Home truths – peak power & profits


August 16, 2013

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This week the PR teams for two German utilities really earned their pay cheques.

Half yearly figures were out for both E.ON and RWE and the results were far from rosy.

Time then to shift the focus away from individual company performance and instead to paint a picture of the wider international energy market?

It was a smart commercial strategy from both, in part of course, because it was grounded in some real home truths.

After all, it wasn’t necessarily the figures themselves that made for the most interesting reading but more the situation that both firms find themselves in.

By way of a quick history lesson, both businesses have a strong heritage in traditional energy commodities such as gas and coal.

For decades, these have formed the backbone of European energy supplies – with demand for peak power at a premium.

However, that’s now starting to change. And the reality is that peak power demand for coal and gas is already declining at a substantial rate.

For many, that’s hard to stomach. And in the short term, it’s an expensive shift.

However, let’s remember that this has come about as a direct result of a growing body of political pressure and a subsequent move towards renewable energy technologies.

So, does a tricky situation for E.ON and RWE mean more positive news for wind?

Perhaps surprisingly; not necessarily so.

Being largely exposed in their domestic German market, where renewables are prioritised more so than in other European countries, means that a potentially structural weakness could threaten some of the utilities renewable activity on the wider international stage.

E.ON and RWE are of course investing heavily in European offshore wind. Indeed, the former has recently commissioned the world’s largest offshore wind project – London Array – and will shortly begin construction on a 288MW German offshore project, Amrumbank West.

What’s more, EON has to shut down some of its cleanest combined cycle gas plants as parts of the German grid demand that gas is only used to support peak base load periods.

And that creates a curious paradox.

For whilst fossil fuelled power producing plants are becoming harder to justify, we must remember that the utilities that profit from them, rely on these revenue-generating assets to maintain a strong balance sheet.

And the strength of that balance sheet is critical to future wind energy investment.

What it all ultimately comes back to, of course, is a need for a more closely aligned strategy for renewable energy.

The nature of the European utilities means that they cannot afford to be exposed to multiple risks from political uncertainty in different countries. Instead, they require unified international policies that smooth the transition to a new generation of cleaner, more sustainable power.

In the short term the situation will require some fancy footwork from the utilities as they readjust their existing energy portfolios without losing the confidence of their own shareholders and investors.

While in the medium to long-term it’ll require many of these major international utilities to step confidently into a new power producing era, put faith in the technology of today and continue to commit capital and re-invest.

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