Navigant Research Blog

Shell’s Acquisition of First Utility Augurs a New Wave of Competition

— January 16, 2018

At the start of 2018, a warning shot was fired across the utility industry’s bow: competition is showing no sign of abating. If anything, competition is actually heating up. The nature of utility industry competition has changed dramatically since the start of the decade.

If we rewind 5 years, utilities’ biggest competitors were other utilities. Telcos and high street retailers posed a moderate threat, as some showed an interest in the addition of energy supply to existing, mass-market services such as mobile and fixed-line communications, broadband, pay-TV, and financial services.

Telcos Contemplating Market Entry

Over the past decade, I have advised numerous telcos on opportunities in energy, some of which have moved into the space. Most of the market movement has taken place in collaboration with utilities, which essentially whitelabel energy supply. However, the impact of telcos on the energy industry (and vice versa) has been underwhelming. Why? Because there has never been an imperative for telcos to sell energy, or utilities to sell telco services. It’s a nice-to-have add-on that may help reduce customer churn, but little else.

EV Growth a Clear and Present Danger to Oil Majors

The present day competitive environment has shifted significantly. Utilities face new threats from new entrants with a significantly greater reason to enter the world of energy services. Nothing underlines the shift in competitive pressure more than Shell’s acquisition of the UK’s First Utility, the first major energy supply business to be acquired by an oil major.

This acquisition should come as no surprise to anyone monitoring the energy landscape. My last blog of 2017 called on utilities to improve their peripheral vision and monitor competitive threats. It seems that many oil majors have a more mature peripheral vision, and are already acting to mitigate future potential risks to their core business.

The shift to EVs causes significant concern for oil majors. By Navigant Research’s reckoning, plug-in EV sales in 2017 exceeded 1 million for the first time; the significant investments in recharging infrastructure and increasing concerns regarding the pollution of internal-combustion engines will only accelerate the shift to EVs. Any oil major extrapolating EV adoption to an extreme scenario of ubiquitous EVs will recognize the potential disaster for service station businesses.

Oil Majors’ Competitive Response Covers the Entire Value Chain

However, EVs present an opportunity to oil majors. Most oil majors have renewable energy subsidiaries, and EVs present a new customer segment; existing service stations are perfectly placed to convert to EV charging points and 30-minute recharge times are an additional opportunity to attract customers into a retail store. But EVs are just one part of a wider energy service ecosystem which oil majors are targeting. Shell’s recent investments and acquisitions include a sizeable portfolio of grid-scale renewables generation; Sense, a smart home technology vendor; EV recharging points in the UK; and an energy supply business with 850,000 customers.

Oil majors, if certain scenarios play out, could suffer significant loss of value in the energy transition. This has helped create significant momentum behind oil majors’ activity in downstream energy, eclipsing any efforts from telcos over the past decade.

Shell and most other oil majors recognize there is significant value up for grabs in downstream energy. Their challenge is how to pull together their different acquisitions into a service that offers significant differentiation from utility industry incumbents. The challenge for these incumbents is a credible competitive response: utilities in competitive markets must first recognize value-at-risk from non-traditional competition, then develop products and services for the 21st century consumer.


A Better Way to Extract Shale Oil

— November 5, 2014

Last month the Colorado Fuel Cell Center (CFCC) at the Colorado School of Mines hosted the first public demonstration of IEP Technology’s Geothermic Fuel Cell (GFC).  This innovative technology uses the waste heat produced by fuel cells to convert the kerogen in oil shale into unconventional hydrocarbons onsite.

Using standard fuel cell technology, the GFC flips the application on its head by taking a heat-first, power-second approach.  The system uses solid-oxide fuel cells, manufactured by Delphi Automotive, in tubular modules that can be linked end-to-end to create a long string of fuel cells encased in a steel cylinder.  The long-term plan is to insert vertical stacks that are up to 1,000 feet long into oil shale formations, spaced 10 to 15 feet apart in a grid pattern.  In this configuration, the fuel cells can generate temperatures of up to 1,200°F, which will be used to heat the formation and drive pyrolysis (thermal decomposition of the oil shale).

Giving Shale Oil a Better Name

Currently, shale oil is most commonly extracted ex situ, or offsite.  The oil shale is mined and taken to an above-ground processing facility where it is crushed, heated to temperatures suitable for pyrolysis (500-1,100°F), and the unconventional hydrocarbons (shale oil and natural gas) are collected, cooled, and refined.  This process is expensive, inefficient, and extremely damaging to the environment, and it has earned shale oil extraction a bad name.

IEP’s technology, on the other hand, performs the processing in situ, or onsite, by applying heat underground and extracting the shale oil and natural gas via wells that sit among the boreholes, leaving the formation intact.  The only byproducts are electricity that can be sold back to the grid, small amounts of clean water, and CO2.  It may seem odd to think of the electricity as a byproduct, but that’s the beauty of IEP’s approach.  If a single 1,000-foot stack contains 100 to 300 of Delphi’s 1.5 kW fuel cells, you’re talking 150 kW to 450 kW of baseload power per stack over a projected 5-year lifespan, which is no small thing when you consider the potential revenue.

IEP estimates that the gross capital and operating costs of a GFC installation will be less than $30 per barrel of shale oil when the revenue from the sale of electricity and surplus gases is taken into consideration.  This would give GFCs a significant cost advantage over the competition.  More significantly, IEP’s technology allegedly has an energy return on energy invested (EROEI) of 22:1, which would be a monumental improvement on the current best-in-class EROEI for oil shale, which is closer to 5:1.  The technology seems easy enough to replicate, but IEP has patented its idea, which should give it some protection from competitors.

The Real Cost

However, a couple of questions come to mind.  First, what will the actual installed cost of the systems be?  It could take thousands of fuel cells to develop a single formation.

Second, you have to run a fuel source out to the site, which is probably fairly remote, in order to run the GFC.  You also have to run transmission lines out to the site and build a substation in order to sell power back to the grid, and the fuel cells will only be running at that site for 5 years, so it’s a temporary installation.  How many utilities would be interested in doing that?  These questions must be addressed, and we won’t know how the economics and EROEI shake out until mid-2015, when the GFC is expected to be field-tested.  But this appears to be a very promising technology.


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