Electricity Networks: Technology, Future Role and Economic Incentives for Innovation
While the economics of low carbon generation technologies is fast improving due to a mix of policy and market driven incentives, innovation in electricity networks has been relatively sluggish. This slow adaptation of electricity networks is challenging as they are key to the energy transition. Further electrification of the economy requires significant investment and innovation in the grid segment of the electricity supply chain. Traditional regulatory models of natural monopoly network utilities are designed to incentivise cost efficiency, with the assumption that network business is costly and the task of regulation is to encourage cost reduction subject to firm achieving a certain level of reliability. A feature of innovation activities is that they are riskier in comparison with the business-as-usual activities of network firms. This paper reviews the evolution of electricity grids from the technological and organisational perspectives and analyses the efficacy of existing incentive models in encouraging innovation. We show that incentive mechanisms that do not take uncertainty into account in the outcome of innovation efforts divert the attention of network utilities from innovation to normal efficiency gains. We also demonstrate that the issue of risk can distort the outcome of a competitive scheme for innovation funds when bidders are heterogeneous in their risk tolerance. Finally, based on the results of our analysis about the role of risk in innovation activities and a review of innovation incentive mechanisms in the UK and Italy, we provide recommendations for addressing the problem of innovation under regulation.