Cracking a nut with a sledgehammer: how killing diesel risks taking local clean energy with it

Diesel engines don’t have a good rep these days. But while most public attention has been focused on those with wheels choking our streets, it’s a different bunch that the Government has actually been cracking down on.

Every year the Government runs a reverse auction for electricity generators (and some storage and ‘demand shifting’ projects) called the capacity market. Winners are granted public subsidy to be available during the winter to provide power if supplies become tight. What the Government really wants this to do is to incentivise new, large gas plants. But it turns out it’s cheaper to build small diesel plants. Few gas plants can compete - and thus few get built. Instead, we now have up to 2GW of diesel generators installed locally. This is not good press for the Government: diesel has high carbon emissions and local air quality impacts. We shouldn’t be subsidising them (nor should we be subsidising coal plants, by the same token). So the Government set out to cut them out of the picture.

So far, so good. But what happened next risks undermining not just diesel, but the shift to local, clean, flexible energy too. What went wrong?

A quick rewind. The power sector has seen radical changes in the last decade. The major story has, of course, been renewables. Much renewables capacity in the UK is locally installed, which ushers in a fascinating new paradigm in which power doesn’t just flow from the beating hearts of vast coal, gas and nuclear plants out to the veins and capillaries of towns and villages. Now our homes, businesses and fields are themselves centres of energy; either used onsite or transmitted to local consumers.

This actually makes a lot of sense. You cannot transmit power without losing some of it. The further it travels, the more you lose. The UK wastes 8% of the electricity it generates in moving it from A to B (and over 50% overall if you include thermal power station inefficiency). But generating wasted electricity still costs money - and still incurs wear and tear of infrastructure used to transport it - all of which costs bill payers. If electricity is generated closer to demand, lower losses should entail a more efficient system, and thus lower costs overall. 

The rules governing the use of wires and pylons by generators and suppliers of electricity were not designed to support local generators, but they do end up reflecting the fact they do not use as much of the total network. There are 14 regional electricity networks, each of which connects into the larger national grid. Suppliers with customers in those regional networks pay charges based on the amount of electricity they buy into them at peak times. If local generators produce electricity during those periods less electricity needs to be imported from the national grid. This saves the suppliers money in reduced charges, part of which is then passed onto those local generators as a reward. This is called an ‘embedded benefit’, and it helps incentivise building generation closer to where electricity is consumed.

At least it did.

Connected locally, diesel plants can do what big, central gas plants cannot - access these embedded benefits. Take this revenue stream away, the Government thought, and perhaps gas will be able to compete again. Ever since, there has been pressure on Ofgem to do just that. And three weeks ago they announced a cut of up to 93% - almost entirely removing it. 

So much for diesels. But this also deals a blow to renewables and storage projects (such as batteries or pumped hydro) connected locally, of which there is several times more capacity than there is diesel. Worse, unlike subsidy cuts which only affect future projects, this hits existing projects too - punishing them for a problem they didn’t cause. Reduced projected revenue, and increased uncertainty, is expected to cool investment in local, clean, flexible electricity infrastructure. Storage - that oft-touted key to a renewable future - could be hit particularly hard. With access to few public support levers, projects often rely on being able to deliver power at times when rewards are available to build a business case. 

But was this simply an unintended consequence?

Actual rule change is undertaken by industry panels, which are dominated by sector incumbents including the ‘Big Six’. Only they have the personnel and capacity to resource such involved work. The panel that presented proposals to Ofgem in this case did not have a single renewable energy or community energy representative on it. In the consultation that preceded the final decision seven out of nine of the big commercial players were opposed to the benefit. The two in favour either have no large central generation assets of their own, or their own interest in renewables.

Whether the product of genuine manipulation, or simply the inertial imbalance of representation on Ofgem’s panels, it is the incumbent generators who won. They are, theoretically at least, now more likely to be able to build new gas stations - as diesel competitiveness is reduced - capturing public funds in the process. And the renewable and storage projects causing such havoc for their business models just lost revenue. 

So it’s the transition to a local, clean, smart - and ultimately cheap - energy system that is losing out.

Which raises several questions. Should Ofgem’s remit formally incorporate the UK’s 2050 climate target, given its pivotal role in shaping the systems that must get us there? Should incumbents be allowed to continue dominating the processes that evolve regulations? And should the Government ensure that Ofgem is driving our energy system to one that is lower cost, more local and lower carbon?

Our answers would be: yes, no and yes. The rapid (and urgent) transition in the design and operation of our energy systems for a liveable planet simply demands it.

Max Wakefield is lead campaigner at 10:10a charity that focuses on practical, participatory and positive solutions to climate change. 10:10 work with everyone, from policy makers and politicians to community energy groups and schools, to create the practical and cultural change necessary for a rapid transition to a low carbon UK. You can join 10:10’s campaign to challenge Ofgem’s decision here

The views expressed in the article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue