Writing down assets


July 26, 2013

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Ouch! Having to revise down financial figures is never easy.

Irrespective of whether it’s due to underperforming operating assets of poor international market conditions, it’s something that’s always going to hurt.

So spare a thought for one of Europe’s largest energy producers, Vattenfall, after it took a $4.6bn hit to its asset values. A result, according to the utility, that has come about due to, “increasingly adverse market conditions and higher business risks.”

Interestingly however, while it’s already well known that European energy utilities have had a tough time of late trying to manage high levels of debt taken on during previous boom times, Vattenfall was the first major firm to cite market conditions as the reason for a major asset write down.

And that’s significant. Since the move follows comments made in May by eight leading energy utilities that warned that EU policy and regulatory uncertainty would hit investment, supply and jobs.

This then, could be the first tangible proof of what they really meant.

Of course, there are individual company operating dynamics at play here too. Vattenfall has already made it clear that the significant financial adjustment mainly concern gas and coal-fired operations within northern continental Europe.

A situation not helped by its previous commitment to German nuclear power – something that had already hit its 2011 profits.

Nevertheless, those warnings continue to cause concern.

So perhaps it’s not surprising to learn that Vattenfall will soon split the firm into two regional units, with one half focused on the Nordes and the second focused on continental Europe and the UK.

The regional split comes into effect in January and political pressure from within Sweden to protect domestic markets will no doubt have played its part.

However, what’s particularly interesting about all of this is the subsequent potential impact on wind.

Increasingly energy utilities are being forced to focus on key generating technologies and hive off non-core assets and operations.

Vattenfall currently benefits from a diversified and well-established onshore and offshore wind energy operating base and has become a passionate and powerful industry ambassador.

To date, the utility has already implemented a cost-cutting programme and placed a freeze on recruitment, although it maintains that over the next five years investments will continue to be made in renewable energy.

Undoubtedly the East Anglia Offshore Windfarm Zone will be a part of this, as will commitment an anticipated extension to Kentish Flats. With both projects building on what is already recognised as a strong UK wind energy base.

The question of course, is whether this much anticipated investment is focused exclusively on bringing previously planned European projects to the market and to what extent the utility will be prepared to take on future energy risk.

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