All around the world, power systems are changing fast. For example last year Denmark supplied 63% of its power demand from variable renewables (wind and solar PV) while last June Great Britain went a full 18 days without burning coal for power generation.
Yet despite such examples of progress, change has not been fast enough to meet the objectives of the Paris Agreement. In fact, power sector emissions have been on the rise over the past two years and investments in variable renewable power capacity appear to have stalled for the first time in two decades. Meanwhile electrification continues in sectors such as transport – and without accelerated decarbonisation, much of the growth in power demand will be met by fossil fuels.
But having more low-carbon electricity on the grid is not enough; we need to make better use of that low-carbon electricity. That means coordinated action on the transformation of power systems.
Power system flexibility – the ability to respond in a timely manner to variations in electricity supply and demand – stands at the core of this transformation. Luckily, policy makers and industry leaders across the globe are increasingly aware of the importance of flexibility and are taking action. Over the last two years, two Clean Energy Ministerial Campaigns have contributed to developing an understanding of what technical solutions for flexibility are available – in power plants, grids, storage and on the demand side.
That’s the ‘what’ of power system flexibility. But the more difficult questions are ‘how do we implement this flexibility?’ and ‘who should be involved?’.
The answer is: it depends. More precisely, introducing the appropriate measures to deploy power system flexibility requires a deep, thoughtful look at each country’s institutional framework. One key finding from the various workshops and forums organised by the CEM Power System Flexibility Campaign is that the changes necessary to activate innovative flexibility solutions inevitably deal with regulatory decisions.
One key myth that these same events are contributing to dismantle is that power sector regulation is far too complex and far too country-specific to profit from international sharing of best practices. In fact, it may be the contrary. This sharing of best practices is one of the main contributions of the joint IEA and 21st Century Power Partnership report Status of Power System Transformation 2019, which explores the various points of intervention, along with the relevant stakeholders for flexibility deployment.
The report describes how it is possible for policy makers to easily identify areas where they can directly enable change and areas where more targeted interventions may need wider stakeholder engagement.
It starts by looking at energy strategies, legal frameworks, and policies and programmes. These high-level instruments are usually what is thought of when looking at renewable energy policy support. While relatively far away from implementation, this level is particularly important as it sets the overall course for power system development.
Energy strategies typically lay out broad targets, such as China’s target of flexibility retrofits for 220 GW of coal-fired power plants in its 13th Five-Year Plan or Switzerland’s ‘Energy Strategy 2050’. Legal frameworks go one step closer to implementation by defining electricity industry structure along with the foundations of who does what, such as the UK’s recent bill for electric mobility or the distribution sector and flexibility reforms in Chile. Lastly, policies and programmes can be useful tools to test specific technology approaches or focus on specific aspects of the energy transition, for example Italy’s feasibility study on ‘Virtual Storage Systems’ or the creation of a working group for the modernisation of Brazil’s power sector.
While these high-level solutions are necessary and can be very effective, accelerating the energy transition for increasingly complex and decentralised power systems will increasingly require detailed fine-tuning of institutional frameworks. This is where we come to regulation, market rules and technical standards. By allocating costs and risk, regulation essentially determines who can do what, and how. Similarly, market rules and technical standards play a key role in shaping the interactions of different stakeholders in the power system.
In many cases, it may be necessary to update regulatory frameworks to recognise the new capabilities of new technologies in the power system. This might be the responsibility of the regulator in the case of vertically integrated utilities or spread across regulatory decisions, market rules and technical standards in the case of more unbundled power systems.
For example, if modern wind and solar power plants are technically able to provide frequency regulation, the recognition of their contribution to system reliability may require a regulatory decision to assess and validate their capabilities. It might also require modifying the system operator’s market rules to allow access to ancillary services, as was done in Spain.
Similarly, if digitalisation and decentralisation of the power system offer the potential of greater demand-side participation, it will be regulation that enables smaller system resources to participate in energy, capacity and ancillary service markets. How this is implemented would vary across jurisdictions, for example updating prequalification requirements may be necessary to enable aggregation, as in the EU, simply recognising independent aggregators as market players, as in Australia, or reforming retail tariffs as in Singapore.
But to know what changes should be implemented, and by who, it is critically important to understand the specific point of intervention and engage the right stakeholders. More broadly, it is important to start a conversation with a comprehensive set of stakeholders, to get an idea of what is possible and what is needed, and to compare experiences within and across countries.
Over the coming year, the IEA and PSF Campaign will continue working on this global dialogue to improve the understanding of regulatory and market design options for the deployment of system flexibility, supported by the Campaign’s co-leads – China, Denmark, Germany and Sweden. The PSF campaign is preparing initial steps to collaborate with CEM’s 21st Century Power Partnership, the Electric Vehicle Initiative and the International Smart Grid Action Network to look at the linkage between power system flexibility and transport electrification, an important conversation given the trend towards decentralisation driven by adoption of electric vehicles.
This work all aims to drive home one key-message: we need creative policy making if we are serious about accelerating the energy transition, and regulatory innovation and international cooperation are a good place to start.
A Century of Russia’s Weaponization of Energy
In 1985 a joint meeting between U.S. President Ronald Reagan, and former Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev conveyed this enduring sentiment during the height of the Cold War, “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” This sentiment began moving both countries, and the world away from Mutually Assured Destruction (M.A.D.); and soon thereafter the Cold War ended. With the rise of Vladimir Putin, and the return of the Russian strongman based on the Stalin-model of leadership, Russia now uses and wields Russian energy assets, as geopolitical pawns (Syrian and Crimean invasions) the way they once terrorized the world with their nuclear arsenal.
Russia will remain a global force – even with an economy over reliant on energy – and Putin being the political force that controls the country. What makes the Russian weaponization of energy a force multiplier is “its vast geography, permanent membership in the UN Security Council, rebuilt military, and immense nuclear forces,” while having the ability to disrupt global prosperity, and sway political ideologies in the United States, Europe, Middle East, Asia, and the entire Artic Circle.
Putin understands that whoever controls energy controls the world – mainly fossil fuels – oil, petroleum, natural gas, coal, and nuclear energy to electricity is now added to this dominating mix. Now that Stalin has taken on mythological status under Putin’s tutelage, Joseph Stalin once said: “The war (WWII) was decided by engines and octane.”Winston Churchill agreed with Stalin on the critical importance of fuel: “Above all, petrol governed every movement.”
The most devastating war in human history, and one that killed millions of Russians continues driving Putin’s choice to make energy the focal point of their economy, military, and forward-projecting foreign policy. This began the modern, energy-industrial complex that mechanized and industrialized energy as a war-making tool that still affects people-groups, countries, and entire regions of the world.
Russia, then the U.S.S.R. (former Soviet Union), and now current Russia have always thought of energy as a way for their government to dominate their countrymen, traditional spheres of influence (Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Central Asia), and a strategic buffer zone against land-based attacks that came from Napoleon and Hitler’s armies that still haunts the Russian psyche.
The timeline of Russia from the 1917, violence-fueled Russian Revolution that brought the Bolsheviks to power, the rise and death of Stalin in 1953, World War II in-between, the Cold War that began March 5, 1946 in Winston Churchill’s famous speech declaring “an Iron Curtain has descended across the Continent,” has been powered by energy.
This kicked off the Cold War until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. During this epoch in history the Soviets promoted global revolution using their economy and military that ran on fossil fuels and nuclear weaponry. In 1999 Vladimir Putin becomes Prime Minister after Boris Yeltsin resigns office, and the rebirth of the Soviet Union, and weaponization of energy continues until today under Putin’s regime.
What Russia now promotes foremost over all objectives: “undermining the U.S.-led liberal international order and the cohesion of the West.”Russia’s principal adversaries in this geopolitical tug-of-war over energy and influence are the U.S., the European Union (EU), and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). All of these variables are meant to bolster Russia and Putin’s “commercial, military, and energy interests.”
This geopolitical struggle doesn’t take place without abundant, reliable, affordable, scalable, and flexible oil, and natural gas. This is likely why Russia has begun a massive coal exploration and production (E&P) program that has grown exponentially since 2017 according to Russia’s Federal State Statistics Service.
The entire Russian economy is now based on rewarding Putin’s oligarchical cronies, and ensuring Russian energy giants Rosneft and Gazprom can fill the Kremlin’s coffers to annex Crimea and gain a strategic foothold in the Middle East via the Syrian invasion. This economic system is now referred to as “Putinomics.” Using energy resources to fund global chaos, and wars while rewarding his favorite oligarchs and agencies that do the Kremlin’s bidding.
Russia is now in a full-fledged battle with western powers, and its affiliated allies over the fossil fuel industry. While the rest of the world is attempting to incorporate renewable energy to electricity onto its electrical grids, and pouring government monies into building momentum for a carbon-free society, Russia is going the opposite direction.
Moscow’s energy intentions are clear, and have been for over one hundred years. Currently, there Syrian foothold has allowed them to entrench themselves back into the Middle East. This time they aren’t spreading revolutionary communism, instead it is Putin-driven oil and natural gas supplies through pipelines and E&P rights acquired in “Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria.”
Russia has a clear pathway to block U.S. liquid natural gas (LNG) into Europe, and a land bridge from the Middle East to Europe almost guarantees Russian natural gas is cheaper, more accessible, and maintains that Europe looks to Russia first for its energy needs. By cementing their role as the “primary gas supplier and expands its influence in the Middle East,” the U.S., EU, and NATO’s military dominance are overtaken by natural gas that Europe desperately needs to power their economies, and heat their homes in brutal, winter months.
To counter Russian energy influence bordering on a monopoly over European energy needs, the current U.S. administration should make exporting natural gas into LNG a top “priority.” Work with European allies in Paris, Berlin, and NATO headquarters to operationally thwart Moscow’s “Middle East energy land bridge.” Global energy security is too important by allowing Russian influence to continue spreading.
More of a good thing – is surplus renewable electricity an opportunity for early decarbonisation?
We are entering a world where renewables will make up an increasing share of our electricity supply –the electricity sector was the leading sector for energy investment in 2018, the third year in a row that this has occurred.
This trend is set to continue. In WEO 2018’s New Policies Scenario, 21% of global electricity production is projected to come from variable renewables by 2040, up from 7% in 2018, supported by about $5.3 trillion of investment. The EU share is even higher at around 39%. In our more ambitious Sustainable Development Scenario, which aims to get energy system emissions down to levels consistent with the Paris goals, variable renewables are projected to supply 38% of global electricity in 2040 (44% in the EU), a level that would require nearly $8.5 trillion of generation investment.
Regardless of scenario, this rapid expansion of renewables will inevitably lead to particular challenges to operating power systems. This is best highlighted by the so-called duck curve, made famous by the California ISO.
The curve was developed to show the impact of increasing distributed solar PV capacity on the demand for grid electricity. As solar PV capacity grows, the demand for grid electricity falls during the day with the greatest decrease in the middle of the day when PV production is highest – the belly of the duck. In the afternoon as PV production declines towards sunset, the demand for grid electricity can grow quite quickly – the neck of the duck.
The duck is growing faster than anticipated. Five years ago, the California ISO had expected California midday demand to drop over 40% on a sunny spring day by 2020 thanks to the growth of small solar PV systems. In fact, by 2018, the spring mid-day demand on the high voltage system had already decreased by two thirds. The consequent increase in supply required in the late afternoon as solar production recedes, was already close to 15 GW, significantly greater than the 2020 anticipated level of 13 GW.
The result is that some excess supply needs to be curtailed to balance the system. While the percentages of solar and wind production that have to be curtailed in California are rather small, in other jurisdictions the share is more significant.
In China, for example, the national average for wind curtailment was around 7% in 2018, with much higher levels in certain provinces. In the Canadian province of Ontario about one quarter of variable renewable generation in 2017 had to be curtailed, along with cuts in nuclear and hydropower output. This was in a jurisdiction where wholesale market prices were zero or negative almost one-third of that year.
The challenges are clear – a world with higher shares of variable renewable energy (VRE) – i.e., wind and solar PV – will face challenges with integration. This is a priority area of work for the IEA, and we are focused on providing insights on the issues and technologies that can be employed to deal with higher shares of variable renewables.
One of these insights is that renewables integration can be divided into a set of six phases dependent partly on the share of variable renewables in the system, but also on other system-dependent factors such as the share of storage hydro and interconnections.
Two countries have already reached Phase 4. Denmark, which has been a leader, has the significant advantage of strong interconnections to handle both surpluses and shortfalls. Ireland has much weaker interconnections and additional measures have been needed to ensure short-term system stability.
No country is yet in Phase 5 (where production can exceed demand) or in Phase 6, where seasonal storage solutions would be needed to match supply and demand.
Strong renewables policies are expected to continue to favour wind and solar power for the foreseeable future. This will mean that by 2030, we expect more countries, particularly in Europe, to evolve to these higher phases.
Too much of a good thing?
As more countries move to higher shares of VRE, it appears that there could be “too much of a good thing” – excess generation that may have to be curtailed and appears as wasteful.
The tendency is to treat this primarily as a technology problem for the power system to solve. Indeed part of the solution will lie in improvements in technology. We will need some form of energy storage to convert the excess at one time of day into necessary power system supply at another. Smart grids, especially smarter distribution systems, will be better able to manage increasing shares of renewables as well – and they too will likely have more energy storage. And finally, the growth of EVs (currently driving global battery demand) represents a huge potential source of storage and demand-side flexibility as well.
But treating this only as a technical problem is missing the economic perspective. Trillions of dollars of investment in renewables is expected in the coming years, and so there is a risk that billions of dollars of renewable electricity – zero marginal cost, zero carbon – could be wasted.
Economists have their own tools for solving these type of problems. Many would see not a problem but an opportunity – offering surplus electricity available at a zero (or low) price to customers during periods of surplus is a means to manage this surplus efficiently.
Dynamic pricing of wholesale electricity is often proposed as a mechanism to efficiently manage peak demand of electricity – to charge more when electricity is scarce. Not surprisingly, passing on high wholesale prices as high retail prices has been met with customer resistance, and the uptake of dynamic pricing has been rather limited.
However, if low wholesale prices were passed on as low retail prices, we would expect customers to be more accepting. While most small customers might not be expected to respond on their own, low dynamic prices create opportunities for innovators to develop technologies and processes that would make it easy and profitable for the customer to respond. Many of these will involve using the electricity to replace, at least in part, an energy service provided by fossil fuels. In this way, it can help hasten the decarbonisation goal of the clean energy transition.
Barriers to efficient pricing
Unfortunately for now, there are a range of barriers in our current policies that prevent electricity customers from seeing these prices: the level of electricity taxes, the design of electricity tariffs and more broadly our approach to the electricity demand side. This means there is a need to change outdated policies.
Much of our electricity policy dates from a period where wasteful consumption led to an increasing number of power plants – particularly fossil and nuclear plants. Indeed, electricity was considered to be a particularly inefficient means of achieving a level of energy service.
This has affected the way and level at which electricity is taxed, the way regulated prices are designed, and perhaps most challenging of all, how we address demand side policies and particularly electricity efficiency.
But now we are entering a different era, an era where most of the incremental electricity generation will come from wind and solar power. How should it change our taxation, rate setting and electricity efficiency policies?
Economics should guide us so that:
- Taxes are fixed in an efficient way, in order to distort as least as possible consumers and producers decisions
- Consumption is efficient, both through taxes and regulated tariffs
- Ensuring end-use energy consumption is carbon-efficient
Electricity taxes that exist in many countries today were set as a result of either a deliberate policy to reduce electricity consumption in energy importing countries (Europe) and/or environmentally conscious jurisdictions (Europe, California). They have also provided an easily enforceable tax base for municipalities and subnational jurisdictions. These taxes can be quite substantial, amounting to over half the cost of power for households in some European countries.
Yet many of the reasons for taxing electricity heavily are no longer valid. The emissions argument in particular makes little sense in highly decarbonised power sectors such as Sweden, France, or Switzerland.
In addition to taxation, pricing systems tend to discourage consumption regardless of how clean the production is. There are countries where, paradoxically, a high level of renewable penetration discourages the consumption of renewable energy.
Germany is probably the best known example. Although prices in the wholesale market can fall to zero when wind and solar power are particularly prolific, the end user cannot buy electricity at the real time price, but even if that were possible, it would mean paying the EEG payment (which is intended to recover the cost of renewables) which is currently 6.405 euro cents per kWh. This means that the end user incentive to use that renewable energy to substitute for fossil fuels in their own consumption is blunted.
What needs to be done instead is to encourage customer response based on the real-time price for power. Most other costs should no longer be recovered on a per kWh basis.
Getting prices right for the end consumer means also addressing regulated prices such as for networks where these are separately specified. Networks remain largely fixed cost entities in developed economies where demand has not been growing. For electricity customers, the value of the electricity network is as the provider of reliable electricity service – a value that is not directly related to the quantity of power delivered. Increasingly, as more and more customers generate their own electricity, the value of the network is evolving to become a platform to sell some of that power or other electricity services.
Moving towards a fixed charge would recognize the value of the network service for customers. It would also alleviate concerns that customers choosing to self-generate are not contributing sufficiently to the costs of using a network they still require.
Finally, demand-side policies should be designed in a way that minimizes both costs to consumers and their carbon footprint.
As renewables continue to grow and increasingly face curtailment, the optimal policy may no longer to be to encourage electricity conservation. Instead, demand side policies that encourage carbon conservation might be more efficient.
The figure above shows how the prices charged for consuming an additional kWh of electricity in each US jurisdiction is compared to the social marginal cost of producing that electricity. Red means the social cost of production exceeds the marginal cost, suggesting that marginal prices are too low and interventions such as conservation programs could be efficient. Conversely, in the deep blue regions, electricity prices are too high, suggesting that conservation and net metering programs need to be reconsidered.
Ultimately, when marginal prices for clean electricity consumption are adjusted downwards the viability of electrification increases – which can replace other end-uses of fossil fuels.
In fact, these changing circumstances are beginning to be recognized. The California energy regulator, the California Public Utilities Commission, has recently ruled that utility energy efficiency programs can include those that encourage customers to substitute electricity for fossil fuels.
More of a good thing
The good news is that the direction for electricity investments is positive, with the share of renewables likely to grow rapidly spurred by government policies and falling costs. Yet the resultant growth of wind and solar power will lead to new integration challenges for today’s power systems and these challenges will become greater over time.
Yet solving those challenges will also lead to economic opportunities in the energy system – opportunities to reduce costs, waste and emissions by making electricity available in substitution of fossil fuels.
Policies are central to realising these opportunities, by reforming electricity taxation, getting regulated prices right, and emphasizing carbon conservation above electricity conservation. The right price signals will encourage the innovation needed to advance the clean energy transition. And in the end, customers will have more of a “good thing”: greater access to cheaper, clean power.
Is government support for EVs contributing to a low-emissions future?
Authors: Leonardo Paoli and Simon Bennett*
The value of government incentives rose by 72%, but smart policy will be needed to avoid booms and busts, and encourage continuous reductions in average EV prices.
Encouraged by rising government support, global spending on electric vehicle (EV) purchases grew more than 70% in 2018 to USD 82 billion, with USD 52 billion of this on battery electric light-duty vehicles (BEVs) and the remainder on plug-in hybrid electric light-duty vehicles (PHEVs). While this represented little more than 2.5% of the total light duty vehicle market last year, it does mean that USD 36 billion was added to the global EV market in just one year – this carries EVs past freight ships in terms of market size for new orders, and represents more than double the investment in new biofuels production capacity worldwide.
Yet as a share of total spending, the contribution of government support for EVs remained almost unchanged. Updating analysis from the World Energy Investment series, we are able to correlate vehicle prices, sales data and support schemes around the world to estimate the value of national government purchase incentives. And for the first time, we have included foregone government revenue from tax breaks as part of both government spending and total spending on EVs. In 2018, we estimate government spending to have reached USD 15 billion, or around 18% of total EV spending. This was roughly the same share as in 2017.
Around the world, governments support EVs in different ways, from simple lump sum grants or tax breaks to more complex formulas that vary with specific vehicle attributes or the incomes of buyers. Globally, most support comes from direct expenditures. Less support comes from tax expenditures, and this can be hard to calculate. For example, it is not straightforward to estimate the counterfactual public cost of an additional EV sale in France, Italy or Sweden. In these countries a so-called “bonus malus” system redirects fees for emissions-intensive vehicle purchases to fund payments to EV buyers.
The ability of governments to stabilise and then reduce their share of total EV spending will be a key test of the sustainability of the EV market in coming years. Unless government incentives adjust as the market increases, considerable pressure will be placed on public budgets. Between 2012 and 2017, the government share of total EV spending generally rose, and it could very well rise again in future.
Policy changes are already being made in some countries to rein in the cost of support schemes such as a growing use of standards, regulations and mandates to shift costs from the public sector to consumers and manufacturers. For example, the US federal tax credit for some manufacturers is being phased-out and will expire in 2020 unless renewed. In China, the maximum subsidy for EVs under the New Energy Vehicle incentive scheme has been halved since July 2019, reducing it to USD 3 700. These policy changes are already having an effect on the EV market: Chinese EV sales are expected not to grow as strongly in 2019 as in 2018; those for July and August 2019 are actually 10% lower than in the same months last year. US sales growth has also slowed.
There are of course additional benefits to government support. Firstly, even under today’s policies, roughly four dollars of consumer spending are generated for every dollar spent by governments. In addition, by stimulating the market, incentives are having a significant effect on innovation. Since 2015 the R&D spending of fifteen major automakers has been rising at a faster rate than in any period since the start of the century and, importantly, at a faster rate than revenue growth. Following a period when these companies reduced the share of revenue directed to research (in part in response to the financial crisis) innovation now represents a higher strategic priority. While stronger fuel economy regulations have played a role in stimulating R&D, much of this is now directed to electrification and digitalisation.
Ultimately it’s tempting to see EVs following a similar path as solar PV, for which global subsidies hit USD 15 billion in 2010 and uptake has grown rapidly. However, there are some key differences between the two markets.
Whereas PV costs fell for a standardised good, EVs are widely differentiated by size, driving range, power and other characteristics that are valued by consumers. For example, the global average selling price of a BEV per kilometre of range it can travel is falling, but consumers are getting more driving range for their money instead of buying the same range for less money. Consumers are also buying BEVs that are on average larger and heavier. Essentially, a shift to vehicles that can drive further on a single charge is keeping the average EV price relatively stable. This is despite improvements for manufacturing and components like batteries that are making EVs cheaper on a like-for-like basis.
In 2018, two factors in particular buoyed average prices: the large share of registrations of the Tesla Model 3 in North America, which reached around 140 000 in 2018, and the increasing share of large, luxury PHEVs, particularly in China. Here too, policy plays a role. In China, BEVs with driving ranges below 150 km were phased out last year, and ranges below 250 km became ineligible this year.
This means that the assumed, low-carbon future of small, shared and automated BEVs doesn’t seem to be where today’s trends are heading. Rather, current EV markets are actually tilted towards bigger cars than those for internal combustion engines (not to mention that the car market is shifting to larger vehicles in general). While plug-in versions can be more attractive for buyers of larger cars – due to higher fuel savings and lower relative cost increases – the overall costs of electrifying a fleet of bigger cars could be higher for governments and consumers alike.
These trends present a potential challenge for energy transitions, a topic that is taken up in detail in this year’s World Energy Outlook: how can efforts to maximise EV adoption in the near term complement a longer-term evolution of car sizes, ownership and driving patterns?
The EV market is growing at a whirlwind speed, with growth well above 50% per year. But because it relies on government payments that cannot rise indefinitely, this growth raises risks and uncertainty even as battery costs come down. Furthermore, continued market growth will soon need to reach customers whose willingness to pay for an EV has so far been untested.
As was the also case for solar PV, countries are reforming incentives with the aim of limiting public expenses without diminishing the attractiveness of EVs to consumers. Smart policy will be needed to avoid booms and busts, and encourage continuous reductions in average EV prices to reach new drivers, with cost-neutral bonus malus systems being just one example of policy innovation. Parallel government action will also be needed to ensure charging infrastructure, fuel economy standards and urban planning are all pulling in the same direction.
As key indicators of the transition to sustainable mobility, the IEA will continue to monitor average EV prices and the share of purchase costs that is being picked up by taxpayers. Both are currently stable, but recent policy changes signal potential decreases ahead.
*Simon Bennett, IEA Energy Technology Analyst.
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