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Norway’s positive experience from interconnectors and open electricity market

Earlier this month, Mr. Ola Borten Moe, former energy- and petroleum minister of Norway, was in Iceland, discussing the development of the Norwegian electricity market.

In a presentation, at the Harpa Conference Hall in Reykjavík, Mr. Borten Moe gave a comprehensive insight on the matter. This open meeting took place on September 9th (2014) and was hosted by VÍB. The meeting was very well attended; in addition to the crowd at the hall at Harpa close to two thousand people watched the event live on the web (where a video recording is now available).

Iceland-Energy-Harpa-September-2014_Norway-Borten-Moe_Ragnheidur-Elin-Arnadottir_Hordur-Arnarson_Ketill-Sigurjonsson-1After the keynote speach by Mr. Borten Moe, there were panel discussion with three more participants; Ms. Ragnheiður Elín Árnadóttir, Icelandic Minister for Energy and Industries, Mr. Hörður Arnarson, CEO of Landsvirkjun Power Company, and Mr. Ketill Sigurjónsson, Managing Director of Askja Energy Partners. In his presentation Mr Borten Moe especially focused on two main issues; .Norway’s experience from the liberalization of the electricity market and Norway’s experience from the interconnectors (electric HVDC cables) between Norway and outher countries. Here we will highligt some parts of Mr. Borten Moe’s presentation. For reference, we will quote a transcript from the meeting, now accessible at the website of Landsvirkjun.

Positive economic and environmental effects

Mr. Borten Moe explained how the Norwegian deregulation of the elctricity market, which happened in the 1990’s, became a model for similar changes in Europe a decade later. He also described how interconnectors (electric cables) between Norway and other countries have benefitted both the Norwegian people and the domestic energy industry in Norway.

According to Mr. Borten Moe, the market deregulation and the interconnectors have been very positve for the Norwegian society. It has lead to more efficiency in the Norwegian hydropower industry, wich is mostly in public ownership. Also Mr. Borten Moe stated, that the interconnectors have resulted in a better access to electricity supply, which has especially been important for Norway in dry periods (as Norway’s electricity generation is almost 100% based on hydropower). Even more, the result of the more competitive electricity market has not only been the financial benefit, but also a better stewardship of the natural resources. In Borten Moe’s own words:

Iceland-Energy-Harpa-September-2014_Norway-Borten-Moe-1“We [Norwegians] experienced a huge efficiency gain in the power production industry. And not did they only turn around all the heads in all of the industry, but […] also turned around the head to everyone owning the industry. Meaning that thousands of people could be liberated or do something else and more productive for society.”

“From the mid-1990s and outwards, the [electricity generating] industry produced huge surpluses, and these are values that are put back into work for the Norwegian society through the fact that there are municipalities, counties, and the government owning it. So we build roads, we build schools, we build health care systems for the values created in our power industry.”

“I foresee Norway being willing to take a bigger place when it comes to capacity regulating systems, using our hydropower system more to regulate for necessary regulations of the European power markets being more dependent on renewables […] and also maybe even selling electricity, being a net exporter. That is basically what we do with oil and gas.“

“So far in Norway, this has been the story that I told you. It has been more well functioned markets, increased efficiency, more values created, more security of supply and now lower electricity prices because we have introduced more production capacity into the market.”

Efficiency in the electricity industry serves as natural protection

The Norwegian electricity market was tightly regulated up until the 1990’s. This meant very limited competition. Low returns were a normal condition in the electricity production and this lead to over-investment in the hydropower sector. One of the effects of the deregulation was more access to economical supply outside of the former small highly regulated markets in Norway. Thus, the deregulation served as an incentive to not utilize some of the less economic hydropower sources. Or as Mr. Borten Moe explained:

Iceland-Energy-Harpa-September-2014_Borten-Moe_Ragnheidur-Elin-Arnadottir_Hordur-Arnarson_Ketill-Sigurjonsson-panel“[My] predecessor, Eivind Reiten, who is the father of the new energy system, when he presented the new energy bill to Parliament in 1990, deregulating the whole sector as one of the first countries in the world, he said that this bill would save more Norwegian nature and water and waterfalls than any gang in chains would ever do. And he was right. So the deregulation and the market system in Norway has also been one of the biggest reforms to save Norwegian nature.”

“Norwegians strongly believe that access to electricity should be cheap, it should be unlimited, and it should be safe. And it should not disturb the nature, which basically means that you have a lot of wishes and demands and it’s not always very easy to fulfill all those wishes at once.”

“I think it is a fact that you need to consume nature to produce electricity and power but basically I would say that if you are to do it at least you need to produce a lot of money, a lot of values for society doing it.”

Competitiveness of Norwegian industries is still strong

The deregulation of the Norwegian electricity market and increased interconnectors have had fairly limited impact on industries in Norway; even energy-intensive industries. Electricity prices have indeed risen, but the competitiveness of the industry relies much more on the global market conditions rather than the electricity price in Norway.

Iceland-Energy-Harpa-September-2014_Borten-Moe_Ragnheidur-Elin-Arnadottir_Hordur-Arnarson_Ketill-SigurjonssonThe interconnectors and increased efficiency in the Norwegian electricity sector has been a success in increasing profits in the industry. One of the results is increased tax-revenues. This has created more possibilities for the Norwegian government to set up incentive schemes to positively increase investment of industries in Norway. When valuating the financial effects of the deregulation and more interconnected electricity market, the wholistic economic result in Norway has been very positive. As Mr. Borten Moe explained:

“What we have seen when it comes to our industries during the last 25 years, both through the deregulation and now with the more Nordic and European electricity market, is not that they have fled the country.”

“The world markets are far more important for the development of our power intensive industries than the electricity prices, and the electricity prices have not gone all that much up.”

“We see a new interest in reinvesting in Norway, Norwegian power intensive industries. Norwegian, our Norsk Hydro, which is our huge aluminum smelter company, is probably going to build a huge new smelter up in Karmøy [in Southwestern Norway].

Ola-Borten-Moe-Presenting-in-Norway-2011“And it is also a fact that in Norway, the power companies, the production companies, when they negotiate long term contracts, they know that they need the power intensive industries, after all, it’s their biggest clients. They use around 40 out of 120 terawatt hours, and if they go away, you would completely take the floor out of the Norwegian electricity market and the prices of the whole portfolio would go to the bottom. And they would lose a lot of money.“

“In Norway at least, I am convinced that we are not going to produce aluminum because we have cheaper prices than anywhere in the world or because we have lower regulations on the environment. On the contrary I think that we should have good prices on energy, meaning also [the aluminum smelters] should pay enough for the energy to make them wish every day they wake up to get a little better and a little bit more efficient and a little bit more competitive and it should be the same when it comes to environmental regulations.“

Stable and secure energy supply

According to Mr. Borten Moe, increased interconnection has contributed to strengthening the electricity supply for Norwegian consumers. Norway’s electricity production is close to 100% based on hydropower. In dry periods, less water in rivers and reservoirs can result in temporarily very high electricity prices and even problems in supplying enough electricity to meet the demand. The possibility of importing electricity through subsea cables and other interconnectors, makes it much easier for the generating industry to offer stable and secure supply of electricity.

Karahnjukar_Hydropower_spillwayThe interconnectors also offer the possibility to export electricity when prices at the other end of the cable (such as in the Netherlands) are high. This means that interconnectors improve yield and profitability of the utilization of hydropower resources in Norway.

With this in mind, it is interesting that on average approx. 10% of the water in the Icelandic hydro reservoirs flows through spillways. If Iceland would be connected with another electricity market (preferably fairly large market, such as the British or German markets) it could be very economic and efficient to add more turbines and utilize the spillwater to generate electricity and sell it through such a subsea cable (interconnector). With regard to this, it is interesting to consider Norway’s experience as described by Mr. Mr. Borten Moe:

“In 2003, I think we had a summation, a mind gobbling situation, because the prices of electricity peaked, and the population asked serious questions about is Norway really able to secure the amount of energy that we need when we need it, and at a price that is affordable. At that time, I would say that this was a fair question. And if you look at […] 2002, 2003 in this form, you’d also see that production was fairly low and that it was a combination of little rain, low temperature, and lack of import capacity that brought us into this situation.“

Norway-Electricity-Balance_2009-2013_SSB-table“In 99% of the cases we manage to get the electricity out on the market, use more of it but as you said, if we had been an island, well then we, the electricity that we [sold to] Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Russia, the Netherlands would have been water going over the dams.”

“The question of interconnectors in Norway is not only a question about selling electricity, or selling energy. It’s also a question about buying electricity, and it is a question about security of supply, even when the weather is dry and the weather is cold.“

Modest electricity prices for Norwegian households

In his presentation, Mr. Ola Borten Moe stated that despite increased interconnection of electricity markets the electricity price in Norway is generally less than for example on the European mainland. In the opinion of Borten Moe, the impact the interconnectiors have on the electricity price is limited in comparison with the effects of the relative supply and demand within each of the connected electricity markets. As Norway is currently increasing domestic investment in electricity generation, Mr. Borten Moe expects price reductions. In addition, Norwegians have used the revenue from the international connections to lower the electricity bill of Norwegian consumers.

Norway-Electricity-Prices_1998-2013“It is basically the balance in the market, or the lack of balance in the market, that is the most important factor for price. If we have good security of supply, a good balance in market, and slightly more production and consumption, prices will be fairly low.“

“In Norway we are interconnected, but not a part of a perfect market with the European electricity markets. There are still differences in price, between our price and the European price, and it will probably continue to be so.”

“The surplus from these interconnectors goes to lowering the electricity bills to all Norwegian consumers, including industry. So as long as they produce a surplus, it’s a direct benefit to the Norwegian household and the Norwegian industry.“

Issues to consider

The conclusion is that Norway’s experience from the increased interconnection of electricity markets has been positive. Mr. Ola Borten Moe stated that despite this fact, there are nonetheless several issues that Iceland must consider before it is possible to decide on the possible construction of a subsea cable between Iceland and Europe.

Iceland-Energy-Harpa-September-2014_Norway-Borten-Moe_Ragnheidur-Elin-Arnadottir_Hordur-Arnarson_Ketill-Sigurjonsson-HarpaBorten Moe expressed that the Norwegians emphasize the importance of utilizing their infrastructure in a sound economical manner and that further disturbance of the environment must be based on guaranteed profitability. He also mentioned that although subsea electric cables would generally have the effect that electricity prices at the markets at each ends of the cable have the tendency to be similar, at least to some extent, nevertheless it is the supply and demand in each market that is dominating in deciding the prices in each of the markets. As Borten Moe said:

“We like to have control over this kind of infrastructure, we need to know how much goes in, how much goes out. We need to keep control about how the values flow and who gets the benefits.“

Iceland-Energy-Harpa-September-2014_Borten-Moe_Ragnheidur-Elin-Arnadottir_Hordur-Arnarson_Ketill-Sigurjonsson-panel-questions

“It is possible to foresee a future when we use subsidies to get new electricity into the market, taxpayers’ money, new production capacity, and we sell this production capacity with a loss to the European markets and we lose both money and Norwegian nature. And that, of course, would be a whole different story.”

“If you have two markets and you make an interconnector, you will basically have a price that are more of the same. That’s the law of nature and the whole ratio for building such an interconnector. But it’s also fair to say that it’s also a question of what kind of capacity you introduce. In a perfect market, you would have the same price, but these are not perfect markets.”

EIA: Iceland tops Europe’s no-carbon list

Europe-No-Carbon-Electricity-Generation-EIA-2012-1Countries of Europe are increasing electricity generation using no-carbon sources. According to the US Energy Information Administration, Iceland is at the top of the list of no-carbon electricity generation countries in Europe. Electricity generation in Iceland is 100% from no-carbon hydro- and geothermal power sources, and the country is completely self-sufficient in electricity supply.

Only France, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland generate more than 90% of their net electricity from no-carbon sources (data from 2012). Only in Iceland and Norway this number of no-carbon electricity sources was 100%.

Eight other countries had no-carbon electricity accounting for at least 50% of their generation. Countries in Europe generate most of their no-carbon electricity from nuclear and hydroelectric sources, along with a smaller portfolio of other renewables.  No-carbon sources generate power while releasing virtually no carbon dioxide emissions. This includes geothermal, hydroelectric, nuclear, solar (both utility scale and distributed solar), tidal, and wind generation (although biomass power plants emit carbon dioxide during operation, the full life cycle of biomass fuels is often considered to be carbon neutral for the purposes of satisfying these countries’ goals).

Europe-No-Carbon-Electricity-Generation-EIA-2012-2 Penetration rates of no-carbon generation have increased from 50% to 56% in recent years in Europe, as European Union countries (EU) work toward renewable energy and greenhouse gas emissions targets. The share of no-carbon generation in European countries is expected to continue to increase, as the EU’s 2020 Climate and Energy Package targets both a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions and an increase in the share of energy consumption generated from renewable sources.

Main source: US Energy Information Administration.

IceLink offers flexibility rather than base-load power

In a recent publication, Getting Interconnected – How can interconnectors compete to help lower bills and cut carbon?, the British think tank Policy Exchange encourages the government of the United Kingdom (UK) to use subsidies to open up new electricity capacity market to power stations outside of UK. The electricity would then supply the British market via subsea high voltage direct current (HVDC) power cables, often referred to as interconnectors.

Policy Exchange sees Icelandic hydro- and geothermal power as base-load power source for UK

On its website, Policy Exchange is described as “an independent, non-partisan educational charity seeking free market and localist solutions to public policy questions”. Furthermore, Policy Exchange is said to be “an educational charity with the mission to develop and promote new policy ideas, which deliver better public services, a stronger society and a more dynamic economy”. Its research is supposed to be “evidence-based and strictly empirical”.

HVDC-Interconnectors-Report-Policy-Exchange-UK-2014-1

Unfortunately, it seems that the think tank has somewhat misunderstood the facts, advantages and possibilities of the Icelandic energy resources. In its report mentioned above, Policy Exchange claims that an “interconnector to Iceland would […] be an import-only connection, which would bring base-load Icelandic hydro and geothermal power to the GB market.” According to the report, such an “interconnector, like that to Iceland, which is expected to provide zero-carbon base-load power supply in one direction (i.e. from Iceland to the UK) is most directly in competition with other base-load power sources, such as nuclear power.”

This assumption by Policy Exchange is somewhat inaccurate. It ignores the fact that Iceland’s main source of electricity is hydropower, based on large reservoirs. Although it is true that Iceland’s geothermal- and hydropower resources can be good options for base-load energy, hydropower offers much more valuable characteristics. Here we will explain why an interconnector between UK and Iceland would have considerable better economical (and political) foundations if it is utilized as access to highly flexible renewable power source, rather than base-load energy.

The think tank is not realizing the main advantages of an interconnector to Iceland

The best opportunity offered by a HVDC cable connecting Iceland and UK, is to harness the Icelandic hydropower resources (and reservoirs) for high demand peak load power in the UK – and as energy storage during low power demand in the UK. Icelandic reservoirs are like natural energy batteries, where Icelandic electricity firms can “store” the energy to the exact period when it is most needed. This makes it possible to manage the electricity generation very accurately – and thereby increase or decrease the production with a very short notice in line with changes in the electricity demand. Therefore, hydropower with large reservoirs are excellent system stabilizers. This flexibility or steerability of hydropower also offers possibilities for maximizing the profitability of the electricity production. The result is that utilizing the flexibility of Iceland’s hydro power would be a great benefit to both the UK and Iceland.

HVDC-Interconnectors-Report-Policy-Exchange-UK-2014-3

Steerable hydropower is tremendously important and valuable. The reliable and controllable renewable power source of hydropower from reservoirs is by far the best choice to meet increased (or decreased) electricity demand and balancing the system. This positive feature of hydropower is reflected by the well known concept of pumped hydropower storage, where it makes economical sense to spend electricity on pumping water up to reservoirs. In a nutshell, hydropower plants with large reservoirs can serve as energy storage when electricity demand is low, and when the demand rises it only takes a few moments for the hydropower plant to increase production. This is obviously a very positive feature, such as at peak load times (normally occurring during the day rather than night). It also means that the operator of a hydropower plant can maximize the profitability of the plant by utilizing the flexibility of the plant – by running the plant at full capacity when electricity prices are highest. Therefore, hydropower can be substantially more profitable than other electricity sources.

Having this feature of hydropower in mind, it is quite surprising to see Policy Exchange suggesting to market Icelandic hydropower as base-load energy source. By doing so, Policy Exchange is ignoring the fact that the Icelandic hydropower could create much more value if the business model would focus on peak demand rather than base-load power supply. And this would not only benefit Iceland, but also the UK.

Icelandic hydropower would be an important system stabilizer for the the UK

In its report, Policy Exchange recommended that the interconnector between Iceland and UK should be one way export of electricity from Iceland and be directly in competition with other base-load power sources, such as nuclear power. This suggestion ignores how the flexibility of hydropower stations with large reservoirs (like in Iceland) makes hydropower quite unique and very different from nuclear power (only gas powered generators have the possibility to respond as quickly to changing system conditions as hydroelectric generators). In fact, nuclear power plants must be run at close to full output all of the time – and they actually need capacity liked pumped hydro storage for excess power at times of low demand. Therefore, it is quite obvious that the main advantage for the UK, by the construction of an interconnector between UK and Iceland, is the access to peak load renewable power from Iceland, rather than base-load.

Iceland-Europe-submarine-hvdc-cable_routesThe interconnector between Iceland and the UK should also be in the role of bringing electricity from the UK to Iceland at periods of low demand in the UK. This would maximize the flexibility and steerability of the Icelandic reservoirs, and at the same time increase the opportunities for the UK to stabilize the British electric system. In this case, the Icelandic reservoirs would act as valuable energy storage for the British electricity market. This is especially important as more and more wind power is harnessed in the UK. More wind power will mean increased fluctuation in the electricity system and call for increased access to reliable flexible power source – like Icelandic hydropower.

It will not only be important to export electricity from Iceland to UK. Exporting electricity from UK to Iceland will also benefit both nations. During periods of low power demand in the UK (such as at nighttime), electricity generated by power plants in the UK could be used to fulfill electricity demand in Iceland. At the same time, water flowing from the Icelandic highlands and mountainous areas would be saved in the Icelandic reservoirs. When electricity demand in UK rises in the morning and during the day, the water in the Icelandic reservoirs would be utilized for generating electricity at high capacity to meet the increased demand. The result is that an interconnector between UK and Iceland offers access to valuable and renewable energy storage, ready for peak load demand – at relatively low price. It is even possible that electricity from the UK might be used for pumping water up to the Icelandic reservoirs from downriver during the periods of low electricity demand in the UK – this pumped water would then be available as a increased power source when demand in the UK rises during the day.

Win-win situation

Although Policy Exchange is somewhat inaccurate when it sees Icelandic electricity as basload power, the think tank is correct in its conclusions, when it states that “interconnectors appear to be an attractive option for the British electricity sector”. Policy Exchange is also correct when saying that “British consumers would benefit from importing overseas-generated power which is cheaper than domestic alternatives”. Electricity generated by hydropower (and geothermal power) in Iceland would be less costly for consumers in UK than electricity from for example new wind parks or new nuclear plants. And it is true that an interconnector between UK and Iceland would be “one way of achieving the oft-sought goal in energy policy of diversification of supply” – as Policy Exchange mentions in its report . And such a project would indeed provide both technical and geographic diversification, as the report says.

UK-Policy-Exchange-_Interconnectors-HVDC-Report-Cover-2014In its report, Policy Exchange expresses, that the UK wants more electricity from overseas and that there is no good reason to stand in the way of new interconnectors (“we want their electricity; they want our money”) . This argument is e.g. based on the fact that Icelandic renewable electricity would be available to the Brits for less money than the electricity would cost if it was generated at home (in UK). In addition, an Interconnector between UK and Iceland would offer British consumers access to much more reliable energy sources than for example British wind energy can ever be.

Economically and politically it is highly unlikely that the project will ever be realized if the business model is a one-way base-load interconnector. To create a win-win situation for both UK and Iceland the electricity must be able to flow in both directions, where the cable would have the purpose to meet peak load demand and also offer the possibility to utilize Iceland’s flexible hydrpower system as energy storage. Finally, it is worth mentioning that according to the latest news from ABB the technology for an interconnector between Iceland and UK is available.