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Europe's Very Distressed Energy Transition

Politics / Energy Resources Oct 23, 2013 - 03:51 PM GMT

By: Andrew_McKillop


Excepting Europe's stalled and shrunken, and totally uneconomic biofuels programme, and its more successful energy saving, the continent's energy transition is almost entirely focused on the power sector, aiming to “back out” fossil fuels for power generation by nearly-100% within 35 years.

Not so long ago, in 2008, Europe's top-20 market traded electric power companies bundled into European utility indices like Stoxx Europe 600 Utilities, the Bloomberg European Utilities Index and the MSCI European Utilities Index had a combined market value of more than 1000 billion euros.

Today it is about 500 billion. Only the banking crisis is comparable by its losses, potential needs for state bailouts, and high risks for the European economy going forward.

State bailouts to the power sector have 'traditionally' mainly concerned nuclear power producers who still today almost entirely, or completely feed off state aid and sheltering. Debts of these producers is among the highest in Europe, shown by France's 84%-nuclear generation EDF whose ballooning corporate debt is now approaching 40 billion euros. With total support from the French government which strictly limits public sector pay rises to around 1% a year, EDF will hike power prices 10% a year for the next 3 years. Current state aid to the mostly privatised and partly “unbundled” power sector across Europe features near-automatic state support to raising electric power prices and power transport and distribution charges to final users.

The problem is that European electricity prices are already among the highest in the world. Fuel poverty is rising. The continent's industrialists repeatedly warn what extreme priced electricity means for the “competitiveness” slogan bleated by European politicians, but to no avail. Eurostat data for present average household supply prices in Europe's leading country for energy transition, Germany, is about 25.3 euro cents per kilowatthour

This prices electrical energy for German households at around 404 euros or 544 US dollars per barrel equivalent of oil energy.  Prices will nevertheless rise further.

The green dream of an all-out shock transition away from fossil fuels is sold to the public and media as an urgent project “to save the planet from global warming”. NASA's most recent, scarcely publicised monitoring of the Antarctic ice sheet shows it is larger today than at any time since satellite monitoring started in 1979. European media of course carefully ignores “harmful reality” and gurgles constantly about the much smaller and shrinking Arctic ice sheet, but the continent's energy transition plan, enshrined in national and Union energy legislation and policy since 2008, is also the focus of an ongoing but grim, 30-year ideological struggle by governments and the Commission.

The “neolib” aim is to deregulate energy markets, privatise state-owned energy companies, and “unbundle” or break-up previous combined electricity generation and transmission-distribution entities.
The key slogan for this ideological quest was (or is) the neoliberal tweet of increased competition, higher efficiency and lower prices for consumers.

What the consumers and users got in the real world was much higher prices, and taxpayers will get a siphoning of their rising taxes to bail out destabilised and weakened power companies on a probably long-term and ongoing basis. In addition, power brownouts and blackouts on an increasingly frequent basis are threatened, due to the technical, industrial, financial and economic crises converging in the power sector.

This is a “perfect storm”. We can note that the policy goals for energy transition in Europe are very similar to the supposed “consensus policy goals” for European banking and financial services - the idiot slogan of deregulation and privatisation rules. Since 2008, as in the USA, the deregulated banking and finance sector crisis, and the related financial crime and corruption it spawns in Europe is of epic proportions. To be sure, it was easy to add “unbundling” to the slogan pack for Europe's power sector policy, but delivering the claimed results of the elite slogan pack  - lower prices for consumers and more efficiency - is simply not happening.

The main reason is that Europe's energy transition policy is ideology heavy, but real world light. Very light. Renewable energy has been ramped up to take a growing share of the market and in some countries a huge slice of total “nameplate” national power generating capacity. Coal has been almost exterminated for power generating except as an ironically growing stopgap, and gas prices in Europe remain at about 4 times US domestic gas prices, helped by holier-than-thou anti-fracking legislation. Electricity pricing has been turned into a plaything of rapacious traders who drive peak prices ever higher, and baseload prices ever lower. Europe's corrupt and inefficient emissions trading scheme, the ETS, possibly in its death throes, has added its own anarchic hammer blow to European power production and transmission economics, we mean diseconomies of electric power in Europe.

A range of new, developing and potential technologies for the power sector – all of them disruptive and often extremely so - have crowded onstage, one key example being very expensive wide-area smart grids but Europe's real world grids are aging and undersized. The continent's power transport systems suffer from long-term and basic under-investment and are lurching rather rapidly towards serial brownouts and blackouts.

The privatised-deregulated power sector, run on casino investment principles, faces a theoretical need for power transport and distribution investment totaling as much as 750 billion euros by 2020, but casino-minded fly by night “investors” will not be onboard funding this.  One highly ironic effect of the brownout threat, and extreme high power prices, is the increasing move by large industrial entities towards “self-generation”, that is cutting themselves off and away from national power grids. This will make future financing of epic-scale projects even more impossible.

Faced with extreme investment needs, European power transporters and distributors are obliged to radically increase their charges. As of October 15, Germany’s power grid operators have boosted the surcharge household consumers pay for renewable energy by 18% to a record 6.24 euro cents per kWh next year from 5.28 euro cents at present, in a 400% or five-fold increase of power transport charges since 2009.

European electric power is now a black hole of uncertainty – and markets hate uncertainty. Subsidies decided by the political elite “to save the planet” with green energy, and save Europe from “bondage” to Russia, Qatar, Norway or Algeria with self-sufficient energy supplies have become extreme – but have certainly not significantly reduced energy dependence on Russia or any other major gas and energy supplier.

In spectacular cases as in Spain, since January, its previously huge “low carbon energy” subsidies have been almost wiped out overnight – due to the banking and sovereign debt crisis - with a totally predictable collapse of many green energy enterprises. Also without surprise, this has done less than nothing to improve Spanish power reliability or cut power prices.

Several times this summer the supposed big surprise for economists and market analysts happened in Germany's power markets. In extreme cases the wholesale price of electricity fell to minus 100 euros per 1000 kWh or megawatt hour. Generating companies had to pay the grid operators and managers that much to take away their electricity. The reasons were the Triple Witching of plenty of sun, and plenty of wind, but not enough power demand. This was made even worse by the total intra-German power transport capacity of around 45000 MW (45 GW) being close to saturation only from wind + solar supply. The heavy cash penalty on producers was not only a “fascinating event” for market economists, but also a blunt cudgel to prevent total overload and collapse of the grid.

In August, the CEO of Germany's largest power company, E.On, had to tell the press and shareholders that his fleet of ultra-low emission, recently built, state of the art gas-fired power plants were losing about 92 cents on every 100 cents-worth of power they produced. This was because gas is so expensive in Europe, ETS still penalises any carbon-emitting power supply but provides only trifling financial advantages to gas-fired power, and due to the ramp-up of green electricity, E.On's gas-fired plants were operating at suicidally low capacity factors, due to intermittent-supplied wind and solar electricity.

Merkel's previous government was forced by major industrial power users to hand them back about 8 – 9 billion euros a year, and probably more in 2014, due to power prices being so high. Otherwise the industrialists threatened they would do what a long list of other European industrialists penalised by extreme energy prices have done in the past 5 years - shut shop in Germany, leave the key under the doormat, and move elsewhere. Europe's crisis of deindustrialisation has been powerfully intensified by extreme-priced energy.

Europe's “climate-energy” policies and legislation, from end-2008, have targeted very high rates of replacing fossil-based power production. Problems as basic as “baseload type plants”, traditionally using nuclear fuel, coal, lignite or less-frequently gas being designed to run full blast and completely unsuited to on-again, off-again intermittent operation were however ignored and sidelined by Europe's political elite and by European Commission mandarins.

Also ignored or sidelined, each “marginal unit” or extra unit of power they produce costs money, as fuel. Wind and solar power have zero marginal costs and on strict economic grounds it is rational to give them grid preference as first supplier, displacing all others. In extreme cases, like E.On's gas-fired power stations, now mostly mothballed, these were often forced to run at 10% of their design capacity before their inevitable mothballing.

Another technical hurdle, or wall to be scaled concerns Europe's power transport and distribution systems. One reason why investment needs in this sector are so extreme is not the total amounts and power rates of needed grid capacity, but the complete change of “system architecture”. Previous hub-and-spoke models of a few large power transport corridors connecting consumers to a few very large power plants are being swept away by an emerging spider's web of huge numbers of very small generators with a criss-cross web of small power transport systems – which has yet to be built, when or if the financing can be found. Power distribution, in the future model, will be entirely different and for example may feature smart grids for urban electricity supply – if they can be financed.

The German Energiewende transformation plan, the most advanced in Europe, as I have noted elsewhere, is a multi-headed hydra that Angela Merkel has no choice at all but to rapidly reform, but the present outlook is drastically simple. Electricity prices will stay high, or will rise, but supply security and regularity will fall. Investment needs are extreme, but the power sector is now a “risk on” investment. The present outlook is this can only get worse.

Ramping up renewables can be done – Europe is the showcase region of the world. The process is a microcosm of the changes that will affect, or are now affecting all regions and countries where renewable sources of electricity become more important. To the environmentalists, these changes are a story of triumph but have already created radical dissent among their ranks. One example is Germany's Fritz Vahrenholt and Sebastian Luning who criticise “carbon correct” because they think the global warming-CO2 thesis is both heavily exaggerated and very flawed. In addition, they and many others believe the slogan of German and other European greens – all renewables, now, and at any price – spells economic disaster and massive technical and technological challenges.

Renewable-based electricity has already helped push European wholesale electricity prices down – but has made peak power prices rise to ultra-extreme highs, aided by the trader and bankster fraternity. To be sure, this could or might one day lead to big reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions, but for power utilities and TD (transmission-distribution) companies this is a present day economic disaster.

Low emission gas-fired plants, the “best fit” for standby power supply to back renewables on technical grounds, which were ordered, financed and built in the period to about 2011, are being shouldered aside by renewables-only sources. According to Eurogas, as much as 30 000 MW of gas-fired plants are currently idled, mothballed or threatened with demolition in Europe. They are losing money on every unit of electricity generation they produce. The huge investments needed in TD (power transport and distribution) to meet transport capacity demands are not available.  Power sector spokespersons and CEOs worry that the growth of solar and wind power is destabilising the grid, and logically can only lead to blackouts or brownouts. They also point out that corporate finances in the sector are heavily destabilised and it is impossible to run a normal business on the new science-fiction bases, such as power prices going negative on an increasing basis, but consumer and final user prices only rising.

In short, German and other European electric utilities and grid transport companies are saying that transition to the renewables is undermining established utilities and TD companies, replacing their “old corporate model” with a series of unknowns which are disruptive - and much more expensive.

Investor retreat, or abandonment of the power sector has been rapid and the rot has gone furthest in Germany, because its 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 in 2008 and its income from conventional power generation (fossil fuels and nuclear) has fallen by nearly 40% since 2010. Germany's second-largest utility, RWE, has suffered a 33% cut in its recurrent net income since 2010. RWE's director finance bluntly says: “Conventional power generation, quite frankly, as a business unit, is fighting for its economic survival.”

The companies can be said to have had an extraordinary run of bad luck – or bad judgement meaning their corporate attempt at conforming and complying with European political decisions. For nearly 10 years, until 2008-2009, European utilities over-invested in generating capacity on the basis of over-optimistic economic growth and power demand forecasts. Total power capacity in Europe grew by about 15% in 9 years, with extremes of more than 75% in some countries such as Spain. The market for electricity did not grow by anything like that amount, and from 2008 demand slumped. This is now the New Normal, with the IEA forecasting that total energy demand in Europe will decline by 2% between 2010 and 2015.

Many countries now have “negative growth” trends for electricity dating since 2006 and in some cases since the early 2000's. Extreme power prices in Europe will reinforce that trend.

Europe's longstanding role with the US, Russia and Japan of developing nuclear power as the main prop alongside coal for baseload power supply was seriously shaken by the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Mainly for political reasons, Merkel made a 180-degree turn on atomic energy, with a programmed complete halt of all nuclear power in Germany by early 2022. For the utility companies, this forced them to accelerate their decommissioning and dismantling plans for their already-aging atomic plants, with the instant and massive problem of who will pay for accelerated decommissioning, which even under the most optimistic cost forecasts, for example by France's Cour des Comptes (general accounting office) will cost around 8.5 billion euros for each dismantled reactor. In  France, where part-privatised EDF produces about 92% of national electricity, of which 84% is nuclear-origin, this raises the likely decommissioning cost for its fleet of 63 reactors to well above 500 billion euros.

By a supreme irony, the US shale gas bonanza which has ruined America's coal industry and driven US coal prices to extreme lows, combined with the the near-collapse of ETS emissions permit prices, due to massive over-issuance and financial wrongdoing, has resulted in cheap imported American coal becoming “the new no-brainer choice” for baseload power in Europe.

CO2 emissions are therefore rising, because penalties for burning coal are now trifling, but natural gas is so expensive that gas-fired plants are a massive money-loser. This is  “the green triumph”!

The “unbundling” and privatisation meme or slogan, in policy and ideology terms is part of the globalisation paradigm. This is simple to understand and apply in most industries, but these do not include electric power. The paradigm, originally coined by Ricardo in the early 19th century to exploit different natural resource endowments as well as labour costs, delocalises or offshores physical production of goods to exploit cheap labour in the emerging economies, and cheap transport is used to export the industrial products back to consumers in the de-industrialised or post-industrial countries.

Despite being “post industrial”, these consumers have a big appetite for cheap industrial goods.

For electricity, apart from the science-fiction idea of producing it in Iceland, the Sahara or (less fantasist) in Norway and exporting it to Europe, globalisation is a non-starter. The European transition plan therefore attempts the next best thing of “continent-wide” green power production and electricity transport and trading, as a policy goal for “the longer term”.

In the short term however, unbundling serves as an elite goal of breaking-up integrated power production and distribution entities, usually national-owned, often dating from 1945, on the theoretical basis that “increased competition” would reduce prices and improve efficiency. National investments paid for by taxpayers are handed over to the greedy few who “defend private enterprise”.

 Privatisation of the electric power sector in Europe has had very variable degrees of success. Even when the privatised entities become the 'too big to fail' darlings of the political elite, such as the part-privatized nuclear power sector, and the state holds 'golden shares' in these part-privatised but fragile corporate structures, the companies are usually very poor stock market performers, and their stock prices are regularly pushed lower by the brokers. In a market crash of the 2008-2009 type, the power sector's companies will be some of the most spectacular victims, possibly losing a huge amount of their remaining market capitalization, while other sectors could scrape by with a 33% loss.

Before the crisis of 2008, and for European nuclear power before the 2011 Fukushima disaster, the continent's utility companies were stable and confident, and invested accordingly – but as noted on the basis of highly over-optimistic power demand and economic growth forecasts. They also conformed and complied with Europe's extremist climate-energy policies and legislation, notably by investing in gas-fired power plants, but often not in the renewables. Today for example, Germany's four-largest power companies (E.On, RWE, Vattenfall, EnBW) only account for about 6% of Germany's total power supplies from renewable sources, but the total peak generating capacity from renewables in the two leading countries for renewable power capacity, Germany and Spain, has mushroomed to the region of 33%-50% of national “nameplate total” generating capacity.

Industrial development of the new renewables has been phenomenal in Europe, but again has been a policy-driven “no feedback” process resulting in huge overcapacity, company bankruptcies, forced restructuring, job losses and shareholder losses. On the ground however, on windy and sunny days of low demand – the summer Sunday paradigm – the result in Germany and Spain is rampant overcapacity of power capacity.

Power traders added more stress to the balance sheet through bidding down baseload power prices – made rational by rampant overcapacity – often slashing baseload prices by 50% in 5 years, for example in Germany where baseload power is presently priced, some days, at 38 euros per 1000 kWh, but typically cost more than 80 euros in 2008. For German household consumers, of course, these numbers are derisory because they pay at least 6 times, and sometimes 8 times more than that price. Their likelihood of consuming more electricity is therefore zero, like the ability of power companies to attract huge investor inflows to pay for often extremely high-cost investments, notably in grid development, urban smart grids, and combined heat-and-power projects.

The financial retreat from the power sector was impossible to predict, even in 2009, but has now snowballed. The slogan and rallying call of the financial industry – deregulation – was massively applied to European electricity by Commission mandarins and national governments, but along with the renewables it swept away the previous ordered and predictable system, for utilities, of producing power according to the marginal cost of of generation. Renewables rank highest and have grid priority, by law, meaning the grid must take their electricity first. This can be defended by completely classic economics: because the marginal cost of wind and solar power is zero, grids would normally take their power first, anyway. The fly in the ointment, or elephant in the closet is that wind and solar power are impossible to treat as baseload power – meaning that the whole power generating structure and system becomes intermittent. The European power sector is now “transformed” but in no way to the taste of investors, banks, pension funds and brokers – or consumers.

The utilities balked at the culture shock of “getting serious about renewable energy”, and in many EU countries have gone into a state of denial. The green and ecology parties and NGOs accuse them of behaving like ostriches – or dinosaurs. They say the power sector used dinosaur fuels from the Jurassic or Permian, and made itself extinct like the dinosaurs. Corporate strategies have been put through the meat mincer, often several times over. Some utilities are attempting to shift away from producing power by moving downstream, further increase their energy trading, supply consulting services on customer energy needs, and possibly invest in energy storage and smart grids (despite the costs), while also cutting back on their total generating capacity, sometimes quite radically.

Several are moving out of Europe, to produce electricity in more favorable and more predictable climes. Germany's fourth biggest utility, EnBW, has even come out with a forecast that its earnings from power generating will fall by 80% in the 8 years 2012-20, offset by hoped-for higher earnings from energy services and from a belated shift to renewables.

Above all however, the staggering loss of market value suffered by the 20-largest power sector companies in Europe is a warning signal. Their 500 billion euro loss in 5 years has a sombre meaning for their directly-employed workers still numbering more than 1.25 million in Europe, with a very high multiplier for dependent jobs, as well as for pension funds and other investors. The hoped-for transfer of employees from old model power sector companies to the new green model is very far from sure, for reasons as basic as the huge and rapid loss of capitalization suffered by the power sector, and the policy-driven boom-and-bust cycle that afflicted the renewable energy industry of Europe.

It is for example certain that power sector companies will have to pay their workers and shareholders less, in a context where governments will get less tax revenues from the downsized utilities, and be forced to bail them out like Europe's “bad banks”, while having to maintain feed-in tariff and other subsidies to renewable power. The poor earnings and often astronomic corporate debt of the utilities results in their bond prices being hammered as their borrowing costs soar. Even the largest power utility and TD companies are now forced to pay rates of 10% a year on their borrowings, while the ECB pushes prime bond rates in other sectors to almost zero percent. The sector is “risk on”.

The abrupt decline in the power sector's fortunes can only call into question its “new role” as clearly set out in massive numbers of national government and Commission policy papers. The utilities and the TD companies were going to be the “suppliers of last resort”, guaranteeing the lights never went out, and were going to be the lead investors and pioneers of the all-green transformation. Today however, it is very rash, even plain foolish to imagine this is possible and will happen.

Only for the moment is the “green magic” working, that is green power is being ramped up and the lights are still on, even if the consumers and users are grumbling about how expensive electricity is getting. The claim by green political parties that this itself is a proof that other politicians and the public are over-worried about the risks of energy transition may well be challenged.

When or if national, or even semi-continental power grid and supply brownouts and blackouts regularly occur, and when - not if - electricity prices go on rising, we can be certain that open and naked political handwringing and soul-searching will occur, even in the most government-friendly media. The power sector may well be a handy whipping boy for politicians and the media – they either overinvested, or invested badly, and were not sufficiently “pro-active” in Europe's green power adventure.

The main problem, which is rapidly emerging and is impossible to ignore, is that power sector companies are shedding capacity, and at best making low levels of net new industrial investment because their corporate finances are weak and the outlook is uncertain. Even worse, they have every corporate financial reason to not invest. Their strategic retreat from their core business of producing and distributing power is not in any way – except the most disruptive - being offset and succeeded by smaller new entrants. This highly transitional and unstable context is shown by the simple – but impossibly massive – numbers for investment needed in power TD in Europe.

The needs cannot be met by “conventional” means. Alternatives need to be put on the table.

Accepting there are limits to the speed of energy transition, and possibly also the goals measured as what percentage will be “green” by what date, is above all a political problem. Therefore the response is agonisingly slow. Several political options and economic results are possible, but the ongoing situation is not (to use a key word) sustainable.

Governments are already heavily involved in the green energy transition – and will of course be solicited for money when (rather than if) the power sector's fortunes deteriorate even more. Given their astronomic sovereign debts and Europe's very slow economic growth, however, governments may decide they should get a return from the public money they use to bail out the power sector – unlike the public funds they used to repeatedly bail out Europe's bad banks. In other words, governments will most surely have the option of re-nationalising the power production and transport sector – and earn some money for their shareholders – the taxpayers.

This will of course generate howls from remaining “neolibs” but can expedite the layer cake of crises that has so rapidly and dangerously built up in the anarchically privatized-deregulated power sector. Creating new national energy companies with public investor subscription may be a popular success given the existing and growing problems for maintaining public support to energy transition.

Other options include increased and very rational energy decentralization, for example using the model of German's stadtwerke or municipal energy, water and heat providers enjoying a high level of public confidence. Renewable energy is above all decentralized, therefore its production, supply, pricing and management should also be decentralized. Specifically for the power sector, new sovereign wealth funds might be especially created, or existing ones oriented to this sector in Europe. In-company supply and industrial self-generation has in any case moved ahead rapidly in Europe – simply due to extreme high power prices and declining reliability of supply. This process should be formalised and structured through the right combination of public-private policies, rather than being allowed, by “laisser faire” to cause larger and further earnings losses for power utilities and TD companies.

For the moment, in part due to Europe's banking, debt and economic crises and also because of the fantastic pace of green energy transition, the power sector is being sacrificed. Apart from being a stark failure, it is a grotesque waste of both human, technical and economic resources. This cannot continue for very long, and change is now inevitable.

By Andrew McKillop


Former chief policy analyst, Division A Policy, DG XVII Energy, European Commission. Andrew McKillop Biographic Highlights

Co-author 'The Doomsday Machine', Palgrave Macmillan USA, 2012

Andrew McKillop has more than 30 years experience in the energy, economic and finance domains. Trained at London UK’s University College, he has had specially long experience of energy policy, project administration and the development and financing of alternate energy. This included his role of in-house Expert on Policy and Programming at the DG XVII-Energy of the European Commission, Director of Information of the OAPEC technology transfer subsidiary, AREC and researcher for UN agencies including the ILO.

© 2013 Copyright Andrew McKillop - All Rights Reserved Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilising methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisor.

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