Commentary: Changing utility business models and electricity investment in Europe

15 December 2017

The role of electricity in the world economy is expanding and investment decisions are becoming more complex (Photograph: Getty Images)

The following commentary was written by IEA Energy Investment Analysts Michael Waldron and Yoko Nobuoka.

The traditional utility business model of selling electricity from large-scale thermal power plants and expanding grids to meet rising demand historically has supported strong balance sheets. With this financial strength, utility retained earnings served as the primary financing source for the electricity sector. In many markets, utilities serve as reliable purchasers of power, facilitating investments by independent power producers.

But as the role of electricity in the world economy expands, technology innovation creates new opportunities and governments simultaneously prioritise electricity security and a transition toward more sustainable energy use, investment decisions are becoming more complex. The economic performance of utilities will have crucial impacts on financing for investments needed in the transition. How their business models interact with policies and market design will have strong implications for meeting energy goals.

In Europe, these changes started decades ago with the unbundling of vertically integrated companies and the establishment of wholesale markets and retail competition. In recent years, more challenging economic conditions have emerged. At the same time, policies supporting renewables prompted competition from independent power companies, communities and corporations investing in low marginal cost solar photovoltaics and wind, and the success of energy efficiency contributed to weaker electricity demand growth.

Taken together, these forces have weakened price signals for investment from energy-only markets and sapped the profitability of existing generation assets dependent on wholesale market revenues. Now, digital technologies are facilitating new business models, such as virtual power plants (VPPs), based on bilateral power exchange and increased roles for consumers and third parties to provide energy, capacity and flexibility services that were once the exclusive domain of utilities.

Recent financial performance of European utilities reflects these trends. In 2017, the aggregate earnings of the top twenty utilities likely continued to decline, to around 35% lower than in 2012. This reduction over time stemmed mostly from reduced profitability for merchant generators (largely thermal plants) fully exposed to weak wholesale market pricing, as well as lower revenues from the retirements of these plants. In the past five years, retirements of thermal capacity in Europe have outpaced investment decisions for new thermal plants by more than two-to-one.

Note: EBITDA = earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization; 2017 values are estimated based on analyst consensus and company guidance. Source: Calculations based on company reports, Bloomberg, Thomson Reuters.

Around three-quarters of utility earnings now stem from segments that offer more stable and predictable cash flows, such as networks and generation (e.g. renewables, co-generation and some thermal power plants) that benefit from contracted or regulated pricing, and to a lesser extent retail supply and decentralized services, such as energy management and digital solutions. Five years ago, these areas collectively accounted for less than 60% of earnings.

These indicators are consistent with trends observed globally, where electricity sector investments have a strong relationship with government policies. In 2016, nearly 95% of power generation investments were made by companies operating under fully regulated revenues or mechanisms to manage the revenue risk associated with variable wholesale market pricing.

European utilities are adapting to this situation by strategically re-orienting their businesses. Utility plans now consistently emphasize themes around business model transformation, enhanced operational efficiency and improved financial management. The European electricity industry association has called for a new strategic vision for the sector.

However, this ongoing shift has not yet resulted in an earnings boost. One reason is that business models for grids and renewables are capital intensive, requiring continuous investment over time to expand revenues. These investments also remain largely linked to policy incentives and can face risks related to resource availability, integration and demand, while governments are focused on the affordability of power prices for consumers. While recent policy changes, such as increasing competition for new renewable contracts through auctions and adjusting regulated returns and frameworks for networks can stimulate more cost-effective development, they can also put pressure on profit margins.

Utility transitions are also proceeding at different speeds. The share of regulated, contracted and retail business models in earnings ranges from upwards of 85% for top performers, to only around half in some utilities. Moreover, the earnings picture is impacted by activities abroad, with European utilities having different degrees of exposure to overseas investments.

Nevertheless, European utilities are generally increasing their investment capabilities. Despite a challenging economic environment, capital expenditures as a share of earnings have strengthened in recent years. In November, six utilities collectively called on the European Union to support a strengthened renewable energy target of 35% by 2030, compared with an originally proposed one of 27%. This higher target is also supported by the European renewables industry associations. So far in 2017, utilities have been involved as investors in 90% of the 2.4 GW of offshore wind -- among the most capital intensive of power projects  reaching final investment decision in Europe.

At the same time, the electricity sector has also witnessed rapid growth in new, less capital-intensive business models that leverage digital technologies to provide system and consumer services. One such approach, the VPP model aggregates and trades small-scale energy resources on wholesale markets, creating revenue streams for owners of distributed generation, battery storage and demand response, by providing coordinated balancing and ancillary services to grid operators. In 2017, VPPs managed over 10 GW of assets, a more than fivefold increase from 2014, though these equalled only around 1% of total generation capacity in Europe.  

To date, most VPPs, which rely on regulatory frameworks for market participation and a market design that remunerates distributed resources, have been led by independent developers with expertise in software development. Utilities have recently increased their role, in part through acquisitions. Such asset-light business models have the potential to avoid or defer expensive future capital upgrades, for example by limiting the network size to meet peak demand. The potential value proposition for utilities, developers and system operators remains an area for further analysis.     

Ultimately, future investment in the electricity sector will have an even stronger interaction with policies for energy security and the clean energy transition. In Europe, with anticipated thermal power retirements of over 20 GW in the next two years, questions persist over whether current market designs can deliver sufficient investment to ensure adequacy. Investment will depend on clear policy and market signals for renewables, grid modernization and other forms of flexibility, but also on the capabilities of governments to adapt regulations to changing technologies and business opportunities.

Regulatory frameworks for networks are evolving to facilitate more complex business models and gradually shifting to incentives based on cost efficiency, reliability and performance, rather than capital spending. Meanwhile, the economics of thermal generation will be determined by the interplay of capacity mechanisms, pricing carbon emissions and the evolution of power market fundamentals.

Finally, the evolving business cases for fast-growing new technologies, such as battery storage, electric vehicles and other electrification trends have the potential to change investment needs and approaches for the system as a whole. All of these factors can raise uncertainties over investment decisions, but can also create further strategic opportunities.

Electricity sector business models are analysed in a number of IEA work areas, including World Energy Investment, Digitalization & Energy, analysis on electricity security and electricity market design, the World Energy Outlook, Energy Technology Perspectives and the Market Report Series.