Energy Bill will impose immense costs on households and businesses

Today’s agreement on energy policy, ahead of the forthcoming introduction of the Energy Bill, shows the government remains committed to meeting ambitious targets on greenhouse gas emissions and renewable energy. The economic cost will be immense. The Department of Energy and Climate Change quotes a figure of £110 billion of investment in the electricity sector alone (by 2020), a high proportion of which will be used to expand offshore wind capacity and connect it to the national grid. This investment will be funded by higher bills.

A number of questionable claims are made to justify the policy. Firstly, it is claimed that new investment is required to ‘keep the lights on’ since a significant proportion of coal-fired power stations will close within the next few years.  In fact, environmental policies – in particular the EU Large Combustion Plant Directive (LCPD), which is supported by the UK government – are forcing the closure of coal-fired power stations which are not fitted with desulphurisation plants. In other words, the potential reduction in generating capacity is itself largely the result of environmental regulation.

Then there is the claim that meeting the targets on emissions and renewable will add only a small amount to bills. In reality, these policies are already inflating electricity prices by a very large degree. This is because government regulation effectively forces power companies to generate electricity from high cost sources and limits the extent to which they can deploy low-cost sources such as coal. The Renewables Obligation and feed-in-tariffs are two ways in the electricity market is rigged to achieve this result. And as long ago as the 1990s the ‘dash for gas’ was partly spurred by the imposition of EU regulations on coal-fired generation. It is telling that in US states that have refused to adopt European-style green policies, electricity prices are now over 50 per cent lower than in the UK. Indeed, DECC itself has estimated that by 2015, climate change policies will be adding 26 per cent to domestic electricity prices and 10 per cent to domestic gas prices. The impact on commercial users will be similar. This estimate implies an extra burden on energy consumers of approximately £12 billion per annum. Other environmental policies such as the LCPD will push up prices even further.  Moreover, there will be additional negative effects on the wider economy. For example, rising energy costs are likely to add to the political pressure to raise welfare benefits for those on low incomes, who spend a disproportionate share of their income on utility bills.

Despite the huge costs being imposed within the UK, these policies are unlikely to make a discernible difference to climate change. Firstly, Britain accounts for only a tiny fraction of global greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, developing countries are rapidly increasing their carbon output. Secondly, higher energy costs in the UK are likely to displace economic activity, particularly energy intensive industries, to countries with lower costs such as China, a process known as ‘carbon leakage’. If production is less energy efficient in developing countries, as is often the case, this may actually lead to a rise in emissions. Given their questionable overall effectiveness, there is surely a strong case for the British government to moderate its green energy policies to take greater account of their impact on households and businesses. At the very least, the government should ensure that targets are met at the lowest possible cost by reforming fiscal and regulatory frameworks so that they treat different sources of emissions similarly.

23 November 2012, IEA Blog

Picking winners and nuclear power

Faced with ambitious climate change targets, the government has decided that nuclear power will play a leading role in supplying the UK’s future electricity needs. Ten new plants will be built in the next decade or so, which should provide about a quarter of total supply.

The nuclear option appears to be far more sensible than an equivalent expansion of wind power. Indeed, the unreliability of wind energy means that it must be backed up with conventional capacity, while its dispersed geographical distribution imposes additional costs on the network infrastructure.

Yet nuclear has its own problems. If the new plants are built on schedule and on budget then the impact on electricity prices is likely to be relatively small. Historical experience, however, does not support such optimism.  

Britain’s previous nuclear programmes were economically disastrous. They were plagued by delays, cost overruns, and design flaws. In today’s prices development losses amounted to at least £20 billion, while decommissioning may end up costing another £75 billion.

It is quite plausible that the latest plans will face similar problems. If capital costs rise significantly there will be upward pressure on bills. As a result of political obstacles to new fossil-fuel plants, there is also a severe danger that electricity prices will be pushed higher still by an artificial shortage of capacity if there are delays to the nuclear plant coming onstream.

Then there is the risk borne by the taxpayer if nuclear consortia run into financial difficulties. Given the centrality of the programme to environmental policy, the government will be obliged to ensure construction is completed at almost any cost. And, of course, the difficult-to-price long-term burdens of decommissioning and waste-storage will be loaded on to the taxpayer or electricity consumer.

If the government is determined to reduce carbon emissions then it would surely be more cost effective to set a general framework within which energy companies would be free to choose the most efficient methods of generation. The well-known economic calculation problems facing central planners and the powerful role of special interest groups mean that policies based on micro-management and picking winners are almost always unsuccessful.

1 December 2009, IEA Blog

The economics of windfall taxes

The imposition of a windfall tax on energy companies is supported by a majority of the public and many politicians. Revenues would be used to support low-income households struggling to pay gas and electricity bills following a series of steep price rises.

Yet consideration of the economic impacts of such a measure should lead to its outright rejection. Firstly, the arbitrary imposition of an extra payment would increase the risks to businesses of investing: as a result, they will demand higher returns on their investments or choose not to invest at all. Secondly, the tax would reduce the dividends paid out to energy company shareholders. These companies are not owned by “fat cats” but by us all through pension funds and insurance companies. Finally, it would reduce the funds available for investment in new sources of supply, thereby increasing energy costs in the long term.

Given the above effects, a windfall tax could harm many of the people it was designed to help and actually reduce long-term tax revenues. More generally, harsh though it may seem, it is a very slippery slope trying to protect parts of the population from particular price increases – especially in the energy sector. That is the way to stop people adjusting to a new environment of greater scarcity and is precisely the best way to induce shortages of supply in the future.

9 September 2008, IEA Blog

Coal’s revival can help cut energy bills

Energy companies are raising gas and electricity prices again, meaning yet more misery for those struggling to pay their bills. Many pensioners face the prospect of spending about a quarter of their income on basic utility services – and that’s on top of the increasingly unaffordable council tax.

While political tension in the Middle East and high demand in Asia are clearly partly responsible for high wholesale energy prices, government policies, driven by an environmentalist agenda, are making a difficult situation far worse.
An increasing share of bills is being used to subsidise uneconomic renewable energy, such as wind power. By 2010, the Government’s renewables obligation will add £1bn a year to electricity prices. Proposals by the European Commission to introduce legal targets for green energy are likely to lead to bill increases of 10-15 per cent by 2020.

Extra expenditure will also be needed to integrate wind power into the national grid. The planned offshore locations tend to be distant from the existing network so new capacity will be required. This means that stretches of coastline are likely to be scarred by unsightly pylons, or that consumers will subsidise the costly process of burying power cables underground.

A further problem is that wind power is highly unreliable. Extra capacity must, therefore, be provided in conventional power stations to maintain supplies on calm days.

And there is more bad news. The decision to build a new generation of nuclear power stations will further increase prices. When capital costs are included, nuclear generation is significantly more expensive than coal-fired. Construction overruns, as well as largely unknown decommissioning and waste-disposal costs, could further inflate bills. If the consortia building the new stations go bust, the Government could end up finishing the job with taxpayers’ money.
Britain’s previous nuclear programmes have been economically disastrous – development losses amount to at least £20bn, while decommissioning is likely to cost another £75bn. Yet caution has been thrown to the wind in an attempt to appease the global-warming lobby.

Environmental policies have also raised the cost of fossil-fuel generation. Some coal-fired power stations, such as Drax, near Selby, have been fitted with expensive desulphurisation plants – costing up to £1bn each in current prices.
Yet this equipment may actually speed up climate change, since sulphur dioxide emissions are thought to have a cooling effect on the atmosphere. The desulphurisation process also requires vast quantities of limestone, which has meant additional quarrying in the Peak District.

These sulphur “scrubbers” were designed to reduce acid rain, but it is now clear that the scale of the problem was greatly exaggerated by a coalition of environmentalists and European bureaucrats. Acid rain from UK power stations had a positive fertilising effect on many soils and actually improved agricultural yields. The damage to trees was negligible. But electricity customers have ended up paying dearly for measures that, in reality, have had little impact.

True to character, environmentalists are strongly opposing proposals to build a new coal-fired plant in Kingsnorth, Kent. Yet such new capacity is needed desperately to keep bills under control. Electricity from coal power stations is cheaper than gas or nuclear, while new technology means that new plants will be 20 per cent more efficient than existing ones and release far less carbon.

Energy security would also be enhanced. Major coal exporters include Australia and the US – stable countries that are unlikely to threaten Britain’s supplies. And the world won’t run out of coal in the near future – reserves will last for hundreds of years.

There is, therefore, a strong economic and environmental case for building new coal-fired power stations. Yet despite huge benefits – cheaper electricity and lower emissions – none has been built in the last 20 years.

Whether it made economic sense to “dash for gas” in the 1990s is a moot point, but gas has recently been in short supply, and the market has responded. A new pipeline has been built from Norway to Easington, in the East Riding, and import capacity for liquified gas has been increased at Milford Haven, in Wales. The energy companies should also be given similar flexibility to exploit new coal-powered electricity generation.

But an increased level of regulation is likely to make such adaptation more difficult in the future. As politicians and bureaucrats attempt to control how our gas and electricity is supplied, there will be reduced scope for the innovation and entrepreneurship needed to combine lower prices with lower emissions.

The recent policy record does not augur well for consumers. Government interventions in the energy sector have achieved very little in terms of improving the environment but have been highly successful at raising bills.

6 August 2008, Yorkshire Post