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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

Oil market shrugs off as tensions rise in Persian Gulf region

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Despite what was expected, the oil market doesn’t seem to be moved drastically by the recent turbulences in the Persian Gulf region as Iran shot down a high-technology U.S. surveillance drone when it trespassed its borders in the politically sensitive Strait of Hormuz.

Many analysts believe that the reason for this not-too-strong reaction is that the market’s nature has changed profoundly in the last few years and now other driving factors seem to play a more significant role in supporting the prices.

It seems that over time the market is more focused on long-term impacts and events, and going through several shorty lived events in the past few years, oil traders have learned not to bet too much on such incidents.

For the time being, two major factors which are being closely monitored by the market are the U.S. production and the global oil demand. 

In recent years, the U.S. production has increased drastically so that the country has become the world’s top oil producer and one the biggest exporters of the commodity. On the other hand, the global oil demand is easing following a slowdown in the world’s economic growth over concerns about the trade war between the United States and China, the world’s two largest economies. 

Although the international benchmark Brent gained five percent this week, but market analysts seem to believe that the optimism regarding the outcomes of the upcoming meeting of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), and hopes for easing of trade tensions between the United States and China are also contributing to the increases in the oil prices beside the rising tensions between Iran and the U.S.

Of course, the tensions in the region cannot be overlooked in addressing the factors which are affecting the oil market.

Since the oil tankers incidents in the Hormuz trait and the drone shot down, many Oil tanker companies have increased their charter rates due to concerns over the safety of their vessels.

According to New York Times, over the last week, the prices reached about $28,000 a day for chartering the largest class of tankers. The insurance costs have also risen for shipping in the region have also risen. 

However, even considering all the above mentioned impacts of the rising tensions in the region, the surge in the U.S. production can easily counterbalance the worries of any disruption of oil flows from the Persian Gulf region to the world.

U.S. is now one of the major suppliers of crude oil to Europe and even to Asia and higher shipping prices could be named as the only major factor which signifies the disruption of flows from Strait of Hormuz and it would likely do the most damage to Asian economies. 

According to the United States Energy Information Administration, 76 percent of the crude oil that flowed out of the Persian Gulf through the Strait of Hormuz went to Asian markets like China, India and Japan.

However, we should bear in mind that many analysts and traders are well aware that a full cut-off of oil from the mentioned strait is almost impossible, and all the nations in the region would suffer in such a case.

So maybe the market perceives the recent turbulences only as short-term threats which are very unlikely to have a long-term impact on a market which is already on the verge of a potential oversupply due to the U.S. production and end of cuts from OPEC+ group as well as the global economy slowdown.

From our partner Tehran Times

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Energy

Fossil fuel consumption subsidies bounced back strongly in 2018

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Authors: Wataru Matsumura and Zakia Adam*

Higher average oil prices in 2018 pushed up the value of global fossil fuel consumption subsidies back up toward levels last seen in 2014, underscoring the incomplete nature of the pricing reforms undertaken in recent years, according to new data from the IEA.

The new data for 2018 show a one-third increase in the estimated value of these subsidies, to more than $400 billion. The estimates for oil, gas and fossil-fuelled electricity have all increased significantly, reflecting the higher price for fuels (which, in the presence of an artificially low end-user price, increases the estimated value of the subsidy). The continued prevalence of these subsidies – more than double the estimated subsidies to renewables – greatly complicates the task of achieving an early peak in global emissions.

The 2018 data sees oil return as the most heavily subsidised energy carrier, expanding its share in the total to more than 40%. In 2016, electricity briefly became the sector with the largest subsidy bill.

Fossil fuel consumption subsidies are in place across a range of countries. These subsidies lower the price of fossil fuels, or of fossil-fuel based electricity, to end-consumers, often as a way of pursuing social policy objectives.

There can be good reasons for governments to make energy more affordable, particularly for the poorest and most vulnerable groups. But many subsidies are poorly targeted, disproportionally benefiting wealthier segments of the population that use much more of the subsidised fuel. Such untargeted subsidy policies encourage wasteful consumption, pushing up emissions and straining government budgets.

Recent years have seen multiple examples of pricing reforms, underpinned by lower oil prices that created a political opportunity among oil-importing countries and a fiscal necessity among exporters. Reforms typically focused on gasoline and diesel pricing, and in some cases also on LPG, natural gas and electricity tariffs. IEA price data (shown below for gasoline) show clearly the wide range of end-user prices across countries – the lowest prices found among countries that subsidise consumption.

The nature of pricing reforms undertaken in recent years differ depending on the sector and on national circumstances, but fall into three broad categories:

  • Complete price liberalisation, typically for the main transport fuels, as for example in India, Mexico, Thailand and Tunisia.
  • Introduction of a mechanism for regular, automatic adjustment of prices in line with international prices. China has such a system for oil prices, and similar mechanisms were also introduced in Indonesia, Malaysia, Jordan, Cote d’Ivoire and Oman.
  • A schedule of reforms to regulated prices, often with a view to aligning them with cost-recovery or market-based prices. This was the most common type of reform in the Middle East and North Africa, where prices for oil products, natural gas, water and/or electricity were raised in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. There were also increases in regulated electricity prices elsewhere, as for example in Indonesia.

These price reforms were often accompanied by the introduction of more targeted programmes of support for vulnerable groups. They also brought significant financial savings to the governments concerned, allowing these resources to be deployed to other development or policy priorities.

However, in 2018 the oil price trended higher for much of the year before falling back in the last quarter. This became a major source of strain in countries where consumers were newly exposed to rising retail prices, particularly where national currencies were losing value against the US dollar at the same time.

The rise in retail prices created broader pressure to revisit some of the pricing reforms.

  • Some countries with fully liberalised prices sought ways to dampen the effects on consumers, for example via reductions in other taxes and duties (as in India) or via implicit price interventions through state-owned oil and gas companies.
  • Upward fuel price adjustments were postponed in some countries that had committed to follow international price movements but retained some administrative discretion over the level and timing of any changes. This was the case in Indonesia, Malaysia and Jordan.
  • In fully regulated price environments, the reform schedule was in some cases pushed back or watered down.

Shielding consumers from short-term changes in international fossil fuel prices comes at a fiscal and environmental cost. It also diminishes the potential for higher prices to curb demand and bring the market into balance.

The different reform pathways since 2015 can be separated out into the various components of the change in subsidy values. Pricing reforms over the last three years brought substantial dividends, estimated at 36 billion dollars in total. This represents either a direct easing of the strain on public finances (via reduced public expenditures on subsidies) or additional revenue accruing to resource-rich countries (by reclaiming more of the value that was previously being foregone because of under-pricing).

Notable reductions in oil-related consumption subsidies over this period were observed in many countries in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Bahrain, as well as in Colombia and Pakistan. Ukraine saw the largest fall in subsidies for natural gas. Subsidies to fossil fuel-based electricity consumption were substantially lower over this period in Russia, Argentina, Indonesia, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and in parts of the Middle East.

However, these falls were outweighed by two other factors: a widening gap between prevailing prices and market-based pricing in many countries (exacerbated in some cases by depreciation of the domestic currencies against the dollar); and increased consumption of subsidised energy.

The largest increases in consumption subsidies for oil products were in Indonesia, Iran, Egypt and Venezuela. In the latter case, a collapsing currency meant that gasoline and diesel sales (where available) were essentially free in dollar terms. Iran also saw the largest increase in natural gas subsidies, and – together with Venezuela, Mexico, Egypt and China – was among those seeing the most significant increase in subsidies to fossil fuel-based electricity.

Committing political capital to subsidy reform remains tough, especially if international prices are volatile. But phasing out fossil fuel consumption subsidies remains a pillar of sound energy policy. Especially when part of a broader suite of supportive policy measures, pricing reform is pivotal for a more robust, secure and sustainable energy sector over the long term.

Industries and households are more likely to opt for energy-efficient equipment, vehicles and appliances. Investors in a range of energy technologies, especially clean technologies, see a better case to commit their capital. That is why the IEA continues to be a strong supporter of efforts to phase out inefficient fossil fuel consumption subsidies.

*Zakia Adam, WEO Energy Analyst

IEA

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Energy

France Shows How Energy and Society Are Intertwined

Todd Royal

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What should be asked about energy is what Plato’s The Republic through Socrates asked: “What is justice?” If energy has a moral, economic, environmental, and life-saving component then energy in all forms is certainly just.

This is where facts need to be realized, and find out if a carbon-free society run on renewable energy is even remotely possible? Over 6,000 everyday, products come from a barrel of crude oil.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) released The World Energy Outlook 2018 – the self-proclaimed “gold standard of energy analysis,’ – admitting a damning conclusion. That amidst the overwhelming amount of graphs, charts, tables and prognostications, “the percentage of total global primary energy demand provided by wind and solar is 1.1%.”

The world runs off fossil fuels, and no time in the coming decades will clean energy, a carbon-free society, or zero emission energy to electricity or electric vehicles sustain trillion-dollar economies. More alarming is the world’s largest authoritarian, communist government, China, controls 90 percent of the world’s rare earth minerals – “a group of 17 elements with similar qualities that are used in electric car batteries, wind turbines and solar panels.”  

 Nations, companies, and individuals care about national security, their own “self-interest rightly understood” while meeting the basics of food, clothing and shelter (Maslow’s Hierarch of Needs) – exactly what fossil fuels provide – on an affordable, scalable, reliable and flexible basis for energy to be delivered to billions of people starving for their modern way of life to continue.

We are witnessing an energy clash globally, and nowhere was that better defined than France’s “Yellow Vest” protests that began in late November 2018 and are ongoing. These protests brought a convergence of domestic concerns triggered over a proposed fuel tax hike that hit lower educated, ordinary voters more than educated urban dwellers.

France’s, politicized carbon tax – the theory goes – should be an efficient way to disseminate the monetary consequences of carbon onto the French and global economies; however, that isn’t necessarily the case. This regulatory heavy-handedness by the state has resulted in:

Decades of global conferences, forest of reports, dire television documentaries, celebrity appeals, school-curriculum overhauls and media bludgeoning,” without examining the facts.

France is a good test case for energy policy moving forward, because if humanity overwhelmingly using fossil fuels are killing plants, animals, the ecosphere and crushing human life than a tax is fair, just and equitable, correct? But that isn’t the case. The earth and human progress have never done better in recorded history. Economic growth and technology are saving us from such historic plagues like poverty, illness and deforestation.

President Emmanuel Macron and the previous administration of Francois Hollande wrongly targeted emissions unlike Germany that is a high-emitter off increased coal-fired power plant use backing up renewables. Macron’s carbon tax went after Yellow Vest protesters who are vehicle reliant. Since France heavily relies on clean, carbon-free nuclear power for their electricity, France is only“0.4% of global emissions.”

Macron is punishing French drivers via punitive tax hikes and it failed. Voters and everyday working citizens aren’t buying carbon taxes or anything that restricts energy and prosperity. Green piety in Washington State in the US was also rejected the same way it was in France.

Cutting transportation emissions are extremely hard to eliminate when the entire supply and value chain of the tailpipe’s emissions are factored into the equation. It’s why electric vehicles (EVs) aren’t as environmentally friendly as advertised.

Carbon taxation like renewables and carbon-free societies have become buzzwords that reveals the disconnect over the properties that constitute a modern society and an “aloof political class that never reasons with their concern over emissions.”

Achieving energy parity at low costs will never be accomplished by imposing solutions that consist of using expensive, unreliable, intermittent renewable energy. Then believing these policy solutions will have zero impact on economic growth and overall wellness. The impact is heavier use of coal.

The European Union (EU) has: “Eleven countries still planning to use coal-fired power in 2030 (in order of increasing installed capacity) are: Spain, Hungary, Croatia, Slovakia, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Germany and Poland.”

All EU countries have been given energy transition funds to exit coal by 2030, but only France is able to withstand the use of coal through heavier use of nuclear. Geopolitical reasons are another reason you will find a transition to the clean energy economy in the coming decades, because of US shale oil and natural gas production – fracking is changing the world.

In general, US shale exploration and production (E&P) is booming like never before. As of December 2018 the United States briefly became a net exporter of crude oil and refined products; and unless voters ban fossil fuel production the US will become energy independent.

The US Department of Interior’s, United States Geological Survey announced in December 2018: “The largest estimate of technically, recoverable continuous oil that USGS has ever assessed in the United States. The Wolfcamp shale in the Midland Basin portion of Texas’ Permian Basin province contains an estimated mean of 20 billion barrels of oil.”

Whereas California doesn’t exploit their Monterrey Shale resources – considered one of the largest shale deposits in the US and possibly the world – since California policymakers are only pursuing clean energy resources. Why does fossil fuel and renewable energy have to be politicized when they could work together? Texas and California should be pioneering world-class energy research together. Fossil fuel could pay for research and development to build better renewable energy, globally scalable storage systems and an electrical grid that is smart, reliable and have a 50-100 year shelf life.

An honest broker of information takes energy choices and consequences of say increasing fossil fuel use by burning copious amounts of coal that China, India, Poland, Australia and the United States are doing versus emission-heavy air that cause all sorts of lung and respiratory illnesses.

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