The utility sector is taking the lead in sustainability, boldly going beyond making headlines to making sizeable investments in renewable energy.
Companies across the energy industry have announced sustainability goals and commitments to energy transition. Oil and gas companies in particular are well equipped to develop clean energy. As Dr Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency (IEA) said, “With their extensive know-how and deep pockets, oil and gas companies can play a crucial role in accelerating deployment of key renewable options such as offshore wind, while also enabling some key capital-intensive clean energy technologies . . . to reach maturity.”
And yet, utility companies are making the boldest moves. Four of them – Enel, Iberdrola, NextEra and Orsted – are being hailed as the “new energy giants” and “clean supermajors”. In November, Spain’s Iberdrola pledged to invest €75 billion in renewables and grids by 2025. Denmark’s Orsted runs about a quarter of the world’s offshore wind farms and is working to double its capacity by 2025. In October American utility NextEra, the world’s most valuable utility, raised its planned capital spending on wind, solar and other projects to $60 billion between 2019 and 2022.
Europe’s largest utility, Enel, exemplifies the trends. The Rome-based company is led by CEO Francesco Starace, a firm believer in renewables. Since he took leadership in 2014, Enel has more than doubled its market value, to €85 billion ($101 billion). In November Starace unveiled plans to invest €160 billion by 2030 to increase Enel’s renewable energy capacity and, according to The Economist, “transform its grids in Europe and Latin America to prepare for an all-electric future.”
In addition to wind and solar installations, Enel is investing in lower-profile but essential aspects of clean energy, such as networks and distribution. It operates the pylons that comprise the electric grid, as well as the poles and wires that deliver electricity in eight countries, and wants to modernise these assets for clean energy, electric vehicles and mass electrification. To this end, Enel plans to invest €16.2 billion in the next three years. Acquisitions are a possibility.
Starace’s achievements at Enel, Italy’s biggest company, help demonstrate how sustainability can equate to success. By 2023, the company plans to invest €16.8 billion in onshore wind and solar, and within the same timeframe, increase its EBITDA by 13%. Sam Arie of UBS says the €20 billion in annual EBITDA Enel is likely to generate marks a “mind-blowing” turnaround. Before Starace, Enel was mired in debt and had cut its dividend. Six years later, it is promising guaranteed pay-outs for the next three years. The CEO is confident, and so far, reliable in delivering results. “You have made our job a lot more interesting,” a utility analyst from Goldman Sachs told Starace.