Time to wake up, for energy companies who still think they are in a cosy government-led club

Hearing presentations at Powergen Europe this week makes it clearer than ever that the old power industry has to change. The industry is enthusiastically behind a new interest in electrification of transport and heat, which is necessary if we are to decarbonise. No surprise, much more power will be required.

But some companies, and some consultants giving ten-year-old advice, still haven’t realised they are already in a new world. That’s one where the power industry is not the preserve of few, large companies, largely directed by government and the energy industry, but a consumer industry.

Take the UK example. In the years we have spent waiting for Hinkley Point C to get off the drawing board – or, for that matter, most of the ‘shovel ready’ CCGTs we have waiting – we have installed 30GW of solar. That’s not been done by power companies but by domestic and business consumers. The industry has to be understand that the energy future is about .

A few  SWOT examples illustrate the change.

Strengths? There are a lot more players in the market filling different roles. There is strength in diversity and it can bring much-needed investment, innovation and efficiency.

Weaknesses? It’s not predictable, so that innovation is needed. PV feed-in tariffs created an unforeseen boom in PV installations in the south west, forcing System Operators to find ways to soak up the excess power or limit new installations.

Opportunities? A much bigger and more innovative market can react fast. When National Grid acted to fill a need for a new, ‘Enhanced Frequency Reserve’ it offered a contract to the market. That helped investors drive a surge of new storage projects: there were 22GW of battery connection requests in the southeast alone. It’s overkill, but it works.

Threats? Power companies and government have to stop thinking that they can manage – and fund – the power sector by managing a small group of powerful companies. That won’t work in future and it’s short-sighted thinking. There are practical implications – there is little point, for example, in companies taking an approach to cybersecurity that regards it as an internal matter if they are interacting with thousands of power assets managed by consumers. And there are financial implications for all as consumers begin to realise they have other options: if business customers facing rising grid and subsidy costs decide they are better off with their own virtual private network, or customers go really ‘off-grid’, the sunk costs will have to be covered by a dwindling group with no other options.

The response from some speakers here is to call for ‘government to take action’ – usually to find some way to force investment into large new power plants of one kind or another.  That won’t wash any more. Companies who want to be in the energy industry in future will have to be ready for changes.

The same cosy group of energy company leaders has been meeting at PowerGen for 25 years. The organisers have decided that this year will be the last time the conference and exhibition will be aimed at this dwindling band. Next year it will be reimagined to become ‘Electrify Europe’. Let’s hope that means it will be a forum for a much more diverse power industry. The old industry will be facing revolutionaries who will open it up: that will happen whether or not existing companies are ready.