A windy week in Germany produced the expected result. Wholesale electricity prices from 19th to 26th February 2017 dipped below zero four times and much of the weekend saw figures below €25 a megawatt hour. This pattern is increasingly frequent across many electricity markets. As the Economist pointed out last week, the arrival of large scale renewables with zero operating cost is eating away at the businesses of those companies reliant on selling on the open market. €25 does not pay for the cost of the gas to generate a megawatt hour in a power station. In the US, NRG, which is the largest independent producer of power, summed up the problem by saying its business model was now ‘obsolete’. Lower and lower prices are making it impossible to produce electricity from gas or coal in markets increasingly captured by solar and wind. Equally, no-one can raise the finance to build new power stations, even in those countries with ageing fleets, such as the UK, because of low prices and fewer and fewer hours of operation. This problem will get worse. Whether you are an enthusiast for a fast transition to a renewables-based energy system or are sceptical about the pace of change, the destruction of the traditional utility by the eating away of wholesale prices is not good news. It increases the possibility that the increasingly rapid switch to renewables around the world will be brought to a shuddering halt by governments worried about the security of energy supply because of the intermittency of wind and solar. Although we can make huge progress in adjusting electricity use to varying supply, ‘demand response’ will never be enough to deal with weeks of low wind speed and little sun in northern countries. ‘Power-to-gas’ is the critical remaining ingredient of the energy transition. Can I put this as strongly as I can? Without a rapid and whole-hearted commitment to this technology, the renewables revolution may ultimately fail. the right way to ‘fix the broken utility model’ that the Economist talks about is to link the gas and electricity markets through large-scale application of power-to-gas technologies. Big utilities talk about understanding the need for decentralisation but the reality is that they will be terrible at moving away from centralised production plants. What they would be good at is running large scale electrolysis and methanation operations that allow them to continue to run CCGT power plants when electricity is scarce. We will not need capacity payments or other complex subsidies and incentive schemes. By creating a continuing role for CCGT we will have found a way to keep our energy supply secure without threatening decarbonisation objectives.
Carbon Commentary 2nd March 2017 read more »