On Pyhrrus and his campaigns

Well that went well, didn’t it? At least Ed Davey thinks so. I’m referring here to the results of the first capacity auction, the final results of which were posted earlier in the month. Here’s Ed responding to an intervention on the subject that I made during the recent Energy Prices debate in the house:

 

‘The results of the capacity auction were far better than we had predicted. The closing price – the clearing price – was significantly lower than we predicted, so there will be a lower impact on consumer bills.’

Hmm I’m not sure crowing about the low clearing price of the auction as a mechanism for protecting consumer bills (when that was nowhere in the specification of the auction) is a wise, long-term line to take. A bit like a general reporting that ‘our invasion force failed to land on the beaches and we were repulsed with huge losses. But we only sent ten ships, a far lower number than we had anticipated, so there’s a considerable saving to the taxpayer to take into account in evaluating the success of the operation’.

So were the results any good overall? Let’s start with what DECC thought the auctions were about when they set them up. Here’s what they say in the capacity auctions section of their website:

‘The Capacity Market will ensure security of electricity supply by providing a payment for reliable sources of capacity, alongside their electricity revenues, to ensure they deliver energy when needed. This will encourage the investment we need to replace older power stations and provide backup for more intermittent and inflexible low carbon generation sources.’

And we also need to know that the idea of launching an auction for implementation in 2019 was primarily so that new power stations would have some investment security when they come on stream.

Well, yes, payments have gone out in the first auction to some generators, which one supposes will mean that they don’t switch off their generating capacity when it might be needed. Except to say that almost a fifth of the cleared capacity is coal plant which DECC is supposed to be running off the system in a few years, and extraordinarily, 7.8GW of nuclear power (which can’t be switched off without long term consequences even if the owners (EDF) go into a sulk) so that aspect of the ‘auction’ most certainly is free money with no gain in supply security. Most of the rest is money to existing gas plants, some of which arguably might have decided to mothball themselves if they hadn’t got a payment from the auction.  On the other hand, almost 4GW of gas plant didn’t succeed in clearing the auction, being displaced both by coal and (haha) nuclear. One might think that this will now INCREASE the likelihood that this plant will be mothballed in the not too distant future, decreasing overall energy security rather than making it more robust.

But leaving that all aside, what about the other aspect of what DECC thought they were doing with the auction – ‘encouraging the investment we need to replace older power stations etc.’? Well here the news is uniformly bad. Let’s remember that the same Department projects in its gas strategy that some 26GW of new capacity will be needed to provide that backup by about 2030. One power station (Trafford) that appeared to be in the process of commissioning anyway got a fifteen year capacity contract. The other station being currently commissioned (Carrington) did not.

So, to sum up, nuclear and coal did well, existing gas got shedloads of money, new gas got virtually nothing – oh, and demand side response measures got about 1% of share out. More fiasco then triumph, I think.

 But it is the central aspect of investment in new plant that is squarely in the ‘fiasco’ bracket. Let’s suppose, as they are scheduled to do, the Department tries again next year with another auction, which may procure some more I year contracts. Where does that leave new plant? It is, I concede, something of a paradox that the Government is bringing forward mechanisms to pay developers of gas fired power stations to run at relatively low levels of output, in order to balance the system that, by 2030, will be predominantly populated by non-gas generation. This is for the very good reason that if it does not, then we will forever be locked not just into high carbon generation, but generation at levels that by themselves will bust any targets on overall CO2 emissions we might set for the country.  We will need this backup, but it is beginning to be evident that capacity auctions are perhaps not the best method of ensuring that it is there. Maybe the drop in oil prices and the following (partial) drop in gas prices will come to the rescue of new development, in which case capacity auctions aren’t likely to be needed.

I wonder if longer term, new gas plant will need to be publicly built and then rented out to operators. At least then we’d know the plants were there, and by the way, that when we didn’t need them, they could be removed in an orderly fashion. Or we could (heaven forefend) revisit the idea of a strategic reserve of gas plants.

As for doing things in the present way the phrase ‘one more victory such as this and I am ruined’ springs to mind. He lost in the end (Pyhrrus, that is.)

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One thought on “On Pyhrrus and his campaigns

  1. It is very clear from this excellent blog that the biggest winners, of the Government’s £1bn worth of pre-Christmas presents to incumbent electricity generators, were those who have never vaguely considered ever removing capacity from the market in the first place.

    In essence, each is now going to be paid an extra £19 a kilowatt for power they would absolutely certainly be providing anyhow. Just in case a theoretical “stress event” in the winter of 2019 might have stretched the Grid’s capacity just too far for a short while.

    The classic beneficiary is the Dinorwig pumped storage plant in Snowdonia. The role of Dinorwig is to buy electricity when it is least in demand, and so at its cheapest (five o’clock in the morning). Then use it to pump water up hill, and sell it at the peak time – effectively five o’clock in the evening).

    That is precisely what this “short term operating reserve” plant was originally designed to do. And has been doing every day since June 1984 when first commissioned. But now Dinorwig’s owners, Gaz de France Suez, should be able to increase their annual profits by at least 35%. Without changing their daily business practice one iota.

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