Renewables

Long-term thinking is needed: the London Metropolitan Underground railway in 1863

Long-term thinking is needed: the London Metropolitan Underground railway in 1863  © Getty Images

This week, the UK government will launch an industrial strategy designed to help the economy as we leave the EU. To be effective, policy in this area needs to be sustained. Short-term incentives are not enough to create new industrial strengths. This raises the whole question of how policy-makers deal with long-term issues. How do governments, companies or investors assess the value of assets with a long or very long life?

Looking around the world, the infrastructure we use every day from the internet to the road network defies the presumptions of standard analysis by growing in value as time passes rather than declining.

But markets are increasingly focused on short-term returns — after all, many pension funds and similar investment vehicles need a steady inflow of money to meet their obligations. Hedge funds and venture capital investors expect new or turnaround businesses to produce a good return and an exit opportunity in five to seven years. Chief executives have to concentrate on quarterly results and annual dividends. What chance is there for investments with a life expectancy of 100 years or more, particularly if they have high up-front capital costs on which payback and profits will only be generated over decades? The whole methodology of discounting future cash flows favours short-term activity. Read more

China is restructuring its domestic coal industry

China is restructuring its domestic coal industry  © Getty Images

What are the implications of China’s announcement last week that it will be spending $360m over the next four years to build up its renewable energy sector? There are many reasons behind the move, from Beijing’s growing concern about the impact of climate change to the political imperative of reducing low level pollution in the smog-ridden cities. The scale of the investment, however, suggests that two closely related policy objectives are driving energy strategy: an effort to create a modernised economy that can provide employment for the Chinese workforce and a determination to limit dependence on imported supplies.

Two weeks ago, in looking ahead to the potential stories of 2017, I suggested that Beijing might set a target of energy independence by 2025. This provoked a range of responses. Some people told me that such a policy was unnecessary since the country can afford to pay whatever is necessary. Others did not believe anything close to self-sufficiency was attainable. Read more

 

For most of those involved in the energy sector 2016 has been a year to forget. Oil prices have risen a little but despite the Opec deal are still almost 50 per cent down on where they were 2 years ago. Gas and coal prices are also down. Some US coal companies are in a desperate financial position – as are some of the smaller oil and gas businesses who do not have the deep pockets necessary to survive a downturn which is both cyclical and structural. Read more

Anne Hidalgo (left), Mayor of Paris,  and French energy minister Segolene Royal celebrate the Paris COP21 climate accord.

Anne Hidalgo (left), Mayor of Paris, and French energy minister Segolene Royal celebrate the Paris COP21 climate accord.  © Getty Images

The Paris agreement on climate change has been ratified, earlier than most people expected. Some believes that means the issue is on its way to being resolved. That is absolutely not the case.

Donald Trump’s election as president is a major setback because it removes any sense of American leadership on the issue. But that is not the only cause for concern. The inconvenient truth is that the use of coal in growing emerging economies continues to outpace anything being achieved elsewhere. The global energy market is changing; oil demand is coming to a peak and renewables are getting cheaper. But that, however important, is as yet having no more than a minor effect on the climate issue. We have to be realistic and prepare accordingly. Read more

Simon Henry, Royal Dutch Shell CFO

Simon Henry, Royal Dutch Shell CFO  © Getty Images

On November 2 Simon Henry, the chief financial officer of Royal Dutch Shell and one of the most respected figures in the industry, told analysts on a conference call for the Shell results presentation that he believed “oil demand will peak before supply and that peak may be between five and 15 years hence”. I think he is right, and that the peak of demand will come within five years and possibly by 2020. The reasons for what sounds like a very radical challenge to the conventional wisdom are clear and the advance warning signs are already evident in the data.

Oil demand in the developed OECD world has already peaked and is 9 per cent below the level reached in 2005. In Europe, oil demand is down 17 per cent over the same period. Read more

Greg Clark leaves 10 Downing Street as the new business, energy and industrial strategy secretary

Greg Clark leaves 10 Downing Street as the new business, energy and industrial strategy secretary  © Getty Images

A changing of the guard in an organisation is a good time at which to pause and reconsider every aspect of strategy. The mistakes of the past can be admitted, entrenched but outdated positions can be quietly left behind and altered circumstances accepted. That is what should happen now in the UK in relation to energy policy. Read more

The Apple logo on display at the Worldwide Developer's Conference in San Francisco this month

The Apple logo on display at the Worldwide Developer's Conference in San Francisco this month  © Getty Images

Revolutions often begin with small prosaic steps. Three weeks ago, a company filed for permission from the US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to sell electricity to individual consumers. Hardly an exceptional event – except that the company’s name is Apple and the move marks the beginning of a restructuring in the energy market that will reshape the sector across the world over the next decade.

Two years ago I wrote a column headlined Google Energy, Amazon Power about the possibility of new players disrupting the settled landscape of the energy business. The piece provoked some interest and much scepticism. Why would companies that knew nothing about energy want to venture into a specialist market where they would have to compete against powerful vested interests? Read more

A gas storage facility outside Lviv, Ukraine

A gas storage facility outside Lviv, Ukraine  © Getty Images

Can anything reverse the decline of natural gas as a source of primary energy in Europe? Gas demand in 2015, despite a fractional uptick on the 2014 figure, was 20 per cent below the level reached a decade ago. Unless something changes radically, Europe has passed the point of peak gas consumption. The promise of “a golden age of gas” talked up by the industry and some commentators a few years ago looks very tarnished.

The reasons for this are obvious. In the absence of a carbon price, coal is cheap and in countries such as Germany it retains crucial political support because of the jobs it involves. Renewables are subsidised. So gas is squeezed, especially in the power sector because efficiency gains and slow economic growth have kept total electricity demand down. Read more

National Tribute to The Victims of The Paris Terrorist Attacks At Les Invalides In Paris

Laurent Fabius  © Getty Images

The agreement on climate change in Paris will satisfy no one. The complaints are predictable and have already begun.

The commitments made are not legally binding and political decisions could be altered by future elections or regime changes. The funds available for adjustment are too limited and, of course, there is no carbon price.

All true, but politics is the art of the possible and what has been agreed is a triumph for French diplomacy and for the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius personally. Many deserve credit but success depends on leadership. He is the Energy Personality of the Year because he has played a crucial role in changing how the sector will evolve worldwide for decades to come. Read more

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A pump turbine at Alstoms' global technology and hydropower centre in Grenoble, France  © Getty Images

Storage — whether of grain or of knowledge through the printed word — has been a crucial element in human development. Of all the many technical advances that are transforming the energy business none is potentially more important than storage: it give us the ability to control the way, and crucially the timing, of energy consumption. Used on a major scale it could help to make heat and light available to those outside the commercial economy and could radically alter the energy mix.

Two excellent recent research reports summarise the current state of the art in the field and offer some predictions. The first is from Lazards and is the latest in a series assessing trends in the costs of different mechanisms. The second is from Moody’s and concentrates on the advances being made in reducing the cost of batteries.

In discussing storage it is important to demolish two myths. First, the technological advances are not about to transform the energy system to the point where a major proportion of consumers defect from existing distribution systems. Second, it does not require a dramatic breakthrough for making it on a significant scale to become economic. Read more

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Penetration of electricity into new areas – such as cars – is still low  © Getty Images

Renewables are taking a growing share of the energy business. In 2014, according to a new report from the International Energy Agency, they accounted for more than 45 per cent of all the new electricity generating capacity added worldwide. Over the next five years the prediction is that they will supply more than half of all new capacity. By 2020 renewables should be providing over 26 per cent of global electricity supplies. They will enhance energy security and reduce emissions. They will also reshape the energy business creating both winners and losers. Read more

Political Leaders Meet As Greece Crisis Intensifies

Sigmar Gabriel and Angela Merkel  © Getty Images

Last week’s decision on the future of the German energy policy by Sigmar Gabriel — the economics minister and Angela Merkel’s number two and would-be successor — was complicated and multifaceted. The net result, however, is simple. The German coal industry will survive and coal will remain a major, and probably the largest, fuel source for power generation for another decade and perhaps longer. Read more

Power Station For Both Fishing And Solar Energy Built In Jiaxing

  © Getty Images

According to the International Energy Agency in their most recent World Outlook the amount of money required to meet energy needs over the next twenty five years is $51tn. That is in real terms measured in 2013 dollars and amounts to approximately 14 times current German gross domestic product.

Energy investment as defined by the IEA includes the exploration, production, distribution, transportation and processing of all forms of energy. It includes new ventures and replacement of the existing capital stock. Some $30tn of the total is expected to be devoted to fossil fuel extraction, transportation and oil refining, while most of the remainder goes to the power sector including $7.4tn to renewables and $1.5tn to nuclear; $8.7tn goes to the development of transmission and distribution systems. This is, of course, an indicative forecast built around the IEA’s assumptions of some progress towards emissions reduction. The detail is less important than the total. Read more

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The conflict at the heart of Germany’s energy policy is finally coming to a head. Can Germany claim to be an environmental leader while continuing to burn more coal than any other developed country apart from the US?

The issue is easier to describe than to resolve. Germany has led the EU in adopting “green” policies, including the promotion and subsidy of renewables. Energy consumers, including industry, have tolerated ever-rising energy costs. Electricity in Germany costs over 90 per cent more than in the US. The country has begun the process of closing its nuclear power stations — the last will be closed in 2022, although a vexed question remains over how the decommissioning will be paid for. Energy policy enjoys support across the political spectrum. The Green party won just 7.3 per cent of the vote in the last federal election but green ideas permeate the thinking of all the other parties. The grand coalition between the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats is committed to reducing emissions by 40 per cent by 2020, 70 per cent by 2040 and 80 to 95 per cent by 2050. The whole plan is explained in a post by Mat Hope on the CarbonBrief website. The German approach is now being exported to Brussels with a determined effort under the new European Commission to shape an EU energy policy along the same lines. Read more

British Government Signs A Deal For New Nuclear Power Plant

  © Getty Images

The election is over and against all expectations we have a clear result. When it comes to energy policy, however, the agenda will be set not by what the Conservative party has promised in its manifesto but by external events. A number of looming issues are already obvious and the government will have no control over most of them.

The first is the further postponement of the plans for nuclear development starting at Hinkley Point in Somerset. Two new reactors capable of supplying some 7 per cent of total UK electricity demand are planned. The first was originally supposed to be on stream in time to cook Christmas dinner in 2017. But despite the prospect of a lavish price — index linked for 35 years regardless of what happens to global energy prices – and £10bn of even more generous financial guarantees, funding for the investment required is not in place. The reluctance of investors to commit will not be helped by the technical problems in the reactor vessels, which are now under investigation by the French nuclear regulator. This problem has widespread implications for the companies involved (Areva and EDF) and for nuclear development in many countries across the world, starting with France itself. Read more

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  © Getty Images

The signals are clear – but contradictary. China has embraced the concept of climate change and is allowing officials to discuss the risks openly. Two weeks ago Zheng Guogang, head of the Chinese metereological administration warned of droughts, rainstorms and the threat to major infrastructure projects. He could not have spoken without permission.

But at the same time economic growth remains the prime objective of Chinese policy and growth requires the consumption of ever greater volumes of primary energy, led by coal.

Demand may have slipped by a small amount last year but new coal plants are still being opened. Coal consumption in China has doubled in the last ten years. China is now the world’s largest economy and consumes more than half of all the coal used worldwide each year. Within two decades, even on quite modest assumptions about economic growth it will have an economy twice the size of the US with personal living standards equivalent to those of the US in 1980. But it will still be an economy powered by coal – with demand on current policies up by another 20 to 25 per cent according to the forecasts produced by the International Energy AgencyRead more

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  © Getty Images

I have never given much credence to the idea that an international agreement on climate change capable of establishing a global carbon price was likely to be reached – either in Paris this December or anywhere else – anytime soon.

If Europe, which is way ahead of the rest of the world when it comes to climate policy, can’t set its own carbon price, what hope is there that the US, India and all the others will?

As a result I’ve never taken seriously the view that a vast amount of energy investment by the oil and gas companies will be left stranded as carbon-generating fuels are priced out of the market. The argument has always felt like wishful thinking. If everyone obeyed the Ten Commandments there would be no prisons and the police forces of the world would be redundant.

But, and it is a very important qualification, change doesn’t come just through legislation and international treaties. Technology is arguably much more important and there is growing evidence that some fundamental changes are coming that will over time put a question mark over investments in the old energy systems. Read more

Meet EVA — the latest racing car. EVA has an elegant shape, with aerodynamics worthy of any of the cars which race in Formula One. The difference is that EVA is solar powered. Read more

Wind turbines in Peitz, Germany.

Wind turbines in Peitz, Germany © Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Forget Opec. If cartels can’t control output, they can’t control prices and in due course they fall apart, usually with a great deal of ill will in the process. The evidence of the last six months is that Opec can’t control the market — ask yourself how many Opec members want to see a price of $60 a barrel for their oil. Some in Saudi Arabia think a low price can squeeze out competing suppliers, but that feels like a justification after the fact of a fall which they can’t control. The question now is how the process of adjustment to the new price level will work. Read more

One of the most exhilarating aspects of working in the energy business – at least for a humble economist such as me – is that companies think and act on a timescale measured in decades. Projects are built to last for 30-40 years, and often longer still. This is in sharp contrast to the government where timescales are measured in hours and where long-term means the not-too-distant horizon of the next election. It is also in contrast to sectors such as telecommuications where the pace of change is so fast that thinking more than five years ahead makes no sense. But, as the current slide in oil, gas and coal prices demonstrates, a long-term perspective does not make investment judgments easier.

Most oil and gas fields, coal mines, nuclear power plants, wind farms and other energy sources are designed to last for decades. The construction time can be long: a liquefied natural gas plant can take six or eight years; a new nuclear power station a decade or more especially if the technology is unproven or excruciatingly complex. Payback only comes when the plants have been on stream for several years. Beyond that, however, the operating costs are usually low and the cash flow is strong and secure. Or, at least it should be. Read more