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

Stuart Ravens
Jan 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 21 century consumer.