In the opening a new era for solar power news item discussed in previous post, there was this rather puzzling paragraph (my emphasis):
The deployment in solar PV and wind last year was accompanied by record-low auction prices, which fell as low as 3 cents per kwh (or kilowatt hour). Low announced prices for solar and wind were recorded in a variety of places, such as India, the United Arab Emirates, Mexico and Chile. These announced contract prices for solar PV and wind power purchase agreements are increasingly comparable or lower than generation cost of newly built gas and coal power plants.
There were many more questions than answers. What are those “announced auction prices”, what do they mean by “increasingly” and why aren’t there leading countries like European countries or USA on that list?
It seems to somehow suggest that the generation cost of solar PV and wind power is now “increasingly” cheaper than that of gas or coal. It is a bit odd that an energy source like wind, that in this region still depends on subsidies to survive, would be in such a position that it increasingly rivals gas and coal power. That doesn’t make much sense…
Also in practice, the cost of wind and solar PV is much higher than conventional sources, at least in the European region. This shows in the energy prices in countries that have the highest share of wind and solar PV. The highest energy prices are found in Denmark and Germany. Which are, coincidently or not, the leaders in renewables in Europe.
I have seen many graphs depicting the relationship between energy prices and installed capacity of wind & solar. I will try to recreate this here with recent figures of installed capacity of wind and solar in the BP Statistical Review Renewable energy 2017 (data from 2016). The other data comes from: 2016 energy prices in Europe (which could be found at the page Electricity price statistics of the Eurostat site) and European census data also from Eurostat. I only used those countries in the Europe/eurasia section from which all the data was available.
Finally, I get this:
It is clear that both Germany and Denmark have by far the highest energy prices. It also seems there is some relationship between energy prices and installed capacity of solar PV & wind, but not in the direction that that is suggested by the IEA.
There is also the odd placement of Belgium in that graph. It is rather high, meaning it has high energy prices compared to it its installed capacity of wind & solar. This higher energy price could be easily explained though. In 2011, our previous government has some difficulties explaining the energy transition to its citizens since it became obvious that prices were rising because of it. Therefor it was decreed that energy prices should not be raised until after the elections in 2014. Which kept the prices (artificially) low for several years.
This gave the perception that the energy transition to wind/solar/biomass was so cheap that it didn’t have an impact on the energy prices, which was the intention of the previous government. However, in the meanwhile the debts were piling up even more, yet providers (that were charged for it by the netmanager) could not include those expenses in the energy price.
Then came the elections, which were not favorable for the party of the previous Minister of Energy. The new government was not exactly keen on that party and its energy policies. They made a big fuss about the accumulated debts, so everybody knew where that debt came from and it was included it in the energy price (where it belonged in the first place). That suddenly raised the energy prices drastically. If that debt was included in the energy prices by previous government (as it should be), energy prices would be a bit lower in 2016, resulting in a point much closer to the trend line.
To me, these prices are an indication that wind and solar PV are more expensive than gas or coal, at least in this part of the world. So how could those low auction prices be explained?
Looking for “auction prices” at the IEA website, I landed on this page: Announced wind & solar PV average auction prices by commissioning date. It shows this graph:
We see the blue line (wind auction prices) which seems to go down very slowly and coming at an expected 4 cents/kWh in 2020, but the yellow line (solar PV auction prices) is dropping fast to about an expected 3 cent/kWh in 2020. Currently it is at 8 cents/kWh. So how could auction prices then drop below 3 cents/kWh in certain countries? These are “average” prices, so those 3 cents/kWh (or below) prices are most probably rare occasions in specific situations, maybe even outliers and/or prices that do not include all costs involved.
I had the impression that the IEA news item was not telling a crucial piece of information in order to understand that these auction prices are “increasingly” comparable or even lower than generation cost of gas and coal. Are these very rare occasions in a specific situation? Or did someone take a loss? Or maybe was compensated for taking that loss?
Then I found this page when looking for why the auction prices occurred in those four countries: How developing countries can manage to reduce cost of renewables. It also mentions some of the countries in the IEA article and they describe several ways how to reduce the cost of renewable energy:
- Energy Auctions
That a chicken-versus-egg problem. That energy is auctioned below the generation price of gas and coal, doesn’t necessarily mean that this energy is generated cheaper. As far as I know, reduced cost should be the cause of cheaper generation, not the result. It is not because energy prices are auctioned cheaper than other sources, that the generation cost is necessarily cheaper.
- Technology innovation
I can understand that innovation can mean lower generation costs, but then we should see such lower prices here also. I don’t see that in the graph that depicts the energy costs versus installed capacity.
- Offshore installation
I can understand that offshore wind mills have a better capacity factor than onshore wind mills, but the installation and maintenance costs will also increase. And again, Europe also has it share of offshore wind mills. Why is there still a need for subsidies for offshore (and onshore) wind mills over here?
- Feed-in Tariffs
Sure, feed-in tariffs lower the cost for the producer, but not necessarily for the consumer and/or tax payer. I understand that feed-in tariffs just “promote deployment” as is explained, yet I don’t agree with what follows:
Competition among various players is a market factor that will finally lead to lowering final cost of energy
As far as I know, feed-in tariffs disturb the competition among various players, not promote it.
- Lower Costs, More Clean Energy
Again a chicken-versus-egg problem. Sure, lower cost could attract more wind/solar installations, but as far as I know it is the result, not the cause of lower energy costs. Strange to find this argument in an article that explains how developing countries can manage to reduce cost of renewables, yet only focus on what the result of those lower prices will be.
None of them is convincing or gives an explanation for why those auction prices where lower there. I wanted to know why those costs are cheaper in those countries, not what the result of cheaper costs is.
I had somewhat more success searching for information on the auction prices in the United Arab Emirates. I found this article titled UAE Leading The Charge For Cheap Solar. It explains those auction prices in some more detail. The story starts in 2015 when 5.84 cents/kWh was agreed in a 25-year power purchase agreement for a 200 MW installation (that came online March 2017). In June 2016, it was announced that another photovoltaic plant of 800 MW was to be build and it would receive 2.99 cents/kWh for the electricity it would produce. Finally, it was announced that a contract was awarded to a consortium led by the Chinese company JinkoSolar for a 1.2 GW plant projected to be operating by early 2019. They would receive 2.42 cents/kWh.
That explains the “announced” part (the prices were announced beforehand) and confirms the lower than 3 cents/kWh auction prices.
I am not really sure whether the contracts were all without subsidies. Only the first contract of the 200 MW was said to not receive “tax credits or other subsidies”. It was not mentioned for the other two, so it is not really clear whether the author forgot to mention that they didn’t get subsidies or whether the author just didn’t mention that they did receive some kind of support.
But even when the UAE didn’t give tax credits or other subsidies for those two big contracts, the last contract was awarded to a consortium led by a Chinese company, which makes me doubt that no subsidies were involved. The EU had some negative experiences with Chinese solar panels in the past. Super cheap panels were dumped at below-market prices because of Chinese subsidies, bankrupting the European solar panel industry. So while UAE might not give subsidies, it is not sure whether the Chinese sold those two big installation without subsidies being involved (for example in order for the Chinese to become market leaders).
The article also explained how those low auction prices were possible:
- the cost savings from greater scale (probably for the 800 MW and 1.2 GW installations compared to the 200 MW installation)
- the bidding approach adopted by the utilities (“setting a capacity and inviting bidding on price” in stead of “setting a tariff and inviting participants”)
- solar energy developers in UAE enjoy some of the lowest capital costs in the world
The author recognizes this and admits that:
these favorable conditions make the UAE a unique case
It surely is. Besides those three reasons, there is also plenty of space, there is plenty of sun and at that latitude there is not a big difference in the length of days between seasons (the day lasts roughly 10,5 hours in winter to almost 14 hours in summer). I assume energy consumption is also highest when energy production of solar is highest (cooling when it is hottest). So I surely can image that solar PV can work there.
My guess is that those other countries (India, Mexico and Chile) also have some exceptional circumstances that make it possible to have such cheap auction prices, maybe even with the help of subsidies or feed-in prices as it is suggested in the cleanleap article above.
How relevant is this for other countries/regions and specifically the country I live in (Belgium). Could we see such a decrease in auction prices as UAE? Belgium is one of the most densely populated areas in Europe. There are no big open spaces here and land prices are therefor incredibly high. Cost savings for greater scale of solar would be quite difficult. We don’t have a desert with huge free space. We also don’t have the synchronization of solar with our energy needs (our consumption is the highest when solar energy generation is at its lowest and vice versa). Neither do we have a favorable financial climate nor the cheap Chinese panels (the EU protects its own solar panel industry).
Concluding, I totally understand that UAE has lower auction prices for solar energy. Solar PV works there for several reasons. However, the IEA article is rather misleading. It only focuses on the seemingly positive side that wind and solar auction prices are increasingly below generation prices of gas and coal, suggesting that wind and solar is getting more competitive with fossil fuels. While not bringing the nuance that these are very specific situations.
Which is common in alternative energy reporting, yet I didn’t expected such a one-sided, unnuanced story from an organization like IEA.