Diversification Into Renewable Energy Chronicles – How About Now?

solar energy, diversification, solar bankability

Source: U.S. DOE

First post in a series looking at the fossil fuel segment diversification into renewable energy.

Consider the current energy industry situation:

  • For the first time in the last 100 years of the electric utility industry, revenue from sales of electrons did not go up after the US economy emerged from the recent great recession. Energy efficiency, renewable energy and behind-the-meter generation schemes are part of the reason.
  • Oil and gas industry revenue and margins are suffering from very low prices as a result of overproduction, regulatory tightening on negative externalities and other factors.

    Coal Industry Decline

    Coal Industry Decline

  • The coal industry is at a point that prompted the CEO of one the largest coal producers to state publicly that coal as a dominant generation fuel is in significant decline. Natural gas at historically low prices is rapidly replacing coal for base load generation. Coal is also impacted by strict limits on emissions as a result of the EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards(MATS). International markets, long thought to be a lucrative export valve for US coal, are in decline.  China and other large coal burning nations have enacted new laws to wind down their coal generation, as the reality of climate change sets in and the cost-competitiveness of renewable energy continues to rise.
  • The future energy picture, broadly speaking, is generally viewed through an electric industry lens. “Electricity is the energy of the 21st century,” according to Patrick Pouyanné, CEO of the large French oil company Total, which has been making initial strategic investments in renewable energy and energy storage over the last six years.
  • The majority of the world’s countries (174) have come to agreement on slowing down climate change at the United Nations COP21 in December 2015, which attempts to limit warming to 2° C compared to pre-industrial levels. With energy generation contributing average of 35% of emissions, the implications for the energy sector is clear.

In this era of market turmoil and low prices across all fossil fuel energy sectors, renewables are highly cost-competitive AND gaining ground. The recent BNEF 2016 Outlook verifies what renewable energy cheerleaders have been saying for many years – renewables with energy storage and next-generation grid technology are ready to lead the imperative global transition away from carbon-intensive generation.

So why is the fossil fuel industry still sitting on the sidelines? Renewable energy companies and assets throughout the supply chain are relatively inexpensive now, due to the low cost of the gas and oil it competes against. The timing to present a diversification effort to shareholders has never been better.  The timeline for return on investment for renewable diversification is significantly shorter than building fossil fuel assets. This would appear to be a first-mover’s diversification market.

The renewable energy industry represents a natural, highly profitable diversification strategy given the fossil fuel industry’s large balance sheets, synergistic services and capabilities, very low cost of capital, leverage with regulatory agencies and built-in customers in many cases. Yet many fossil fuel companies continue to dig in deeper on their traditional extraction-and-burn model, even as a Deloitte survey of oil and gas executives back in

Constellation Energy PV System at Denver Airport Source: Denver International Airport)

Constellation Energy PV system at Denver Airport     Source: Denver Int’l Airport

2009 uncovered major concerns about the sustainability of their industry.  The majority of these executives also expressed strong support for, and confidence in, the future of renewable energy.

There are signs that a tentative transition by some entities is underway. Major electric utilities such as Duke Energy, Georgia Power, NRG Energy and Exelon domestically have their toe in the renewable energy water, and the large European utilities Enel and E.ON  have announced long term transitions to 100% renewable energy. Other smaller electric utilities are testing renewable generation, and decoupling their profitability from electron-only sales into energy efficiency and other services. The oil & gas sector is increasing their involvement in renewables with recent announcements from Shell, Total, and Statoil, as well as a number of smaller firms that service the large multinationals.

However, with the exception of Total and few others in the electric utility industry, diversification capital investment budgets are small, generally under 0.6% of the total. And there is always the lingering suspicion, based on past pronouncements, that these latest diversification efforts are merely green-washing to counter urgent climate change action calls.

To be sure, diversification from a core competency is not simple for any company who has shareholders to satisfy on a quarterly basis.  Patience for executing a diversification strategy is not something the investment community is good at, as witnessed by the removal of electric utility visionary David Crane from the electric utility NRG last year. And E.ON in Germany is an example of the difficulty in maintaining profitability while crossing the diversification chasm.

But with the continual and rapid lowering of the installed cost and levelized cost of energy, as well as plunging cost reductions in the energy storage sector, diversification into solar and wind and other renewables can be achieved with a well timed diversification plan and lower risk. There’s money to be made, jobs to be created and the urgent health of our planet to consider.  How about now?

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