energy

Johannes Teyssen, chief executive, after Eon's annual results on 15 March

Johannes Teyssen, chief executive, after Eon's annual results on 15 March  © Getty Images

Last week’s results from the German utility Eon offered a stark reminder of the costs of the changes taking place in the energy market. Eon posted a loss of €16bn as a result of the transformation of the German energy market (known as the Energiewende) over the last decade.

But we are not at the end of the story. To pursue its chosen policy objectives, Germany needs to expand the scope of the system it has created. Companies and investors across Europe who assume that the status quo will persist should take a careful look at Eon’s experience and be prepared for radical change.

The company’s problems stem from two specific policy decisions made in Berlin — the determination to press ahead with the transition to a low carbon economy in a way that gives priority to technologies such as wind and solar power, and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s edict issued after the Fukushima accident in 2011 to accelerate the closure of Germany’s nuclear power stations. Read more

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Too much of what is written about energy is negative, even despairing. Too much space is taken up by those predicting gloom, seeking subsidies or looking for incredible global agreements. There is a place for rational optimism and it is a pleasure to find that case presented so clearly and objectively in a new paper from the Grantham Institute.

The work from the independent academic body based at London’s Imperial College describes the transition of the market over the next two decades by focusing on two areas — the advance of solar power through the deployment of photovoltaics and the growth of electric vehicles. Read more

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Every strategy reaches the point where renewal is necessary. Time erodes what once seemed logical. Technology transforms the range of possibilities. Assumptions turn out to have been false flags. That is the situation now for the UK’s energy policy as spelt out in a report published last week by the economics committee of the UK House of Lords*.

The existing strategy flows from the 2008 Climate Change Act, which gave priority to the reduction of carbon emissions. A target of an 80 per cent reduction by 2050 was entrenched in law and, although it has never been clear how it would be enforced, the existence of a legally binding target has shaped decision-making in Whitehall. The goal, to be reached in five-year steps, overrides every other consideration — including cost and security of supply. Read more

Opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline protest in Washington against Donald Trump's executive orders

Opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline protest in Washington against Donald Trump's executive orders  © Getty Images

The US energy sector, or to be precise that part of the sector working on hydrocarbons, is celebrating the arrival of Donald Trump as president. Mr Trump and the Republican congress have started a bonfire of regulations and the president has promised to do what it takes to increase supply from a sector he says is worth $50tn.

The number may be a little flaky (after all, US gross domestic product last year was only $18tn) but the direction of travel is not. After eight years of tightening regulation and restrictions, those who want to develop new sources of coal, gas and oil now have Washington’s full support. The new commitment to fossil fuel development has been welcomed by the industry and by countries such as Saudi Arabia. The question is whether they will all be cheering so loudly when they start to see the full consequences of the new policy. Read more

Electricity pylons seen from Hinkley Point

Electricity pylons seen from Hinkley Point  © Getty Images

The prospect that Toshiba will withdraw from the nuclear power business after its embarrassing and expensive experience with the American company Westinghouse poses a serious problem for the UK’s plans to make new nuclear the core of future energy supply. If those plans are to be delayed, as looks almost certain now, the government will have to come up with an alternative.

Toshiba‘s planned new station at Moorside in Cumbria was to have been the second step in a strategy that, as the last government set out, would have produced some 16GW of nuclear-generated electricity by the mid 2030s. That would have more than replaced the old nuclear plants which are due to retire and would have made a material contribution to Britain’s decarbonisation targets. If Toshiba puts Westinghouse, the company holding the key nuclear expertise, up for sale the question arises as to whether President Donald Trump will support the transfer of US knowledge to a country as such as China. The process could take a long time and until there is a resolution, Moorside cannot move forward. Read more

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

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

Amber Rudd, home secretary, speaking at the Conservative party conference

Amber Rudd, home secretary, speaking at the Conservative party conference  © Getty Images

A few weeks ago I argued that Brexit would have very little impact on the energy sector in the UK or Europe. Energy prices are decided by the international market, the energy mix has always been dictated by national governments and there is no apparent appetite for Britain to diverge from the climate policies and emissions targets set by the EU with its full support. All that remains true, but circumstances have changed. A new factor has emerged in the Brexit debate that could do great damage to the country’s sector.

The issue was expressed in chilling terms in two speeches at the Tory party conference this month. Theresa May, prime minister, said: “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word “citizenship’ means”.

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Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton  © Getty Images

Is it mad or deeply cynical to say that the outcome of the US presidential election doesn’t really matter for the energy sector? Surely there are big differences of belief between the two candidates, reflected in their stated policy positions? Surely their supporters are giving their votes and money to bring about changes they believe in? True, but if you take a step back from the noise and fury of the campaign it is worth asking whether the sector will be very different in 2025 if Hillary Clinton prevails or if the recent drift in the polls continues and President Donald Trump is inaugurated on January 20. Read more

The Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev (left) with John Kerry, US Secretary of State, earlier this year

The Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev (left) with John Kerry, US Secretary of State, earlier this year  © Getty Images

For a few years in the 1990s, Azerbaijan looked like one of the world’s lucky countries. Freed from Soviet dominance, rich in resources, especially oil and gas, and immune to the radical and extremist Muslim fundamentalism that was spreading from Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Middle East, the country seemed to have a lot going for it. Twenty years later the situation has deteriorated badly and looks likely to get worse. Economic success is being destroyed by rampant corruption. Constitutional changes this autumn will entrench the power of President Ilham Aliyev, who rules Azerbaijan as if it were a family estate. What went wrong and what can be done? Read more

Theresa May, UK prime minister

Theresa May, UK prime minister  © Getty Images

I have the sense that Mrs May is a grammar school pupil who likes to get a good mark and to be told she has done well. As a grammar boy myself I recognise the psychology. On Hinkley Point, whatever the inevitable noise from those who dislike the headline outcome, she deserves praise. So “VG 8½ out of 10. A good start to the term. Keep it up”.

There are several illuminating aspects of the latest announcement on Hinkley Point.

First, Mrs May has faced down heavy civil service pressure to reconfirm the deal as provisionally agreed by David Cameron’s government. The willingness to review and now amend the project is a signal that she is prepared to challenge the legacy she inherited from Mr Cameron and his chancellor George Osborne. It is impossible to understand the current government and its policies without appreciating the depth of contempt there is for the public school drinking club circle symbolised by the Bullingdon Club. When the clique took power in Downing Street, they were openly contemptuous of Mrs May and other Tories who did not share their privileged background.. The UK has a new government and scores are being settled. Read more

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The buzz word of the moment in the energy business is “transition”. It provided the theme for the ONS conference and exhibition in Stavanger in Norway two weeks ago as well as the title for several recent consultancy studies.

Unsurprisingly, transition is the main concept in many of the corporate strategy reviews now being undertaken by some of the leading energy producers and utilities. The meaning of the word, however, is loose and variable. It is not even clear whether some of the big operators in the market understand the breadth of the transition that is already taking place and the extent to which it could reshape the prospects for their businesses.

The transition is normally discussed in terms of the move from hydrocarbons to lower or zero-carbon sources of energy supply. Driven by the fear of climate change and by the adoption of various public policies, the shift has been under way for two decades and more. The Paris conference at the end of last year provided new impetus, even if the end product fell somewhat short of a global deal backed by law and a carbon price. Different countries are moving at different speeds, and the result is a gradual shift in the energy mix, which now promises to be accelerated by advances in technology. Low carbon sources of supply are falling in price and some are within reach of the point where they can be competitive without subsidy. Read more

 

How the proposed Hinkley reactor could look, according to an EDF computer-generated image  © AFP Photo / EDF Energy

The Downing Street review of the Hinkley Point nuclear power project is coming to an end – and a decision will soon have to be made, probably before the end of September. The latest wave of public relations activity from EDF, the company that hopes to build the plant, shows how nervous the company is about the outcome. Given the range of doubts about the costs, the construction risks, the reactor technology and the involvement of the Chinese, that nervousness is well justified. Can EDF come up with an offer that deals with the doubts? If it focuses on substance rather than spin, it is just possible. The choice will be made in Paris. Read more

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The attempted coup in Turkey on July 15 may have failed but its consequences are still playing out. Some 40,000 people have been detained as suspected conspirators – so many in fact that ordinary convicts are being released to make room for them. Tens of thousands more have been suspended from their jobs under suspicion of being sympathisers. The trawl for the guilty has reached institutions a long way from the military front line including the energy ministry, where 300 staff have been suspended along with 25 “experts” working for the sector’s regulator EPDK. If it weren’t so serious for those involved you could be forgiven for laughing at a president who sees the number crunchers who set the tariffs for consumers of gasoline and electricity as a threat to his regime. Read more

Opposition protestors in Caracas last month amid demands for a refrendum on removing President Nicolas Maduro from power

Opposition protestors in Caracas last month amid demands for a referendum on removing President Nicolas Maduro from power  © Getty Images

After years of decline, the situation in Venezuela is becoming desperate. Could the latest fall in the oil prices provide the tipping point that finally brings to an end the unhappy period of Marxist rule begun by Hugo Chavez in 1999?

In the last two months the oil price has fallen by 20 per cent, ending the hopes of producers around the world that the downward slide of the last two years is over and that prices will soon return to a level that they used to regard as “normal”. For many, the latest fall will be the last straw. Numerous companies have maintained their dividend payments through borrowing. With prices falling again that looks unsustainable. Many, including the state companies, also face hard investment decisions on projects that need higher prices to be viable. With capex requirements outstripping revenue and little prospect of raising more money through rights issues more projects will be postponed or abandonedRead more

Theresa May, UK prime minister

Theresa May, UK prime minister  © Getty Images

All new leaders face tests. Do they mean what they say? Will they flinch or give way under pressure? For a prime minister the tests can come from any direction — from the trades unions, from the Kremlin, from political opponents, from dissident backbenchers. Theresa May’s first test as British premier has come from the Chinese in the form of a remarkable article in the Financial Times.

Liu Xiaoming, the Chinese ambassador to the court of St James, does not like the idea that the new UK government should be reconsidering the plan to build a nuclear power station at Hinkley Point in southwest England, and by implication the idea that Chinese companies should own, build, operate and control a further nuclear plant at Bradwell in Essex, in the east of the country.

The article is puzzling. What sort of diplomat negotiates on serious issues through the media? Wouldn’t they normally work discreetly to identify the cause of the problem — if there is one — and then seek to find a quiet solution? Issuing threats is not very diplomatic. Indeed, the article reads as if it had been written by a PR firm instructed to put pressure on ministers. One wonders how Beijing would react if the British ambassador there were to write an article demanding that Hong Kong be allowed to choose its own leaders. Read more

Sameh Shoukry, Egypt's foreign minister, who was visiting Israel last week

Sameh Shoukry, Egypt's foreign minister, who was visiting Israel last month  © Getty Images

The world has discovered a new province rich in energy supplies. Three major discoveries of gas have been made in the eastern Mediterranean over the last few years and there is the prospect of much more being found in areas still to be explored. That makes the region one of huge international interest. The only challenge is getting the gas to the markets in which it will be used, and that is a problem not of geography or technology but of politics.

How to resolve this new “Eastern Question”? For years the absence of a satisfactory answer has stalled the development of the Israeli and Cypriot fields and deterred further exploration. But now it begins to look possible that a combination of circumstances has opened the door to a practical solution.

The eastern Mediterranean — often described as the Levant Basin — covers the stretch of water that runs from the northern coast of Egypt up past Sinai, Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Cyprus to the southern coast of Turkey. The three big discoveries are the Leviathan field 130 km off Haifa in Israel, the Aphrodite field just east of Leviathan offshore Cyprus and Zhor in Egyptian waters 120 miles north of Port Said. Read more

The French economy minister Emmanuel Macron visits the Civaux nuclear power plant operated by EDF, which is 85% owned by the state

The French economy minister Emmanuel Macron visits the Civaux nuclear power plant operated by EDF, which is 85 per cent owned by the state  © Getty Images

The saga of Hinkley Point goes on. The UK government is right to delay approval of a project in which it has lost confidence. The EDF board may have approved the deal to build a new nuclear power plant in Somerset, southwest England, but the obvious risks were such that the only prudent response is to pause and to reconsider all the options. The government must be right in wanting to avoid locking the UK into an expensive source of supply at a time when the costs of every alternative — including natural gas, solar and wind — are falling. In the post-Brexit world competitiveness is critical.

Theresa May, the prime minister, has also appreciated that approval of the project is now a UK bargaining chip in Britain’s relationship with the French. Cancelling the Hinkley project would destroy the thousands of jobs promised along the supply chain – most of which is located in France. The pressure is now on President François Hollande, who faces a very difficult re-election campaign next year, to force EDF to come up with a much better offer. 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