030 to meet climate targets, but instead rose fractionally to 59% in 2017.

As the New Economics Foundation has highlighted, the number of new solar installations per month in the UK has plunged from an average of over 9,000 between 2010 and 2016, to under 1,000 at the end of 2017. The decline correlates with the Government’s slow suffocation of the Feed-in-Tariff over the last seven years. When these changes were being prepared, the UK government were made well aware of the consequences, yet stubbornly decided to proceed.

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Squabbling in the renewable industry won’t help to drive a coherent government strategy either. Iberdrola, who own ScottishPower, has voiced its frustration at the UK Government blocking onshore windfarms from competing for renewables subsidies and have attacked technologies like tidal lagoons as, ‘Moonshot green technologies’. The company behind the proposed Swansea scheme responded by saying; “Having once bemoaned the incumbency of fossil fuels, it’s disappointing that some in the renewables sector have adopted this bad habit” – ouch!

Offshore wind clearly has significant potential and is a proven technology. Plans to lease the seabed to encourage a new generation of offshore wind farms in Scotland’s waters have been published by Crown Estate Scotland. This has the advantage of putting the leasing income into the public purse, rather than big landowners.

The IEA also reported that governments are increasing investment in energy markets, either directly through state-owned firms or indirectly via investments policies and regulation. Firms like ScottishPower are often short of capital investment, which makes them reluctant to back technologies that are not proven to be economically viable.

This is where Scottish and National Investment banks have a role to play as well as direct public finance. The public policy question is why should we use public money to ‘nudge’ big power companies, when a public sector operator could do the same job, within a planned energy strategy?

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