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The fast-growing online finance community ‘Finimize’ recently brought together a panel of industry insiders to discuss the future of renewable energy in a world still powered predominantly by oil and gas. While the event was aimed primarily at investors, it provided an interesting insight into the feasibility of the energy transition.
Panellists included Forbes Mitchell, a member of Saudi Aramco Energy Ventures (SAEV) Europe, Rebecca Williams, a Policy Manager at the renewable energy trade association RenewableUK, and Bas Sudmeijer, a partner and managing director at Boston Consulting Group. While the latter two share a positive outlook on the ability of renewables to undercut and disrupt the market for traditionally-sourced energy, Forbes Mitchell believes that industry giants such as Saudi Aramco, will remain profitable investments for the foreseeable future.
The panellists laid out the current themes influencing energy markets - increases in global demand for energy, growing awareness of the risks associated with warming climates, carbon pricing, and the rapid growth and resulting drop in prices of commercial-scale renewable energy generation – all of which represent underlying risks to the oil and gas industry that are now being priced into its valuation.
Next, barriers to a successful transition to renewable energy were discussed – the huge financial cost of sunk assets, the lack of action from certain major governments and the immediate gap between the current supply of energy and projected growth in demand. Rebecca Williams remained positive about the potential for a global shift, as even governments who are not prioritising reductions in carbon emissions are still investing in renewables given their desire to build new generators quickly and cheaply, while addressing the ongoing crisis of air pollution in major cities.
The panel took differing views on the longevity of oil and gas companies. Bas Sudmeijer believes that companies who survive the transition will be those that are already applying their strengths in engineering to shaping the future of energy infrastructure, a prime example being through the building of floating offshore wind farms. Forbes Mitchell did not feel that such diversification was necessary for major industry players, given the on-going demand for oil-derived products such as plastics and hydrocarbon (although fellow panel members pointed out the promising area of green hydrocarbon based on electrolysis).
Where should investors who are keen to be involved in the transition be looking? The panel agreed on the major role of offshore wind, with Rebecca Williams calling it the future ‘back bone of the energy system’. Other areas of interest are the growth in smart appliances and associated technology relating to customer interface and measuring aggregated demand. Investors were reminded to be wary of green-washed corporate claims not supported by real investment.
Question were raised by audience members in particular over whether Saudi Aramco is making any changes to its business approach given the climate crisis. Per Forbes Mitchell, the newly floated company is facing little pressure from Middle Eastern shareholders or regulators to change its current business model. The company does have an ambition to become the oil major with the lowest ‘CO2 per barrel after sale’ and is therefore investing in technology such as low-emission vehicle engines.
Other questions focused on how we will decarbonise the heating sector, a query Bas Sudmeijer expects northern European governments will need to answer soon by choosing between electrifying this sector or replacing gas with hydrogen. Rebecca Williams took the opportunity to label the ‘base load problem’ associated with renewable energy as outdated given improvements in battery storage technology and peaking assets, and to acknowledge the danger of ‘running around in circles’ by becoming dependent on heavily-polluting alternative technology (such as electric vehicles) during a biodiversity crisis.
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