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Politicians: please ease off on ‘announceables’ until after the electricity market review

Current political intervention in the energy market is haphazard and disconnected. chriscrowder_4/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Politicians: please ease off on ‘announceables’ until after the electricity market review

A series of dramatic events over the past year, most notably the September statewide blackout in South Australia, have revealed an electricity system under strain, and left many Australians worried about the reliability of their power supply.

In response, state and federal politicians have announced a series of uncoordinated and potentially expensive interventions, most notably the Turnbull government’s Snowy Hydro 2.0 proposal and the South Australian government’s go-it-alone power plan.

Yet all of these plans pre-empt the Finkel Review, to be released early next month. Commissioned by state and federal governments and led by Australia’s chief scientist Alan Finkel, the review is expected to provide a new blueprint for the National Electricity Market (NEM).

Clearly, Australia is struggling to manage the transition to a zero- or low-emission electricity grid, and some commentators have concluded that the NEM is broken.

In our report Powering Through, released today, we argue that it is too early to give up on the market. But what we really need is substantial market reforms, rather than piecemeal government investments in various energy projects.

Australia’s troubled transition

The problems are everywhere. Consumers have been hit with a 70% hike in real-terms electricity bills over the past decade, and there is more to come. Wholesale prices for electricity in most eastern states were twice as high last summer as the one before.

New vulnerabilities continue to emerge. The headline-grabber was South Australia’s blackout – the first statewide blackout since the NEM was formed in 1998 – but there have been other smaller blackouts and incidents too.

Poisonous politics means Australia is also failing to stay on track to hit its 2030 climate targets. The mixed messages on climate policy; the seemingly ad hoc public investment announcements; the threat of direct intervention in the activities of the market operator – all of this has created enormous uncertainty for private investors.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking: Australia has enough electricity generation capacity for now, but more will be needed in the decade ahead.

The energy market is in a difficult transition. georg_neu/Flickr, CC BY-NC

First, do no harm

There is currently an acute danger of politicians panicking and rushing into decisions that will only push electricity prices higher, and make the task of reducing Australia’s emissions harder.

Already, federal and state governments are committing taxpayers’ money to new energy investments. This is premature, with the Finkel Review’s recommendations not yet released. Stampeding white elephants loom ominously on the horizon.

Given the current uncertainties, it is vital not to grasp for expensive “solutions” or to lock in plans too soon. We do not yet know what technology mix will be needed in the future. Maintaining flexibility through the transition will ensure we can take advantage of the best solutions as they emerge.

‘No regrets’ short-term reforms

There are some “no regrets” moves that can and should be made, to address the short-term risks to the electricity system and buy time to resolve the longer-term ones. Australia should build on existing low-cost mechanisms before making major capital investments or redesigning the market.

The immediate challenge is to reduce the risk of blackouts next summer, in South Australia and Victoria especially. Most blackouts happen because something in the system breaks. Some simple changes to the market rules, like the recent AEMO and ARENA announcement to pay consumers to cut their electricity use, would make a big difference to managing equipment failures when they inevitably arise.

To ensure reserves are on hand, some mothballed generators should be recalled to service. Pleasingly, Origin Energy and Engie have already struck a deal to enable the restart of the second turbine of the Pelican Point generator in South Australia.

The longer-term task

The cheapest and most effective way to reduce long-term risks is to rebuild investor confidence. That requires Australia to agree, finally, on a credible climate policy. A carbon price is the best such policy, but any bipartisan policy that works with the electricity market and is capable of hitting Australia’s emissions targets will be a vast improvement on what we have now.

The transition to a zero-emissions electricity sector will be difficult. Even given a credible climate policy, there are still questions as to whether the current electricity market will be able to meet our future needs. And that’s without even mentioning the gas market, which is frankly a mess.

Politicians should begin by adopting pragmatic market reforms and giving clear direction on climate and energy policy. At the very least, they should wait until Finkel delivers his recommendations.

Hopefully the Finkel Review will define Australia’s energy security and emissions reduction needs, and provide a strong platform for politicians to work from. If so, a competitive market will find the cheapest path to a reliable and low-emissions electricity future.

The danger is that partisan politics will make the best policies untenable. If that happens, we can expect the blame to be shifted onto the market, which will be described as having “failed” – but the truth is that it will have been systematically (if not quite intentionally) destroyed.

More likely still is that governments give up on the market without giving it a chance. Scott Morrison’s budget promise of new federally owned power generation set a worrying precedent. If recent announcements deter private investors, still more government investment will be needed, which will shift yet more risk and cost onto taxpayers.

There’s a real danger of politicians focusing on “announceables” and shying away from the market reforms that will make the biggest difference to the affordability, reliability and sustainability of our electricity supply.

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