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Smart energy investments for a low carbon future

13-07-2016 | Interview | Thiemo Lang

Thiemo Lang, Portfolio Manager of the RobecoSAM Smart Energy strategy, discusses the future of the energy sector in the wake of the COP21 agreement to limit global warming to well below 2°C.

Speed read:
  • Companies intending to invest in conventional energy sources should think twice
  • Utilities will have to adapt to decentralized clean power generation, or face their demise
  • Natural gas will be an important transitional energy source over the next decades

How do you see the energy sector developing in response to COP21?
“COP21 is the first global agreement to combat global warming that includes both developed and developing countries. It is truly transformative. The investment implications for the energy sector will become clearer over the next few years as each country formulates its own action plan. The COP21 agreement’s goal of achieving zero net emissions in the second half of the century hangs like the Sword of Damocles over carbon investments. Companies intending to invest in conventional energy sources such as oil exploration or coal power stations must think twice before doing so. Likewise, utilities using centralized conventional power generation and distributing it to millions of customers will have to adapt their business models to the trend of decentralized clean power generation and storage, or face their demise.”

“The COP21 agreement is an important tailwind for the clean energy industry, enabling it to reap the benefits of the improvements to its cost competitiveness over the last 10 years.”

A long list of investors including Norway’s Sovereign Wealth Fund, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Church of England have pledged to divest out of coal. Do you expect more investors to do follow suit?
“In the very long term, the entire traditional energy sector is at risk, not necessarily because of stricter regulations, but because of increasingly better economics for future clean energy solutions. As more investors recognize that it is becoming increasingly risky and detrimental to their performance to remain invested in hydrocarbon-heavy industries, we will see more moves to divest out of these sectors. Still, the impact of these structural headwinds will be felt from, say, 2020 onwards. Until then, we may still see some short-term cyclical improvements in the oil & gas sector.”

Will the current oil price slump deter the transition to less carbon-intensive alternatives?
“We have not seen any decrease in activity in renewable energies as a result of low oil prices. One of the main reasons for this is that renewable energies essentially compete with coal and natural gas for electricity generation and not oil: only around 3% of the world’s electricity is generated from oil.”

“Coal and natural gas prices have also been depressed in recent years, but we still haven’t seen any declines in retail electricity prices. In fact, quite the opposite has happened. For example, US residential electricity prices have increased by more than 3% per year over the last 10 years. This steady price increase is mainly driven by transmission & distribution costs, which account for an increasingly larger share of total electricity costs. They currently make up more than 40% of the total cost of electricity. As a result, the competitiveness of renewable power generation will only improve over time. For example, the cost of electricity generated from solar has declined by 5-10% per year over the last 10 years.”

‘COP21 hangs like the Sword of Damocles over carbon investments’

Does natural gas still have an important role to play in the transition to a low carbon economy?
“Natural gas is by far the cleanest energy form compared with other conventional energy sources such as oil and coal. A natural gas power plant emits roughly half of the CO2 compared with a coal power plant of the same size. We view natural gas as an important transitional energy source over the next few decades. However, from an investor’s perspective, we think that this is not necessarily an interesting sector, as companies have considerably increased their leverage over the last years, and are now suffering from deteriorating fundamentals. As a result, we recently removed the natural gas exploration & production sector from the eligible universe for our strategy. Meanwhile, we still invest in natural gas distribution and transport companies. These are mostly natural gas utilities, which show very high earnings predictability.”

What types of companies and sectors do you expect to benefit from COP21?
“In our strategy, we always try to find a good balance of sectors addressing different growth and value areas. In renewable energy, we currently focus on upstream solar companies and wind turbine manufacturers. As far as energy management is concerned, we have a decent exposure to the semiconductor power management sector, as companies in this sector enable the efficient conversion of power for consumer electronics, IT, storage and automotive applications. Within energy distribution, not only do we own electrical and natural gas utilities, but also equipment companies for smart grid and smart city solutions. And finally, in the area of energy efficiency, we like industrial automation and processes companies.”

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