Electricity market reform: The Rt Hon Chris Huhne MP's oral statement

Mr Speaker, today we begin consulting on the reform of the electricity market. This programme sits at the heart of my Department’s mission: …

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon Chris Huhne

Mr Speaker, today we begin consulting on the reform of the electricity market. This programme sits at the heart of my Department’s mission: to deliver secure, affordable and low-carbon energy.

The case for reform is clear. We need significant investment in our energy infrastructure. As old coal and nuclear plants shut down - and demand for electricity grows - we must build the next generation of power stations. The electricity they deliver must be both affordable and sustainable, helping us to meet our emissions reduction targets - and keep the lights on.

The current energy market has served us well. But it cannot deliver long-term investment on the scale we need, nor can it give consumers the best deal. Left untouched, it could lock carbon emissions into the system for decades to come.

Investors and boardrooms around the world want to know whether the UK is a good place to do energy business. Today, we are setting out our plans to make it one of the best places to do energy business.

The challenges - and the opportunities - are huge. Put simply, we face growing demand. Shrinking supply. And ambitious emissions reductions targets.

Demand for electricity could double by 2050 as we decarbonise the economy.

30% of our electricity must come from renewables by 2020, up from 7% today, to meet our contribution to the EU renewable energy target.

In the next ten years, a quarter of our existing power plants will need to be replaced, as nuclear and coal plants reach the end of their lives.

Without action, we will face a real and growing threat to the security of our supply. The reserve margin of spare generating capacity will fall over the next decade, and the risk of interruptions to our energy supplies will rise.

So we must build the next generation of power stations, and act to ensure there will be enough reserve capacity to meet our needs. Together with renewables, we will need new gas-fired power stations and new nuclear plant. We must attract more than £100 billion of investment in new power stations and grid connections by 2020; double the investment rate of the last decade.

And we must rebalance our market framework to attract investment in the right technologies. At the moment, there is a bias toward low-cost, low-risk fossil fuel generation. Renewables, nuclear and carbon capture and storage all have relatively high upfront capital costs. But a more diverse, lower carbon energy mix is better for our energy security, better for our economy, and better for our planet.

Some measures have already delivered investment in new low carbon generation - the Renewables Obligation, and the EU Emissions Trading System. But we must go further, and faster.

To secure reliable, affordable low-carbon electricity, we must change the market structure. We must create the right framework to ramp up power generation and secure our supply. And we must deliver cleaner, greener electricity for the 2020s and beyond.

Today, we are proposing new incentives to drive investment, while protecting the rules for investments already made. The focus will shift permanently from conventional fossil fuel-fired electricity to low carbon technologies - renewables, nuclear and cleaner fossil fuels.

Our preferred package of reforms is designed to strike a balance between the best possible deal for consumers, and giving existing players and new entrants in the energy sector the certainty they need to raise investment.

Reform will be gradual. We want to reassure industry that the rules for existing investments will be protected. By consulting on a process and principles for the transition to new market arrangements we aim to minimise uncertainty.

The competitive market will remain at the centre of our energy policy. But the four elements of the reform package announced today will change incentives in the market and ensure both the security and decarbonisation of our power supply system, whilst minimising costs to consumers.

Firstly, greater long term certainty around the additional cost of running polluting plant, to make lower-carbon investment more attractive. Proposals set out in the HM Treasury consultation to support the carbon price directly tackle the core problem - putting a better price on emissions, increasing the cost of fossil fuel based generation, and strengthening the carbon price for UK electricity generators.

Second, greater revenue certainty for low carbon generation will make clean energy investment more attractive still. Through the proposed contract for difference feed in tariff, the Government will guarantee greater revenue certainty for low carbon in the form of a top up payment if the wholesale price is below the feed in tariff, and a potential claw back for consumers if wholesale prices are above the contracted tariff.

Third, additional payments to encourage the construction of reserve plants or demand reduction measures to ensure the lights stay on. Capacity payments will create an adequate safety cushion of capacity as the amount of intermittent and inflexible low carbon generation increases.

And fourth, a back-stop to limit how much carbon any new coal-fired power stations emit. An emissions performance standard will reinforce the existing requirement that no new coal is built without carbon capture and storage.

Together, these four reforms make good on our commitments in the coalition’s programme for government. They will make the UK a prime location for low carbon energy investment. They will ensure our energy supply is cleaner and more secure. They will protect the consumer; while prices will rise in the medium term, the additional impact of the reform packages will be small, but by 2030, consumer bills will be lower than if we did not reform the market.

And they will lay the foundations for the sustainable economy of the future, bringing jobs up and down the supply chain.

The consultation that opens today invites everyone to tell us whether they think the preferred package of reforms is the right one, and to provide the evidence to support their views. Final recommendations will be published in a White Paper in late Spring 2011, and the reforms introduced before the end of this Parliament. We are also reviewing the role of Ofgem and the energy regulatory framework, and today we are publishing the Government’s response to the call for evidence on the terms of the review.

We have a once-in-a-generation chance to rebuild our electricity market, rebuild investor confidence, and rebuild our power stations. Like privatisation before it, this will be a seismic shift; securing investment in cleaner, greener power. And delivering secure, affordable and low-carbon energy for decades to come.

Published 16 December 2010