Regulatory Implications of New Products and Services in the Australian Electricity Market

by K&L Gates LLP
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The Energy Market Reform Working Group (Working Group) in Australia released a consultation paper at the end of 2014 regarding the regulatory implications of new products and services in the national electricity market.[1]

New products and services include energy supply from generation facilities installed at the customer's premises (which may be combined with energy storage), products and services relating to demand management and energy information and advice.

The paper outlines some of the potential regulatory implications of these new products and services. It seeks feedback from stakeholders as to the types of new products and services which may be offered to small customers and whether regulatory reforms may be necessary – from either a consumer protection or a power system operations perspective.

Key finding and issues for further consideration
Some of the key findings and concerns highlighted by the Working Group are:

  • Energy supply
    • Power system operations: The current regulatory framework under the National Electricity Law and National Electricity Rules (NEL Framework) is capable of regulating new products and services which relate to distributed generation. However, there may be a need for further work to accommodate energy storage, which is capable of operating both as load and generation.
    • Consumer protection: The Australian Energy Regulator's (AER's) approach to regulating alternative energy sellers (granting individual exemptions where the electricity sold is not the customer's primary electricity source) under the National Energy Retail Law and the National Energy Retail Rules (NECF Framework) is generally appropriate, however:
      • Sufficiency of consumer protection: there may be a need for further consideration as to whether the conditions imposed on exemption holders provide sufficient consumer protections
      • Off-grid customers: some reform might be required in terms of the sale of electricity to customers whose premises are not connected to the grid as there are currently no energy-specific consumer protections for such customers.
  • Demand management
  • Power system operations: To the extent that new products and services which allow third parties to make demand management decisions on behalf of customers affect the operation and security of the power system, it may be appropriate to implement some new regulatory obligations for entities offering such products and services (particularly where these entities are not already subject to the NEL Framework).
  • Consumer protection: Providers of demand management products and services are generally not subject to the NECF Framework. Therefore it may be appropriate to impose some regulatory obligations on such providers, for example to give specified information to customers and obtain their informed consent prior to entering into contracts. Further consideration should be given as to how this can be done.
  • Energy information and advice: Regulatory reforms are not necessary in relation to new products and services offering energy information and advice, however privacy issues relating to metering data used by entities not subject to the NEL Framework should be considered.

The Working Group
The Working Group operates under the framework of the Council of Australian Governments’ Standing Council on Energy and Resources (COAG Energy Council).

It is comprised of officials from Australian State, Territory and Commonwealth agencies which are responsible for energy policy and aims to identify, consider and respond to priorities for energy market development.

Background
Traditionally in Australia electricity has been generated by large scale centralised generators, physically supplied to customers by network operators via the national grid and sold to customers by licensed retailers.

Although the majority of electricity continues to be generated, sold and delivered to customers in this way, new technologies and developments in energy markets are beginning to result in the emergence of new products and services which allow customers to have a greater degree of control over the generation, delivery and consumption of electricity. Providers offering these new products and services are often new businesses, rather than traditional participants such as retailers and network operators.

These developments have led the Working Group to publish the consultation paper to assist in the identification of areas for regulatory reform.

In considering potential regulatory implications, the consultation paper addresses three areas in which new products and services have begun to emerge. These are:

  • energy supply
  • demand management
  • energy information and advice

Context and scope
The paper relates to the National Electricity Market which operates in all Australian jurisdictions other than Western Australian and the Northern Territory,[2] and is focused on electricity markets (rather than gas), given that this is the form of energy to which most new products and services relate. Accordingly, it does not address electricity legislation which may apply in individual jurisdictions.

The paper also focuses on new products and services that could be offered directly to customers (as opposed to, for example, those that could be offered to networks).

In terms of consumer protection issues, the focus is on how new products and services may affect residential customers and business customers whose electricity usage is below defined thresholds (together, known as small customers), on the basis that large business customers should have sufficient expertise and incentives to negotiate favourable energy arrangements in the absence of regulatory arrangements.

Energy supply

Types of products and services
New types of products and services in the energy supply area generally involve selling electricity to customers from generation facilities installed at the customer's premises – for example, a rooftop solar system.

It is predicted that in the future, on-site generation may be combined with electricity storage options such that all or most of a customer's electricity needs may be able to be provided other than via traditional supply from the national grid.

NEL Framework
In terms of power system protection and security, the NEL Framework provides for the registration or exemption of participants in the National Electricity Market or those that could impact on network operations, including, relevantly, generators.

The Working Group considers that the NEL Framework is capable of adequately regulating new products and services based on distributed generation.

Although off-grid on-site generation would not be covered under the current framework, the Working Group considers that there is no need to regulate such generation from a network operations perspective given that it would not be connected to the grid.

However, there may be a need for further work to accommodate energy storage, which is capable of operating both as load and generation. This type of technology would not have been considered when these rules were originally drafted.

Further, the Working Group highlights the importance of ensuring that the economic regulation of network operators is sufficiently flexible to address future market changes, noting that this issue is being considered separately.

NECF Framework
Under the NECF Framework, the sale of electricity to premises is regulated by requiring sellers of electricity to hold either a retailer authorisation or an exemption.

The NECF Framework also contains a range of detailed consumer protections for small customers who are sold energy by an authorised retailer.

Individual exemption holders are generally less regulated in their interactions with customers, however conditions may be imposed on an exemption, including for the purpose of protecting consumers.

AER statement of approach
In July 2014 the AER released a statement of approach setting out how it intended to regulate alternative energy sellers, primarily being businesses who sell electricity through solar power purchase agreements (SPPA).

The AER's current approach is that SPPA providers will generally be granted an individual exemption if they are providing a supplementary or 'add-on' service to customers who also purchase electricity from an authorised retailer, or if the electricity provided by the seller comprises an insignificant part of a bundled service. A retailer authorisation will be required where the seller is the primary seller of electricity to a site and sells energy at multiple sites.

The Working Group supports the AER's approach, however it has raised questions as to whether the minimal consumer protections generally imposed through exemption conditions are sufficient. For example, they may not be adequate where a customer remains connected to the grid and maintains a retail contract with an authorised retailer, but is sold the vast majority of its electricity from an alternative energy seller such that it may not actually receive the standard consumer protections from either seller.

The AER has recently given further consideration to similar issues via an issues paper regarding the regulation of innovative energy sellers, for example SPPA providers who also offer an electricity storage component. The AER is currently considering submissions made in response to that issues paper. For further details, please refer to the recent post on our Global Power Law & Policy blog.

Off-grid sale of electricity
Although the Working Group considers that the NECF Framework is generally appropriate for the regulation of new products and services involving the sale of electricity to premises connected to the national grid, it has indicated that some degree of regulatory reform may be appropriate in the context of the sale of electricity to customers who are not grid connected, as such sales would not fall under the NECF Framework.

The Working Group is seeking feedback as to what, if any, consumer protections might be appropriate for customers seeking to go off-grid, for example to ensure that customers are adequately informed before making such a decision.

Demand management

Types of products and services
Products and services in the demand management space enable customers to alter their consumption patterns, either to reduce overall usage (and therefore cost) or to take advantage of lower electricity rates at particular times.

Some demand management products or services may allow a customer to actively control its consumption patterns at the customer's complete discretion. The Working Group does not believe that it is appropriate to regulate products or services which simply enable such discretionary acts.

On the other hand, it does consider whether regulation may be necessary for products and services which allow the customer to consent to a third party making demand management decisions on its behalf. These types of products and services include systems which remotely switch off appliances at certain times or when certain conditions are met, and off-peak hot water tariffs where the water heater is separately metered and a discounted rate applies but where heating times are determined remotely to meet the requirements of the network operator.

NEL Framework
If a provider is able to control (or partly control) the loads of multiple customers, and therefore a large overall load, this may have the potential to impact on the network and the Working Group is seeking to understand whether there are any material risks in this regard.

Where demand management products are offered by new entrants who are not registered participants under the NEL Framework, the Working Group has suggested that some form of regulation might be appropriate if such entities have the potential to affect power system operations and safety.

However, it also notes that not all entities with the ability to affect the network by switching large loads on and off (for example large industrial customers) are currently required to be registered.

A suggested alternative to registration under the NEL Framework is for a formal communications protocol to be established whereby entities with the ability to switch large overall loads on and off are required to keep network operators informed of their actions.

NECF Framework

Given that demand management products and services do not generally involve the sale of electricity they do not fall under the NECF Framework and providers are not subject to the underlying consumer protection obligations.

The Working Group has queried whether entities offering such products and services should be subject to regulatory obligations to provide customers with certain information and obtain the informed consent of customers prior to entering into contracts (particularly in the context of such obligations existing for authorised retailers and distributors), and if so, how this would be best introduced.

Energy information and advice

Types of products and services
A new market is developing for the provision of energy information and advice. Products and services in this area include price comparison websites, electricity efficiency advice and systems which allow customers to monitor their electricity usage, for example through a web portal or in-home display.

Regulation generally

The Working Group does not consider it appropriate to specifically regulate the provision of such products and services through energy laws as they do not involve the sale of electricity nor do they have the potential to affect power system operation or security.

Depending on the type of product or service and how it is offered to customers, general consumer protections may apply, such as those under the Australian Consumer Law.

Privacy issues

The Working Group acknowledges that the provision and sharing of electricity consumption data associated with these products and services may raise privacy issues.

Personal information of any kind, which could include electricity consumption data (assuming the consumption data is referable to an individual and not de-identified), is protected under the Privacy Act 1998 (Cth) (Privacy Act).

For registered participants, specific obligations regarding the confidentiality and use of metering data exist under the NEL Framework, however these obligations would not apply to non-market participants whose business only involves the provision of advice or information about electricity usage.

The Working Group is satisfied that the current metering data usage provisions under the NEL Framework provide sufficient protection to consumers, but is interested in any additional issues regarding the use of electricity data by registered participants that stakeholders feel should be addressed.

In terms of those who operate outside of the NEL Framework, the Working Group is seeking comments about whether metering data is sensitive enough to warrant specific privacy protections or whether the existing Privacy Act protections are sufficient.

Next steps

Stakeholders are invited to make submissions on the issues raised by the consultation paper by close of business on 20 March 2015.

Written submissions can be sent by email to energycouncil@industry.gov.au. Alternatively, please contact us and we would be happy to assist you in preparing a submission.

The Working Group will use the submissions to inform a discussion paper to be presented to Ministers at the first meeting of the COAG Energy Council in 2015 with a view to identifying any priorities for regulatory reform.

Notes:

[1] https://scer.govspace.gov.au/files/2015/02/Consultation-Paper-new-products-services.pdf

[2] Although the national laws and frameworks discussed in this Legal Insight are generally applicable in all Australian jurisdictions other than Western Australia and the Northern Territory, the NECF Framework has not yet been adopted in Victoria and Queensland.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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