Revolutions at sea – reflecting on the cost of offshore wind

The costs of offshore wind are falling dramatically. Several European countries have now agreed to buy power from offshore wind farms at costs which challenge the notion that renewable energy must be heavily subsidised to survive.

The UK government has recently awarded contracts to offshore wind projects scheduled for the early 2020s, at prices 50-60% lower than those it handed to offshore wind projects in 2014.  Germany and the Netherlands have recently announced contracts, also for expected delivery in the early 2020s, in which offshore wind developers have agreed to receive the market price only – zero subsidy contracts.

What has caused these rapid cost reductions? Can we expect the costs of offshore wind contracts to remain at these relatively low levels, or even to reduce further?

The cost reductions are likely to have had a few contributing factors, several of which can be seen optimistically as factors that will continue to keep costs low in the future.

One such factor is an innovation relating to policy design. The payment level received by offshore wind projects is now increasingly decided not by governments, but by requesting companies to bid in for the contract, declaring the price at which they would be prepared to deliver it. Such auction-based systems allow governments to choose the lowest cost of the now revealed bids. It seems plausible that the move towards auction-based allocation systems may have helped to drive down prices by introducing price competition into the bidding process.

Technological improvement is an important factor for enabling such cost reductions. There has been a clear trend towards larger and more efficient turbines which can deliver greater amounts of energy, increasing return on investment, thereby lowering costs. The trend is set to continue, with one major company expecting the turbines they will use in 2024 to be double the current size.

However, other factors that could explain the recent low bids may give a less clear grounds for optimism that the low prices are here to stay.

It is possible that companies may currently be bidding low for strategic reasons. For some companies, a lower return may be considered worthwhile, at the present time, for the benefit of maintaining their project supply chains. If subsidies in some previous rounds were overly generous, as some have suggested, it might be that this is currently enabling some flexibility on the balance sheet for low bids. If this is part of the explanation, such strategic bidding could not be maintained in the long run.

Auction design can also incentivise companies to put in bids lower than they would ideally accept, if they believe that another project will bid in higher and set the price received by all selected bids. However, if such a strategy backfires then a company could win a contract but at a price at which it is impossible to deliver the project – sometimes called “the winner’s curse”.

Another important factor likely to be lowering costs at the present time is the relatively low cost of financing. Investors have increased familiarity with offshore wind, and the long term contracts being issued by governments help to manage uncertainty, enabling lenders to lend at lower rates of interest. However, there are also important external conditions – interest rates in general are exceptionally low at the moment. As interest rates are likely to rise again in the future, it is possible that this could add to the cost of future projects.

Costs of projects are also strongly affected by site conditions, such as distance from shore and depth of water. There is a limited number of sites close to shore and in shallow water, and if future sites are in deeper water and further from shore this could drive up costs.

It is also important to recall that not all costs associated with offshore wind farms are necessarily accounted for in the costs paid for by project developers, and thus covered by the subsidies. Important additional costs are the costs of connections to power grids, and of balancing the system, for example in the event of too much power being injected on to the grid at the wrong time and wrong place. Because wind turbines have variable output dependent on wind conditions, they can exert significant costs on the system in this way. In some countries generators must pay for, or at least make a contribution towards these kinds of costs. In other countries, generators are not required to cover their own balancing and transmission costs, as these are met by the network operator. This is an important contributing factor towards the difference in costs between offshore wind projects in different European countries. Clearly, systems that do not target transmission and balancing costs at generators to some extent create favourable conditions for offshore wind, and they certainly make achieving zero-subsidy auctions more likely. However, if not paid by generators, transmission and balancing costs still have to be covered by system operators and are ultimately paid for by consumers. Thus, there is a strong argument that to herald a ‘zero-subsidy’ auction within a system that does not direct transmission and balancing costs at generators is misleading – especially if offshore wind exerts greater than average transmission and balancing costs – as the socialisation of transmission and balancing costs is a clear subsidy. Giving generators some kind of signal as to the costs their output imposes on the network is an important part of developing a well-balanced and efficient system. While shielding offshore wind generators from these costs may have attractions in the short term, it could lead to greater costs in the longer term, if it means the system develops in a way that is harder and more expensive to balance.

Of course, the news of extremely low prices for offshore wind contracts is to be welcomed. However, rather than becoming too focussed on zero-subsidy auctions as ends in themselves, we should continue to pay attention to making policies that look robust across all market conditions: long-term policy stability; careful attention to auction design; allocating transmission and balancing costs to support rational network development and incentivise innovations in storage and flexibility; and supporting and coordinating innovation chains.

Time to get ready: Conceptualizing the temporal and spatial dynamics of formative phases for energy technologies

Implementing the Paris agreement to prevent dangerous climate change requires energy system transformation and rapid diffusion of low-carbon innovations. In this paper we investigate both the temporal and spatial dynamics of formative phases by which energy technologies prepare for growth. Drawing on a review of diverse literatures, we offer a definition of the formative phase which clarifies its scope and duration, and identifies its main technological and economic determinants. We use parametric hazard models to assess the relative strengths of these determinants on formative phase durations for a sample of 15 energy technologies diffusing over time in their respective initial markets. We find that substitutability has stronger effects in accelerating the end of formative phases than installed capacity and prices. We extend our analysis using nonparametric models to analyze the spatial diffusion of formative phase durations from initial to follower markets. We find that formative phase durations are long outside initial markets as well, showing only signs of acceleration in latecomer regions. Our results imply risks for policies trying to accelerate the diffusion of large innovations without ready markets in both initial and follower markets.

Nuno Bento, Charlie Wilson and Laura Diaz Anadon

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A paradigm shift towards renewable energy finance for Sub-Saharan Africa?

Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the most promising future markets for renewable energy projects in the coming decades. There is a significant effort from project developers and investors to enter the market but huge obstacles hinder the realisation of such projects. For this reason, Allianz Climate Solutions and the Project Development Programme (implemented by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit under the German Energy Solutions Initiative of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy), hosted a workshop in Berlin to discuss possible financing models for CAPEX-free operator models for photovoltaic projects in Ghana and Kenya.

The need for discussion and exchange between investors, project developers and financial institutions as well as policy makers was identified as crucial in order to successfully develop and implement responsive solutions to the upcoming challenges in emerging markets like the Sub-Saharan region.

This blog addresses possible ways of rethinking the transaction process and developing tools for renewable energy projects which could be a step forward to respond to the challenges of emerging markets.

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How much energy will buildings consume in 2100? A global perspective within a scenario framework

The demand for energy in buildings varies strongly across countries and climatic zones. These differences result from manifold factors, whose future evolution is uncertain. In order to assess buildings’ energy demand across the 21st century, we develop an energy demand model — EDGE — and apply it in an analytical scenario framework — the shared socio-economic pathways (SSPs) — to take socio-economic uncertainty into consideration. EDGE projects energy demand for five energy services, four fuel categories, and eleven regions covering the world.

The analysis shows that, without further climate policies, global final energy demand from buildings could increase from 116 EJ/yr in 2010 to a range of 120–378 EJ/yr in 2100. Our results show a paradigm shift in buildings’ energy demand: appliances, lighting and space cooling dominate demand, while the weight of space heating and cooking declines. The importance of developing countries increases and electricity becomes the main energy carrier.

Our results are of high relevance for climate mitigation studies as they create detailed baselines that define the mitigation challenge: the stress on the energy supply system stemming from buildings will grow, though mainly in the form of electricity for which a number of options to decrease GHG emissions exist.

Written by Antoine Levesque, Robert C. Pietzcker, Lavinia Baumstark, Simon De Stercke, Arnulf Grübler and Gunnar Luderer

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Impact assessment of climate policy on Poland’s power sector


This article addresses the impact of the European Union Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) on Polands conventional energy sector in 2008 – 2020 and further till 2050. Poland is a country with over 80% dependence on coal in the power sector being under political pressure of the European Unions (EU) ambitious climate policy. The impact of the increase of the European Emission Allowance (EUA) price on fossil fuel power sector has been modelled for different scenarios. The innovation of this article consists in proposing a methodology of estimation actual costs and benefits of power stations in a country with a heavily coal-dependent power sector in the process of transition to a low-carbon economy. Strong political and economic interdependence of coal and power sector has been demonstrated as well as the impact caused by the EU ETS participation in different technology groups of power plants. It has been shown that gas-fuelled combined heat and power units are less vulnerable to the EU ETS-related costs, whereas the hard coal-fired plants may lose their profitability soon after 2020. Lignite power plants, despite their high emissivity, may longer remain in operation owing to low operational costs. Additionally, the results of long-term, up to 2050, modelling of Polands energy sector supported an unavoidable need of deep decarbonisation of the power sector to meet the post-Paris climate objectives. It has been concluded that investing in coal- based power capacity may lead to a carbon lock-in of the power sector. Finally, the overall  costs of such a transformation have been discussed and confronted with the financial support offered by the EU. The whole consideration has been made in a wide context of changes ongoing globally in energy markets and compared with some other countries seeking trans-formation paths from coal. Poland’s case can serve as a lesson for all countries trying to reducecoal dependence in power generation. Reforms in the energy sector shall from the very beginning be an essential part of a sustainable transition of the whole nation’s economy. They must scale the power capacity to the future demand avoiding stranded costs. The reforms must be wide-ranging, based on a wide political consensus and not biased against the coal sector. Future energy mix and corresponding technologies shall be carefully designed, matched and should remain stable in the long-term perspective. Coal-based power capacity being near the end of its lifetime provides an economically viable option to commence a fuel switch and the following technology replacement. Real benefits and costs of the energy transition shall be fairly allocated to all stakeholders and communicated to the society. The social costs and implications in coal-dependent regions may be high, especially in the short-term perspective, but then the transformation will bring profits to the whole society.

Written by Tadeusz Skoczkowski, Sławomir Bielecki, Arkadiusz Węglarz, Magdalena Włodarczak and Piotr Gutowski

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Integrating uncertainty into public energy research and development decisions

Public energy research and development (R&D) is recognized as a key policy tool for transforming the world’s energy system in a cost-effective way. However, managing the uncertainty surrounding technological change is a critical challenge for designing robust and cost-effective energy policies. The design of such policies is particularly important if countries are going to both meet the ambitious greenhouse-gas emissions reductions goals set by the Paris Agreement and achieve the required harmonization with the broader set of objectives dictated by the Sustainable Development Goals. The complexity of informing energy technology policy requires, and is producing, a growing collaboration between different academic disciplines and practitioners. Three analytical components have emerged to support the integration of technological uncertainty into energy policy: expert elicitations, integrated assessment models, and decision frameworks. Here we review efforts to incorporate all three approaches to facilitate public energy R&D decision-making under uncertainty. We highlight emerging insights that are robust across elicitations, models, and frameworks, relating to the allocation of public R&D investments, and identify gaps and challenges that remain.

Written by Laura Díaz Anadón, Erin Baker and Valentina Bosetti

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