License: All rights reserved. Credit: Will Rose

7 charts which explain how Europe's big energy companies bet on fossil fuels (and don't much like renewables)

Christine Ottery, Damian Kahya
EU Energydesk editor. Previously worked for the Guardian and New Scientist.

With Europe's ministers set to decide on the shape of the continent's energy and climate targets through to 2030 we wanted to know what was at stake for the biggest players in the continent's energy sector. 

We've carried out an analysis of their company reports along with industry data to to work out where the EU's energy giants have put their money and how they were doing financially. 

The top ten - EdF, RWE, E.ON, Enel, GdF Suez, Vattenfall, Iberdrola, CEZ, EnBW and PGE - make up around 60% of the power we use, so what are they up to?

1) 85GW of fossil fuel capacity added in past 10 years


In the past ten years utilities in Europe including the top ten have added around 85GW of fossil fuel capacity - much of it gas.

And energy firms have at least 20 GW more slated to build, says a new Greenpeace report.

What this chart doesn't capture, however, is the existing capacity which remained on the system or was upgraded to deal with new environmental regulations, much of which was coal.

2) But lots of coal remained on the system - with RWE and EON the topping the coal league


But even as Europe's power firms built new gas plants they kept burning coal in their existing plants - indeed they often invested in upgrading them. 

Coal and lignite emit more carbon dioxide per unit of energy than gas (double, in fact) but because of the low EU carbon price and low coal price, it still makes more sense to burn coal (as we explain here).

So who burns the most? Well two of the UK's big six and Germany's big four, RWE and E.ON. Both remain heavily dependent on coal burning for their current revenues. 

3) Renewables generation grew too - but the big energy companies don't own that much of it

Because the EU has a target to generate 20% of its energy (not just electricity) from renewable sources generation and capacity have both grown significantly. 

But in this market the big energy firms have not invested as heavily. The analysis shows they generate just 4% of their power from non-hydro renewables (12% if you include established hydro schemes). That adds up to about a third of Europe's total renewable generation.

Of that 4%, Spanish firm Iberdrola (who own Scottish Power in the UK) generated the lion’s share - they have a more diverse portfolio than than other top utilities and benefited from Spain's initially significant onshore wind support. 


6) In fact, in Germany, the "big four" energy companies only own 5% of the country's renewables


The Big Four - RWE, E.ON, Vattenfall and EnBW - produce around 70% of energy production, but control only around 5% of the country’s wind and solar capacity. Co-operatives and individual citizens own most of wind and solar power in the country (see below chart).


7) So there is lots of coal, gas and renewables... but power demand is falling 


The problem with adding lots of gas and renewables and keeping lots of coal is you need lots of demand. Which didn't happen. Instead power demand in Europe fell - especially during the recession. 

Because the EU wanted to promote clean energy, renewable power turned out to be a safer bet then fossil fuels. 

Some of the firms - Iberdrola, E.ON and Enel - are estimated to have made a total of €4-5bn in annual earnings from their renewables businesses, but even more significantly, financial analyst JP Morgan put a higher value on E.ON’s renewables business than its conventional generation business.

The problem is, even for Iberdrola, the main business is still a fossil fuel business.

5) Wholesale prices for electricity from fossil fuels are also falling - partially thanks to renewables

This recent decline in demand has contributed to overcapacity in the EU’s energy market, resulting in falling wholesale prices, which are at five to eight year lows  - one factor in utilities' falling earnings in the past few years.

But even if demand were holding up peak wholesale prices might fall because there is more capacity available with no 'marginal cost'. In short, it doesn't cost a wind farm anything to produce power when it's windy (the cost is all up front).

This means in times of high renewables supply wholesale prices can dip - this happens in combination with other factors such as overcapacity. For example see the above chart - spot prices in Western Denmark (in blue) have fallen as wind production (in red) increased.

7) All of which means predicted income for utilities are falling

Previously, utilities have been weathering the recession well, with annual EBITDA (an indication of operational profitability) for the eight largest EU utilities averaging more than €80bn since 2007.  They more than doubled their revenues between 2002 and 2012 and significantly increased their earnings. 

But since around 2012, the big utilities earnings and profits are declining, credit ratings are being downgraded and share prices are underperforming compared to the general stock index - since 2008, the EU’s top 20 utilities have lost over half a trillion euros in share value.

The nine largest utiilities are projected to see a drop of €9bn between their annual incomes in 2010 and 2015 - around a 30% decrease.

Comments Add new comment

Really informative post, thanks very much. 

Is there any data on the relative efficiencies of the coal fleet? Average Mtonne of coal/TWh figures would be interesting.

Also, spot prices may be lower but household bills in Denmark are highest in Europe (similar story in other high renewables economies e.g. Germany and Spain, third and sixth respectively). Not sure of the nature of interaction, however. Is it a case of utilities maintaining profitability of fossil fuel fleet by simply charging end-users more, perhaps? Carbon and pollution taxes should be made robust and recycled to lower domestic bills or pay for efficiency measures. Current system has consumers as unwilling polluters and subsidising failing business models(?).

This report should include an analysis of how energy storage is the mssing link in this industry and would fundamentally change the economics of renewable energy and fossil fuels


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