Coal condemned

During the last decade, the majority of the OECD countries decoupled their economic growth from energy consumption. Normally these rise in tandem – a trend that persists in developing countries and world’s soon-to-be fastest growing and most populous nation, India.

This decoupling happened as developed nations shifted to providing services and building knowledge economies, which is less energy-intensive than industrial production and manufacturing. China too has started down this path. Policy-makers now talk of “decarbonising” the economy. That is, only producing and consuming energy which does not release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and contributing to climate change.

Decarbonisation is currently focussed in the electricity sector where it is being helped along by policy incentives. Subsidies, guaranteed prices for electricity and tax-breaks dramatically boosted the growth in renewable electricity generation across Europe in the last few years. The liberalisation of Europe’s electricity markets and new regulation improving competition also played a role. Although, falling prices and technology gains spurred the sector’s expansion more than any government policy, particularly for solar power.

For renewables’ expansion to make any difference to greenhouse gas emissions coal-fired power production has to be tackled. Although it is cheap, burning coal releases significantly more greenhouses gases than other fossil fuels including gas in the electricity sector and oil in transportation. Europe’s aging fleet of coal-fired plants are also extremely inefficient at generating electricity compared to newer gas-fired units. A quarter of electricity in the European Union and almost forty-percent in the United States is still generated by burning coal. It is around two-thirds of the electricity mix in China where the resulting air pollution in its major cities is fuelling a sense of urgency.

Political leaders are aware of this danger and are acting to reduce coal production and consumption in many countries around the world. By 2025 all coal-fired power in the United Kingdom will be shut down according to current plans. New Zealand will close its two remaining large-scale coal-fired power plants in 2018. The provincial government of Alberta in Canada, where the tar sands industry alone produces more emissions than Portugal, has announced plans to phase-out coal power over the next fifteen years. China’s goal is to cap coal consumption in 2025 and accelerate its decline thereafter.

President Obama’s Clean Power Plan intends to restrict emissions from current coal-fired power plans, substitute coal with gas-fired or zero-carbon generation and impose strict emissions standards on new plants. The goal is to cut emissions in the electricity sector by a third relative to 2005 levels. Coal mining states have fiercely contested this “war on coal”, which is bound to be difficult for certain towns and regions whose local economy and workforce are dependent on coal mining, not just in the US. Nevertheless, coal needs to eventually exit the electricity sector if the commitments made by the US and 195 other countries at COP21 in Paris late last year are to materialise.

Yet, none of the above is enough to slow climate change. India is set to contribute the greatest share of growth in global coal demand in the future, mostly from increased domestic production. How it intends to reach its goal to produce forty-percent of its electricity from non-fossil fuel sources by 2020 is unclear. In Germany, coal’s resurgence in the power sector has cast a shadow over its achievements in increased generation from renewable resources. Angela Merkel’s government is working on a plan to phase out coal by mid-century. From the European Unions’s biggest economy this is too long to wait. Decarbonising electricity production by phasing out coal remains a long way off. Coal has been condemned by the world’s leaders but not yet replaced.

Market distortions favour fossil fuels

Fossil fuel subsidies cost governments 550 billion dollars annually according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), an independent, Paris-­based think tank. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) believes the cost of these subsidies is even higher, comprising 6.5 percent of global GDP.

Oil subsidies for consumers

Subsidies take on many forms. In Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Venezuela – big oil ­producing countries – citizens pay prices below the cost-of-production at the petrol pump. Oil companies are paying to sell petrol in these markets. Why would they do this? International oil companies can still make a phenomenal profit exporting even just a fraction of their output and selling it at international oil prices. So they’ll agree to production contracts, in countries such as Iraq and Venezuela, where a significant proportion of output is nevertheless destined for the domestic market and sold below-cost.

State-owned oil companies, such as Saudi Aramco, do the same thing, but have a different motive. Saudi Aramco explicitly supports government policy aimed at reducing citizens’ cost-of-living. It can also easily afford to supply domestic markets with below-cost petrol by exporting the remainder.

Be aware that policies aimed at reducing the cost of petrol locally do little to encourage fuel efficiency. Furthermore, the IEA believes that only eight-percent of benefits from such subsidies flow to the poorest fifth of the world’s population.

More sagely, the Saudis also fund public projects, such as schools and infrastructure, with profits reaped from oil exports.

Oil subsidies for producers

Tax-­breaks encouraging the exploration and development of local oil reserves are another means of subsidising the oil sector – to the advantage of producers rather than consumers. In the United States, Exxon, Chevron, BP, Royal Dutch Shell and ConocoPhillips all claim tax breaks for exploration and drilling, known as “intangible drilling costs.” On average, seventy­-percent of these costs are regained within a year. [1]

Also, overseas royalty fees paid to foreign governments by US­-based oil firms can be reclaimed against their corporate income tax. Royalties are essentially the fees set by governments for foreign oil companies who wish to do business with them.

Exxon, Chevron, BP, Royal Dutch Shell and ConocoPhillips are all Fortune 500 companies and remain amongst the most profitable in the world despite the recent decline in international oil prices. Yet they’re not required to pay the full corporate tax rate as other for-­profit US companies do.

What’s more, “small,” independent US oil companies are also permitted tax breaks when the amount of oil extracted from an ageing production site starts to deplete -on top of the tax benefits described above. This is very generous given that tax is already proportionate to profit. Imagine that in 2003 my profit-take is $10 million USD. If the tax rate is 30% then I owe $3 million in taxes. If my profit-take drops to $9 million in 2004 my tax burden declines as well, down to $2.7 million. However, this additional tax-­break promises the bill drops even further. I might only owe $2 million. In this case my after-­tax profit is the same in 2003 and 2004: $7 million. Further, the majority of these “small” independents still have an average market capitalisation of two billion US dollars according to Oil Change International.

Oil companies contest that native exploration and production would not be profitable in the United States without these tax breaks. Yet, if a project is not economically viable why should the government of a market-­based society fund your commercial project? Well, there are circumstances under which this is considered appropriate. Perhaps your project serves the public good. This is why governments pay for fire stations, a police force or infrastructure like roads and electricity lines. Or maybe your project is part of the transition towards a greener and more sustainable economy? Or an attempt to curb greenhouse gas emissions?

Green subsidies for producers

Germany’s generous subsidies for renewable energies aspire to such ends. The country’s ambitious Energiewende policy, meaning energy “turn-around,” is the experiment the whole world is watching.

So far, these subsidies have had questionable success. Coal’s resurgence in Europe, along with the decommissioning of the country’s nuclear fleet, have increased Germany’s greenhouse gas emissions over the past few years.[2] Also, subsidies for renewable wind or solar farms’ installation and operating costs are passed on to the consumer. Average electricity prices in Germany have risen since 2008.

Furthermore, feed­-in tariffs that guarantee renewable energy producers a minimum price for their power, and priority to sell into the grid every day, are threatening the traditional market’s stability. Unprofitable gas and coal power plants’ operating hours are decreasing and many have had to close. This could lead to supply shortages and brown-outs or black-outs in the near future.

Finally, it has been demonstrated that early subsidies for solar panels stunted the innovation that would’ve brought commercially viable solar technologies to Europe’s markets sooner. The same technology lag effect has been observed in offshore wind.

Nevertheless, if energy subsidies exist at all surely they should favour low or zero­-carbon energies? It makes no sense for governments the world over to subsidise – to the tune of billions of dollars – the energies increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to the disadvantage of other energy sources. Current subsides for renewables comprise but a fourth of what goes to fossil fuels annually. If renewables were to receive the subsidies that fossil fuels do then the market would favour carbon­-friendly energy production over fossil fuels. It is worth making renewable energy production more profitable than it would be otherwise given the global threat of climate change. The same cannot be said for fossil fuels.

[1] References: The Atlanticthe IEA & the IMF.

[2]  This applies primarily to the electricity sector, but overall emissions did rise between 2009 and 2014. The 2008 drop is attributable to the Global Financial Crisis and economic downturn across Europe. Hopefully 2015 is the year this trend will turn-around. Take a look at this graph.

Future electricity grids: the rise of the prosumer

Unlike other commodities such as gas and oil, electricity cannot  be easily stored. It must be consumed almost as soon as it is produced.

Consumer demand follows a fairly predictable pattern. Electricity prices are higher on weekdays when “peaking” power plants come online to satisfy increased demand. The first demand peak occurs in the morning – when a high proportion of the population is getting ready for work or school.  A second peak occurs in the evening when consumers return home and start cooking dinner, or turn on the television.

Conventional power generators such as coal and gas turbines can respond quickly to variable consumer demand by increasing fuel input and ramping up output during the day. Nighttime is a cool-off period.

Intermittent renewables changed this model. We must now factor in unpredictable supply peaks and increased price volatility. In the UK and Germany consumers bear the brunt of these new costs. You can read more about how renewables are shaking up the traditional power model here. 

There are several ways to manage this new supply intermittency and smooth prices.

One is more interconnections. These reduce bottlenecks and diversify supply sources so that electricity-rich areas can service electricity-poor ones. Nations hoping to boost electricity production from renewable sources will need a well-connected grid, as an oversupplied area can experience shortages as soon as the weather changes. New power lines require public support and investment.

Short-term (spot) electricity trading can optimise electricity flows between areas and facilitate price arbitrage. Spot trading services are offered by EPEX Spot in Central Western Europe or ERCOT in Texas, for example. These services also permit renewable energy producers to rebalance their books if the weather forecast was inaccurate and they produce much more or much less electricity than predicted.

Smart grid technology uses real-time information about supply and demand to automatically adjust electricity flows curtailing price peaks (or negative prices). Again public money is needed to roll-out this infrastructure at the national level.

Another means is electricity storage.

Pumped hydro-storage has existed for a long time. It is the only large-scale storage technology used commercially. It involves pumping water uphill when electricity prices are low, then running water downhill, through turbines, during peak-price hours to generate electricity. Pumped hydro projects are nevertheless hugely dependent on local geography and rainfall, as well as regulations regarding water-use.

The lithium-ion batteries used in electric cars pack a lot of energy density for their size. They cost around US$10 000, even for a small vehicle, and can only run for about 175km before recharging. This could be better. Crucially, lithium-ion batteries do not suffer from “memory” issues. Meaning that don’t need to be drained before being recharged.

Battery manufacturers across Asia and the USA are struggling to cut costs and upscale their technology to plug into the electricity grid. Yet, electricity generation is decentralising. Small-scale industrial and household solar production is on the rise. Rather than selling their excess power back to the grid some could go off-grid.

Most experimental batteries would need to be bigger than a house in order to store enough solar electricity to power one household for a day. And they remain prohibitively expensive. However, Tesla caused a lot of excitement last month when it announced plans to market lithium-ion batteries at prices starting from US$3500. It costs a household a further US$5000 or so to install solar panels. Nevertheless, this much-anticipated battery is priced lower than any other technology on the market. The Tesla battery should be small enough and safe enough to install in your basement. Plus, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to operate it.

How did they do it? It’s not new technology. Rather, Tesla is building a US$5 billion gigafactory in Nevada’s desert, where it hopes to realise enormous economies of scale. While the market is still waiting for a technological revolution – the step-change that would make batteries as portable and powerful as microchips which are continuously delivering ever cheaper computing power – Tesla intends to reduce manufacturing costs for current battery technologies.

There is a sizable market of homeowners prepared to fit out their homes with solar panels, battery storage and adopt other energy efficient technologies. These early adopters need enough cash to  invest upfront, before they reap the benefits in reduced or zero-cost electricity bills in the months and years that follow.

For most middle class homeowners US$8500 is no small fee. Companies such as SolarCity in the US provide another piece of the jigsaw. Financed by high net worth individuals, as well as Google and Goldman Sachs, the company pays for solar panel installations, aggregates the earnings from energy savings and grid buybacks, then sells bonds based on a predicted revenue stream. Such creative financing will hasten the prosumer revolution and eventually take some of us off-grid.

No one technology will solve all the problems intermittent renewable energies have introduced into electricity markets. A patchwork of different solutions looks likely to emerge – with some consumers taking matters into their own hands.

Electricity prices & the solar eclipse

Electricity cannot be stored. When the sun hits a solar panel, or coal is burnt to turn a turbine and generate an electrical current, this energy is delivered to the distribution grid straight away.

Spot markets are where wholesale electricity producers and consumers go to balance their planned against their actual electricity needs. Those needs become clearer the closer we are to delivery, which is why electricity is often traded the day-ahead, or on the same day as delivery to the grid (intraday). This is particularly true for solar and wind power generators since the weather forecast becomes increasingly accurate from 24 hours out.

Solar eclipse

If you are a solar power farm what do you do if your energy source – the sun – goes offline? This is what happened last Friday morning, March 20th, in North-Western Europe. A solar eclipse, lasting around 75 minutes, during which the moon at least partially blocked the sun, had a big effect on solar electricity production.

Germany was particularly affected. Today it gets approximately seven-percent of its electricity from solar energy.

The celestial event affected French-German intraday spot prices between 9:00 and 11:00am. If you didn’t know better you might’ve thought the traders had pressed the wrong buttons on their keyboards! Bids as low as -975.00 euros and as high as 950.00 euros were tendered. To give you an idea prices are normally closer to 20.00 or 40.00 euros on the intraday market at the moment.

The final prices did eventually settle at 40.79 euros for 9:00-10:00am, and 66.37 euros for 10:00-11:00am, but varied a lot within the hour. Some 15min intervals settled at a negative price. This is not so unusual and has been seen before.[i] Nevertheless, the spot market demonstrated strong resilience to price volatility during the eclipse.

Negative electricity prices

When wind and solar generators have really good days electricity prices can drop below zero.[ii] The negative price means the market is oversupplied.  Everyone produced more electricity than expected and they don’t know what to do with it.

A negative price indicates you would actually pay someone else to use the excess electricity you produced. Why? It might be too late to decrease your production. Gas, coal and nuclear power plants need several hours to warm up (or down). Such facilities do not have simply on/off switches.

Avoiding blackouts

Those in charge of maintaining electrical grid stability, Grid Operators, can impose large fines if you exceed what you committed to delivering to the grid. Or if you do not produce as much as promised. Paying someone else to consume your excess electricity is probably a lesser loss than the fines imposed by Grid Operators.

The Grid Operators impose these rules because electrical currents need to be gently “ramped up” and “ramped down.”[iii] They have to plan ahead to ensure electricity flows safely and avoid blackouts.

What’s more consumers are fickle. You wouldn’t have been happy if your computer crashed, or you couldn’t make a cup of tea during your morning break because there wasn’t enough electricity – solar eclipse or not.

No one knew exactly how the solar eclipse would affect production, which explains traders’ erratic behavior. Somewhere else in Europe a more flexible electricity generator – probably a gas-fired power plant – had to quickly ramp up production to replace the eclipsed solar generation and meet consumer demand. Only the most modern and efficient power plants can react this quickly.

A test for Germany

The sudden drop in solar electricity production was an important test of grid stability. If Germany achieves its 2050 goal to produce 60% of its electricity from renewables, then cloudy days will have an affect on the grid as significant as last week’s solar eclipse.

The European Union also plans to increase the share of renewables in electricity production across the continent. In the future enormous swings in solar production could become commonplace.

[i] Take a look at all the prices here.

[ii] Sunny days tend to be windier then average, so solar and wind production peaks can coincide.

[iii] Imagine pulling your hairdryer out of the wall when it’s on full blast. Sparks fly! Multiply that effect by thousands and you can imagine the challenge for Grid Operators.