Meet the clean supermajors. They have the clout and financial might of the energy behemoths that plumbed the world over for oil and gas before them. But instead of digging mines and drilling wells, they’re leading the race to electrify the global economy.
These four companies—Enel, Iberdrola, NextEra Energy and Orsted—prioritized the building or buying of clean-power plants when those assets were still considered alternative and expensive. Now they’re on the cusp of a breakthrough. Ever-cheaper solar panels and wind turbines are beginning to dominate new power installations, threatening the growth of natural gas on our power grids and upending energy markets.
China has also shifted its biggest state-run energy companies toward renewables. In 2017, it formed China Energy Investment Corp. by merging two state-owned giants. The company has close to 40 gigawatts of renewable power generation capacity, according to BloombergNEF, more than any of the European and American majors. Coal is still a huge part of its business, with 185 gigawatts of thermal power produced in 2019. Unlike the biggest clean-energy giants in Europe, China Energy is almost entirely focused on its home market.
Other big renewables players include Brookfield Renewable Partners, whose portfolio includes 7,900 megawatts of hydro and 4,700 megawatts of wind, and RWE AG, whose renewables unit is planning to invest up to 5 billion euros ($6 billion) until 2022 on renewables and storage technologies.
Renewable energy such as solar and wind can be generated without producing heat-trapping carbon dioxide. A global transition to these cleaner fuels is the only chance we have of avoiding the most catastrophic effects of climate change. An estimated $11 trillion of renewables investment will be needed in the next 30 years to make that happen, and investors want in.
The tipping point may come next year, when Goldman Sachs Group Inc. projects that spending on renewable power will overtake that of oil and gas drilling for the first time. And it’s all happening as the electrification of automobiles and heating in buildings start to take root. “Over the long term, electricity is going to steal market share from other sources of energy,” says Shayle Kann, a managing director at Energy Impact Partners, a New York-based investment fund.
CLEAN SUPERMAJORS OVERTOOK FOSSIL FUEL GIANTS
Florida-based NextEra Energy Inc., the world’s most valuable utility, briefly surpassed Exxon Mobil Corp. in market capitalization in early October. It wasn’t a one-off. Enel, Iberdrola and Orsted are now worth more than comparable oil majors, underscoring how mainstream clean energy bets have become for investors.
The big moment has come faster than expected. Five years ago, clean power was still viewed as a tumultuous and fragmented business, crowded with upstarts trying to grab a slice of an emerging market. Some of the early juggernauts were in the midst of high-profile collapses. Today, clean energy is considered such a safe bet that pension funds and insurers are competing to own large portfolios of solar and wind farms.
The world’s biggest investor-owned producer of solar and wind energy has enough renewable capacity to power Belgium. In its home state of Florida, it owns utilities with power plants that still run on fossil fuels even as it develops more sources of clean power. It’s also trying to grow even bigger, though reported bids this year to acquire Duke Energy Corp. and Evergy Inc. haven't been successful.
Big goal: 30 million new solar panels by 2030 in Florida
Global consumption of clean energy has soared over the last decade, as companies more than doubled the amount of electricity they are able to produce using zero-emission technologies like solar panels and wind turbines. Early entrants became major players thanks in part to generous government subsidies at a time when clean power wasn’t commercially profitable. Over the years, they’ve grown through aggressive dealmaking and lobbying, turning their head start into a chasm.
The term “supermajor”–which traditionally refers to the world’s largest publicly traded oil and gas companies–wasn’t coined until the 1990s. But energy giants have been around for a long time. Fossil fuels begat the Industrial Revolution, but it was the harnessing of petroleum to power cars, planes, trucks, ships and trains that helped forge the modern economy. Unceasing demand for fuel prompted explorers to scour the globe for new discoveries—painstaking and costly expeditions that created some of the world’s most powerful companies.
Renewables are now the cheapest form of new electricity in most of the world, which helps explain why they’re spreading in the majority of markets—powered by the clean supermajors. Wind and solar supply about 9% of electricity globally and their share will rise to 56% by midcentury, according to BloombergNEF.
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Many of the biggest renewable companies started in fossil fuels but began investing in renewable power years, sometimes decades, ago. Some have phased out coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, or plan to do so in the near future. Many have also begun committing to going carbon-free by 2050.
Enel SpA is now Europe’s biggest utility and it’s rapidly expanding outside the continent as it gets greener. About 40% of the company’s 87 gigawatts of installed capacity is still made up of coal, oil and gas, but the Italian company is planning to reduce coal generation by 74% in 2022 and more than double its renewable power capacity by 2030.
Investment pipeline: $190 billion to 2030
Enel is Europe’s biggest utility. Its green power unit was founded in 2008, making it one of the veterans of the clean energy market. The company plans to spend 160 billion euros ($190 billion) over the next 10 years to more than double its renewable portfolio. With its broad geographic reach, Enel is positioned to help a growing number of countries make the transition to cleaner grids.
Big goal: Boost renewable capacity to 120 gigawatts by 2030
Guadarranque solar plant in Spain. Photographer: Enel Green Power
Some of the largest owners of wind and solar capacity will likely continue to be Chinese state-owned power companies. But all the clean energy supermajors will be defined by their geographic diversity, says Tom Heggarty, an analyst at Wood Mackenzie. Enel and Iberdrola have been among the first to expand, with growing presences in Latin America, North America and Australia.
BUILT ISLAND-SIZE WIND FARMS
In the era of electric power, the world’s most coveted energy hot spots aren’t those harboring oil and gas deep in the ground. Green supermajors have embarked on a global hunt for places where the sun shines strongly and the wind blows steadily. Mega-size solar farms already cover large swaths of desert, from Morocco to Chile to Australia, while the battle for wind is increasingly happening at sea.
Offshore wind has become one of the most hotly contested sectors. Clean supermajors like Denmark’s Orsted are years into a sea grab to install wind turbines as tall as skyscrapers in the waters surrounding Europe, and are positioning themselves for the sector’s rise in the U.S. and parts of Asia including South Korea and Japan
“You can always debate how to define ‘renewable energy supermajor,’ but for us it means we want to grow significantly by geography,” says Martin Neubert, Orsted’s chief executive officer for offshore. “It took us 30 years to create an industry, we now want to double or quadruple that in a much shorter period of time.”
Formerly known as DONG Energy, short for Danish Oil and Natural Gas, the company has shed its fossil fuel assets and expanded its clean energy business to develop projects around the world. Orsted runs about a quarter of the world’s operational wind farms at sea and has projects in development that will roughly double its capacity by 2025. The company is also working with some of the world’s biggest oil and chemical companies to develop a market for low-carbon hydrogen produced from its wind farms.
Big goal: 30 gigawatts of renewable power capacity by 2030
POWERED CITY GRIDS
In some countries such as Germany or the U.K., renewable power already covers a significant percentage of the demand—at least on certain days. During this year’s coronavirus lockdowns, the decline in power demand led to the shutdown of fossil fuel power plants in Germany. That, in turn, resulted in renewables accounting for more than three quarters of power in the grid on April 20.
“The grid really saw a glimpse of the future, and by and large nothing broke,” says David Hostert, head of research at BNEF in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. “That was not clear from the outset.”
Take one vivid example: On Oct. 11, South Australia became the first major jurisdiction to be powered solely by solar energy. It lasted just over an hour. A few years ago the Australian state had a massive problem with blackouts, making it the perfect place for Tesla Inc. CEO Elon Musk to install what was at the time the biggest battery project of its kind. Now, solar power makes up around half of the energy on the grid during the day.
Among the top players in the state is Iberdrola, which earlier this year bought Infigen Energy and now operates over 800 megawatts of solar, wind and battery in the country, with 453 megawatts more under construction. Enel operates two solar farms in South Australia, with a combined capacity of 275 megawatts.
“We have been pioneers in the energy revolution for 20 years, when nobody believed then that the electricity could be produced with clean sources,” says Ignacio Sanchez Galan, Iberdrola’s chairman and chief executive officer. “Everybody was thinking that coal would remain for centuries and that oil and gas were absolutely needed, and we could already generate and produce electricity with clean sources.”
Iberdrola has been slowly building hydroelectric dams and onshore wind farms for years. Now it’s aiming to be the world’s biggest producer of green electricity. The company spent 2020 on a buying spree, investing 10 billion euros to scale up its business as part of a plan to almost double its renewable power capacity to 60 gigawatts. It’s also investing in new technologies like green hydrogen and ammonia, and in electric vehicle chargers.
Big goal: Installed renewable capacity of 95 gigawatts by 2030
While European utilities have swiftly built their clean portfolios, oil majors still have the means to add scale and expertise through acquisitions. Many also have sizable research and development teams, which could help them own new technologies like hydrogen and carbon capture ahead of their utility rivals.
Some are pushing to catch up. Royal Dutch Shell Plc has made investments in renewables companies and electric-car charging networks, and BP Plc recently pledged to generate 50 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2030, up from about 2.5 gigawatts today. Spain’s Repsol SA is now investing more in renewable energy than in oil and gas exploration.
If the energy story of the 20th century was oil, then this will be the century of electricity.
“We’ve seen in the last five years a tidal shift happening from the global level to the local level. It used to be a marginal conversation, and now it’s hard not to see it every day,” says Sara Baldwin, electrification policy director at clean energy think tank Energy Innovation. “And this movement isn’t going away.” - Bloomberg