Anyone want a power station?
Italy’s largest power company faces up to the “stranded assets” problem
“IT’S not a funeral, it’s a transformation.” That is the positive spin Francesco Starace, the Tesla-driving boss of Enel, one of Europe’s biggest electricity companies, puts on a tough issue looming over the energy industry: stranded assets. He knows of what he speaks. Whereas executives at coal, oil and gas firms shudder at the thought that many of their vast reserves will be stranded if the world turns against fossil fuels, Enel is decommissioning old power plants as if its future depended on it.
Enel has announced that 23 power stations in Italy with a capacity of 13 gigawatts—enough to power a small country—are to be scrapped within five years. The first to be sold, on November 2nd, was the Giuseppe Volpi coal-fired station near Venice (pictured), which will become an industrial and logistics plant. For a lucky few the future could be more illustrious. Enel hopes some will be turned into galleries and museums, using the conversion of the Bankside power station on London’s South Bank as a model. It became the Tate Modern.
Mr Starace is unsentimental about shedding bits of Italy’s industrial history. “The best thing to do is realise they are stranded and don’t wait for the tide to come back in…the faster you get there, the better.” As renewable energy, such as hydroelectricity and wind, account for an increasing share of Europe’s power generation, he believes such write-offs will spread across the European Union. Eon, Germany’s biggest utility, gave a taste of that on November 11th.
A record third-quarter loss was driven mostly by €8.3 billion ($8.8 billion) of impairment charges, particularly on fossil-fuel plants that are struggling because subsidised renewables are clobbering electricity prices. Next year it will split itself in two: a conventional power-plant business, and one dominated by greener energy. Many other European utilities are struggling with overcapacity and low wholesale power prices.
Mr Starace says that, collectively, their conventional power plants suffered a cumulative hit to operating profits of €36 billion between 2008 and 2013. They will have to reinvent themselves in the coming years. “We are a herd. We do the same things if you give us enough time….the essence is to get out of this stranded world.” It is not surprising that Europe’s utilities are moving faster than its oil companies to lower their carbon footprint. There is carbon-free electricity.
There is not carbon-free oil. What is more, Europe’s electricity usage appears to be in long-term stagnation, set to grow more slowly over the next 25 years than anywhere except Japan. Mr Starace hopes that the growth of renewables can be tied in with Italy’s relatively modern smart-grid system to modernise the domestic electricity market even if it shrinks. But Enel is also betting big on Latin America, where demand for electricity continues to surge. Less risk of stranded assets there.