Saturday, 6 November 2010

CASE 153 - Clean Energy: markets, consumers and climate change

"Clean energy" - what a joke when stated by the major oil, gas and electric companies

The slogan that BP adopted in 2000, “Beyond Petroleum”, was brilliantly unforgettable. It linked the company’s name with the bright, clean future which, the flower/sun logo implied, was to be found on the far side of fossil fuels. But that, as it turned out, was unfortunate, for the company is no longer hurrying towards those fresh green pastures.BP insists that the role of renewable energy in its strategy has not changed, but admits that investment in it will fall from $1.4 billion in 2008 to between $500m and $1 billion this year. The company is selling some of its renewable-energy assets, including three wind farms in India, and has cut its solar-cell manufacturing capacity in Spain and America. The one renewable-energy source it still seems to be serious about is biofuels.

Shell, which also took a sizeable punt on renewable energy, admits that its strategy has changed. Earlier this year its then chief executive, Jeroen van der Veer, said of wind, solar and hydrogen, “I don’t expect them to grow much at Shell from here.” Further investments in renewable energy, he said, would focus on biofuels. Linda Cook, who resigned in May as head of Shell’s gas and power business, said that wind and solar “struggle to compete with the other investment opportunities we have in our portfolio”. Whereas policymakers have been scurrying from conference to conference to urge the world on towards a green future, investors have been walking away from it. For one businessman the attendance at the World Business Summit on Climate Change in Copenhagen in May said it all. “There was the usual raft of bigwigs on the panel, but the audience was just hangers-on—journalists, PR people and so forth. There were no serious delegates there.”

The clean-energy business has had a hard few years. Investment in the sector tanked in late 2008, as did share prices. Private equity and venture capital held up a little better, but not much. The beginning of 2009 was “scary”, according to Michael Liebreich, chief executive of New Energy Finance, a consultancy. The industry suffered particularly badly in the credit crunch. Almost by definition, renewable energy sources have low running costs but high up-front costs. And because they are regulated assets with long-term pre-defined revenue streams, they are particularly suited to debt finance, and therefore tend to have high debt-to-equity ratios (typically 80-20). “When the project finance disappears, you’ve got a problem,” says Robert Clover, director of alternative-energy equity research at HSBC. He points out that some of the banks that suffered worst during the crisis—RBS, Lehman Brothers, Washington Mutual and Fortis—were also among the biggest in clean-energy finance.

As the flow of finance to electricity generators dried up, so did the orders to equipment manufacturers. Mr Clover reckons that wind-turbine manufacturers’ order books so far this year are down by 55-60% on the same period in 2008. But the problem was not just the shortage and cost of capital. The credit crisis also revealed a basic problem with the clean-energy business. Fossil fuels are, in terms of the energy they store, remarkably inexpensive to get out of the ground and sell. That makes dirty industrial processes irresistibly cheap—so long as they are not required to cover the costs of the pollution they cause. Companies cannot be expected to abandon them unless they get a clear signal from consumers or governments that it is in their financial interest to do so. And they are not getting such a signal.

Public awareness of global warming picked up significantly about three years ago. Now most consumers claim to be concerned about it, and public concern is one reason why companies have been branding themselves green. Energy companies boasted of their diversification out of fossil fuels. Businesses with small carbon footprints, such as banks and retailers, promised to go carbon-neutral. But consumers’ commitment to greenery is rather doubtful. There is a big market for organic products (though it has got smaller since the recession), but shoppers are more concerned about their families’ health than about the planet, and few are prepared to pay premium prices for green products. BA, for instance, has been offering carbon offsets with its flights for the past four years, but finds that only around 3% of customers buy them.

In the absence of pressure from consumers, governments need to give businesses a shove. That was the idea behind the Kyoto protocol, which aims to cut greenhouse-gas emissions by getting countries to accept binding targets with timetables attached. It divided the world into developed countries, which are required to cut their emissions, and developing countries, which are not. When rich countries ratify the protocol, they have to commit themselves to reducing their emissions by a certain percentage below a date of their choosing (mostly 1990)—Britain by 12.5%, Japan and Canada by 6%, and so on. The idea is that in order to meet these targets governments should introduce policies that send price signals to businesses to shift investment away from dirty products and processes to cleaner ones. Global carbon-dioxide emissions have risen by 20% since the protocol was signed in 1997, so the plan has evidently not worked all that well. There are three main reasons for that. First, rich countries have exported some of their dirty industry to the developing world. Steel, cement, cars, fridges, computers, toasters, kettles and all the paraphernalia of modern life the production of which used to cause pollution in developed countries are now made in China and other developing countries where emissions are not capped—and have risen partly as a result of that shift.

Second, the world’s biggest emitter when Kyoto was signed, America, has not ratified the protocol, and the biggest polluter per person among countries with significant emissions, Australia, did so only two years ago. It might reasonably be argued that the blame should fall on those countries’ governments, rather than on the treaty itself; but a treaty in which the most important parties play no part cannot be said to be a success. Third, some countries have failed to cut their emissions as promised. In 2007 Canada’s emissions were 29% above their 1990 level and Spain’s 57%. But there is no need for them to miss their targets, thanks to the countries of the former Soviet Union. Their dirty industries collapsed during the 1990s, so they are awash with carbon credits that can be bought for a small consideration. Countries in danger of failing to meet their Kyoto targets can simply buy what is known in the industry as “Russian hot air”. As the 2012 deadline for meeting Kyoto targets approaches, there is a growing appetite for those meaningless credits. Even in countries that have cut their emissions substantially, business is not always getting the right signals. Britain’s apparently creditable performance, for instance, is less the result of a well-designed policy than the “dash for gas” in the 1980s, spurred by the hostility to the coal industry of its then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. Attempts to get a renewable-energy industry going have flopped. Britain is not alone in finding it hard to work out how to send business the right signals. Policies that are effective, efficient and politically palatable have proved elusive everywhere. There is so many option and ways of providing energy at a cost and for free, but the major oil companies are sticking to the old for now and trying their best to suppress such free energy sources

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