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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

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

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

George Osborne Visits North Sea oil in Scotland

George Osborne on the Montrose Platform in the North Sea  © Getty Images

On Wednesday, George Osborne will present the UK budget to the House of Commons. At a moment of deep uncertainty for the country’s energy industry — which is discouraging investment and creating quite unnecessary risks for the future. From the North Sea to Hinkley Point and shale there is confusion and doubt. Mr Osborne should come forward with a package of messages to restore confidence. Here are four obvious steps the chancellor should take.

First, the North Sea is now on the verge of a serious cutback in activity that will reduce energy supply and lead to lost jobs as well as much lower tax revenues. The hopes expressed in Sir Ian Wood’s report two years ago for an renaissance in the North Sea and the development of the billions of barrels of remaining resources will be lost. Read more

Hungarian engineer Miklos Sziva checks t

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Markets are inherently prone to volatility. Prices and valuations do not proceed in an orderly and linear fashion. Most important of all, they do not proceed in one direction for very long. The aim of any serious investment strategy should be to call the turning points and buy or sell accordingly. The energy market is at such a turning point and it will be fascinating to see who has the nerve and confidence to invest.

To say that this is a time to buy may sound odd following the criticism of Shell’s purchase of BG Group, which was reluctantly nodded through by fund managers last week. The issue is that the BG deal was based on prices roughly two and a half times above the current level and depends on an incredible forecast of future price trends. The result: a pyrrhic victory for Shell. That mistake, however, does not mean that other potential buyers of energy assets should be put off. At current prices, the time to buy is now. That applies to oil and gas but in different ways the same conclusion can be drawn for almost every part of the energy sector. Read more


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

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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


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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

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

8th June 1939:  Babies in a row of cots brought out for some sun by their nurses at the Duchess of York's Hospital for Babies at Burnage, Manchester.  (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

  © Fox Photos/Getty Images

A new academic study, the results of which were published last month in the magazine Science, suggests that previous population projections have been understated. Rather than plateauing at 9bn the global population could rise during the current century to 11bn or more. How can the world manage such numbers?

The focus of attention – in politics, markets and companies – is so concentrated on the short term that long-term challenges are easily lost from sight. Tomorrow’s problems are left to tomorrow’s leaders. However understandable when individuals are working under the pressure of 24/7 news cycles and quarterly reporting standards, the result is that some of the most profound challenges are being neglected. Population growth is perhaps the most fundamental challenge of all because its consequences are so widespread.

The issue has been raised again by the publication of a new research paper from the University of Washington. Professor Adrian Rafferty and his colleagues argue that for a variety of reasons (including the success of the fight against Aids and the failure of attempts to spread knowledge on contraception), the global population could now be 2bn or more higher in 2100 than previously anticipated – that is within the lifetime of many of the children alive today. Read more

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Why are renewables moving so slowly? Of course the output of renewable energy is growing in absolute terms and in terms of market share in most countries in the world. But the growth starts from a very low base. On the International Energy Agency’s latest numbers, renewables provide just 13 per cent of total global energy needs at the moment, and will provide only 18 per cent by 2035. If traditional biomass is excluded the figures are 7 per cent and 14 per cent.

The problem is cost. Electricity produced from offshore wind and solar costs somewhere between 50 and 100 per cent more per MW/hr than power from natural gas and, with some variations, will continue to do so for the next decade unless one makes the assumption that gas prices are going to increase. Onshore wind is cheaper and in the US in particular is the closest of all the renewables to being competitive without subsidies. Read more

Photo by Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty Images

Imagine being elected prime minister of a country with one and a quarter billion people, about 300m of whom live in absolute poverty. That is the challenge facing Narendra Modi in India. The hardest question must be to know where to start.

When it comes to energy Mr Modi’s first acts have been encouraging. He has set a high but achievable target for the installation of solar, on and off the grid, building on his experience in the state of Gujarat. He has also forced together three key ministries – covering power, coal and renewables – under a new minister, Piyush Goyal. He should probably have gone further and added petroleum and natural gas as well. Structural change in the complex bureaucracy of the Indian government matters a lot. Read more

Ed Miliband’s comments on energy in his Labour party conference speech on Tuesday have profound implications for policy. The immediate focus will be on the suggestion of a price freeze lasting until 2017. The industry will no doubt focus on the implications of cutting profits and the question of what happens if world prices rise. Some might also suggest that a hard freeze will not only deter new investment, but also lead to some companies exiting the business with the net effect of reducing competition. Mr Miliband clearly believes there is profiteering but he has not published the evidence. The Labour leader should and there needs to be a full competition inquiry. It may well be that if there is profiteering a price freeze is not the only nor the best solution. Read more

Why are renewables losing out? According to the International Energy Agency, renewables, excluding biomass but including hydro, currently provide just 8 per cent of global electricity supply and 3 per cent of total energy demand. By 2035 on the IEA’s main scenario those figures will rise to just 15 and 7 per cent respectively. That represents some serious growth but not a breakthrough. Hydrocarbons on all the IEA scenarios will still be providing well over 60 per cent of final energy. The figure could be higher if shale gas and tight oil developments spread from the US and if coal prices fall further.

This limited achievement comes despite a decade of high spending on research – especially in the US, and despite a variety of generous subsidies – ranging from direct grants and feed-in tariffs, to protected market shares. In the UK, the support is entrenched in legislation requiring the government to produce long-term plans for reducing emissions over the next four decades. Renewables have benefitted over the past few years from concerns about rising energy prices and energy security, as well as from the desire to tackle climate change. Read more

The continuing saga over the UK policy on subsidies to renewable energy supplies should serve as a warning to investors not just in wind power but across the whole energy sector.  Public policy risk is a permanent reality.  The Treasury is right to question the subsidy regime and producers have to be realistic about the nature of the business they are in. Read more