The Weekend Wonk: Utilities Ignore Renewables at Own Risk

February 16, 2014


Last Fall the Economist published a cover story detailing the tumbling fortunes of European electric utilities as Renewable energies continue to eat away at the 100 year old fossil fuel business model.
Amory Lovins weighed in with a response. The two pieces are a great primer in understanding how the current revolution in power production is moving along.
Have excepted liberally here, but for a good read, go to the links and check out the two back to back.


ON JUNE 16th something very peculiar happened in Germany’s electricity market. The wholesale price of electricity fell to minus €100 per megawatt hour (MWh). That is, generating companies were having to pay the managers of the grid to take their electricity. It was a bright, breezy Sunday. Demand was low. Between 2pm and 3pm, solar and wind generators produced 28.9 gigawatts (GW) of power, more than half the total. The grid at that time could not cope with more than 45GW without becoming unstable. At the peak, total generation was over 51GW; so prices went negative to encourage cutbacks and protect the grid from overloading.

The trouble is that power plants using nuclear fuel or brown coal are designed to run full blast and cannot easily reduce production, whereas the extra energy from solar and wind power is free. So the burden of adjustment fell on gas-fired and hard-coal power plants, whose output plummeted to only about 10% of capacity.
The decline of Europe’s utilities has certainly been startling. At their peak in 2008, the top 20 energy utilities were worth roughly €1 trillion ($1.3 trillion). Now they are worth less than half that (see chart 1). Since September 2008, utilities have been the worst-performing sector in the Morgan Stanley index of global share prices. In 2008 the top ten European utilities all had credit ratings of A or better. Now only five do.


The rot has gone furthest in Germany, where electricity from renewable sources has grown fastest. The country’s biggest utility, E.ON, has seen its share price fall by three-quarters from the peak and its income from conventional power generation (fossil fuels and nuclear) fall by more than a third since 2010. At the second-largest utility, RWE, recurrent net income has also fallen by a third since 2010. As the company’s chief financial officer laments, “Conventional power generation, quite frankly, as a business unit, is fighting for its economic survival.”

The companies would have been in trouble anyway, whatever happened to renewables. During the 2000s, European utilities overinvested in generating capacity from fossil fuels, boosting it by 16% in Europe as a whole and by more in some countries (up 91% in Spain, for example). The market for electricity did not grow by nearly that amount, even in good times; then the financial crisis hit demand. According to the International Energy Agency, total energy demand in Europe will decline by 2% between 2010 and 2015.

Two influences from outside Europe added to the problems. The first was the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. This panicked the government of Angela Merkel into ordering the immediate closure of eight of Germany’s nuclear-power plants and a phase-out of the other nine by 2022. The abruptness of the change added to the utilities’ woes, though many of the plants were scheduled for closure anyway.

The other influence was the shale-gas bonanza in America. This displaced to Europe coal that had previously been burned in America, pushing European coal prices down relative to gas prices. At the same time, carbon prices crashed because there were too many permits to emit carbon in Europe’s emissions-trading system and the recession cut demand for them. This has reduced the penalties for burning coal, kept profit margins at coal-fired power plants healthy and slashed them for gas-fired plants. Gérard Mestrallet, chief executive of GDF Suez, the world’s largest electricity producer, says 30GW of gas-fired capacity has been mothballed in Europe since the peak, including brand-new plants. The increase in coal-burning pushed German carbon emissions up in 2012-13, the opposite of what was supposed to happen.

So the gas and nuclear bits of the utilities’ business were heading for trouble even before the renewables bonanza, making the growth of solar and wind all the more disruptive.
Under the old system, electricity prices spiked during peak hours (the middle of the day and early evening), falling at night as demand ebbed. Companies made all their money during peak periods. But the middle of the day is when solar generation is strongest. Thanks to grid priority, solar grabs a big chunk of that peak demand and has competed away the price spike. In Germany in 2008, according to the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems, peak-hour prices were €14 per MWh above baseload prices. In the first six months of 2013, the premium was €3. So not only have average electricity prices fallen by half since 2008, but the peak premium has also fallen by almost four-fifths. No wonder utilities are in such a mess.


It will get worse. The combination of European demand and Chinese investment has slashed the cost of solar panels by about two-thirds since 2006 (see chart 3). In Germany, the cost of generating a megawatt hour of electricity with solar panels has fallen to €150, above wholesale prices but below the fixed price that renewables receive and below residential prices. This means solar generation may rise even if Germany’s new government cuts subsidies to renewables. Their challenge to the old utilities will increase.

Moreover, in the past few years utilities have been hedging, selling two-thirds of their power one to three years ahead (ie, they are receiving 2010 prices for energy delivered today). This has insulated them from the full impact of recent price falls. Those contracts expire in 2014-15. As the chief executive of E.ON said recently, “For 2013 and 2014, no recovery [is] in sight.”

Amory Lovins at RMI Blog:

Laments for Europe’s money-losing electric utilities were featured in an October 2013 cover story in theEconomist. It said Europe’s top 20 energy utilities have lost over half their 2008 value, or a half-trillion Euros—more than Europe’s banks lost. Many utilities therefore want renewable competition slowed or stopped. Indeed, some European giants, like Germany’s E.ON and RWE, are in real trouble, and five of Europe’s top ten utilities have suffered credit downgrades. So have some U.S. utilities—most recently Jersey Central Power & Lightand Potomac Electric Power Co.—from the likes of Fitch, Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s, Credit Suisse, and others.

Should old, long- and often still-subsidized oligopolies be bailed out or shielded from competition when they bet against innovation and lose? Those big European utilities were supposed, but failed, to prepare for renewables by reinvesting their hundreds of billions of Euros’ windfall from billing customers for the first decade’s tradable carbon emission credits they’d been given for free. Now they’re griping that disruptive technologies are upending their old models—just as innovators had warned them for the past few decades.

Disruptive technologies are meant to upset the status quo to bring worthwhile change. Should we have rejected mobile phones because they threatened to displace landline phones? Didn’t digital cameras make film cameras largely obsolete? Shouldn’t print newspapers have to invent new business models to confront the rise of the Internet?

As the Economist acknowledges, those utilities’ financial crisis is due not only to renewables, which are often scapegoated for trends they reinforced but didn’t cause. Overinvestment in fossil-fueled generation would have weakened utilities’ finances anyway as the global economic slowdown damped electricity demand growth and the efficiency revolution began to reverse it—on both sides of the Atlantic. U.S. weather-adjusted electricity use per dollar of GDP fell 3.4 percent in 2012 alone. In many regions, efficiency is outpacing service growth, shrinking utilities’ revenues.

U.S. shale gas has also displaced much coal-fired generation (though efficiency displaced nearly twice as much in 2012). Unsold American coal flooded European markets, temporarily displacing higher-priced gas. Meanwhile, solar power took the utilities’ profitable afternoon-peak market and slashed its price premium. And since Germany, among others, gave renewables both full grid access and dispatch priority (logically, because they’re cheaper to run than any fueled generator), low loads coinciding with high renewable supplies sometimes make wholesale markets clear at negative prices. This further distresses utilities that must pay to keep their inflexible old plants running—much as they’d prefer to shift all the costs of adaptation to their new competitors. Their distress will rise as renewables keep getting cheaper and as old contracts to sell electricity at well above today’s prices expire.

Well-stoked fears of grid instability and unreliability due to renewable power are as widespread as evidence for them is unfindable. In the Central European grid, where pervasive electricity trading helps operators choreograph the ever-shifting mix of renewable and nonrenewable supplies, German electricity (23 percent renewable in 2012) and Denmark (41 percent) are the most reliable in Europe—about ten times better than in the United States (whose 2012 electricity was 6.6 percent hydro and 5.3 percent other renewables). Even on the edge of the European grid, Spain (48 percent in the first half of 2013) and Portugal (70 percent) kept their lights on just fine. This experience might help the puzzled Economist writer who claimed, “No one really knows what will happen when renewables reach 35 percent of the [German] market, as government policy requires in 2020.” Answer: probably nothing except lower emissions and lower prices.

The “much more expensive” claim, too, evaporates on scrutiny. In the U.S., new Midwestern windpower now sells at a 25-year fixed nominal price (thus a declining real price) as low as $22/MWh, and new Western solar power at below $70, both net of subsidies generally less than nonrenewables get. In many states, wind and solar beat efficient new gas-fired power plants. In countries like Brazil and Chile, unsubsidized wind and solar power routinely win power auctions. In Europe too, they have a strong business case; cloudy Germany has installed 35 GW of photovoltaics but hasn’t subsidized them since 2004. The Economist agrees that German solar power now costs less than residential tariffs (which are half taxes), and less than the feed-in tariff it still receives (because it still costs more than wholesale prices)—so solar power could keep growing even without the tariff.

“Much more expensive” is a more apt description for much nonrenewable generation, especially as the misdesigned European carbon market gets repaired so emissions are no longer nearly free. Exhibit A is the Hinkley Point nuclear plant that the British government wants 84-percent-state-owned Électricité de France to build, supposedly with part-Chinese financing, to generate 7 percent of U.K. electricity. To get ÉDF to agree, the British government had to offer a 35-year inflation-adjusted fixed power price twice today’s wholesale market level, plus a 65-percent loan guarantee, plus other concessions, many still secret.

Even if this extravagance survives EU scrutiny as “illegal state aid,” the project may not win private construction financing. Investors may reason that nuclear electricity costing seven times the unsubsidized Midwestern-U.S. windpower price (the U.K. has Europe’s best wind resources) or 3–4 times the unsubsidized western-U.S. solar price, both falling, is so ridiculous that a subsequent U.K. government could wriggle out of the deal, putting private capital at risk—or simply that forcing the market to absorb so much extraordinarily costly electricity could prove unworkable. If the British government let all options compete at transparent prices, it could find such cheap efficiency, demand response, renewables, and cogeneration that this year alone in America, five old operating nuclear plants have been terminated as uneconomic just to run, even though their high capital cost was paid off long ago. New reactors’ capital costs are so prohibitive that eight years of 100-plus-percent construction subsidies have failed to make them privately financeable, and nine proposed new units were also terminated this year.

Calls for more nuclear power have largely abated in Europe, where flagship nuclear projects in Finland and France are at least twofold over their budgeted cost and time. Nuclear diehards still pull most policy levers in France, but its national utility isn’t charging enough to cover its nuclear repair costs, is about a trillion Euros underfunded for decommissioning its aging reactor fleet, can’t afford to replace it, and needs to consider what to do instead. Hint: renewables leader Germany, moving off nuclear and beyond coal, is the only consistent net exporter of electricity to three-fourths-nuclear-powered France.


Utilities’ dwindling profitability is the flip side of renewables’ benefits to customers. As renewables burgeoned, Germany’s wholesale electricity prices fell nearly 60 percent in the past five years. This enriched many German industries—thousands of which also shifted billions of Euros’ annual costs to German households via tripled exemptions from paying grid fees and renewable surcharges. (Only 15 percent of the German renewables surcharge is actually households’ share of premium prices for renewables, mostly for old contracts at higher prices; the other 85 percent reflects falling wholesale prices and industrial exemptions.) But the wholesale price drops are reaching most German households too in 2014, stabilizing their bills.

Moreover, German citizens can choose to microinvest as little as $600 in renewables, locking in a stable and attractive return for 20 years. Most German renewable capacity—investments largely spurned by big utilities—was bought instead by citizens, communities, or cooperatives. And Germany’s 382,000+ new renewable jobs, welfare relief, corporate and export earnings, tax revenues, and wholesale price drops yield not just long-term but current macroeconomic net benefits to the national economy.


Rather than lament that traditional utilities aren’t the low-risk investments they once seemed, and asking how we can protect their profits, we should be seeking to help progressive utilities and disruptive upstarts shape a new electricity system powered increasingly by clean, distributed renewables, doing exactly what they were meant to do: provide reliable, resilient, safe, clean power at moderate prices. That is the way the world market is trending.

Not only Germany but also in two more of the world’s top four economies—China and Japan, as well as India—non-hydro renewables now outproduce nuclear power. In 2012, China’s windfarms outproduced its nuclear plants (the world’s most aggressive program), and coal plants were run less: China added more generation from non-hydro renewables than from nuclear plus fossil sources. In the first ten months of 2013, 54 percent of China’s capacity additions were renewable (a third of those non-hydro). The coal-fired fraction of China’s electricity could drop by two percentage points in 2013 alone. Globally, in each of the years 2011, 2012, and probably 2013, renewables won a quarter-trillion dollars of private investment and added over 80 billion watts of capacity. Solar additions are now overtaking windpower’s, scaling even faster than cellphones.

To adapt to these epochal shifts in both supply and demand, electricity providers everywhere, not just in Europe, need new business, revenue, and regulatory models, being developed in efforts like RMI’s e-Lab industry forum. For example, buildings using zero net electricity (an increasingly widespread practice) pay zero net revenue to utilities selling electricity by the kWh. That requires a different revenue model—perhaps like the Fort Collins (Colorado) municipal utilities’ proposed new approach, where the utility can provide a range of services and investments on the customer side of the meter, helping the customer navigate efficiency and distributed generation investments while providing low-cost finance and on-bill repayment. This e-Lab-aided innovation may offer a sound and scalable path beyond net metering, which breaks at scale.

An 80-percent-renewable, half-distributed, nearly decarbonized, highly resilient U.S. grid could cost virtually the same as business as usual, but could best manage its risks—security, technology, finance, climate, health, fuel, and water—and, uniquely, prevent cascading blackouts. Such transformative benefits justify transitional growing pains—not protection for incumbents already paid to accept the known competitive risks they got wrong.

Clinging to and investing in antiquated business models should be neither rewarded nor celebrated. After all, it’s not as if their authors didn’t know big changes were coming. Ordering new coal plants in the face of renewable mandates and emerging carbon trading is akin to buying up carriage-makers just as automobiles began to relieve London’s horse-manure crisis.

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63 Responses to “The Weekend Wonk: Utilities Ignore Renewables at Own Risk”

  1. […] sector in the Morgan Stanley index of global share prices. Only utilities nimble enough to adopt new revenue models providing a range of services and service levels, including efficiency and self-generation, will […]

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