One of the most striking features of the Queensland election campaign is that all major parties are advocating public investment in electricity generation.
The real choice to be made is whether this investment will promote the goal of a decarbonised energy system, or whether it will seek to delay this transition and prolong Australia’s reliance on coal-fired electricity.
Labor and the Greens are advocating public investment in renewables, while the LNP and One Nation want a new coal-fired power station.
This choice, in turn, depends on attitudes to mainstream climate science. If the findings of mainstream science are accepted, a complete phase-out of coal-fired power, and its replacement by renewables, must take place over the next couple of decades. This implies a target of 50% renewables by around 2030.
The Queensland Renewable Energy Expert Panel modelled the achievement of a 50% renewables share for Queensland. The Expert Panel identified economic benefits of a renewable investment program including an average gain of 6,400 jobs.
Queensland has retained publicly owned electricity generators, primarily focused on coal-fired power. It would make sense for the public to diversify more into renewables.
Where the parties stand
At its recent conference, Labor committed to continued public ownership in the electricity sector and a 50% renewables target by 2030. The conference motion proposed a publicly owned energy corporation committed to protecting customers’ interests and building at least 1000 MW of clean energy.
The Greens propose more comprehensive public ownership with investment of $15 billion over the next 5 years to build publicly-owned clean energy and storage, estimated to create 5,500 jobs every year. The Labor-Green emphasis on renewables is consistent with the movement of the global mainstream.
Last week, at the UN Climate Conference in Bonn, 19 nations including the UK, New Zealand and Canada joined the Powering Past Coal Alliance, pledged to phase out coal-fired power altogether.
In sharp contrast, One Nation’s policy is based on the claim that climate change is a hoax, promoted by the United Nations as part of its sinister Agenda 21 policy, which, according to the One Nation platform, seeks to control you and your life .
This position is, at least, internally consistent. The willingness of conservative, liberal and labour governments around the world to sign up to a common climate change policy is seen by One Nation as evidence that the UN is making progress towards its goal of world domination.
The LNP takes a more ambivalent position. While backing coal and opposing renewables, its Queensland state conference narrowly rejected a motion calling on Australia to withdraw from its Paris commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
‘HELE’ of a big gamble
The key idea used to reconcile these contradiction is the idea that we can meet our commitments using “high efficiency, low emissions” (HELE) coal-fired power stations.
HELE power stations rely on the process of ultra-supercritical generation. That sounds impressive, but the reality is more prosaic. The term supercritical refers to the fact that at high temperatures and pressures, fluids are neither liquids (in this case, water) nor gases (steam) but display characteristics of both. Supercritical boilers are 10-20% more efficient than subcritical boilers.
The first supercritical boiler was invented in the 1920s. The technology was fully commercialised by the 1990s. Coal-fired power stations built in Queensland since 2000 operate on supercritical technology.
‘Ultra-supercritical’ plants, first installed around 2000, operate at even higher temperatures and pressures, but the additional increase in efficiency is limited, by the physics of the Carnot cycle, to between 10 and 15 per cent. The HELE acronym is misleading: emissions are lower than those of 20th century plants, but higher than any other generation technology.
So, the moment any substantial carbon price is imposed the proposed power plant will cease to be financially viable and will become a stranded asset. Investment in such a project is a bet that all the world’s scientists and every other government in the developed world have got things wrong or, alternatively, that Australia can go it alone on this issue.
It’s hard to see any financial institution taking a risk like this. Given the warnings already issued by regulators about the dangers of investing in stranded assets, a loan that goes bad will leave the lender open to litigation and regulatory sanctions. Will banks be willing to lend the necessary billion dollars or so on such collateral.
Should the LNP gain office, then, their policy will face a critical test. Even with a substantial public investment, will any private firm be willing to take an equity stake in what looks certain to become a stranded asset? If not, will the Queensland public be forced to bear the entire risk?
The preliminary report on energy prices released last week by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) suggests that the consumer watchdog is concerned about almost every aspect of Australia’s electricity industry. It quotes customer groups who say electricity is the biggest issue in their surveys, and cites several case studies of outrageous price increases experienced by various customers.
The report is long on sympathy about the plight of Australia’s electricity users. But the true picture is even worse – in reality, the ACCC’s assessment of Australia’s energy prices compared to the rest of the world is absurdly rosy.
The ACCC quotes studies from the Electricity Supply Association and the Australian Energy Markets Commission (AEMC) to compare electricity prices in Australia with those in other OECD countries. But the ACCC’s comparison is based on two-year-old data, and badly underestimates the actual prices consumers are paying.
The AEMC’s analysis assumes all customers are on their retailer’s cheapest available offer. This is an obviously implausible assumption, and gives a favourable impression of the price that customers are paying.
As previously pointed out on The Conversation, the Thwaites review – which looked at customers’ actual bills – found that in February 2017 Victorians were typically paying A35c per kilowatt hour (kWh) – 42% more than the AEMC’s estimate. What’s more, we know that Victoria’s electricity prices are lower on average than those in South Australia, Queensland and New South Wales, and hence below the Australian average.
A part of this 42% gap – around 15% – is explained by the latest price increases that are not included in the ACCC’s comparison. But this still leaves a 27% gap between what the AEMC assumes and the evidence of actual prices.
This begs the question: why did the ACCC not recognise the widely known flaw in the AEMC’s analysis?
The real problem is overbuilt network infrastructure
The report estimates that rising network charges account for more of the price increase than all other factors put together. There is no doubt that network charges are a real problem at least in parts of Australia, although their significance relative to retailers’ costs is contested territory.
But why would distributors build far more network infrastructure than they need? And why have government-owned distributors built far more infrastructure than private ones, despite having no more demand?
The answer to this perplexing question is to be found in part in Australia’s “competitive neutrality” policy. This is Orwellian doublespeak for an approach that is neither neutral nor competitive.
Under this policy, government-owned distributors are regulated as if they are privately financed. This means that when setting regulated prices, the Australian Energy Regulator (AER) allows government distributors to charge their captive consumers for a return on their regulated assets, at the same level as if they were privately financed. That is despite the fact that private financing is much more expensive than government funding.
It’s no surprise that when offered a rate of return that far exceeds the actual cost of finance, government distributors have a powerful incentive to expand their infrastructure for a profit. This “gold-plating” incentive is a well-known in regulatory economics.
Regulators, the industry and their associations have explained higher spending on networks in a variety of ways: higher reliability standards; flawed rules; flawed forecasting of demand growth; and the need to make up for historic underinvestment.
But was there ever historic underinvestment? A 1995 article co-authored by the current AEMC chair concluded that distribution networks had been significantly overbuilt. That was more than two decades ago, government distributor regulated assets are at least three times bigger per customer now.
The chart below – based on data from the AER’s website – examines how the 12 large distributors that cover New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and South Australia spent their money on infrastructure between 2006 and 2013. This period covers the last five-year price controls established by the state regulators, and the first control established by the AER. It was during this time that expenditure ballooned. The monetary amounts in this chart are normalised by the number of customers per distributor.
The first five distributors from left to right (and Aurora) were owned by state governments and the others are privately owned. A clear pattern emerges: the government distributors typically built much more infrastructure than the private distributors. And the government distributors focused their spending on substations, which are much easier to build (or expand or replace) than new distribution lines or cables.
We also know that the distributors’ spending on substations far outstripped the increases in the peak demand on their networks. The figure below compares the change in the government and private distributors’ substation capacity (the blue bars) with demand (the red bars) over the period that most of the expenditure occurred. Again, the amounts have been normalised by number of customers.
The gap in spending between government and private distributors is stark. It is also obvious that in all cases, but particularly for the government distributors, the expansion of substation capacity greatly exceeded demand growth – which hardly changed over this period (and is even lower now, per connection).
To put it in more tangible terms, as an average across the industry, peak demand between 2006 to 2013 increased by the equivalent of the power used by one old-fashioned incandescent light bulb, per customer. But government distributors expanded their substation capacity by more than one 100 light bulbs, per customer. The private distributors did relatively better, but still increased the capacity of their substations by the equivalent of about 30 light bulbs per customer.
My PhD thesis included econometric analysis that shows government ownership in Australia is associated with regulated asset values that are 56% higher than private distributors, and regulated revenues that are 24% higher, leaving all other factors the same.
To some, this evidence supports a “government bad, private good” conclusion. Indeed it was this line of argument that the Baird government in New South Wales used to justify its partial privatisation of two network service providers.
But in international comparisons of government and private distributors in the United States, Europe and New Zealand, no such stark differences are to be found. The huge disparity between government and private distributors is a peculiarly Australian phenomenon.
In response, the AEMC said the regulations were consistent with the “competitive neutrality” policy. But this is not true: in the policy’s own words, it was designed to stop government businesses from crowding out competitors. Distributors are protected monopolies; they do not have competitors.
The AEMC also argued, somewhat bizarrely, that it was good economics for a regulator to assume that government distributors are privately financed.
This represents the triumph of an idealistic “normative” regulatory model in which regulators act on the basis of how the regulated entity should behave rather than how they actually behave.
But it would wrong to blame the AEMC alone for this failure. All of Australia’s key institutions and governments have agreed that government distributors should be regulated as if they are privately financed. For governments that own their distributors, this has been a wonderfully profitable fiction.
Therein lies much of the explanation for what is effectively, if I may call a spade a spade, a racket.
It is an indictment of Australia’s polity and so many of its economists that the 2011 Garnaut Climate Change Review stands alone, in a library of reviews, as stating this problem clearly. In fact, if you review last week’s report from the ACCC, you will not find a single distinction between the impact of government and private distributors.
And if you thought this was yesterday’s war, you would be wrong. Despite the mass of evidence, our regulators persist in the fiction that ownership and regulation should be independent of one another.
It is difficult not to lapse into despair about Australia’s energy policy morass. Despite the valiant attempts by many, a deeply entrenched culture of half-truths, vested interests, ideology and wishful thinking still characterises all too much of what emanates from the political and administrative leadership of this industry.
Some energy consumers – Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull among them – will buy their way out of this problem through solar panels and batteries. But the poorest households and many business customers will increasingly be left carrying the can.
Australians are angry about electricity. Not unreasonably.
The big questions about Malcolm Turnbull’s energy policy will be, for consumers, what it would mean for their bills and, for business, how confident it can be that the approach would hold if Bill Shorten were elected.
The government needs to convince people they’ll get some price relief, but even as Turnbull unveiled the policy the rubbery nature of the household savings became apparent.
Crucially, the policy aims to give investors the certainty they have demanded. But the risk is this could be undermined if Labor, which is well ahead in the polls, indicated an ALP government would go off in yet another direction.
And most immediately, there is also the issue of states’ attitudes, because their co-operation is needed for the policy’s implementation. Turnbull talked to premiers after the announcement, and the plan goes to the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) next month.
Turnbull describes the policy as “a game-changer” that would deliver “affordability, reliability and responsibility [on emissions reduction]”.
Unsurprisingly – given it would end the subsidy for renewables, rejecting Chief Scientist Alan Finkel’s recommendation for a clean energy target – the policy sailed through the Coalition partyroom with overwhelming support.
Finkel later chose to go along with it rather than be offended by the discarding of his proposal. The important thing, he said, was that “they’re effectively adopting an orderly transition” for the energy sector, which was what he had urged.
In the partyroom Tony Abbott was very much a minority voice when he criticised the plan; his desire for a discussion of the politics was effectively put down by a prime minister who had his predecessor’s measure on the day.
The policy – recommended by the Energy Security Board, which includes representatives of the bodies operating and regulating the national energy market – is based on a new “national energy guarantee”, with two components.
Energy retailers across the National Electricity Market, which covers the eastern states, would have to “deliver reliable and lower emissions generation each year”.
A “reliability guarantee” would be set to deliver the level of dispatchable energy – from coal, gas, pumped hydro, batteries – needed in each state. An “emissions guarantee” would also be set, to contribute to Australia’s Paris commitments.
According to the Energy Security Board’s analysis, “it is expected that following the guarantee could lead to a reduction in residential bills in the order of A$100-115 per annum over the 2020-2030 period”. The savings would phase up during the period.
When probed, that estimate came to look pretty rough and ready. More modelling has to be done. In Question Time, Turnbull could give no additional information about the numbers, saying he only had what was in the board’s letter to the government.
So people shouldn’t be hanging out for the financial relief this policy would bring. Although to be fair, Turnbull points to the fact it is part of a suite of measures the government is undertaking.
Business welcomed the policy, but made it clear it wanted more detail and – crucially – that it is looking for bipartisanship.
The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry said the policy’s detail “and its ability to win bipartisan and COAG support will be critical”. Andy Vesey, chief executive of AGL, tweeted that “with bipartisan support” the policy would provide investment certainty.
The Australian Industry Group said it was “a plausible new direction for energy policy” but “only bipartisanship on energy policy will create the conditions for long-term investment in energy generation and by big energy users”.
It’s not entirely clear whether the government would prefer a settlement or a stoush with the opposition on energy.
Turnbull told parliament it had arranged for the opposition to have a briefing from the Energy Security Board, and urged Labor to “get on board” with the policy.
But Labor homed in on his not giving a “guarantee” on price, as well as the smallness of the projected savings. Climate spokesman Mark Butler said it appeared it would be “just a 50 cent [a week] saving for households in three years’ time, perhaps rising to as much as $2.00 per week in a decade”.
But while the opposition has gone on the attack, it is also hedging its bets, playing for time.
“We’ve got to have … some meat on the bones,” Butler said. “Because all the prime minister really announced today was a bunch of bones.”
“We need detail to be able to sit down with stakeholders, with the energy industry, with big businesses that use lots of energy, with stakeholder groups that represent households, and obviously state and territory governments as well, and start to talk to them about the way forward in light of the announcement the government made today,” he said.
The initial reaction from state Labor is narky. Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said it seemed Finkel had been replaced by “professor Tony Abbott as the chief scientist”, while South Australia’s Jay Weatherill claimed Turnbull “has now delivered a coal energy target.”
These are early days in this argument. Federal Labor will have to decide how big an issue it wants to make energy and climate at the election. Apart from talking to stakeholders and waiting for more detail, it wants to see whether the plan flies at COAG.
If it does, the federal opposition could say that rather than tear up the scheme in government, it would tweak it and build on it. That way, Labor would avoid criticism it was undermining investment confidence.
But if there is an impasse with the states and the plan is poorly received by the public, the “climate wars” could become hotter.
The new plan, called the National Energy Guarantee, will require electricity retailers to make a certain amount of “dispatchable” power available at all times, and also to reduce the electricity sector’s greenhouse emissions by 26% relative to 2005 levels by 2030.
The government says it will save the average household up to A$115 a year after 2020, while also ensuring reliability. Below, our experts react to the new policy.
“The federal government will be even less important in energy policy”
Alan Pears, Senior Industry Fellow, RMIT University
Business, state governments and the energy industry have been clamouring for more certainty from the federal government. Now they have it: the federal government will be even less important in shaping energy and climate policy than in the past, leaving states and territories, local government, business and households to focus on driving the energy revolution and cutting emissions.
The new policy will impose a reliability obligation on energy retailers, who will presumably have to select an appropriate mix of energy suppliers to meet it, and the devil will be in the detail. If the required proportion of dispatchable electricity is reasonable, and if retailers and new renewable energy generators are free to decide how to deliver it, then the cost and difficulty of compliance may be modest.
For example, retailers and generators could piggyback on the demand response capacity volunteered for the ARENA Demand Response project. This could help accelerate the rollout of a variety of energy storage solutions, in turn reducing the market power of the big generators and driving down energy prices.
On the other hand, if the options are limited, the obligation could increase the market power of the gas industry, meaning no relief from high wholesale prices.
It will also be interesting to see if the obligation is applied across all new generation. If so, it could significantly increase the cost of new coal generation, as retailers would have to cover the risk of failure of a large generation unit, as well as managing its slow response to changing demand.
“Australia’s electricity sector can cut emissions more”
Anna Skarbek, Chief Executive, ClimateWorks Australia, Monash University
The key question is whether the emissions guarantee will be strong enough for Australia to meet its current and future climate obligations under the Paris Agreement.
Electricity creates more than one-third of Australia’s total emissions. If we don’t reduce the emissions in our electricity, then we don’t unlock other emissions reduction opportunities such as electric vehicles.
If the National Energy Guarantee aims at cutting emissions by only 26% by 2030 then other sectors across the economy would have to make greater emissions
But our research shows that Australia’s electricity sector can cut emissions by 60% below 2005 levels by 2030. Harnessing this potential will help us to reach future targets that progressively increase under the Paris Agreement.
If you don’t achieve deep emissions reductions in the electricity sector, a major strengthening of policy will be needed for the other sectors where there is less momentum currently. For example, stronger action would be needed in transport, buildings, industry and land.
Australia’s climate policy, which is being reviewed before the end of the year, will need to cover more than just the electricity sector. Other measures should include the introduction of vehicle emissions standards, a more stringent
national building code, a dramatic improvement in the uptake of energy efficiency measures across industry and stronger incentives for reforestation.
How the reliability guarantee will work
Dylan McConnell, Researcher at the Australian German Climate and Energy College, University of Melbourne
Under the NEG retailers are responsible for ensuring continuous supply of energy. But retailers don’t always generate the energy they sell. In order to meet the NEG’s reliability obligation retailers will most likely enter into cap contracts with generators.
Unlike other kinds of contracts, which impose a fixed price, cap contracts only come into play when high demand pushes energy prices over a certain pre-agreed level. At that point, generators with flexible dispatchable power guarantee that they will provide extra energy.
The extreme peaks, where the price heads to A$14,000 per megawatt hour – only come a couple of times a year, if at all. To compensate generators for building all that extra capacity, retailers pay a daily premium. Cap contracts essentially act as insurance: they protect retailers from extremely high prices during intense demand, and they offer generators the chance of steep profits.
Cap contracts are a standard part of the market, and retailers already used them to manage their risk exposure. The Energy Security Board has said:
This reliability guarantee would require retailers to hold forward contracts with dispatchable resources that cover a predetermined percentage of their forecast peak load.
If the new reliability standards are in line with retailers own internal guidelines, the impact on the market should be minimal. But if the government imposes higher standards, retailers will have to purchase more cap contracts (or build their own dispatchable power plants).
If demand for cap contracts increase, it would most likely encourage investment in gas and hydro power plants.
The most important thing to understand about the federal government’s new National Energy Guarantee is that it is designed not to produce a sustainable and reliable electricity supply system for the future, but to meet purely political objectives for the current term of parliament.
Those political objectives are: to provide a point of policy difference with the Labor Party; to meet the demands of the government’s backbench to provide support for coal-fired electricity; and to be seen to be acting to hold power prices down.
Meeting these objectives solves Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s immediate political problems. But it comes at the cost of producing a policy that can only produce further confusion and delay.
The government’s central problem is that, as well as being polluting, coal-fired power is not well suited to the problem of increasingly high peaks in power demand, combined with slow growth in total demand.
Coal-fired power plants are expensive to start up and shut down, and are therefore best suited to meeting “baseload demand” – that is, the base level of electricity demand that never goes away. Until recently, this characteristic of coal was pushed by the government as the main reason we needed to maintain coal-fired power.
The opposite of baseload power is “dispatchable” power, which can be turned on and off as needed.
Coal-fired plants can be adapted to be “load-following” which gives them some flexibility in their output. But this requires expensive investment and reduces the plants’ operating life. The process is particularly ill-suited to the so-called High Efficiency, Low Emissions (HELE) plants being pushed as a solution to the other half of the policy problem, reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
Given that there is only limited capacity to expand hydro (Turnbull’s Snowy 2.0 is years away, if it ever happens) and that successive governments have made a mess of gas policy, any serious expansion of dispatchable power would realistically need to focus on batteries. The South Australian government reached this conclusion some time ago, making a decision to invest in its own battery storage. That move was roundly condemned by the federal government, which at the time was still focused on baseload.
The government’s emphasis on baseload was always mistaken, but the confusion and noise surrounding energy policy meant that few people understood this. That changed in September when the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) reported that Australia’s National Electricity Market faced a capacity shortfall of up to 1,000 megawatts for the coming summer, and that older baseload power stations will struggle to cope.
Clearly this situation called for more flexibility in dispatchable sources in the short term, and widespread investment in dispatchables for the long term.
A question of definition
Obviously, this presented Turnbull with a dilemma. The policy advice clearly favoured dispatchables, but vocal members of his backbench wanted a policy to subsidise coal.
This is not an entirely new approach. Before the government decided to abandon the proposed Clean Energy Target it put a lot of effort into redefining coal as “clean”. The approach here involved creating confusion between carbon capture and storage (CCS) and HELE power stations. CCS involves capturing carbon dioxide from power station smokestacks and pumping it underground, thereby avoiding emissions. This would be a great solution to the problems of carbon pollution if it worked, but unfortunately it’s hopelessly uneconomic
By contrast, HELE is just a fancy name for the marginal improvements made to coal-fired technology over the 30-50 years since most of our existing coal-fired plants were designed and built. The “low” emissions are far higher than those for gas-fired power, let alone renewables or, for that matter, nuclear energy (another uneconomic option).
The core of the government’s plan is a requirement that all electricity retailers should provide a certain proportion of dispatchable electricity – a term that has now been arbitrarily defined to include coal. By creating a demand for this supposedly dispatchable power, the policy discourages the retirement of the very coal units that AEMO has identified as ill-suited to our needs.
Given that the policy is unlikely to survive beyond the next election, it’s unlikely that it will prompt anyone to build a new gas-fired power station, let alone a coal-fired plant. So the only real effect will be to discourage investment in renewables and create yet further policy uncertainty.
This undermines the basis for the (unreleased) modelling supposedly showing that household electricity costs will fall. These savings are supposed to arise from the investment certainty resulting from bipartisan agreement. But the political imperative for the government is to put forward a policy Labor can’t support, to provide leverage in an election campaign. If the government had wanted policy certainty it could have accepted Labor’s offer to support the Clean Energy Target.
It remains to be seen whether this scheme will achieve the government’s political objectives. It is already evident, however, that it does not represent a long-term solution to our problems in energy and climate policy.
The Turnbull government has announced its new energy policy, called the National Energy Guarantee (NEG). The NEG contains two new obligations on electricity retailers. The first is to ensure we have enough electricity generation available to meet our needs (the Reliability Guarantee). The second is to drive down the sector’s greenhouse emissions (the Emissions Guarantee).
No, it’s not Chief Scientist Alan Finkel’s Clean Energy Target. But it is a policy that will drive down emissions in the electricity sector after 2020 and can be adapted by the Labor Party to hit the emissions-reduction target of any future Labor government.
In other words, the NEG can offer the previously elusive prospect of a bipartisan and credible emissions reduction policy, of the kind that industry has been crying out for.
What is the Emissions Guarantee?
Under the Emissions Guarantee, retailers will be required to buy or generate electricity with a set level of emissions intensity – the tonnes of carbon dioxide emitted per megawatt hour – each year. The allowable level of emissions intensity will be reduced each year, to stay in line with Australia’s Paris climate target.
To meet this obligation, retailers will probably build or purchase their own generation assets, or sign contracts with other generators. Over time, retailers’ portfolios will become cleaner and cleaner, as new low-emission generators are built and more high-emission generators are shut off.
There are several benefits to this scheme. Australia’s emissions targets for the electricity sector should be met. And the scheme can theoretically be ramped up to meet more challenging targets over time, simply by lowering the emissions intensity limit for retailers.
It should also be reasonably cost-effective. Rather than the government imposing quotas or limits for various types of technology, retailers will be given a free hand to pick the cheapest mix of generation that will meet their emissions obligations. It is genuinely technology-neutral.
This makes the Emissions Guarantee superior to Finkel’s Clean Energy Target. The CET would have acted as a mechanism to push clean energy technologies into the system, but it would not have cared which generators left the market as a consequence.
Under a CET, a black coal generator could leave the market instead of a higher-emitting brown coal generator, if the black coal generator produced more expensive electricity. Then even more low-emission generation would have to be built to meet the target.
The Emissions Guarantee overcomes this problem. The important outcome is that the mix of generation meets a level of emissions intensity. This can be achieved by pushing in low-emissions generation and/or by pushing out high-emissions generation. The outcome will be similar to that of an emissions intensity scheme: lower levels of renewables than under other schemes, but a cheaper way to reduce emissions.
There are downsides to this approach. First, like an emissions intensity scheme and the CET, the Emissions Guarantee is not linked directly to the absolute emissions that need to be abated if Australia is to meet its Paris targets. But this problem can be overcome if the mechanism allows some flexibility around the setting of the emissions intensity target – which it appears to do.
Nor is the scheme integrated fully with the wholesale energy market – the National Electricity Market (NEM). As a result, it could produce some perverse outcomes in the NEM, where some regions have too much of particular types of generation.
What is the Reliability Guarantee?
This is where the other part of the policy comes in. Under the Reliability Guarantee, retailers will be required to contract (or own) a certain amount of “dispatchable” generation – electricity that can be switched on at will – to meet demand in each state.
The Reliability Guarantee appears to be a type of “capacity mechanism”, aimed at ensuring that generation can always meet demand. It appears to be consistent with the “retailer capacity obligation” proposed in a Grattan Institute report last month.
Many of the precise policy details are yet to be worked out – not least the precise definition of “dispatchable generation” under this scheme. But the hope is that it will ensure all NEM states have sufficient electricity supply. Avoiding any repeat of last summer’s blackouts and shortages has become a political imperative.
While reliability might be guaranteed under the new policy, it should be remembered that capacity mechanisms tend to be both complex and costly. The devil will of course be in the detail. But the fact the government has chosen to impose the obligation on retailers suggests the market will be given the opportunity to find the least-cost solutions to our reliability needs.
A way forward?
So the retailers will now be responsible both for delivering our emissions reductions and for making sure that the lights stay on. These obligations will strengthen the incentives for retailers to own their own generation assets, rather than being hostage to wholesale prices. The issues raised by ACCC boss Rod Sims relating to the power of the big gentailers now have increased importance.
The National Energy Guarantee is not the best policy solution. A carbon price imposed on electricity generators may have avoided the need for either of the two “guarantees” contained in the NEG. But the political reality is that a carbon price of any sort is not going to be adopted in Australia any time soon.
So this is not a perfect solution, but it is better than what we have now. And importantly, it is supported by all members of the newly formed Energy Security Board. Opportunity knocks for this nation’s politicians.
The federal government today announced its long-awaited energy policy. As expected it has scrapped the Clean Energy Target proposed by Chief Scientist Alan Finkel, and has instead adopted a National Energy Guarantee, which focuses on ensuring electricity supply and putting downward pressure on energy prices.
The government is set to unveil its long-awaited energy plan that would scrap subsidies for renewables and impose obligations on power companies to source a certain proportion of “reliable” supply.
While the plan emphasises reliability and reducing power prices, the government is also confident it would allow Australia to meet its commitments under the Paris climate change agreement.
Cabinet considered the scheme on Monday night. It goes to the Coalition partyroom on Tuesday morning, before being announced later in the day.
It follows months of uncertainty and internal pressures within the Coalition over the future of energy policy, as the government battles to head off the risk of blackouts as well as to quell mounting voter anger at soaring bills.
In a report released on Monday the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission said residential electricity prices have increased by 63% on top of inflation in the last decade, with network costs being the major contributor.
As the government has flagged for a week, its plan rejects the clean energy target recommended in June by Chief Scientist Alan Finkel, to which Malcolm Turnbull initially appeared favourably disposed.
Ironically, the alternative scheme has been worked up by the Energy Security Board, a new body that was established on a recommendation from the Finkel inquiry.
Under the scheme, power companies would have twin obligations imposed on them by the government.
They would be required to get a certain amount of power from “reliable” sources – whether coal, gas, hydro, or batteries.
They would also have to source another amount that was consistent with lowering emissions in line with Australia’s international commitments. Australia has signed up to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 26–28% below 2005 levels by 2030.
It would be up to the companies as to how they met the obligations put on them.
The plan assumes that prices would be driven down because the scheme would give the certainty that investors have been looking for, so supply would increase.
The Coalition party meeting will be given an estimate of the expected savings on power bills, which would be more than the A$90 annual household saving estimated under the Finkel target.
The scheme is expected to appeal to the right in the Coalition because there are no subsidies for renewables, making for a level playing field – coal is treated the same as wind and solar.
The present renewable energy target would continue until its expiry in 2020, after which there would be no new certificates issued under it.
The Energy Security Board has on it an independent chair, Kerry Schott, and deputy chair, Clare Savage, as well as the heads of the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO), the Australian Energy Regulator, and the Australian Energy Market Commission.
The ABC reported that Drew Clarke, a former chief-of-staff to Turnbull and former head of the communications department, will become AEMO’s chair. This would be an appointment by the Council of Australian Governments.
In Question Time, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten accused Turnbull of “caving in” to Tony Abbott by rejecting a clean energy target.
Turnbull said the government “will deliver a careful energy plan based on engineering and economics, designed to deliver the triple bottom line of affordability, reliability and meeting our international commitments. And that is in stark contrast to the ideology and the idiocy that have been inflicted on us for years by the Australian Labor Party.”
Abbott, speaking on 2GB, said that “we’ve got a big policy problem” that needed to be addressed. This included “continued heavy subsidies for unreliable power”, lack of new coal-fired baseload power, bans on gas and a lack of incentives for farmers to go along with gas development, and bans on nuclear power.
Abbott said the problem over the last few years was that “we haven’t been running a system for affordability and reliability, we’ve been running a system to reduce emissions. It’s given us some of the most expensive power in the world and this is literally insane, given that we are the country with the largest readily available reserves of coal, gas and uranium.”
Monday’s Newspoll found that 63% thought taxpayer-funded subsidies for investment in renewables should be continued; only 23% thought they should be removed. But 58% said they would not be prepared to pay any more for electricity in order to implement a clean energy target to foster more renewable energy sources.
The chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), Rod Sims, holds out the prospect of an absolute fall in electricity bills over coming years – but says this will require focusing centrally on affordability, not just reliability and sustainability.
In its Retail Electricity Pricing Inquiry preliminary report into the electricity market, released on Monday, the ACCC says residential electricity prices have increased by 63% on top of inflation in the last decade, with network costs being the major contributor.
Household bills rose by nearly 44%, from an average of A$,1177 in 2007-08 to $1,691 in 2016-17.
Household bills have risen less than electricity prices because usage has fallen, mainly due to self-supply by solar panels.
The report comes as cabinet is set to consider on Monday the government’s energy policy, which it hopes to take to the Coalition partyroom on Tuesday. Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg last week signalled the government had moved away from the Finkel inquiry’s recommendation for a clean energy target.
Facing the prospect of a shortage of power in the period ahead, the government is particularly focused on the need to increase dispatchable power.
The clean energy target, even in modified form, is also unpopular in Coalition ranks.
The ACCC report indicates that supporting renewable energy has been a relatively minor driver of the spiking of prices.
Sims – who flagged the ACCC findings when he addressed the National Press Club recently – says affordability should be the “dominant” objective in policy but in recent years it has come after several other objectives – including reliability, dividends and sustainability.
He said different approaches were needed to pursue each of the objectives of affordability, reliability and sustainability. As reliability and sustainability were pursued, it was important to do it in “the least-cost way and to let people know the costs”.
“What’s clear from our report is that price increases over the past ten years are putting Australian businesses and consumers under unacceptable pressure,” he said.
The ACCC found that on average across the national electricity market (which does not include Western Australia or the Northern Territory), a 2015-16 residential bill was $1,524, excluding GST. This was made up of network costs (48%), wholesale costs (22%), environmental costs (7%), retail and other costs (16%) and retail margins (8%).
Sims said the primacy of network costs in rising bills was not widely recognised.
Since July 2016, retail price rises were likely to be driven by higher wholesale prices.
“We estimate that higher wholesale costs during 2016-17 contributed to a $167 increase in bills. The wholesale (generation) market is highly concentrated and this is likely to be contributing to higher wholesale electricity prices.”
The ACCC estimates that in 2016-17 South Australia had the highest residential electricity prices, followed by Queensland, then Victoria and New South Wales. SA prices were roughly double those in Europe.
Sims said measures the government had already taken – notably telling companies to make customers aware of better deals, and its plan to scrap the process allowing companies to appeal against decisions of the Australian Energy Regulator – would help lower prices.
The ACCC is now looking in detail at further measures, ahead of making a final report. In the meantime, its preliminary report puts forward some suggestions. These include the states reviewing concessions policy to ensure consumers know their entitlements and concessions are well targeted to the needy, and a tougher stand against market breaches.
It says increased generation capacity (particularly from non-vertically integrated generators), preventing further consolidation of existing generation assets, and lowering gas prices could help reduce the pressure on bills.
The ACCC will also look at how to mitigate the effect of past investment decisions – but it notes that many are “locked in” and will continue to burden users for many years.
It will as well consider what more can be done to make it easier for consumers to switch suppliers.
The report says that “an increasing number of consumers are reporting difficulties meeting their electricity costs, and some consumers have been forced to minimise their spending on other essential services, including food and health services, to afford electricity bills.
“Businesses across all sectors have faced even higher increases over the past 12 months, following renegotiation of long term contracts. Many of these businesses cannot pass the increased costs on and are considering reducing staff or relocating overseas. Some businesses have even been forced to close.”
The ACCC’s final report will be released in June next year.
Disclaimer: This article does not reflect my views about effective energy policy, which would ideally be comprehensive and deliver deep emissions reductions. Rather, this column explores what options might be attractive to our present prime minister and energy minister.
The energy melodrama continues to escalate. According to some interpretations, renewables are now so cheap that they don’t need any subsidy. Meanwhile, business concerns about energy policy uncertainty are reaching a crescendo, while voters see a government bumbling in the opposite direction to what much of the public actually wants.
Nevertheless, the existing Renewable Energy Target (RET) needs replacement, not least because it only runs until 2020 anyway. It is also too simple: it does not incentivise “dispatchable” renewable energy – that is, technologies that include energy storage to stabilise a grid that depends on intermittent renewables. To be fair, we need to remember that the current RET model was first proposed in 1997 and introduced by the Howard government, in a very different situation.
So we do need a new energy target in some form. A well-designed target will decline in cost as competition and innovation do their work; it would be an effective policy tool to support emerging activities. We might think of it as a government endorsement that helps to focus both industry and consumers. Some degree of certainty is needed to underpin investment. And, as I explain later, a well-designed approach improves system reliability and stability.
So how does the government encourage reliable, affordable, cleanish electricity supply while also meeting its other apparent criteria of supporting coal and not boosting renewable energy “too much”? On top of that, how does it deal with high gas prices, which increase the cost of gas-fired generation? And support Snowy 2.0? It’s a wicked problem.
A dispatchable reliable energy target – a DRET – could be an attractive solution to a government in trouble. Superficially, it sounds like just a tweak of the popular RET. It mentions the right buzzwords. It could include incentives for “baseload coal”. It might even pass through the Senate.
It’s worth noting that the present RET certificate price was trending down nicely towards zero – until the Abbott government tried to kill it off and investment collapsed. Renewable certificate prices (actually Large Generation Certificates, or LGCs) had fallen below A$30 due to competition. The Abbott government’s own review found that renewable energy was pushing down wholesale electricity prices by about as much as the cost of the certificates. The scheme was functioning effectively as a cheap net incentive for large-scale renewable energy.
Meanwhile, the price for Small Technology Certificates (STCs) that subsidise rooftop solar on voters’ homes has remained high, but has been politically untouchable.
DRET design options
Under a DRET, variable renewable energy projects would need to incorporate or partner with facilities that could store energy, stabilise voltage and frequency, and help restart after a blackout. As the present energy market provides weak signals for these, and they would cost extra, the rationale for a subsidy exists, even for coal-supporting MPs who want to be re-elected. So the subsidy would shift from the energy source, to the delivery of reliable supply.
Another important question is how incentives can be delivered in ways that support efficient market operation. The present RET certificate approach sends a price signal, but leaves qualifying generators exposed to risk from varying wholesale electricity and certificate prices.
Alternatives such as reverse auctions linked to long-term contracts focus on competitive bidding as the “market” dimension of the subsidies. The successful bidders would also face market forces as they bid their output into the competitive wholesale market.
Reverse auctions potentially provide long term stability for service providers and consumers. These could be traditional Power Purchase Agreements, or the ACT government’s “contract for difference” approach. These approaches could be applied to energy efficiency measures and demand-side options.
Extra features, such as local job creation and grid stabilisation, can be included in long-term contracts, as we have seen in state government programs in the ACT and, recently, Victoria.
An advantage of the reverse auction approach for a government is that it can be tweaked in response to changes in technologies, cost trends, demand and market rules, as we have seen with the Emission Reduction Fund.
Where to for coal?
As I look at the future of coal, I can’t help but be reminded of the famous comment by a Saudi sheikh in the 1970s: the stone age didn’t end because we ran out of stones.
In a DRET model, new coal plant proposals could bid like other generators. But they would confront their own challenges to provide comprehensive services and meet potential extra requirements built into auctions, such as employment in a wide range of sectors and across broad geographical areas.
Coal plant is not “fast response”, so it may also need storage to meet response requirements. Also, each coal generation unit is large, so a failure at a critical time might not meet dispatchability and reliability criteria without support from other generators, demand response, storage or other solutions.
The climate elephant
A DRET would not actively address climate policy: this exclusion seems to be necessary for any energy policy to survive the Coalition party room. However, it is still likely to help to cut emissions. Future auctions could incorporate a carbon intensity or other climate dimension. And it would provide some certainty for investors in energy solutions.
A DRET would operate in a complex environment, where state and local governments, businesses, communities and individuals, and even the Commonwealth government, will continue to act to achieve their own objectives, including climate response.