Many UK coal mines closed in the 1970s and 80s. Coal extraction was too expensive in the UK to compete with cheap imported coal and many consumers were switching away from coal to cleaner fuels. Today many shale oil producers in the USA are finding that extraction has become unprofitable with oil prices having fallen by some 50% since mid-2014 (see A crude indicator of the economy (Part 2) and The price of oil in 2015 and beyond). So is it a bad idea to invest in fossil fuel production? Could such assets become unusable – what is known as ‘stranded assets‘?
In a speech on 3 March 2015, Confronting the challenges of tomorrow’s world, delivered at an insurance conference, Paul Fisher, Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, warned that a switch to both renewable sources of energy and actions to save energy could hit investors in fossil fuel companies.
‘One live risk right now is of insurers investing in assets that could be left ‘stranded’ by policy changes which limit the use of fossil fuels. As the world increasingly limits carbon emissions, and moves to alternative energy sources, investments in fossil fuels and related technologies – a growing financial market in recent decades – may take a huge hit. There are already a few specific examples of this having happened.
… As the world increasingly limits carbon emissions, and moves to alternative energy sources, investments in fossil fuels and related technologies – a growing financial market in recent decades – may take a huge hit. There are already a few specific examples of this having happened.’
Much of the known reserves of fossil fuels could not be used if climate change targets are to be met. And investment in the search for new reserves would be of little value unless they were very cheap to extract. But will climate change targets be met? That is hard to predict and depends on international political agreements and implementation, combined with technological developments in fields such as clean-burn technologies, carbon capture and renewable energy. The scale of these developments is uncertain. As Paul Fisher said in his speech:
‘Tomorrow’s world inevitably brings change. Some changes can be forecast, or guessed by extrapolating from what we know today. But there are, inevitably, the unknown unknowns which will help shape the future. … As an ex-forecaster I can tell you confidently that the only thing we can be certain of is that there will be changes that no one will predict.’
The following articles look at the speech and at the financial risks of fossil fuel investment. The Guardian article also provides links to some useful resources.
Bank of England warns of huge financial risk from fossil fuel investments The Guardian, Damian Carrington (3/3/15)
PRA warns insurers on fossil fuel assets Insurance Asset Risk (3/3/15)
Energy trends changing investment dynamics UPI, Daniel J. Graeber (3/3/15)
Confronting the challenges of tomorrow’s world Bank of England, Paul Fisher (3/3/15)
- What factors are taken into account by investors in fossil fuel assets?
- Why might a power station become a ‘stranded asset’?
- How is game theory relevant in understanding the process of climate change negotiations and the outcomes of such negotiations?
- What social functions are filled by insurance?
- Why does climate change impact on insurers on both sides of their balance sheets?
- What is the Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA)? What is its purpose?
- Explain what is meant by ‘unknown unknowns’. How do they differ from ‘known unknowns’?
- How do the arguments in the article and the speech relate to the controversy about investing in fracking in the UK?
- Explain and comment on the statement by World Bank President, Jim Yong Kim, that sooner rather than later, financial regulators must address the systemic risk associated with carbon-intensive activities in their economies.
The UK government has just given the go-ahead for the building of two new nuclear reactors at Hinkley Point in Somerset. The contract to build and run the power station will go to EDF, the French energy company.
The power station is estimated to cost some £14 billion to build. It would produce around 7% of the UK’s electricity. Currently the 16 nuclear reactors in the UK produce around 19%. But all except for Sizewell B in Suffolk are due to close by 2023, although the lives of some could be extended. There is thus a considerable energy gap to fill in the coming years.
Several new nuclear power stations were being considered to help fill this gap, but with rising capital costs, especially following the Fukushima disaster in Japan, potential investors pulled out of other negotiations. Hinkley Point is the only proposal left. It’s not surprising that the government wants it to go ahead.
All that remains to agree is the price that EDF can charge for the electricity generated from the power station. This price, known as the ‘strike price’, is a government-guaranteed price over the long term. EDF is seeking a 40-year deal. Some low carbon power stations, such as nuclear and offshore wind and wave power stations, have high capital costs. The idea of the strike price is to reduce the risks of the investment and make it easier for energy companies to estimate the likely return on capital.
But the strike price, which will probably be agreed at around £95 per megawatt hour (MWh), is roughly double the current wholesale price of electricity. EDF want a price of around £100 per MWh, which is estimated to give a return on capital of around 10%. The government was hoping to agree on a price nearer to £80 per MWh. Either way, this will require a huge future subsidy on the electricity generated from the plant.
There are several questions being asked about the deal. Is the strike price worth paying? Are all the costs and benefits properly accounted for, including environmental costs and benefits and safety issues? Being an extremely long-term project, are uncertainties over costs, performance of the plant, future market prices for electricity and the costs of alternative forms of power generation sufficiently accounted for? Will the strike price contravene EU competition law? Is the timescale for construction realistic and what would be the consequences of delays? The articles consider these questions and raise a number of issues in planning very long-term capital projects.
Hinkley Point: Britain’s second nuclear age given green light as planning permission is approved for first of new generation atomic power stations Independent, Michael McCarthy (19/3/13)
Will they or won’t they? New nuclear hangs in the balance ITV News, Laura Kuenssberg (19/3/13)
Hinkley Point C: deal or no deal for UK nuclear? The Telegraph, Alistair Osborne (19/3/13)
New nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point C is approved BBC News (20/3/13)
Britain’s Plans for New Nuclear Plant Approach a Decisive Point, 4 Years Late New York Times, Stanley Reed and Stephen Castle (15/3/13)
Nuclear power plans threatened by European commission investigation The Guardian (14/3/13)
New Hinkley Point nuclear power plant approved by UK government Wired, Ian Steadman (19/3/13)
Renewable energy providers to help bear cost of new UK nuclear reactors The Guardian, Damian Carrington (27/3/13)
Europe backs Hinkley nuclear plant BBC News (8/10/14)
Environmental permitting of Hinkley Point C Environment Agency
NNB Generation Company Limited, Radioactive Substances Regulations, Environmental Permit Application for Hinkley Point C: Chapter 7, Demonstration of Environmental Optimisation EDF
Greenhouse Gas Emission of European Pressurized Reactor (EPR) Nuclear Power Plant Technology: A Life Cycle Approach Journal of Sustainable Energy & Environment 2, J. Kunakemakorn, P. Wongsuchoto, P. Pavasant, N. Laosiripojana (2011)
- Compare the relative benefits of a construction subsidy and a subsidised high strike price from the perspectives of (a) the government (b) EDF.
- What positive and negative externalities are involved in nuclear power generation?
- What difficulties are there in valuing these externalities?
- What is meant by catastrophic risk? Why is this difficult to take account of in any cost–benefit analysis?
- What is meant by a project’s return on capital? Explain how discounted cash flow techniques are used to estimate this return.
- What should be taken into account in deciding the rate of discount to use?
- How should the extra jobs during construction of the plant and then in the running of the plant be valued when making the decisions about whether to go ahead?
The environment has been a growing part of government policy for many years. With the Kyoto Protocol and Europe’s carbon trading system, effort has been made to reduce carbon emissions. Part of UK policy to meet its emission’s target requires substantial investment in infrastructure to provide efficient energy.
Details of the government’s Energy Bill sets out plans that will potentially increase average household energy bills by about £100 per annum, although estimates of this vary from about £90 to £170. This money will be used to finance much needed investment in infrastructure that will allow the UK to meet its carbon emissions target. With this extra cost on bills, energy companies will increase bring in something like £7.6bn. The benefit of this higher cost is that investment today will lead to lower energy bills tomorrow. Essentially, we’re looking at a short-term cost for a long-term gain.
The Energy Bill also delayed setting a carbon emission target until 2016. Crucially, this will come after the next election. Environmentalists have naturally criticised this omission. John Sauven of Greenpeace said:
’By failing to agree to any carbon target for the power sector until after the next election, David Cameron has allowed a militant tendency within his own ranks to derail the Energy Bill … It’s a blatant assault on the greening of the UK economy that leaves consumers vulnerable to rising gas prices, and sends billions of pounds of clean-tech investment to our economic rivals.’
One further problem that this lack of a target creates is uncertainty. The energy sector requires significant investment and in order to be encouraged to invest, firms need assurances. Without knowing the target and hence facing a degree of uncertainty, firms may be less likely to invest in building new power plants. And this investment is crucial. The Government has committed to replacing most coal-fired power stations across Britain with low carbon technology at a cost of hundreds of billions of pounds. However, the Chancellor has said “he would not allow saving the planet to come at the cost of ‘putting our country out of business.’”
When this Energy Bill is published, it is claimed that £110bn of spending on different aspects of the National Grid will occur. The suggestion is that this will generate a further 250,000 jobs by 2030 and will be a big step in the right direction towards creating an economy that is more reliant on clean energy.
The following articles consider the wide range of issues surrounding the Energy Bill.
’It’s reasonable to hike energy bills to build wind farms’ says Tim Yeo The Telegraph, Rowena Mason (23/11/12)
Energy Bill to increase prices to fund cleaner fuel BBC News (23/11/12)
Energy deal means bills will rise to pay for green power The Guardian, Juliette Jowit and Fiona Harvey (23/11/12)
Energy Bill Q&A BBC News (23/11/12)
Energy bills to rise by £170 a year to fund wind farms Independent, Andrew Woodcock and Emily Beament (23/11/12)
Energy deal – but no target to cut Britain’s carbon emissions Independent, Nigel Morris (22/11/12)
Davey defends contentious energy agreement Financial Times, Jim Pickard, Pilita Clark and Hannah Kuchler (23/11/12)
Energy bill lacks emissions target Channel 4 News (23/11/12)
- Why does the environment require so much government intervention? Think about the different ways in which the environment as a market fails.
- If household bills rise, is there likely to be an income and substitution effect between consumption of ‘energy’ and other goods? Which direction will each effect move in and which do you think would be the largest?
- Why is uncertainty such a deterrent for investment? Why does a lack of a carbon emissions target represent uncertainty?
- The higher cost of bills today may enable future bills to fall. Why is this? For a household, explain why discount factors could be important here.
- Why do some argue that the extra cost to households set out by the government are likely to under-estimate the actual increase households will face?
- Is the Chancellor right to say that he will not put our country out of business to save the planet?
Governments and businesses across the world have been trying to become more environmentally friendly, as everyone becomes more concerned with climate change and emissions. In the UK, incentives had been put in place to encourage large-scale organisations to reduce their consumption of gas and electricity. The Carbon Reduction Commitment Scheme began in April 2010, with companies and public-sector orgainisations required to record their energy consumption. Then in April 2011 it was planned that those consuming over 6000 MWh of electricity per year (about £500,000 worth) would be required to purchase ‘allowances’ of £12 for each tonne of carbon dioxide that is emitted by their use of fuel: electricity, gas, coal and other fuels. This would require the organisations working out their ‘carbon footprint’, using guidance from the Department of Energy and Climate Change. In the case of coal and gas, the emissions would be largely from burning the fuel. In the case of electricity it would be largely from generating it.
The government had intended to use the revenue received from the sale of allowances to pay subsidies to those firms which were the most successful in cutting their emissions.
By raising money from the largest emitters via a levy and giving it back as a ‘refund’ to those who cut their usage the most, the government would not have been able to raise any revenue, but it did tackle the core of the problem – reducing emissions. However, following the Spending Review, this scheme will now actually generate revenue for the government. Paragraph 2.108 on page 62 of the Spending Review states the following:
The CRC Energy Efficiency scheme will be simplified to reduce the burden on businesses,
with the first allowance sales for 2011-12 emissions now taking place in 2012 rather than 2011. Revenues from allowance sales totalling £1 billion a year by 2014-15 will be used to support the public finances, including spending on the environment, rather than recycled to participants. Further decisions on allowance sales are a matter for the Budget process.
Over 5000 firms and other organisations will now find that their hard work in cutting usage and being more environmentally friendly will give them much less reward, as the revenue raised from the levy will remain in the Treasury. All that firms will now gain from cutting emissions is a reduction their levy bill. The extra £1bn or more raised each year from the scheme will undoubtedly be beneficial for tackling the budget deficit, but it will no longer provide subsidies to firms which reduce their emissions. Furthermore, PriceWaterhouseCooper estimates that it will cost businesses with an average gas and electricity bill of £1 million an extra £76,000 in the first year and this may increase to an additional cost of £114,000 per year by 2015.
It’s hardly surprising that businesses are angry, especially when this withdrawal of subsidy, which some have dubbed a ‘stealth tax’, was not mentioned in the Chancellor’s speech, but was left to the small print of the Spending Review announcement. The following articles look at this highly controversial plan.
Spending Review: Large firms ‘face green stealth tax’ BBC News (21/910/10)
Business lose out via £1bn-a-year green ‘stealth tax’ Management Today, Emma Haslett (21/10/10)
Fury over £1bn green stealth tax in spending review Telegraph, Rowena Mason (20/10/10)
Is ‘stealth’ tax a threat to UK economy going green? BBC News, Roger Harrabin (20/10/10)
Green spending review – it could have been a whole lot worse Business Green, James Murray (20/10/10)
Coalition hits big business with stealth carbon tax Business Green, James Murray (20/10/10)
UK government hits big businesses with stealth carbon tax Reuters, James Murray (20/10/10)
UK’s carbon tax bombshell takes business by surprise Reuters, Will Nichols and James Murray (21/10/10)
CRC allowances sting in UK Spending Review The Engineer, M&C Energy Group (22/10/10)
The CRC scheme
CRC Energy Efficiency Scheme Department of Energy and Climate Change
- How does a tax affect the supply curve and what would be the impact on the equilibrium price and quantity?
- To what extent might this “stealth tax” (i.e. withdrawal of subsidy) adversely affect (a) businesses in the UK; (b) the economy more generally?
- Why will firms have to re-look at their cash flow, costs and revenue following this change? How might this affect business strategy?
- By taxing firms using more gas and electricity, what problem is the government trying to solve? (Think about market failure.)