The Qaid-e-Azam plant in Punjab, the biggest solar-power project in the world. Photo: Vikram Ghamwani
The Qaid-e-Azam plant in Punjab, the biggest solar-power project in the world. Photo: Vikram Ghamwani

Southeast Asia is at the forefront of a global energy-market transformation that is outpacing even the most ambitious predictions. In the last few days, a report from analyst Wood Mackenzie stated that the ASEAN nations will need to double their energy capacity in the next 20 years, at a cost of more than US$500 billion.

Greenhouses in Yang Fang village in Anlong, Guizhou province, China, have solar panels on their roofs.

WoodMac also concluded that half of the new capacity within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations bloc will come from renewables, a very different profile to what energy markets were assuming only a few short years ago.

The WoodMac forecast for this region is unexpected, and highlights that ASEAN states have the opportunity to learn from both the successes and failures of other parts of the world that are further down the energy-transition path, and at the same time leverage the enormous cost deflation achieved in renewables in the past two years.

In Europe, the rise of cheap renewable energy has combined with falling electricity demand thanks to the impact of energy efficiency to pull down wholesale electricity prices to unprecedented lows, causing financial pain for utilities that have delayed their transition from fossil fuels to renewables.

Over the 2010-2016 period, European utilities have made US$150 billion in asset write-downs. Investors from Goldman Sachs and UBS have been warning for years that coal has reached retirement age and that solar will become the “default technology of the future”.

Similar trends have been apparent now for some time in China and more recently in India, where drives to install both thermal and renewable capacity concurrently have seen utilization rates for coal-fired power stations drop to 47% in China and 56% in India in 2016. This is despite electricity demand growing in these countries.

While some utilities such as Italy’s Enel and the United States’ NextEra are world leaders in positioning themselves for electricity systems dominated by renewables, there are many examples of utilities suffering significant shareholder-value destruction as a result of resisting the inevitable or belatedly making their transition.

Once Germany’s biggest utility, E.On’s belated response was to spin off its struggling coal, gas and hydro generation assets into a separate company. Germany’s RWE has been affected in the same way. By failing to refocus their businesses toward renewables sooner, these major players have suffered significant continuing reductions in shareholder value compared with Enel, which made its strategic move earlier.

In Australia, where thermal power is being progressively replaced by a growing base of renewable-energy plants, AGL appears to be another utility leader. Even despite continuing policy uncertainty, into 2017, Australia is seeing an A$11 billion (US$8.6 billion) wave of investments in renewable-energy infrastructure projects.

In accepting a future dominated by a succession of closures of end-of-life coal-fired power plants and one in which expensive domestic gas is no longer an option as a transition fuel, AGL is working to ensure the closure of its last coal-fired power stations ahead of target.

In fast-developing countries like India, increasing electricity demand means the large coal-fired generation fleet cannot be quickly abandoned. However, the global energy transition backed by the biggest financial players has not gone unnoticed by state utility NTPC, which is becoming a key linchpin of the Indian government’s emerging leadership in renewable energy. This transformation is economically logical given that, as of 2017, solar is cheaper than existing coal-fired power generation.

A key economic imperative is that renewables are deflationary. The equation is simple. Technology gains and economies of scale have seen renewable generation consistently outbid fossil fuel-based generation in an ever-wider number of markets from Brazil and Mexico, to Dubai and South Africa.

While countries including Indonesia, Vietnam and Myanmar currently face the offer of relatively cheap international export credit agency (ECA) finance for thermal power, this is in effect a manufacturing and engineering capacity fire-sale, with China, Japan and South Korea seizing a final opportunity to offload old technology produced by domestic manufacturers even as it becomes completely obsolete.

But around the world, the biggest financial institutions such as the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund, the Bank of England, BlackRock, Deutsche Bank, CalSTARS, JPMorgan Chase, Macquarie Group and Swiss Re, plus AXA and SCOR of France, have all come out in support of a renewable transition and/or changed investment policies to avoid stranded asset risk and expand low emissions investment capacity.

Notably, BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, stated this year that “coal is dead”.

Put simply, electricity utilities need to accelerate their path toward renewable energy to avoid the financial risks and shareholder-value erosion incurred by being a late mover.

This is the clear global lesson, and it’s one that should be heeded by the fast-growing economies of Southeast Asia, because the decisions they make now will have repercussions for decades to come, delaying the inevitable transition to a more sustainable, lower-cost energy system, and missing out on strong investment flows and job creation in industries of the future.

Julie Gasper

Tim Buckley is the director of energy research at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis in Cleveland, Ohio. With more than 30 years' experience, including 17 years in senior roles at Citigroup, he is an expert on Asia's energy transition. His work has appeared in publications including the UK's Financial Times, the South China Morning Post, Jakarta Post, Chosun Ilbo, Reuters and the Australian Financial Review.