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Changing utility business models and electricity investment in Europe

Michael Waldron

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Authors: Michael Waldron and Yoko Nobuoka

The traditional utility business model of selling electricity from large-scale thermal power plants and expanding grids to meet rising demand historically has supported strong balance sheets.

With this financial strength, utility retained earnings served as the primary financing source for the electricity sector. In many markets, utilities serve as reliable purchasers of power, facilitating investments by independent power producers.

But as the role of electricity in the world economy expands, technology innovation creates new opportunities and governments simultaneously prioritise electricity security and a transition toward more sustainable energy use, investment decisions are becoming more complex. The economic performance of utilities will have crucial impacts on financing for investments needed in the transition. How their business models interact with policies and market design will have strong implications for meeting energy goals.

In Europe, these changes started decades ago with the unbundling of vertically integrated companies and the establishment of wholesale markets and retail competition. In recent years, more challenging economic conditions have emerged. At the same time, policies supporting renewables prompted competition from independent power companies, communities and corporations investing in low marginal cost solar photovoltaics and wind, and the success of energy efficiency contributed to weaker electricity demand growth.

Taken together, these forces have weakened price signals for investment from energy-only markets and sapped the profitability of existing generation assets dependent on wholesale market revenues. Now, digital technologies are facilitating new business models, such as virtual power plants (VPPs), based on bilateral power exchange and increased roles for consumers and third parties to provide energy, capacity and flexibility services that were once the exclusive domain of utilities.

Recent financial performance of European utilities reflects these trends. In 2017, the aggregate earnings of the top twenty utilities likely continued to decline, to around 35% lower than in 2012. This reduction over time stemmed mostly from reduced profitability for merchant generators (largely thermal plants) fully exposed to weak wholesale market pricing, as well as lower revenues from the retirements of these plants. In the past five years, retirements of thermal capacity in Europe have outpaced investment decisions for new thermal plants by more than two-to-one.

Around three-quarters of utility earnings now stem from segments that offer more stable and predictable cash flows, such as networks and generation (e.g. renewables, co-generation and some thermal power plants) that benefit from contracted or regulated pricing, and to a lesser extent retail supply and decentralized services, such as energy management and digital solutions. Five years ago, these areas collectively accounted for less than 60% of earnings.

These indicators are consistent with trends observed globally, where electricity sector investments have a strong relationship with government policies. In 2016, nearly 95% of power generation investments were made by companies operating under fully regulated revenues or mechanisms to manage the revenue risk associated with variable wholesale market pricing.

European utilities are adapting to this situation by strategically re-orienting their businesses. Utility plans now consistently emphasize themes around business model transformation, enhanced operational efficiency and improved financial management. The European electricity industry association has called for a new strategic vision for the sector.

However, this ongoing shift has not yet resulted in an earnings boost. One reason is that business models for grids and renewables are capital intensive, requiring continuous investment over time to expand revenues. These investments also remain largely linked to policy incentives and can face risks related to resource availability, integration and demand, while governments are focused on the affordability of power prices for consumers. While recent policy changes, such as increasing competition for new renewable contracts through auctions and adjusting regulated returns and frameworks for networks can stimulate more cost-effective development, they can also put pressure on profit margins.

Utility transitions are also proceeding at different speeds. The share of regulated, contracted and retail business models in earnings ranges from upwards of 85% for top performers, to only around half in some utilities. Moreover, the earnings picture is impacted by activities abroad, with European utilities having different degrees of exposure to overseas investments.

Nevertheless, European utilities are generally increasing their investment capabilities. Despite a challenging economic environment, capital expenditures as a share of earnings have strengthened in recent years. In November, six utilities collectively called on the European Union to support a strengthened renewable energy target of 35% by 2030, compared with an originally proposed one of 27%. This higher target is also supported by the European renewables industry associations. So far in 2017, utilities have been involved as investors in 90% of the 2.4 GW of offshore wind — among the most capital intensive of power projects  reaching final investment decision in Europe.

At the same time, the electricity sector has also witnessed rapid growth in new, less capital-intensive business models that leverage digital technologies to provide system and consumer services. One such approach, the VPP model aggregates and trades small-scale energy resources on wholesale markets, creating revenue streams for owners of distributed generation, battery storage and demand response, by providing coordinated balancing and ancillary services to grid operators. In 2017, VPPs managed over 10 GW of assets, a more than fivefold increase from 2014, though these equalled only around 1% of total generation capacity in Europe.  

To date, most VPPs, which rely on regulatory frameworks for market participation and a market design that remunerates distributed resources, have been led by independent developers with expertise in software development. Utilities have recently increased their role, in part through acquisitions. Such asset-light business models have the potential to avoid or defer expensive future capital upgrades, for example by limiting the network size to meet peak demand. The potential value proposition for utilities, developers and system operators remains an area for further analysis.     

Ultimately, future investment in the electricity sector will have an even stronger interaction with policies for energy security and the clean energy transition. In Europe, with anticipated thermal power retirements of over 20 GW in the next two years, questions persist over whether current market designs can deliver sufficient investment to ensure adequacy. Investment will depend on clear policy and market signals for renewables, grid modernization and other forms of flexibility, but also on the capabilities of governments to adapt regulations to changing technologies and business opportunities.

Regulatory frameworks for networks are evolving to facilitate more complex business models and gradually shifting to incentives based on cost efficiency, reliability and performance, rather than capital spending. Meanwhile, the economics of thermal generation will be determined by the interplay of capacity mechanisms, pricing carbon emissions and the evolution of power market fundamentals.

Finally, the evolving business cases for fast-growing new technologies, such as battery storage, electric vehicles and other electrification trends have the potential to change investment needs and approaches for the system as a whole. All of these factors can raise uncertainties over investment decisions, but can also create further strategic opportunities.

Electricity sector business models are analysed in a number of IEA work areas, including World Energy Investment, Digitalization & Energy, analysis on electricity security and electricity market design, the World Energy Outlook, Energy Technology Perspectives and the Market Report Series. Source

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Energy

MBS Outmaneuvers Russia’s Oil Politicking

Saad Khoury

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In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, one of the major economic consequences has been the substantial hit to the energy industry.

Ever since the virus began to spread in January, global markets have been tumbling. This set the price of oil in a downward spiral, reversing many gains  that had accumulated over the last several months. Demand for oil dropped for the first time in over a decade and forecasters at the International Energy Agency assess the decline will continue. While natural gas and coal markets have also been hit, oil demand has dropped more pronouncedly given it supports the freight and logistics sectors that have ground to a halt in recent weeks. The lack of demand for oil in China alone has had a devastating impact – Beijing’s newfound hunger for the commodity was responsible for most of the price increases recently.

However, these unique phenomena have had effects far beyond the purely economic. Politically speaking, the oil market crisis has pitted two global energy giants against each other, producing very intriguing results.

In early March, a meeting took place between the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and ten other oil-producing countries, known as “OPEC+”. During the conference ending on March 6, Saudi Arabia’s leader, Prince Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud (MBS) reportedly pushed the idea of coordinating a reduction of output between Saudi Arabia and Russia. MBS planned to reduce output by over 1 million barrels per day, offsetting the major decrease in demand that had been triggered by the corona crisis to stabilize the market. The plan seemed like it was ready to go through until Moscow announced at the last minute that it would refuse. The Kremlin’s about-face came as a shock to OPEC and the international community who saw the move as an attempt to torpedo and politicize the oil sector.

Indeed, oil prices plunged by nearly 10% following the surprise move. It had been widely expected that the Russians would go along with the plan, simply because the alternative, i.e. leaving oil markets in a high-supply-low-demand frenzy, seemed much worse.

So what was at the heart of Russia’s bizarre decision? Revenge.

Washington imposed sanctions on Russia’s oil giant, Rosneft, a month ago over the company’s continued support in selling Venezuela’s oil. In an effort to retaliate, and perhaps prevent future American sanctions, Moscow was hoping to get Riyadh on its side in a plan to inflict economic pain on US shale producers. Moscow has for long felt American shale has been getting a free ride on the back of OPEC+ production cuts. For Moscow’s plan to work, it would still need the support of OPEC+ to ensure that price drops remained temporary and sustainable, since Russia’s oil economy cannot support its country playing oil politics for too long or for too much.

MSB on his part refused to take Russia’s actions lying down.

Almost immediately after Russia’s decision, Riyadh cut its official selling price for April down to $8, from a previous $14, in an effort to pressure Russia back into a deal. Days later, the Saudi government said it would begin increasing oil output to reach a record 13 million barrels per day. The decision came after authorities had already announced they were planning to increase output to 12.3 million. In a statement, Saudi Aramco, the largest energy producer in the world, stated, “it received a directive from the Ministry of Energy to increase its maximum sustainable capacity from 12 million barrels per day to 13 million.”

In essence, MBS has outmaneuvered the Russians in their attempt to hurt the global market and circumvent the effects of sanctions. In other words, MBS called Russia’s bluff by lowering prices even further so that the Kremlin could not dictate terms to OPEC. An impressive example of standing up to Russian manipulation, something that Western powers have been struggling to do for years. 

Russia on its part has been reeling from the effects of the Prince’s decision. 

On March 10, Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak sought to project confidence, but acknowledged there was a decrease in prices and an increase in volatility. Novak also seemed to have admitted that his government made a mistake and had sought to reach out to the Saudis to “scheduled further meetings to estimate the situation.”

It is important to highlight that Russia was very likely thrown off balance by the Saudi reaction here. Moscow is not used to having its highhanded moves being responded to in kind, and almost certainly did not expect MBS to respond the way he did.  

While the future of this fallout is still unknown, one thing is certain: MBS has demonstrated his country will not be another pushover to Russian aggression.  

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Saudis’ price war or a Russian plot against U.S. shale?

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Since early Monday, the announcement of a “price war” between Saudi Arabia and Russia, two biggest OPEC+ allies, hit the headlines of almost all of the world’s news agencies and outlets and released a wave of panic across the markets all around the world.

Following the two sides’ bitter break up on Friday, oil markets started the week with a free fall; prices plunged nearly 30 percent on Monday to record the sharpest one-day fall in the past 29 years when the first Persian Gulf War was started in 1991.

Brent crude futures fell to nearly $30 on early Monday, the prices, however, bounced back later that day as the impacts of the event faded.

Energy experts and analysts are suggesting two completely different scenarios to explain the series of events that led to the Friday decision.

In one scenario, the one that is broadcasted globally, Saudi Arabia which wanted higher prices or at least wanted to maintain the current price levels asked for more cuts but Russia was OK with the current prices and even was ready for lower ranges so they didn’t agree and the OPEC+ deal ended.

The second scenario, which is more intriguing and more controversial, says that there is no “price war” between Saudi Arabia and Russia, and what we are witnessing is, in fact, Russia declaring war against the U.S.’s “global energy dominance”!

To learn more about the issue, the Tehran Times conducted an interview with Mahmoud Khaqani, an international energy expert. What follows is a summary of the expert’s views on the matter.

Saudis and Russia

Obviously, these days Saudi Arabia is not experiencing its best days. The Kingdom is under pressure both economically and politically.

According to Khaqani, the plunge in oil prices due to the sharp decline in global demand following the spread of coronavirus and its impact on the global economy and transportation has added significantly to the crown prince’s problems causing the young prince to call for deepening of the current 1.8 million cuts.

When faced with disagreement from its biggest non-OPEC allay Russia, the angry Saudi immediately lashed back by offering huge discounts for their oil prices and announcing that they would boost their production to more than 12 million barrels per day (bpd).

Russia, on the other hand, has maintained a calm attitude, saying that its oil industry is resilient enough to keep its market share and withstand even higher price downturns, he said.

Russia and the U.S.

Khaqani believes that the Russians are in fact at war with the U.S. oil industry, and Washington’s use of oil as a strategic asset.

What they call “price war” has already hit the U.S. oil industry hard since Friday and the persistence of the situation could damage the U.S oil industry and dethrone the U.S. from its position as the world’s largest oil producer.

Russia has targeted not only the U.S. oil industry but also the country’s bigger strategic programs for using oil and energy as leverage for applying corrective sanction policies, which Kremlin is already under.

Analysts believe that Russia is trying to thwart the U.S. sanctions that have been intervening with the completion of the country’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, which would take natural gas to Europe, making Russia one of the biggest energy players in the world.

The U.S.

In response to the mentioned scenarios, The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has said that the U.S. will take all necessary measures to maintain its role as the world’s top energy producer and in fact, the country is not going to step back from its “global energy dominance” strategy.

Khaqani believes that the U.S. is seeking to take Saudi Arabia’s role in the oil market becoming the new swing producer capable of regulating production levels to control oil prices.

“These attempts by state actors to manipulate and shock oil markets reinforce the importance of the role of the United States as a reliable energy supplier to partners and allies around the world. The United States, as the world’s largest producer of oil and gas, can and will withstand this volatility,” the DOE said in a statement.

Final thoughts

Whatever the real reason for the rift between Saudi and Russia is, its impacts on the oil market are undeniable.

If the “war” is just between the kingdom and Russia many believe that the impacts will be short-lived and in the near future, we would witness the markets getting back to a more stable status.

The fact is that now after the break-up Saudi Arabia is going to flood the already oversupplied market with oil and eventually Russia which is not able to increase its production as much as the kingdom will have to step back.

If the second scenario is correct, however, we should expect more complications.

From our partner Tehran Times

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Energy

Oil Wars: Russia and Saudi Arabia in the forefront

Sisir Devkota

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Recent developments in Italy and the stock market have things in common. Both came as an alarming surprise; while Italian authorities took stringent measures to lock down the entire nation due to Covid-19 fears, oil prices plunged remarkably in the past week. Rather shamelessly, Russia and Saudi Arabia are exploiting the international epidemic; in order to eclipse a once in a lifetime opportunity. As Saudi Arabia and Russia fought against each other to increase production, oil prices spiraled down in years. The oil giants are looking to consolidate losses from the past. Primarily, both the nations are looking to keep American oil supply arrested, amidst the pandemic uncertainty. As OPEC nations agreed to limit production in order to maintain oil prices, Russia disagreed, prompting the kingdom to counter a bizarre monopoly. The virus has kindled new age energy wars; at the epicenter, are two nations, displaying dreadful nature of international responsibility.

History is key here. Saudi Arabia is sluggishly recovering from an oil field disaster while Russia is eyeing years of forfeited trade advantage caused by western sanctions. International effort is concentrated towards containing the virus, whereas handful of interest agencies along with both nations are seeking an unlikely triumph. A true windfall has caught Russia by surprise, a rare opportunity that will not slip from Putin’s hand. On the other hand, Saudis, rather egoistically are pursuing their godsend place in the international energy market. The scuff is undoubtedly interesting, however; consequentially, it will also determine fortunes for some and famine for others. OPEC’s decision to lower production in order to maintain current oil price is not a samaritan effort; nevertheless, it would have saved capital over-indulgence that could have instead concealed humanitarian efforts to contain the pandemic. For now, management is key and stock market health can prove to be momentous. A lively market is key to ward off unprecedented economic stress.

Russia and Saudi Arabia’s naivety has led to extreme stock market resistance. The world is watching the fight closely, waiting and hoping for the standoff to deflate. It is not the stalemate that is most worrying; unusual market activity is quietly manufacturing an enormous bubble waiting to crack. Market resistance is tipping at a dangerous degree; world markets are sincerely counting on each other for support. For instance, consider how markets would plunge lower than they otherwise would, as oil prices keep decreasing uncommonly. A sinking ship is resisting, waiting for water levels that can only drown by all rationality. Hence, the analogue.It would have taken Russia and Saudi Arabia a great deal of conscience to withdraw national interests for the sake of global welfare. Just in case the virus does not cease to pare, we are in for a truly global disaster. As more nations will testify infected population, the stock market will increasingly face nervous breakdowns. Then after, it will be impossible to guess directions.

Reduced oil prices will complement some and destroy others; the relationship is so disturbing that daily economics might just have to re-invent itself in the face of unpredictability. Imagine the aviation industry exhausting oil demands, in the face of historic low prices. Russia and Saudi Arabia understand the tradeoffs, yet national interests have blindfolded competing energy giants. In the long run, Russia and Saudi Arabia would have stored enough barrels to dictate oligopoly. Alluringly, the case does not rest there. Both the nations will also be hoping for which now looks like a miraculous recovery from the pandemic; future profits will uncharacteristically depend on a healthy market. The risk has been taken despite of all uncertainties. For a change, both Putin and Bin Salman will also be praying, nevertheless.

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