Navigant Research Blog

Europe’s Energy Transition Megatrends and Tipping Points, Part III: Shifting Power-Generating Sources

Mark Livingstone — August 17, 2016

Energy CloudJan Vrins coauthored this post.

In our initial blog on Europe’s energy transition, we discussed seven megatrends that are fundamentally changing how we produce and use power. In this third blog in the series, we discuss the shift in power generation fuel mix and how this is transforming the European power industry.

European electricity-generating facilities that use oil, coal, and nuclear are devaluing and at risk of becoming stranded as generation sources shift to less expensive renewable generation and natural gas generation. This shift is playing out in different ways across Europe.

Generation Fuel Mix Shift Is Accelerating

According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), net European generation capacity will increase by 7 GW in 2016. Much of Europe’s new capacity TippingPointcomes from renewables, with close to 75% of new capacity coming from wind (44%) and solar (29%). While new coal (16%) and gas (6%) capacity was added, far more coal assets were decommissioned. As a result, net new capacity in Europe is virtually 100% renewables. While recent subsidy cuts have tempered solar’s growth, wind is marching onward. There is still no effective utility-scale solution to the inherent intermittency in renewable generation, as storage solutions and grid interconnection/active management are still lacking penetration at scale. Natural gas is the bridging fuel during the shift to renewables, supported by the abundance of natural gas available globally, lower long-term prices, and increasing import capacity in Europe.

What Are the Drivers Behind This Shift?

We see five main drivers for the shift in generation resources described above:

1. Climate Change Policy: Europe has taken definitive steps to decarbonize its power generation, including relatively generous support for renewables and economic penalties for carbon emitters via the EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS). See our previous blog on the rising number of carbon emissions reduction policies and regulations.

2. European Market Coupling: A second aspect of Europe’s power sector is the physical and economic integration of markets. Interconnection growth has been strong, and the economic incentives via use of power exchanges for dynamic price signaling has provided further support for low-carbon generation.

3. Generation Economics: While policy and regulatory support for low-carbon generation has taken centre stage, the economics of various forms of generation have also been shifting. Within 7 years, solar power has gone from a heavily subsidized resource to a key component of the generation mix, even with zero or minimal subsidies. Europe continues to lead the world in development of offshore wind, particularly in the North Sea. Thermal generation economics have also changed—despite relatively low gas and coal prices, low marginal cost renewables are increasingly forcing thermal plants to shift from stable baseload operation to less efficient cycling and reliance on ancillary service contracts.

4. Decentralization of Generation: The scale of distributed energy resources (DER) is not yet huge across Europe; however, this trend is already shaking the traditional utility business models. The rise of the prosumer is gathering momentum, be it an industrial customer who invests in combined heat and power, a new commercial building with a biomass boiler, or a housing development with rooftop solar panels.

5. Public Sentiment: This driver cannot be underestimated given the prevalence of democratically elected governments in Europe. Public support for action to curb climate change despite the costs has been most obvious in Germany, where the changes via nuclear shutdowns and solar growth have been massive—and expensive. In the UK, it is more expensive to construct offshore wind than onshore, but the public and political preference is that location trumps economics.

How Does This Play Out Across Europe?

Navigant Research forecasts that 66% of European installed renewable generation capacity in 2016 will be in five countries—Germany, Italy, France, Spain, and the UK. In the struggling economies of Portugal, Italy, and Greece, the rate of renewable growth has slowed to just 0%-2%. Countries that are still dependent on coal as a fuel source face economic and fuel supply obstacles.

Beyond the recognized elements of the shifting power generation trend in Europe, there are a series of potential tipping points that will have pronounced consequences depending how they fall:

  • New Nuclear: This is a topic of much debate in the UK and France. Germany has all but made its mind up, barring a major political reversal. Until recently, the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change (now part of the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) was a strong supporter of new nuclear in a portfolio of low-carbon generation. The new Hinkley Point C nuclear facility was planned to begin a renaissance of new nuclear, but with new skepticism rearing its head in the UK media, there is still a chance that the nuclear renaissance will stall and the UK will turn to a mix of more gas and offshore wind. France is another country to watch given its historic strength in nuclear power. Unless the struggling Flamanville facility can turn the corner soon and get commissioned, the growing renewables may get a massive boost that goes beyond current political support. Public sentiment is also an important card to play in the nuclear game. As the power system shifts from the traditional centralized model toward a more dynamic, distributed environment, there are both significant strengths and significant weaknesses in retaining large inflexible baseload generators. Ultimately they are likely to look increasingly out of place in the new world order.
  • Electricity Storage Technology and Economics: Elements of storage in the electricity system are not new, but pumped hydro storage and fuel storage to provide thermal generation are increasingly being surpassed in the perceptual stakes by other new technologies. The recent National Grid Enhanced Frequency Response tender in the UK was massively oversubscribed. Among all the disruptive technologies that affect the electricity system, a breakthrough in electricity storage technology and economics offers perhaps the greatest potential to radically change the power system of the future. The US Department of Energy is so convinced of this that it is funding 75 breakthrough research projects developing electricity storage solutions. These include radical new options such as organic flow batteries, which avoid the need for costly and rare metals such as lithium and vanadium. The race is on to find ways to bring storage costs down below $100/kWh or €90/kWh at present exchange rates.
  • European Shale Gas Developments: Shale gas has proven revolutionary in the United States; however, it remains questionable in Europe. Even though it is highly unlikely to have the same supply and economic characteristics as it does in the United States, it may indeed prove a further tipping point in favour of gas-fired generation if significant quantities of shale gas are produced within Europe. Security of supply is always of paramount importance, so the notion that countries in Europe would produce then export most of their supply would be hard to comprehend. Whereas coal is struggling to find favour other than in countries with little alternative, Europe has a great deal of relatively modern gas-fired generation that is not being well utilized. There may be a trend toward smaller, more flexible plants, but gas-fired generation has a viable future under most scenarios for many decades yet.
  • Carbon Target Commitments for 2030: While COP21 was a major milestone in global climate change, when the microscope is turned on European national commitments to decarbonize power generation, the image is less rosy. Some countries such as Spain and Italy appear to have reached peak renewables, where their appetite to push on and manage the ongoing system impacts are not high. Germany is struggling to digest its huge solar investment and accept the consequences on battling local firms such as RWE, E.ON, and Vattenfall. The UK has repeatedly backed away from committing to 2030 carbon targets, preferring to stick with existing 2020 and 2050 numbers. Until firm 2030 commitments by country are made in early 2017, there is insufficient muscle to power Europe forward.
  • Interconnect and Brexit: No article about Europe is complete without a mention of Brexit. The immediate question and a potential tipping point is how European interconnect developments will fare, especially those proposed in the North Sea to connect Scandinavia, Germany, the Netherlands, France, and the UK. These projects greatly affect the larger renewable generation economics, allowing easy and unrestricted export and import of power between countries as wind, sunshine, and other renewable sources vary between nations. Most commentators assume that the UK will retain its close ties to European energy markets; however, if this changes, it could precipitate an unravelling of arrangements with far-reaching consequences.

What Does This Mean for Generators?

More traditional generation assets, particularly coal and nuclear, face an uncertain future. For coal without carbon capture and storage, every scenario looks at best bad and at worse grim. As evidenced by Navigant’s Generation Knowledge Service (GKS), the average capacity factor of coal plants has declined by 20%-30%, which translates to a 20%-30% drop in gross revenue opportunity. To deal with the combination of lower realized revenue and higher operating costs, companies are evaluating their plants to determine if they can survive in the new world. They are actively seeking new ways to reduce costs through staffing changes, fewer planned outages, and higher operating efficiencies while maintaining high reliability to support the increased use of variable generation. Older coal plants are being phased out and others converted to burn biofuel. Revenue support from capacity contracts and better ancillary service contracts such as black-start capability is also becoming crucial.

Nuclear power today accounts for 25% of all European electricity produced, and any change in nuclear’s role in the generation mix will take time to implement. However, nuclear also highlights the significant differences in national energy policies across the EU and the wider European context. Nuclear was effectively killed in Germany, yet may still enjoy a renaissance in the UK; new plants are under construction in France, Finland, and Slovakia.

As a result, the economics have changed and some of the existing (coal and nuclear) assets are experiencing eroded profit margins. These margins are resulting in challenging economics and, in some cases, significant devaluation. More generation assets are increasingly at risk of becoming stranded investments, as the fuel mix is shifting more quickly than envisioned.

And to Make Things Worse: The Move from Big to Small Power

With the rapid growth of distributed generation (DG), all central generation (coal, gas, hydro, nuclear, and wind) will face more changes in its role on the grid. DG installations are expected to reach 256 GW in 2016; thus, DG is growing faster than central station generation (7 GW additions, minus 8.5 GW retirements, using the EIA forecast). On a 5-year basis (2015-2019), DG in Europe, with some variance by region, will grow almost twice as fast as central generation (47 GW vs. 28 GW), excluding retirements.

Path Forward

As a path forward, generators must clearly define the mission of each generating unit to understand their new role and how to survive economically. To succeed, we believe companies must do the following:

  • Conduct a strategic review of generating assets and determine what, if any, changes need to be made in their generation portfolio and/or how these assets are managed under several regulatory and commodity pricing scenarios.
  • Find innovative ways to reduce O&M costs while maintaining the reliability required by the independent system operators during target operating periods (for plants that will continue to run in the near term).
  • Seek new sources of revenue to replace the capital-intensive position for large generating plants by considering investments in renewables and DER, particularly energy storage, and optimizing commercial contract opportunities with system operators.
  • Have a strategy to manage significant reductions in staffing levels and loss of critical experience across the board, including dealing with the impacts on funding pensions and local economies when plants are retired.
  • Plan for a changing workforce that will include deeper knowledge of digital technology and an understanding of how to optimize operations in a more variable power market.
  • Assess options for global asset diversification given the changes and new opportunities in traditional parts of the value chain such as transmission and distribution.

An understanding of the above disruptive trends and how they affect your company and the rest of industry is crucial to shaping our energy future. Navigant aims to help our clients understand, progress, and protect their business’ future in the context of this massive amount of change.

This blog is the third in a series discussing how industry megatrends will play out across Europe as well as at the regional and country level. Stay tuned for our next blog in this series.

Learn more about our clients, projects, solution offerings, and team at Navigant Energy Practice Overview.

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