Energy bills are dominating the news as a result of soaring wholesale gas prices. In response, some have called for the removal of green levies as a way to alleviate the strain on households. However, new analysis from Carbon Brief has found that energy bills are nearly £2.5 billion higher than they would have been if certain climate policies had been pushed through – such as allowing new onshore wind to be built in England and keeping the zero-carbon homes standard.
But why are gas prices having such a huge impact on the UK energy market and how can investing in clean technologies help lower prices?
HOW THE ENERGY MARKET WORKS
Energy suppliers in the UK buy the electricity they sell in bulk from the wholesale market. The reason that gas has such an impact on electricity bills is because we still use it to generate a third of our electricity. Suppliers and generators trade electricity in half-hourly auctions, with the National Grid responsible for matching supply and demand by accepting bids or offers depending on whether they need to increase or reduce electricity generation. Bids are stacked in order of the least expensive generators to provide the power until the demand is met.
As gas is one of the more expensive ways to generate power, and is quite flexible in the amount it generates, gas plant tends to the be the last plant in the auction and therefore set the price.
Since last year, we’ve seen a worldwide shortage of gas supplies, which in turn has caused wholesale gas prices to rise to unprecedented levels. Alongside a shortage in supply, there’s been a perfect storm of issues – a combination of extreme weather, demand growth unexpectedly high post Covid and a lack of storage capacity, particularly in the UK.
Now we’re seeing soaring wholesale gas prices have a ripple effect on electricity prices, with suppliers having to increase consumer bills. The UK energy regulator – Ofgem – has increased the energy price cap, with more changes expected in the coming month.
HOW CAN WE CURB RISING PRICES?
While there have been calls to cut green levies, new data is showing the positive impact these programmes are having. In fact, the government’s Contract for Difference (CfD) scheme – which aims to support renewable growth by providing generators with a stable, pre-agreed price for 15 years – recorded positive returns at the end of last year. Wholesale electricity prices were so high in July to September 2021 that they surpassed CfD strike prices, and the payments reversed direction for the first time, returning £39.2 million in funds.
While this proves that renewables helps curb energy price rises, in the longer term it can be argued that the market should be able to run without the need for CfDs, especially as they are unlikely to cater for smaller, sub 5 MW projects.
There are other business models which support the renewable growth needed to end our reliance on gas in the UK. This includes corporate power purchase agreements, which allow businesses to purchase electricity directly from an energy generator at a fixed price, and direct wire arrangements. A direct wire arrangement is when a clean energy project – for example, a wind turbine or rooftop solar PV array – is built within the commercial premises, with the host business directly consuming the clean energy it generates.
Alongside alternative business models, we also need to see substantial growth in the UK’s storage capacity, which will help balance out the variability of natural resources such as sun and wind. In December, we commissioned our first battery project near Milton Keynes, a 5MW site that is delivering 1.49 hours of electricity to the national and local electricity grid, while we also have a 20MW site in Bristol that will be commissioned later this year. Electricity storage, be it battery, pumped storage or dammed hydro provide sustainable solutions to balance demand and supply, further reducing our reliance on gas.
The UKs electricity demand is projected to increase by almost 40% by 2035 as heating and transport transitions from fossil fuels to electricity. This creates an opportunity to deliver 60 to 80GW of renewable electricity generation.
The benefits of investing in clean technologies are vast, not least because renewables are much faster to deploy than the alternatives. For example, in the two years (2016 and 2017) spent moving soil and laying the foundations at Hinkley Point C, enough new renewable capacity was commissioned to deliver power equivalent to the nuclear site’s total planned generation (22GWh annually) which is due to commence generation in 2026.
Ultimately, the way to avoid energy price shocks in future is to keep supporting the roll-out of clean technologies and implement stronger policies on energy efficiency, reducing the amount of energy we need. In doing so, we not only reduce consumer bills but build a solid path towards net zero.