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State of the Transition, May 2016: Talk of twilight

06/06/2016 13:21 | Updated 06 June 2016

World records tumbled in renewable energy this month. Utilities, facing short-term existential threat in the face of clean-energy growth, continued to wrestle with the imperative of escaping the energy incumbency. Oil and gas companies, facing longer term threat to business-model viability, read dire assessments of their prospects in places they could not have imagined possible until recently. Investors continued to awaken to climate risk, and a critical mass of governments stayed broadly on course for the current and future action that the Paris Agreement requires of them. None of this, however, happened as fast as the recent run of world-record monthly average temperatures merits. Unprecedented wildfires and die offs of coral reefs were harsh reminders this month of the race against time that civilisation is running.

The latest solar auction, in Dubai, saw a power plant proposal come in below 3 cents a kilowatt hour for the first time: cheaper than any other form of power today. It remains to be seen if such a plant can be built at a profit, but this world-first shows that the solar industry has a cost-down roadmap with yet more mileage in it. The cost-down megatrends of solar and wind are driving solid growth in grid penetration by renewables. Germany generated almost all its power from renewables one day in May. Portugal managed four straight days of 100% renewable power. UK energy from coal hit zero for first time in over 100 years ...several times in a week.

Growth in jobs reflects the energy transition unfolding. We learned in May that more than 8 million people now work in renewables. Solar photovoltaics is the biggest employer with 2.8 million, while 1.1 million work in wind. In the USA the 769,000-plus people employed in renewables - on an upward trend of 20% in 2015 - dwarf the 187,000 in oil and gas and the 68,000 in coal mining, sectors that are both on strong downward trends.

Storage continues to race into the frame. Figures for 2015 showed fully half the small solar PV plants installed in Germany were built with storage. This story involves far more than the headlines generated in April by Tesla. For example, Nissan announced a residential battery product for Europe, scheduled for a September launch.

Eon and RWE, the two giant German utilities who have admitted their old business model is dead, continue to pursue radical restructurings. Analysts are questioning whether they will have strong enough balance sheets to execute their u-turns. In the US, a study for the Investor Responsibility Research Center Institute showed that the top 25 investor-owned electric utilities spent over $400 million lobbying against clean energy in the past four years. Had they deployed that capital embracing the future rather than defending the past, they could have accelerated the revolution considerably. For example, had they used the cash underwriting loans to ratepayers, they could have doubled the nation's solar capacity.

The utilities' wasteful defence of a failing status quo is as nothing compared to that of the oil and gas industry's. But the oil and gas giants are coming under increasing pressure, and nowhere more so than on the risk that they are heading for stranded assets. The latest report from Carbon Tracker calculated that the oil majors would be worth more if they adapted their business models to reflect a world in which governments actually succeed in their treaty commitments to keep global warming below 2˚C.

ExxonMobil and Chevron faced torrid times at their AGMs in May staving off shareholder resolutions around stranded-asset risk. They won majorities, but for how much longer can they? A BBC headline suggested Exxon Mobil faces a "change or die" moment on climate. The Royal Institution for International Affairs published an analysis suggesting that the oil companies have ten years in which to change strategy, or face a "short, brutish end". "Not-so-Big Oil", read the headline of an Economist article focussing on the evaporation of profits. The problems are not just around climate and the debt mountain they are building. Oil discoveries slumped to a 60-year low in 2015. The Financial Times summed up in an editorial at the end of May under the headline: "The long twilight of the big oil companies." "Fossil fuel producers face a future of slow and steady decline", the leader writer argued.

Investors are reacting, albeit slowly. A report by the Asset Owners Disclosure Project showed that 246 of the world's 500 biggest investors, worth $14 trillion, are still ignoring climate risk completely. The AODP rates investor behaviour in the manner of ratings agencies, in this case assessing engagement on climate risk, risk management, and low-carbon investment. They distinguish classes from Leaders (A to AAA grade) through to Bystanders (D grade) and Laggards (ungradeable). The percentage of Leaders is growing slowly, but does not come close to matching the urgency implicit in the work of regulators concerned about stranded assets. That said, the very fact that ratings are now being applied should help unlock the floodgates. So should the work of the G20's Taskforce on Climate-related Financial Disclosure when it reports later this year. My prediction: expect a stampede at some point soon. The capital markets are well known for herd behaviour.

Total is one oil and gas company that is making an effort, at least to hedge bets. Total aims to have a fifth of its assets in low-carbon by 2036. Its latest move is a billion euro acquisition of a battery company, Saft Group. During May, Total and the solar company it majority owns, SunPower, announced a project to power Santiago's metro with a 100 megawatt solar plant. Serving 2.2 million passengers every day, this would be the first public transportation system in the world to run mostly on solar energy. On a personal note, I have often been assured by defenders of the energy incumbency in London that "renewables can never run the tube (metro)."

ExxonMobil, meanwhile, dug further into their defence of the status quo. Their CEO told his AGM that ending oil production was "not acceptable for humanity". Calpers, holding $1bn of ExxonMobil shares, was among the many who took a different view: "This is their Kodak moment", said Anne Simpson, representing the giant Californian pension fund. "If they want to still be in business in 30 years, they have to understand the changes that are taking place."

In the UK, fracking of shale for gas won a council go-ahead for first time since 2011. Here too scorn descended on the industry, not least because - unmentioned by many UK press reports - bankruptcies among US shale frackers have now rising to more than 70 in the face of a debt mountain that is raising fears in some quarters of a new sub-prime crisis. The FT's Lex Column won first prize for imagery: "The idea of the undead fascinates people", Lex's analyst wrote. "The cult following still believes that fracking in the UK could be profitable. Investors should allow market forces to finally kill it off."

A session of climate talks in Bonn was covered by less than 100 journalists, compared to the 3,500 who attended the Paris Climate Summit. Almost unnoticed, governments kept their climate show on the road, teeing up processes for implementing the Paris Agreement that make success at this year's climate summit, in Marrakesh in December, more likely. At this point it looks possible that the treaty will actually come into force earlier than negotiators agreed in Paris.

There can be little doubt that all players, governmental and non-governmental, will have to move faster than they expected in Paris. The global average temperature for April broke yet another world record. Terrifyingly, twelve months in a row have now done so. Unprecedented impacts accompanied the unprecedented heat, most notably a uniquely ferocious wildfire in Canada that required the evacuation of Fort MacMurray, a city that owes its existence to the tar sands. More than half the coral on the northern Great Barrier Reef appears to have been killed by bleaching in unsurvivably hot water.

For those still resistant to the idea that the world is warming dangerously because of greenhouse gas emissions, despite such evidence, there should be another reason to worry now. The largest coral reef in the continental US, off Florida, is dissolving into the ocean in some areas. The acid doing the damage comes from carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning. Then there should be worries about air pollution, from the same source. The World Health Organisation announced it is up 8% in last 5 years, and is now the single biggest killer in world.

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