Scary Ed or scary George? Investors choose…..

So who’s scaring off investors more? This is one to puzzle over, especially with the emergence on Monday of a letter from a number of global ‘investors in the energy sector’ (covered in the Independent here) that George Osborne’s removal of a decarbonisation target from the Energy Bill  risked the ‘£110bn overhaul of Britain’s energy network’.

Last week, of course we had a similar claim from Centrica and others in some of the national press that Ed Miliband’s proposals for a freeze on energy bills from 2015-17 would lead to exactly the same risk to that ‘£110 billion overhaul’.

I suppose, just to put the cat among the pigeons, we might look at some of the evidence behind these claims. Incidentally the new paradigm for what it will cost for this ‘overhaul’ seems to be more modest in ambition than it was just two years ago, when we were supposedly in for £200 billion (here’s what I said about that at the time).  This figure is now expected to be about £100 billion by the early 2020s ; still a very large number I would agree. All these figures, though, do seem to be derived from various scenarios from Ofgems ‘Project Discovery Energy Investment Scenarios’ – last revised in 2010. These ‘scenarios’ veered between a pot of £200 billion for its ‘green transition’ picture (which envisages that ‘there is a rapid economic recovery and significant new investment globally’) and £95 billion for the ‘slow growth’ scenario (which posits that the ‘impact of recession and credit crisis continues…generation build dominated by CCGT energy efficiency measures have limited impact..’).

So I guess the new agreed investment figure is towards the ‘slow growth’ end of the scenarios. But even so, it is made up of a number of components such as interconnectors, offshore wind, smart meters, onshore/offshore transmission, grid-strengthening and so on, which have little to do with what many consider to be traditional ‘energy investment’. In fact only about a quarter of total investment will come from what we think of traditionally as old-style, centralised power plants. The other three quarters will come from those less-familiar components, with over half the total coming from renewable generation itself.

And the significant feature of these investment figures is that the Big Six utilities will not feature heavily in the investment profile for these categories. Indeed if we look at the balance sheets of the Big Six, four of the six have net debts of more than two thirds of their market capitalisation. This means that they are unlikely over the next period to lever themselves up still further in order to splash the cash for investment in any of the sectors at all. Most of the £110 billion will have to come from elsewhere and will indeed do so.

And, by the way, if there is to be investment coming from the profits ofthe Big Six, it will hardly be damaged by what may or may not happen to their retail arms, which, as we know, Labour want to separate from their wholesale businesses.  The aggregate profit margin made by the Big Six on generation in 2011, as Ofgem records, was 24.4%, whereas for supply it was 3.1%. Whilst of course there is a connection between generation proceeds and supply prices, these figures hardly suggest a drying up of profits on generation. Separate retail companies at that point, with lower returns, would probably value and work best on some form of regulated price and return regime (but that’s another point entirely).

So where does that get us to? Well it looks like most investment will have to come from non-Big Six companies not primarily affected by a retail energy price freeze, but far more affected by larger instability and long term uncertainty. Long term uncertainty in an investment market which is seeking to finance the equipment and transmission that will need to sit alongside the different form of energy economy that we are all supposedly signed up to. And they seem to be the ones signing letters to the Chancellor right now.