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EU power rejig may only solve tomorrow’s problem
- Mar 15, 2023 10:00 am GMT
Von der Leyen’s promised reform luckily shies away from the most radical calls for change. Under the current system, wholesale electricity prices are set by the most expensive energy source, which last year was ballooning gas.
REUTERS BY LISA JUCCA, EDITING BY GERMÁN & CO
MILAN, March 14 (Reuters Breakingviews) - Spooked by skyrocketing electricity prices, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in August declared the bloc’s power market was “no longer fit for purpose,” and promised an overhaul. Her pledge came after the collapse of Russian supply boosted prices of gas for delivery in the next month to a record level above 300 euros per megawatt hour, lifting electricity tariffs in tandem and hurting European consumers and companies. The proposed fix, to be unveiled on Tuesday, is however unlikely to address further short-term jitters.
Von der Leyen’s promised reform luckily shies away from the most radical calls for change. Under the current system, wholesale electricity prices are set by the most expensive energy source, which last year was ballooning gas. That prompted countries like Greece and Spain to propose to separate cheaper solar and wind generation from fossil fuels. That would have risked stifling green electricity production, which is cheaper, by culling the profit margin producers by design enjoy in the EU structure. The Commission wisely refrained from such a step.
To make Europe less dependent on volatile fossil fuel prices requires installing more green energy power. To this end, Brussels is proposing that the 27 member states foster the development of all future renewable energy projects through two-way contracts for difference (CFDs), according to a draft seen by Reuters Breakingviews. These price-support schemes, already popular in Britain to encourage low-carbon generation, are long-term agreements that provide for government compensation if electricity prices fall below a strike price. But they allow the government to keep the difference if prices rise above that set level.
The approach is not as market-friendly as fixed-price, subsidy-free power purchase agreements, which last year only made up 1% of total power generation. But by providing a fixed price below which suppliers will be reimbursed, it protects green power developers against a future scenario where electricity prices are way too low rather than way too high. That reduces their financial risks and cost of capital. When electricity prices are above the strike price governments can redistribute the additional revenue to vulnerable consumers.
The main drawback is the new CFDs will only apply to new projects. Hence it would likely take 5 to 10 years to spread across the EU. By then, greater availability of green power may have reduced demand for gas, and therefore its price. The risk of a resurgence of the European energy crisis, however, is all skewed to the near term.
Europe’s less radical reform of its power market is welcome. But it may only help solve tomorrow’s problem.
The European Commission is expected to unveil on March 14 proposed reforms to the European Union power market aimed at shielding consumers from the wild price swings experienced in 2022.
Under the proposed reform, public support for all new green energy projects, including nuclear power ones, should be structured around two-way contracts for difference, according to a draft proposal seen by Reuters Breakingviews.
These contracts, usually signed between a government entity and a power generator, set a strike price below which compensation is offered by the government. If prices rise above the agreed level, the government is allowed to keep the difference. The proposal suggests governments should channel the extra revenue to consumers in time of high electricity prices.
The draft proposal also envisages trying to increase the number of Power Purchase Agreements, subsidy-free bilateral contracts that fixed the energy price at a set time for an agreed period of time, for example by offering state guarantee to protect producers from buyers’ failure. PPAs currently only cover 1% of total European Union electricity generation, according to data provider Independent Commodity Intelligence Services.
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