Investments are leading indicators of the direction of change in the energy sector. This is particularly true for investments in innovation and digitalisation, so-called “intangible assets” that will shape the technologies for supplying and using energy in the decades to come.
Across the economy, investments in long-lasting intangible assets – including software, R&D, data, management efficiency, branding – are growing and will be among the biggest sources of future productivity. In Europe, intangible investments are rising as a share of GDP, while those in more traditional, tangible capital assets are declining. In the United States, intangibles are already in the lead according to some estimates.
The International Energy Agency brings together the best global data on energy investments in its World Energy Investment report and Tracking Clean Energy Progress web platform, including investments in innovation.
Innovative energy technologies will be crucial to tackling environmental problems associated with energy use, as well as reducing consumer costs and increasing prosperity around the world. Both the public and private sectors play central roles in driving energy innovation, with private money flowing to new commercial opportunities, supported by government-backed markets that provide direction to innovative activities and government investment in novel, risky technology areas. To deliver the goals agreed by the 23 country signatories (plus the European Commission) of Mission Innovation, understanding the trends in the spending and the strategies of the private sector will be vital.
Electric mobility is leading an energy venture capital boom
The latest data on investments in start-ups from i3 shows a booming venture capital sector globally for energy technologies. Venture capital investors provide capital to multiple small companies with new ideas about how to deploy energy technologies, often combining technologies in novel ways in the hope of disrupting existing markets and delivering huge returns within five years if one of them is successful. While venture capital generally does not fund the underlying research, it is a good indicator of where people think there is scope for new technologies to meet customers’ unsatisfied needs and unseat the existing energy order.
Venture capital investment in energy technologies is flourishing, with more money flowing in 2018 than in the first two quarters of any previous year. But whereas the previous highpoint in 2008 was led by renewables – notably solar – it is now transportation that is getting all the attention, mostly electric vehicles. To complete the switch from supply-side to demand-side technologies, funding for energy efficiency (especially related to connected-buildings technology) has been higher than for renewables so far in 2018.
As we have previously noted, several factors underpin this trend. First, innovation in clean energy hardware and venture capital are often not well matched. The timeframe needed to establish the viability of energy projects can be too long, the capital requirements for technology demonstration too high and the consumer value too low. Although there is a much more established market for solar panels today, compared to 2008, there is a still a serious need to deliver better renewable technologies to the market. Secondly, while the upswing of investments is striking, the total number of deals was actually falling until this year, when it saw an 18% increase compared to the first half of 2017. What has changed is the willingness of investors – especially in Asia – to place a small number of very large bets on electric vehicle companies, which represent the hottest part of the market today.
Energy is still far from joining the ranks of biotechnology and software as a hundred-billion-dollar venture capital market. However, by combining spillovers from rapid digital technology advances with expectations of revolution in the transport system, it is currently in a growth phase. If consumers respond favourably, some of these digital and mobility ideas could be deployed at scales of millions of units relatively quickly; at such a scale new generations would be developed each year and performance improved dramatically. But is unclear whether the excitement around, for example, batteries for electric mobility could stimulate venture capital investment in electricity storage for the grid or whether venture capital will play a significant role in energy supply technology development. Markets for stored electricity are not poised to deliver such high returns in the near term and venture capital is not usually patient.
Changes and new entrants in corporate energy innovation strategy
Corporate venture capital can take a slightly more long-term view, but still more short-term than traditional corporate R&D programmes. High levels of technological uncertainty in today’s energy sector, coupled with rising competition between firms in different regions and, increasingly, different sectors, support a shift in the patterns of corporate innovation funding.
We estimate that global corporate spending on energy R&D grew 3% in 2017, to USD 88 billion, but is still lower than it was in 2014, before the oil price slumped. Over recent decades, these budgets have become less centralised and more integrated with product development in individual business units. Many major companies devote no more than one-tenth to one-third of their total R&D budgets to new technologies, with the bulk of spending going to incremental improvements of existing technologies. Given the high expectations for fundamental changes in the energy system and uncertainty about the timing and technologies involved, firms are trying to make their research budgets work as hard as possible.
Digitalisation, in particular, enables companies to place more small bets on emerging technologies and to be open to changing direction quickly. New technologies for software and digital-based products have shorter innovation cycles and can be brought to the market quicker. They require less investment and fewer consumables, and they can be prototyped more quickly and tested in a variety of environments simultaneously and do not need costly manufacturing facilities or value chains to be deployed. The result can be a lower unit cost of innovation. But it also opens energy companies up to competition from firms with core competences in information and communication technologies (ICT).
In 2017, total investment in energy technology start-ups by corporations – i.e. companies primarily engaged in making and selling non-financial products – reached USD 6.1 billion. This was a big increase compared to 2016, and was driven largely by investments by ICT companies alongside more traditional energy sector companies, including oil and gas and utilities and automakers. As with energy venture capital in general, the overall trend underpinned by several very large deals, especially in Asia. Notable deals in 2017 included Tencent and Baidu’s investments in Tesla, NIO and WM Motors; Intel’s investment in Volocoptor electric helicopters; Qualcomm’s investment in CargoX truck logistics; and China Mobile’s investment in Ninebot electric scooters.
In some cases, the entry of firms from sectors such as ICT into parts of the energy industry is forcing companies to change their perceptions of who they should consider their competitors to be.
There are several reasons large established companies provide capital to early-stage technology companies. They might see it as a good investment on a purely financial basis, but more commonly it is seen as an investment in learning about a technology, acquiring human capital, and building a relationship with the technology owner that would smooth the path to licensing or buying the technology if it is successful. In general, this approach is used with technologies that are currently outside the core competence of the corporate investor but that could add significant value to existing businesses if the market developed in that direction. Given the value of innovation to many large energy companies, corporate venture capital (CVC) finance and even growth equity (a type of private equity investment) can cost less and involve less risk than developing a technology in-house. It can also shield the developers from the strict evaluations placed on internal R&D projects housed in existing business units. For a start-up company, a CVC investor can provide access to expertise and customers that can give it a better chance of maturing quickly.
Among oil and gas companies, a noticeable recent trend is a shift away from technology areas that complement their existing infrastructure – such as bioenergy, CCUS and fossil fuel supply technologies – and towards technologies that could complement their broader capabilities or let them explore new business areas. Utilities have also increased their funding of energy technology start-ups. Worldwide, they spent a record USD 0.7 billion in 2017, surpassing the previous high of 2013 and the tail end of the clean tech boom. Solar power, electricity storage and, to a lesser extent, smart-grid technologies have been the main focus of utility funding in recent years, but growth in 2017 was driven largely by transport technologies, which took one-half of the total, and wind power technologies, which took one-quarter.
As innovation evolves, the IEA is helping policies to adapt
A growing number of energy companies are separating the teams that are focused on innovation outside their core competences, and that could in some cases undermine their existing businesses, from the governance structures of typical corporate R&D. Rather than having large budgets for research linked to sustaining existing businesses, these teams generally pursue a wider range of innovation management activities, often with lower capital requirements. These activities include VC funding, internal innovation competitions, pilot testing of competing options and more strategic partnerships with firms outside their traditional sectors. To manage risks in highly uncertain and unfamiliar technology areas, collaboration with technology suppliers, customers or across business units tends to play a larger role than in traditional corporate R&D.
Changes to the ways that new energy technologies are developed and commercialised by the private sector can require changes in the ways that governments incentivise and track innovation. Having a strong ecosystem of research institutions and energy entrepreneurs can be more valuable than tax breaks and R&D funding for making a country attractive to a large company as a place to undertake novel projects. Absolute corporate expenditure on R&D may become less closely linked to the pace of corporate innovation in low-carbon technologies. The need to collaborate to rapidly test and scale up ideas can reduce companies’ incentives to create and defend in-house intellectual property. Policy makers may need to ensure that their national or regional policies also support the improvements to capital-intensive hardware solutions needed to tackle climate change. In these areas, patient government capital for higher-risk technologies could become even more vital.
The IEA takes this public policy challenge seriously and is strengthening its work on innovation around the world. For example, on 30 September 2018, we signed a Memorandum of Understanding with India on collaboration on clean energy innovation as part of our Clean Energy Transitions Programme. We are also enhancing collaboration with Brazil and other key partner countries. Through this programme, plus our ongoing close cooperation with Mission Innovation and our leading network of Technology Collaboration Programmes, the IEA aims to support countries to have the best data and analysis on public and private sector energy R&D at their fingertips and apply international best practice in policy making.
The commentary is based on an excerpt from World Energy Investment 2018 and interviews conducted with corporate R&D leaders in late 2017 and early 2018. Source: IEA
Energy transition is a global challenge that needs an urgent global response
COP26 showed that green energy is not yet appealing enough for the world to reach a consensus on coal phase-out. The priority now should be creating affordable and viable alternatives
Many were hoping that COP26 would be the moment the world agreed to phase out coal. Instead, we received a much-needed reality check when the pledge to “phase out” coal was weakened to “phase down”.
This change was reportedly pushed by India and China whose economies are still largely reliant on coal. The decision proved that the world is not yet ready to live without the most polluting fossil fuels.
This is an enormous problem. Coal is the planet’s largest source of carbon dioxide emissions, but also a major source of energy, producing over one-third of global electricity generation. Furthermore, global coal-fired electricity generation could reach an all-time high in 2022, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).
Given the continued demand for coal, especially in the emerging markets, we need to accelerate the use of alternative energy sources, but also ensure their equal distribution around the world.
There are a number of steps policymakers and business leaders are taking to tackle this challenge, but all of them need to be accelerated if we are to incentivise as rapid shift away from coal as the world needs.
The first action to be stepped up is public and private investment in renewable energy. This investment can help on three fronts: improve efficiency and increase output of existing technologies, and help develop new technologies. For green alternatives to coal to become more economically viable, especially, for poorer countries, we need more supply and lower costs.
There are some reasons to be hopeful. During COP26 more than 450 firms representing a ground-breaking $130 trillion of assets pledged investment to meet the goals set out in the Paris climate agreement.
The benefits of existing investment are also becoming clearer. Global hydrogen initiatives, for example, are accelerating rapidly, and if investment is kept up, the Hydrogen Council expects it to become a competitive low-carbon solution in long haul trucking, shipping, and steel production.
However, the challenge remains enormous. The IEA warned in October 2021 that investment in renewable energy needs to triple by the end of this decade to effectively combat climate change. Momentum must be kept up.
This is especially important for countries like India where coal is arguably the main driver for the country’s economic growth and supports “as many as 10-15 million people … through ancillary employment and social programs near the mines”, according to Brookings Institute.
This leads us to the second step which must be accelerated: support for developing countries to incentivise energy transition in a way which does not compromise their growth.
Again, there is activity on this front, but it is insufficient. Twelve years ago, richer countries pledged to channel US$100 billion a year to less wealthy nations by 2020, to help them adapt to climate change.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates that the financial assistance failed to reach $80 billion in 2019, and likely fell substantially short in 2020. Governments say they will reach the promised amount by 2023. If anything, they should aim to reach it sooner.
There are huge structural costs in adapting electricity grids to be powered at a large scale by renewable energy rather than fossil fuels. Businesses will also need to adapt and millions of employees across the world will need to be re-skilled. To incentivise making these difficult but necessary changes, developing countries should be provided with the financial support promised them over a decade ago.
The third step to be developed further is regulation. Only governments are in a position to pass legislation which encourages a faster energy transition. To take just one example, the European Commission’s Green Deal, proposes introduction of new CO2 emission performance standards for cars and vans, incentivising the electrification of vehicles.
This kind of simple, direct legislation can reduce consumption of fossil fuels and encourage industry to tackle climate change.
Widespread legislative change won’t be straightforward. Governments should closely involve industry in the consultative process to ensure changes drive innovation rather than add unnecessary bureaucracy, which has already delayed development of renewable assets in countries including Germany and Italy. Still, regardless of the challenges, stronger regulation will be key to turning corporate and sovereign pledges into concrete achievements.
COP26 showed that we are not ready as a globe to phase out coal. The priority for the global leaders must now be to do everything they can to drive the shift towards green energy and reach the global consensus needed to save our planet.
Pakistan–Russia Gas Stream: Opportunities and Risks of New Flagship Energy Project
Russia’s Yekaterinburg hosted the 7th meeting of the Russian-Pakistani Intergovernmental Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific and Technical Cooperation on November 24–26, 2021. Chaired by Omar Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s Minister for Economic Affairs, and Nikolai Shulginov, Russia’s Minister of Energy, the meeting was attended by around 70 policy makers, heads of key industrial companies and businessmen from both sides, marking a significant change in the bilateral relations between Moscow and Islamabad.
Three pillars of bilateral relations
Among the most important questions raised by the Commission were collaboration in trade, investment and the energy sector.
According to the Russian Federal Customs Service, the Russian-Pakistani trade turnover increased in 2020 by 45.8% compared to 2019, totaling 789.8 million U.S. dollars. Yet, there is still huge potential for increasing the trade volume for the two countries, including textiles and agricultural products of Pakistan and Russian products of machinery, technical expertise as well as transfer of knowledge and R&D.
Another prospective project discussed at the intergovernmental level is initiating a common trade corridor between Russia, the Central Asia and Pakistan. Based on the One-Belt-One-Road concept, launched by China, the Pakistan Road project is supposed to create a free flow of goods between Russia and Pakistan through building necessary economic and transport infrastructure, including railway construction and special customs conditions. During the Commission meeting, both countries expressed their intention to collaborate on renewal of the railway machines fleet and facilities in Pakistan, including supplies of mechanized track maintenance and renewal machines; supplies of 50 shunting (2400HP or less) and 100 mainline (over 3000HP) diesel locomotives; joint R&D of the technical and economic feasibility of locomotives production based in the Locomotive Factory Risalpur and other. The proposed contractors of the project might be the Russian Sinara Transport Machines, Uralvagonzavod JSC that stand ready to supply Pakistan Railway with freight wagons, locomotives and passenger coaches. In order to engage import and export activities between Russian and Pakistani businessmen, the Federation of Pakistan Chamber of Commerce signed a memorandum with Ural Chamber of Commerce and Industry, marking a new step in bilateral relations. Similar memorandums have already been signed with other Chambers of Commerce in Russian regions.
— Today, the ties between Russia and Pakistan are objectively strengthening in all areas including economic, political and military collaboration. But we, as businessmen, are primarily interested in the development of trade relations and new transit corridors for export-import activities. For example, the prospective pathways of the Pakistan-Central Asia-Russia trade and economic corridor project are now being actively discussed at the intergovernmental level, — said Mohsin Sheikh, Director of the Pakistan Russia Business Council of the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry. — For Islamabad, this issue is one of the most important. Based on a similar experience of trade with China, we see great prospects for this direction. That is why representatives of Pakistan’s government, customs officers, diplomats and businessmen gathered in Yekaterinburg today.
However, the flagship project of the new era of the Pakistan-Russia relations is likely to be the Pakistan Gas Stream. Previously known as the North-South Gas Pipeline, this mega-project (1,100 kilometers in length) is expected to cost up to USD 2,5 billion and is claimed to be highly beneficial for Pakistan. Being a net importer of energy, Pakistan will be able to develop and integrate new sources of natural gas and transport it to the densely populated industrialized north. At the same time, the project will enable Pakistan—whose main industries are still dependent on the coal consumption—to take a major step forward gradually replacing coal with relatively more ecologically sustainable natural gas. To enable this significant development in the Pakistan’s energy sector, Moscow and Islamabad have made preliminary agreements to carry on the research of Pakistan’s mineral resource sector including copper, gold, iron, lead and zinc ores of Baluchistan, Khyber Pukhtunkhwa and Punjab Provinces.
A lot opportunities but a lot more risks?
The Pakistan Stream Gas Pipe Project undoubtedly opens major investment opportunities for Pakistan. Among them are establishment of new refineries; the launch of virtual LNG pipelines; building of LNG onshore storages of LNG; investing in strategic oil and gas storages. Yet, it seems that Pakistan is likely to win more from the Project than Russia. And here’s why. The current version of the agreement signed by Moscow and Islamabad has been essentially reworked. According to it, Russia will likely to receive only 26 percent in the project stake instead of 85 percent as it was previously planned, while the Pakistani side will retain a controlling stake (74 percent) in the project.
Another stranding factor for Russia is although Moscow will be entitled to provide all the necessary facilities and equipment for the building of the pipeline, the entire construction process will be supervised by an independent Pakistani-based company, which will substantially boost Pakistan’s influence at each development. Finally, the vast bulk of the gas transported via the pipeline will likely come from Qatar, which will further strengthen Qatar’s role in the Pakistani energy sector.
Big strategy but safety first
The Pakistan Stream Gas Pipeline will surely become an important strategic tool for Russia to reactivate the South Asian vector of its foreign policy. Even though the project’s aim is not to gain a fast investment return and economic benefits, it follows significant strategic goals for both countries. As Russia-India political and economic relations are cooling down, Moscow is likely to boost ties with Pakistan, including cooperation in economy, military, safety and potentially nuclear energy, that was highlighted by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during visit to Islamabad earlier this year. Such an expansion of relations with Pakistan will allow Russia to gain a more solid foothold in the South Asian part of China’s BRI, thus opening up a range of new lucrative opportunities for Moscow.
Apart from its economic and political aspects, the Pakistan Stream Project also has clear geopolitical implications. It marks Russia’s growing influence in South Asia and points to some remarkable transformations that are currently taking place in this region. The ongoing geopolitical game within the India-Russia-Pakistan triangle is yet less favorable for New Delhi much because of the Pakistan Stream Project. Even though the project is not directly aimed to jeopardize the India’s role in the region, it is considered the first dangerous signal for New Delhi. For instance, the International “Extended troika” Conference on Afghanistan, which was held in Moscow last spring united representatives from the United States, Russia, China and Pakistan but left India aside (even though the latter has important strategic interests in Afghanistan).
With the recent withdrawal of the U.S. military forces from Afghanistan, Moscow has become literally the only warden of Central Asia’s security. As Russia is worried about the possibility of Islamist militants infiltrating the Central Asia, the main defensive buffer in the South for Moscow, the recent decision of Vladimir Putin to equip its military base in Tajikistan, which neighbors Afghanistan, seems to be just on time. Obviously, Islamabad that faces major risks amidst the Afghanistan crisis sees Moscow as a prospective strategic partner who will help Imran Khan strengthen the Pakistani efforts in fighting the terrorism threat.
From our partner RIAC
How wind power is transforming communities in Viet Nam
In two provinces of Viet Nam, a quiet transformation is taking place, driven by the power of renewable energy.
Thien Nghiep Commune, a few hundred kilometres from Ho Chi Min City, is a community of just over 6,000 people – where for years, people relied largely on farming, fishing and seasonal labour to make ends meet.
Now, thanks to a wind farm backed by the Seed Capital Assistance Facility (SCAF) – a multi-donor trust fund, led by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) – people in the Thien Nghiep Commune are accessing new jobs, infrastructure and – soon – cheap, clean energy. The 40MW Dai Phong project, one of two wind farms run by SCAF partner company the Blue Circle, has brought new hope to the community.
For the 759 million people in the world who lack access to electricity, the introduction of clean energy solutions can bring improved healthcare, better education and affordable broadband, creating new jobs, livelihoods and sustainable economic value to reduce poverty.
“It’s not only about the technology and the big spinning wheel for me. It’s more about making investment decisions for the planet and at the same time not compromising on the necessity that we call electricity,” said Nguyen Thi Hoai Thuong, who works as a community liaison. “The interesting part is I work for the project, but I actually work for the community and with the community.”
While the wind farm is not yet online, a focus on local hiring and paying fair prices for land has already made a big difference to the community.
“I used the money from the land sale to the Dai Phong project to repair my house and invest in my cattle. Currently, my life is stable and I have not encountered any difficulties since selling the land,” said Ms. Le Thi Doan.
The energy sector accounts for approximately 75 per cent of total global greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). UNEP research shows that these need to be reduced dramatically and eventually eliminated to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.
Renewable energy, in all its forms, is one of humanity’s greatest assets in the fight to limit climate change. Capacity across the globe continues to grow every year, lowering both GHGs and air pollution, but the pace of action must accelerate to hold global temperature rise to 1.5 °C this century.
“To boost growth in renewables, however, companies need to access finance,” said Rakesh Shejwal, a Programme Management Officer at SCAF. “This is where SCAF comes in. SCAF works through private equity funds and development companies to mobilize early-stage investment low-carbon projects in developing countries.”
The 176 projects it seed financed have mobilized US $3.47 billion to build over one gigawatt of generation capacity, avoiding emissions of 4.68 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent each year.
But SCAF’s work isn’t just about cutting emissions. It is bringing huge benefits across the sustainable development agenda: increasing access to clean and reliable electricity and boosting communities across Asia and Africa. SCAF will be potentially creating 17,000 jobs.
This is evident in Ninh Thuan province, where the Blue Circle created both the first commercial wind power project and the first to be commissioned by a foreign private investor in Viet Nam.
Here, the Dam Nai wind farm has delivered fifteen 2.625 MW turbines, the largest in the country at the time. These will generate approximately 100 GWh per year. They will avoid over 68,000 tCO2e annually and create more than an estimated 302 temporary construction and 13 permanent operation and maintenance jobs for the local community.
Students from the local high school in Ninh Thuan Province were also given the opportunity to meet with engineers and technicians on the project, increasing their knowledge about how renewable energy works and opening up new career paths.
SCAF, through its partners, is supporting clean energy project development in the Southeast Asian region and African region. SCAF has more than a decade of experience in decarbonization and is currently poised to run till 2026.
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