State-owned power networks have spent up to A$20 billion more than was needed on the electricity grid, and households and businesses in New South Wales, Queensland and Tasmania are paying for it in sky-high power bills.
A new Grattan Institute report, Down to the Wire, shows that electricity customers in these states would be paying A$100-A$400 less each year if the overspend had not happened.
The problem is that state governments, worried about blackouts and growing demand for electricity, encouraged the networks to spend more in the mid-2000s. But the networks overdid it, and now consumers are paying for a grid that is underused, overvalued, or both.
The grid includes high-voltage transmission lines that carry electricity over large distances, as well as low-voltage poles and wires that connect to homes and businesses. Networks are built to cope with those times of highest demand for electricity. Yet the growth in the value of network assets has far exceeded growth in customer numbers, total demand, or even peak demand.
Demand for electricity did grow rapidly in the early 2000s, but since then it has slowed substantially as more and more households have installed solar panels, and appliances have become more energy efficient. Networks may have overbuilt because they expected that demand would continue to grow.
Yet the overbuilding has occurred almost exclusively in the public networks. Why would government ownership lead to such high costs?
There are two main reasons. First, investment in electricity networks boosts state government revenues because public networks pay a fee to the state to neutralise their lower borrowing costs (as well as the dividend they pay to the state as the owner). Second, a government-owned business might come under political pressure to prioritise goals such as reliability or job creation over cost.
Of course governments worry about reliability – they cop the blame if anything goes wrong. In 2005, the NSW and Queensland governments required their network businesses to build excessive back-up infrastructure to protect against even the most unlikely events. Reliability did improve a bit in some networks, but at significant cost: on average, customers got an extra 45 minutes of electricity a year at a cost of A$270 each.
State governments should take responsibility
Successive state governments in NSW, Queensland and Tasmania are responsible for overinvesting in their networks and, in NSW and Queensland, for setting reliability standards too high.
State governments can’t turn back the clock but they can still fix the mistakes of the past. And they should, because if they don’t, consumers will be paying for decades to come.
Households and businesses that can afford to buy solar panels and batteries will reduce their reliance on the grid. Meanwhile, those left behind – including the most vulnerable Australians – will be stuck with the burden of paying for the grid.
In Down to the Wire we recommend that where network businesses are still in government hands, the government should write down the value of the assets. This would mean governments forgoing future revenue in favour of lower electricity bills. For recently privatised businesses in NSW, a write-down could create more issues than it solves, so in those cases the state government should refund consumers the difference through a rebate.
At a time when governments are concerned about energy affordability, NSW, Queensland and Tasmania have a real opportunity to do something about it. They should seize it.
How to prevent this happening again
There will always be pressure to spend more. At the moment, concerns about South Australia’s reliability could very well lead to further investment in network infrastructure.
Policymakers must also deal with the risk that, in future, parts of the network may no longer be needed. The grid may need to be reconfigured as new technologies emerge, some communities go off-grid, and new energy sources arise in new locations.
For now, consumers bear this risk: they are locked into paying for assets whether or not they are needed. In future, the risk should be shared between consumers and businesses; this would encourage businesses to avoid overbuilding in the first place and instead consider alternative solutions.
With the focus on reliability right now, governments are at risk of repeating mistakes of the past. The truth is that Australia already has a very reliable grid.
On average across the National Electricity Market, consumers experience less than two-and-a-half hours in unplanned outages per year. Reducing that by a few minutes of supply each year is very expensive. Politicians typically value reliability more than consumers, but ultimately it is consumers who foot the bill.
But for most Australians, the most visible impact of this crisis has been their ever-increasing electricity bills. Electricity prices have become a political hot potato, and the blame game has been running unchecked for more than a year.
Electricity retailers find fault with governments, and renewable energy advocates point the finger at the nasty old fossil-fuel generators. The right-wing commentariat blames renewables, while the federal government blames everyone but itself.
The truth is there is no silver bullet. No single factor or decision is responsible for the electricity prices we endure today. Rather, it is the confluence of many different policies and pressures at every step of the electricity supply chain.
Four components make up your electricity bill. Each has contributed to this increase.
The biggest culprit has been the network component – the cost of transporting the electricity. Next comes the retail component – the cost of billing and servicing the customer. Then there is the wholesale component – the cost of generating the electricity. And finally, the government policy component – the cost of environmental schemes that we pay for through our electricity bills.
Each component has a different tale, told differently in every state. But ultimately, this is a story about a decade of policy failure.
Network costs form the biggest part of your electricity bill. Australia is a big country, and moving electricity around it is expensive. As the graph above shows, network costs have contributed 40% of the total price increase over the past decade.
The reason we now pay so much for the network is simply that we have built an awful lot more stuff over the past decade. It’s also because it was agreed – through the industry regulator – that network businesses could build more network infrastructure and that we all have to pay for it, regardless of whether it is really needed.
Network businesses are heavily regulated. Their costs, charges and profits all have to be ticked off. This is supposed to keep costs down and prevent consumers being charged too much.
That’s the theory. But the fact is costs have spiralled. Between 2005 and 2016 the total value of the National Electricity Market (NEM) distribution network increased from A$42 billion to A$72 billion – a whopping 70%. During that time there has been little change in the number of customers using the network or the amount of electricity they used. The result: every unit of electricity we consume costs much more than it used to.
There are several reasons for this expensive overbuild. First, forecasts of electricity demand were wrong – badly wrong. Instead of ever-increasing consumption, the amount of electricity we used started to decline in 2009. A whole lot of network infrastructure was built to meet demand that never eventuated.
Second, governments in New South Wales and Queensland imposed strict reliability settings – designed to avoid blackouts – on the networks in the mid-2000s. To meet these reliability settings, the network businesses had to spend a lot more money reinforcing their networks than they otherwise would have.
Third, the way in which network businesses are regulated encourages extra spending on infrastructure. In an industry where you are guaranteed a 10% return on investment, virtually risk-free – as network businesses were between 2009 and 2014 – you are inclined to build, build, build.
The blame for this “gold-plating” of network assets is spread widely. Governments have been accused of panicking and setting reliability standards too high. The regulator has copped its share for allowing businesses too much capital spend and too high a return. Privatisation has also been criticised, which is slightly bizarre given that the worst offenders have been state-owned businesses.
The second biggest increase in your bill has been the amount we pay for the services provided to us by retailers. Across the NEM, 26% of the price increase over the past decade has been due to retail margins.
This increase in the retail component was never supposed to happen. To understand why, you must go back to the rationale for opening the retail sector to competition. Back in the 1990s, it was felt that retail energy was ripe for competition, which would deliver lower prices and more innovative products for consumers.
In theory, where competition exists, firms seek to reduce their costs to maximise their profits, in turn allowing them to reduce prices so as to grab as many customers as possible. The more they cut their costs, the more they can cut prices. Theoretically, costs are minimised and profits are squeezed. If competition works as it’s supposed to, the retail component should go down, not up.
But the exact opposite has happened in the electricity sector. In Victoria, the state that in 2009 became the first to completely deregulate its retail electricity market, the retail component of the bill has contributed to 36% of the price increase over the past decade.
On average, Victorians pay almost A$400 a year to retailers, more than any other mainland state in the NEM. This is consistent with the Grattan Institute’s Price Shock report, which showed that rising profits are causing pain for Victorian electricity consumers. Many customers remain on expensive deals, and do not switch to cheaper offers because the market is so complicated. These “sticky” customers have been cited as the cause of “excessive” profits to retailers.
But the new figures provided by the ACCC, which come directly from retailers, paint a different picture. The ACCC finds that the increase in margins in Victoria is wholly down to the increasing costs of retailers doing business.
There are reasons why competition might drive prices up, not down. Retailers now spend money on marketing to recruit and retain customers. And the existence of multiple retailers leads to duplications in costs that would not exist if a single retailer ran the market.
But these increases should be offset by retailers finding savings elsewhere, and this doesn’t seem to have happened. History may judge the introduction of competition to the retail electricity market as an expensive mistake.
So far, we have accounted for 65% of the bill increase of the past decade, and neither renewables nor coal have been mentioned once. Nor were they ever likely to be. The actual generation of electricity has only ever formed a minor portion of your electricity bill – the ACCC report shows that in 2015-16 the wholesale component constituted only 22% of the typical bill.
In the past year, however, wholesale prices have really increased. In 2015-16, households paid on average A$341 a year for the generation of electricity – far less than they were paying in 2006-07. But in the past year, that is estimated to have increased to A$530 a year.
Generators, particularly in Queensland, have been engaging in questionable behaviour, but it is the fundamental change in the supply and demand balance that means higher prices are here to stay for at least the next few years.
The truth is the cost of generating electricity has been exceptionally low in most parts of Australia for most of the past two decades. When the NEM was created in 1998, there was arguably more generation capacity in the system than was needed to meet demand. And in economics, more supply than demand equals low prices.
Over the years our politicians have been particularly good at ensuring overcapacity in the system. Most of the investment in generation in the NEM since its creation has been driven by either taxpayers’ money, or government schemes and incentives – not by market forces. The result has been oversupply.
Up until the late 2000s the market kept chugging along. Then two things happened. First, consumers started using less electricity. And second, the Renewable Energy Target (RET) was ramped up, pushing more supply into the market.
Demand down and supply up meant even more oversupply, and continued low prices. But the combination of low prices and low demand put pressure on the finances of existing fossil fuel generators. Old generators were being asked to produce less electricity than before, for lower prices. Smaller power stations began to be mothballed or retired.
Something had to give, and it did when both Alinta and Engie decided it was no longer financially viable to keep their power stations running. Far from being oversupplied, the market is now struggling to meet demand on hot days when people use the most electricity. The result is very high prices.
A tight demand and supply balance with less coal-fired generation has meant that Australia increasingly relies on gas-fired generation, at a time when gas prices are astronomical, leading to accusations of price-gouging.
Put simply, Australia has failed to build enough new generation over recent years to reliably replace ageing coal plants when they leave the market.
Is it renewable energy’s fault that coal-fired power stations have closed? Yes, but this is what needs to happen if we are to reduce greenhouse emissions. Is it renewables’ fault that replacement generation has not been built? No. It’s the government’s fault for failing to provide the right environment for new investment.
The current predicament could have been avoided if we had a credible and comprehensive emissions reduction policy to drive investment in the sector. Such a policy would give investors the confidence to build generation with the knowledge about what carbon liabilities they may face in the future. But the carbon price was repealed in 2014 and replaced with nothing.
We’re still waiting for an alternative policy. We’re still waiting for enough generation capacity to be built. And we’re still paying sky-high wholesale prices for electricity.
Green and gold
Finally, we have the direct cost of government green schemes over the past decade: the RET; the household solar panel subsidies; and the energy-efficiency incentives for homes and businesses.
They represent 16% of the price increase over the past 10 years – but they are still only 6% of the average bill.
If the aim of these schemes has been to reduce emissions, they have not done a very good job. Rooftop solar panel subsidies have been expensive and inequitable. The RET is more effective as an industry subsidy than an emissions reduction or energy transition policy. And energy efficiency schemes have produced questionable results.
It hasn’t been a total waste of money, but far deeper emissions cuts could have been delivered if those funds had been channelled into a coherent policy.
The story of Australia’s high electricity prices is not really one of private companies ripping off consumers. Nor is it a tale about the privatisation of an essential service. Rather, this is the story of a decade of policy drift and political failure.
Governments have been repeatedly warned about the need to tackle these problems, but have done very little.
Instead they have focused their energy on squabbling over climate policy. State governments have introduced inefficient schemes, scrapped them, and then introduced them again, while the federal government has discardedpolicies without even trying them.
There is a huge void where our sensible energy policy should be. Network overbuild and ballooning retailer margins both dwarf the impact of the carbon price, yet if you listen only to our politicians you’d be forgiven for thinking the opposite.
And still it goes on. The underlying causes of Australia’s electricity price headaches – the regulation of networks, ineffective retail market competition, and our barely coping generators – need immediate attention. But still the petty politicking prevails.
The Coalition has rejected the Clean Energy Target recommended by Chief Scientist Alan Finkel. Labor will give no guarantee of support for the government’s alternative policy, the National Energy Guarantee. Some politicians doubt the very idea that we need to act on climate change. Some states have given up on Canberra and are going it alone.
We’ve been here before and we know how this story ends. Crisis wasted.
On the early evening of Wednesday, February 8, electricity supply to some 90,000 households and businesses in South Australia was cut off for up to an hour. Two days later, all electricity consumers in New South Wales were warned the same could happen to them. It didn’t, but apparently only because supply was cut to the Tomago aluminium smelter instead. In Queensland, it was suggested consumers might also be at risk over the two following days, even though it was a weekend, and again on Monday, February 13. What is going on?
The first point to note is that these were all very hot days. This meant that electricity demand for air conditioning and refrigeration was very high. On February 8, Adelaide recorded its highest February maximum temperature since 2014. On February 10, western Sydney recorded its highest ever February maximum, and then broke this record the very next day. Brisbane posted its highest ever February maximum on February 13.
That said, the peak electricity demand in both SA and NSW was some way below the historical maximum, which in both states occurred during a heatwave on January 31 and February 1, 2011. In Queensland it was below the record reached last month, on January 18.
Regardless of all this, shouldn’t the electricity industry be able to anticipate such extreme days, and have a plan to ensure that consumers’ needs are met at all times?
Much has already been said and written about the reasons for the industry’s failure, or near failure, to do so on these days. But almost all of this has focused on minute-by-minute details of the events themselves, without considering the bigger picture.
The wider issue is that the electricity market’s rules, written two decades ago, are not flexible enough to build a reliable grid for the 21st century.
In an electricity supply system, such as Australia’s National Electricity Market (NEM), the amount of electricity supplied must precisely match the amount being consumed in every second of every year, and always at the right voltage and frequency. This is a big challenge – literally, considering that the NEM covers an area stretching from Cairns in the north, to Port Lincoln in the west and beyond Hobart in the south.
Continent-sized electricity grids like this are sometimes described as the world’s largest and most complex machines. They require not only constant maintenance but also regular and careful planning to ensure they can meet new demands and incorporate new technologies, while keeping overall costs as low as possible. All of this has to happen without ever interrupting the secure and reliable supply of electricity throughout the grid.
Until the 1990s, this was the responsibility of publicly owned state electricity commissions, answerable to their state governments. But since the industry was comprehensively restructured from the mid-1990s onwards, individual states now have almost no direct responsibility for any aspect of electricity supply.
Electricity is now generated mainly by private-sector companies, while the grid itself is managed by federally appointed regulators. State governments’ role is confined to one of shared oversight and high-level policy development, through the COAG Energy Council.
This market-driven, quasi-federal regime is underpinned by the National Electricity Rules, a highly detailed and prescriptive document that runs to well over 1,000 pages. This is necessary to ensure that the grid runs safely and reliably at all times, and to minimise opportunities for profiteering.
The downside is that these rules are inflexible, hard to amend, and unable to anticipate changes in technology or economic circumstances.
Besides governing the grid’s day-to-day operations, the rules specify processes aimed at ensuring that “the market” makes the most sensible investments in new generation and transmission capacity. These investments need to be optimal in terms of technical characteristics, timing and cost.
To borrow a phrase from the prime minister, the rules are not agile and innovative enough to keep up. When they were drawn up in the mid-1990s, electricity came almost exclusively from coal and gas. Today we have a changing mix of new supply technologies, and a much more uncertain investment environment.
Neither can the rules ensure that the closure of old, unreliable and increasingly expensive coal-fired power stations will occur in a way that is most efficient for the grid as a whole, rather than most expedient for individual owners. (About 3.6 gigawatts of capacity, spread across all four mainland NEM states and equalling more than 14% of current coal power capacity, has been closed since 2011; this will increase to 5.4GW and 22% when Hazelwood closes next month.)
Finally, one of the biggest drivers of change in the NEM over the past decade has been the construction of new wind and solar generation, driven by the Renewable Energy Target (RET) scheme. Yet this scheme stands completely outside the NEM rules.
The Australian Energy Markets Commission – effectively the custodian of the rules – has been adamant that climate policy, the reason for the RET, must be treated as an external perturbation, to which the NEM must adjust while making as few changes as possible to its basic architecture. On several occasions over recent years the commission has successfully blocked proposals to broaden the terms of the rules by amending the National Electricity Objective to include an environmental goal of boosting renewable energy and reducing greenhouse emissions.
Events in every state market over the past year have shown that the electricity market’s problems run much deeper than the environmental question. Indeed, they go right to the core of the NEM’s reason for existence, which is to keep the lights on. A fundamental review is surely long overdue.
The most urgent task will be identifying what needs to be done in the short term to ensure that next summer, with Hazelwood closed, peak demands can be met without more load shedding. Possible actions may include establishing firm contracts with major users, such as aluminium smelters, to make large but brief reductions in consumption, in exchange for appropriate compensation. Another option may be paying some gas generators to be available at short notice, if required; this would not be cheap, as it would presumably require contingency gas supply contracts to be in place.
The most important tasks will address the longer term. Ultimately we need a grid that can supply enough electricity throughout the year, including the highest peaks, while ensuring security and stability at all times, and that emissions fall fast enough to help meet Australia’s climate targets.
Business here and households here, already we’re paying twice the cost of the US for electricity. – Craig Kelly MP, chair of the backbench environment and energy committee, ABC Radio National Breakfast interview, December 6, 2016. (Listen from 7.38)
Converting 10.44 US cents at A$1/US$0.74 – is the equivalent of 14.11 cents Australia.
So using these sources (in Australian cents) we have 14.11 cents in the USA and 28.72 cents in Australia. Therefore I think to say that “we’re paying twice the cost of the US for electricity” (on average) is pretty much right on the money.
It’s definitely true that Australians pay much more for their electricity than US citizens do (and Australian prices are set to rise even further, according to the Australian Energy Market Commission.
Using OECD data, there’s one measure that says it is twice as much – or at least it was twice as much as recently as 2014. Another measure – a better measure, in my view – shows Australians pay about 50% more than US citizens do for their electricity.
As Craig Kelly notes in his full response, there is significant variation in electricity prices across states and territories in Australia and in the United States, so comparing the two is not a simple matter. The Australian Energy Market Commission’s annual Electricity Price Trends report shows that retail prices in Australia vary from 18.44 c/kWh in the Australian Capital Territory to 29.75 c/KWh in South Australia.
The wholesale price is the cost of generating the energy that is sent to the grid. Retail prices are what householders are more used to talking about. Retail prices factor in extra costs like transmission and distribution (“poles and wires”), retailer margins and other levies (such as Feed-in Tariff and Renewable Energy Target costs). In other words, it’s what we’re paying on our power bill.
Let’s examine the data.
A tale of two measures
The two measures I have used to compare prices in the US and Australia are called “market exchange rates” and “purchasing power parities”. Craig Kelly’s calculations rely on market exchange rates, so we will start with that one.
Market exchange rates simply means converting the price in one country’s currency to that of another country’s currency, as Kelly did. This measure of comparison is more volatile than purchasing power parity exchange rates.
Using market exchange rates, OECD data show that Australian electricity prices have, in recent years, been approximately twice as high as electricity prices in the US. Recently, the gap has narrowed. In 2015, using market exchange rates, electricity prices in Australia were about 70.3% higher than in the US.
The Australian Energy Market Commission projects that Australian prices will rise even further in coming years.
That broadly supports what Kelly said. But if we use purchasing power parity exchange rates, the data show that Australia’s prices are approximately 50% higher than the US.
Purchasing power parity exchange rates, or PPP, factor in inflation and the cost of living in a particular country, and eliminate differences in price levels between countries. This measure allows a cleaner, less volatile comparison between the US and Australia.
The chart below compares the retail prices of electricity in Australia and the United States when adjusted for cost of living differences using purchasing power parity.
As the above chart of the OECD data shows, household prices of electricity are about 50% higher in Australia than in the US when you use purchasing power parity data.
Why are the prices so different?
As this chart shows, data from OECD indicate there has been a substantial divergence between Australian and American electricity prices since about 2008.
As noted in the preliminary report of the Australian chief scientist Alan Finkel’s review of the National Electricity Market, household energy bills in Australia increased 61% on average between 2008 and 2014.
The main reason for this is the cost of maintaining the electricity network – essentially, the poles and wires that deliver the power. Network costs represent between 45% and 55% of a typical electricity bill. This has been the largest contributor to Australia’s increasing prices over the past six years.
Some observers have said that the “gold-plating” of the network came about because of a regulatory regime that encouraged over-investment in poles and wires. This was been partly driven by an effort to shore up electricity supply and an overestimation of demand.
The Productivity Commission reported that, in New South Wales, network costs accounted for 80% of price rises in 2010-11 and 50% of price rises in 2011-12.
Is it really that simple?
Not really. Energy economics is far more complicated than can come across in Kelly’s quick quote or this short FactCheck.
While the Australian price is higher, this doesn’t necessarily mean the cost is higher: Australians use much less energy than Americans. This is because as prices increase, energy productivity and energy efficiency also tend to increase. In total, most countries actually spend a similar proportion of GDP on energy costs.
This holds surprisingly consistent across a range of countries. For example, Japan has high energy prices, but also has high energy efficiency and productivity. Consequently, it spends practically the same amount of GDP on energy cost as the US.
So prices may be higher for individuals, but that doesn’t mean the economy-wide costs are higher. All that said, Kelly was talking about the prices for individuals and business, so that’s what this FactCheck is focused on.
If we compare Australian and American electricity prices using market exchange rates, Craig Kelly’s comment is correct: Australia’s electricity prices were essentially double those of the United States as recently as 2014. In 2015, using market exchange rates, the US prices were about 70.3% higher.
If we compare the prices using purchasing parity power exchange rates – which I’d argue is the more accurate reflection of the costs of living in each of the countries – Australia’s prices are about 50% higher than the US.
Overall, Craig Kelly’s broader point is correct: Australians pay a much higher price for their electricity than Americans do. – Dylan McConnell.
I agree with the author’s position that purchasing power parity comparisons are less volatile and more representative of the relativity based on actual living costs. It is true Australian households pay a much higher electricity price than Americans.
There’s one important point I’d add. There is a baseline cost of having a house or business connected to electrical supply, regardless of how much electricity is used. This is called the fixed supply cost. The more electricity a household or business uses, the more the fixed supply cost is diluted in the overall electricity bill. This brings down the cost per kilowatt-hours (kWh).
American households use about twice as much electricity as Australian households. According to the US EIA, average US household electricity consumption in 2015 was 10,812 kWh. 2014 data for Australia shows average Australian household electricity consumption was 5,772 kWh (down from 6,819 kWh in 2008. At 25 cents/kWh that is a saving of $307 for Australians for using less electricity over time).
So we would expect Australian household electricity prices to be higher, because an average Australian household uses less electricity and the large fixed supply costs must be spread across a smaller amount of consumption. This raises the cost per kWh. But because Australians use less, their annual bill may be lower.
Further, in recent years, Australian energy retailers have been raising their fixed supply (or baseline) charges. So small users pay much more overall per unit of electricity they use.
Lastly, it’s worth noting that larger businesses often negotiate much better deals on their electricity prices than householders can. – Alan Pears.
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