Sunday, 1 April 2018

Why Britain's distorted electricity market means that 'subsidy free' renewable energy is a myth

The media is awash with stories of the imminent emergence of 'subsidy free' wind and solar power in the UK, but the reality is that the uncompetitive nature of the British electricity market mostly undermines that prospect. In theory onshore wind power and maybe some solar power projects would be able to generate power to sell at competitive prices on the British wholesale electricity market. In practice most of the potential buyers of energy from new renewable energy projects will not be interested in buying the energy even at cheap prices simply because it conflicts with their own generation portfolios.

True, there is a limited possibility for some very large corporate consumers who are interested in buying green electricity to fund new projects by issuing corporate power purchase agreements (PPAs). But in reality this market is small, and I have heard this estimated to be no larger than 100 MW a year. That means it would take around 20 years for not quite 1 per cent of electricity to be supplied this way.

PPAs are needed for new renewable energy projects that offer the generators the certainty that they can be paid a minimum amount for each MWh that they produce for the long term. The UK Government's PPAs, called contracts for differences (CfDs), last 15 years. However they are no longer available for onshore wind and solar.

The problem is that most of the market for offering PPAs that can fund new renewable energy projects comes from the big electricity suppliers, who have been known in the past as the 'Big Six'. Only PPAs offered by really large companies will be usually taken seriously enough by banks and and other institutions to enable renewable energy projects to obtain long term loans or equity. The trouble is that the Big Energy suppliers will usually have little interest in offering long term PPAs to new renewable energy projects. For a start they can buy in power at much the same price as the renewable energy generator can offer without needing to commit themselves to long term agreements. Crucially, the big electricity companies are struggling to keep their own power stations in business, and are not going to sign up competition from other people for their own business!

It is something of a trade secret that the only reason the Big Energy companies ever did offer long term PPAs to renewable energy companies under the Renewables Obligation was simply because they could make a lot of money out of doing so. In effect, they were compensated for the losses their power plant accrued through not being able to sell so much electricity. This goes a long way to explain how it is that renewable energy has, in the past, seemed so much more expensive in the UK compared to other European countries. But now those Government incentives are no longer on offer to new renewable energy projects.

Without financing renewable energy projects cannot be set up, and financial institutions will usually only invest/loan money to companies that they think have a pretty certain likelihood of being in business for the length of any PPA that they will issue. Various smaller electricity suppliers may have a very robust future. However, unfortunately, many financial institutions may not have a sufficiently positive attitude to smaller electricity suppliers to allow them to offer cheap financing to those potential renewable generators that have been offered PPAs.

There are, of course, various green electricity suppliers who offer renewable electricity, but of course these will invariably be existing projects that have been funded already through the Government's Renewables Obligation or maybe the feed-in tariff scheme. But these options are no longer available for new renewable energy projects.

At the end of the day there are a few independent big consumers - the Googles, Microsofts etc of this world - who will be interested in offering corporate PPAs to cheap new renewable energy projects. However such companies represent a very small segment of the electricity market.

At the end of the day, there may be lots of potential for generating electricity from renewable energy at prices that are no higher than that from new gas fired power stations. But the British electricity market is skewed against this happening. Renewable energy projects are capital intensive which means that investors have to take a long term risk to support them - so we need long term PPAs to be underpinned by the Government. But despite encouraging noises coming from Energy Minister Claire Perry on this subject, there seems little early prospect of such contracts (CfDs in government-speak) being made available for onshore wind and solar.


  1. A small cut price niche market?

  2. An additional problem is that the ability of abundant renewables to push down spot power prices when sun is shining / wind is blowing means that, in a 'free' market, most renewables generation will take place when power prices are low. Dynamic demand and storage will be important in countering this effect.