Chief Scientist Alan Finkel’s long-awaited review of the National Electricity Market, released today, will make a significant difference to Australia’s electricity system in three key areas: reliability (making sure the system generates enough power to meet demand), security (making sure the system doesn’t break), and governance (making sure the electricity market can run effectively).
The review recommends a Clean Energy Target (CET), which will provide subsidies to new low-emissions generation. The actual choice of scheme is less important than its durability. If broad political agreement can be reached on this target, it can provide the policy certainty that industry crucially needs to build new generation capacity and meet electricity demand.
Finkel also proposes a Generator Reliability Obligation, which places a limit on further wind and solar power in regions that already have a high proportion of intermittent generation. New intermittent generators will have to provide backup for some of their supply, in the form of new storage or contracts with new dispatchable generators such as gas. The aim is to ensure that federal and state subsidies for renewables do not push too much intermittent generation into the market without adequate backup.
Large generators will also need to provide a reasonable notice of closure – the review suggests a period of three years – before leaving the market. The aim here is to ensure the market has enough time to respond by installing new generation.
Finally, the review floats the possibility of further changes to ensure reliability, potentially a day-ahead market to lock in supply ahead of time, or a strategic reserve – a mechanism by which the market operator can sign contracts requiring generators to sit idle unless needed in an emergency.
The market operator (AEMO) can already do this, and the report is silent on how a strategic reserve would be different or whether it is definitely needed.
To secure the electricity system, Finkel calls for existing standards to be tightened and new mechanisms to be introduced.
Transmission companies will be required to provide and maintain a prescribed level of inertia in the system – high levels of inertia can prevent rapid changes in frequency that harm the system. Fossil fuel generators may be required to change their settings to control the frequency in the system, whereas new generators, including renewables, will be required to provide fast frequency-response services to help avoid frequency fluctuations that can damage the grid.
While technical in their nature, these measures will reduce the likelihood of instability in the system and provide extra tools to fix the it if instability arises.
Finkel also makes recommendations to bolster the emergency management plan for the 2017-18 summer and to encourage consumers – both residential and business – to reduce their demand at peak times. The review strongly encourages the development of “demand response” schemes to give consumers incentives to switch off and help smooth the load at peak times.
The biggest change to how the market will be run is the proposed creation of an Energy Security Board (ESB). The ESB will comprise an independent chair and vice-chair, as well as the heads of the three governing bodies: the AEMC, AEMO and the market regulator (the AER). At a minimum, the ESB will be responsible for implementing many of the Finkel Review recommendations, although the panel leaves scope for it to do much more.
Finkel recommends a comprehensive review of the rules governing the electricity market. It also argues for increased accountability for market bodies and the COAG Energy Council, through enhanced performance indicators and a beefed-up process for determining and monitoring priorities for the energy sector.
What happens next?
The report makes a range of other recommendations designed to ensure better service for energy consumers, more transparency in gas markets, and improved planning and coordination of electricity networks.
The Finkel Review successfully addresses the main issues confronting the electricity sector today. At the very least, it is a step towards a more reliable and secure system.
The devil, as always, will be in the detail. Much will depend on how the recommendations are implemented. Australian households and business can only hope that the new Energy Security Board and the nation’s political leaders will see this through.