Gas v Google: Information, not fuel is driving the energy transition

The future energy system has more in common with an iPhone than a coal mine, fossil fuel incumbents are warned

(Pic: Pixabay)


Energy industry incumbents like to remind upstarts that renewables contribute just 3% of the global mix.

So it was at the FT Energy Transformation Strategies event on Wednesday, where an ageing all-male panel was mainly concerned with which fossil fuel would dominate in future.

There was a freshly defensive tone to some of their criticisms of the new market entrants, however.

Christof Ruhl, head of the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, lashed out at “unbearable” subsidies for clean energy and accused the International Energy Agency of climate advocacy.

What had the typically conservative analysis agency said to provoke him? That would be chief economist Laszlo Varro’s questioning some of the industry’s assumptions about the market for coal, oil and gas.

“In a lot of places, wind and solar is outcompeting fossil fuels without subsidies,” he remarked, before acknowledging the IEA had underestimated the technologies’ growth potential.

Analysis: Seven signs a clean energy revolution is under way

What is more, more sophisticated tools for managing demand are eroding the economic case for gas-fired stations to provide back-up power.

“The gas industry is in competition with Google,” said Varro. The concept of back-up capacity increasingly looks “outdated and redundant”.

That was echoed in a talk by Paul Gilding, sustainability advisor and author of The Great Disruption.

“The new emerging energy system is so fundamentally different, it is not surprising the current industry can’t see it,” he said. “It is fundamentally a technology business. It has more in common with an iPhone than a coal mine.”

His thesis is simple: The future is about services not commodities, value not volume, Uber not private cars.

Traditional energy companies are “culturally incapable of acting fast enough” to survive the transition, Gilding added.

Revving down: Europe’s biggest carmakers are in for a rough ride

Snapping at their heels are the likes of Future Energy Corporation, an Egyptian company that offers storage as well as generation.

“Saying renewables only provide 3% of energy is like saying typewriters will continue to dominate after the invention of the computer,” said CEO Sherife Messih.

The debate made little direct reference to the Paris Agreement, under which governments agreed to cut greenhouse gas emissions to net zero in the second half of the century.

Rather, it was about momentum in the market. Nobody denied clean energy was on the rise; opinions differed on how fast.

Varro had some comfort for the old guard. Hydrocarbons would still be needed to make plastics. As for coal, most plants in the developing world are less than 10 years old and have decades to run – regardless of how many more are built.

Yet from an institution that has tended to foresee only incremental change, his openness to the idea of a renewables-dominated system is notable. The industry – and investors – should hesitate to bet against it.

Read more on: Energy