Will Middle East utilities react to disruption, or help create it? Will Middle East utilities react to disruption, or help create it?

By Serge Colle

EY Global Energy & Resources Industry Market Leader; Global Power & Utilities Sector Leader

Global energy advisor. Connecting clients with EY insights, services, assets and the broader energy ecosystem.

9 minute read 1 Jul 2019

Rising demand, volatile oil prices and renewables are driving the transition from carbon to clean. Here’s how utilities can get ready.

Fundamental change is coming to the Middle East's energy sector. In fact, EY and a global analyst house have identified three critical points when everything changes.

These tipping points mark a radical shift away from the sector’s traditional status quo. In the six Gulf Coast Cooperation (GCC) countries — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman — cheap electricity has been considered almost a birthright and electricity consumption per capita was among the world’s highest. The per capita energy consumption in Qatar is four times that of the United Kingdom and 20 times that of India, for example.

Drivers of change

So what is driving change? Five primary factors are resetting the foundations of the GCC energy sector:

  • Energy demand is rising as populations grow, incomes rise, industrialization and urbanization increase, and water desalination plants ramp up electricity use. Electricity demand across the GCC has risen at 5% per annum since 2000 and will rise by an average 2.1% between 2015 and 2050.1
  • Oil prices are volatile and, while crude oil prices have recently improved, prices are far from peak levels. This is putting pressure on government revenues and prompting leaders around the region to re-evaluate the balance between the domestic consumption of crude oil and the allocation of resources for profitable export. We are also seeing unprecedented levels of investment into value-added oil products such as petrochemicals, plastics, petrol and diesel.
  • Expensive gas production in the region and uncertainty around timing and volumes encourage greater use of crude oil and liquid fuels in power generation. However, greater use of low-cost renewables would reduce the need for expensive fuels in power generation, freeing up oil production capacity for export.
  • Renewable energy costs have fallen in recent years, and the region’s abundant solar potential has made solar power cost competitive with conventional energy technologies. The region has received some of the lowest renewable energy prices awarded globally.
  • Fiscal challenges have meant that governments are no longer able to support the provision of cheap power. Many countries have recently increased electricity prices and are accelerating their price reform plans with the aim of liberalizing prices in the short term. While these programs will aim to reduce the fiscal burden on governments, they will also help to reduce demand growth.
  • Tipping point methodology

    The energy industry is at the start of a period of unprecedented change, one that will fundamentally change the market place (presenting new challenges as well as new opportunities). Three tipping points will mark the emergence of a new energy system.

    • Tipping point 1: when self-generation reaches cost parity with grid-delivered electricity. To determine this date, we calculated the projected demand for electricity, future generation mix and cost of delivering electricity via a central grid between 2015 and 2050, and then compared it to the predicted cost of self-generating electricity using solar photovoltaics (PV) and battery storage.

      To help determine when these costs would reach parity, we worked with a leading global analyst house to model the expected adoption and interactive impacts on electricity demands and costs of 10 core distributed energy and information technologies: solar PV; battery storage; electric vehicles; microgrids; home and building energy management systems; P2P electricity exchange; smart meters; artificial intelligence; grid-edge technology; and cloud.
    • Tipping point 2: when the price of battery electric vehicles reaches cost and performance parity with traditional cars with internal combustion engines.
    • Tipping point 3: when the mere cost of delivering electricity (i.e., the unit-cost of electricity transmission and distribution) exceeds the cost of self-generated electricity.

    Because drivers vary across markets, the tipping points will hit different regions at different times. 

A culture of energy innovation

Over the past decade, several GCC countries have announced ambitious renewable energy targets. With power capacity requirements expected to increase at an annual rate of over 6% until 2022,2 GCC countries are moving fast to adapt their energy mix. Renewable energy is gaining momentum, backed by strong support from governments that recognize the urgency of tackling rising demand for energy. Investment is rising in exploring the greater adoption of energy technologies, including solar photovoltaics (PV) and concentrated solar power (CSP). This is attributed to the region’s vast availability of solar resources and access to finance and auction designs that have delivered low prices. The GCC smart grid market is also gaining prominence, with battery storage forming a crucial component in the integration of renewable energy to the grid.

These initiatives also reflect the GCC’s strong track record in innovation and adoption of new technologies — smart meters arrived relatively late to the region, but their speed of deployment and acceptance by customers was much quicker than that seen in other regions. And, anyone who has visited Dubai recently can attest to the fact that electric vehicle (EV) adoption is accelerating fast in the region — a trend that is driven more by consumers’ eagerness for the technology than any economic benefit.

In particular, solar energy has clear potential in the GCC. The region has some of the highest solar exposures in the world, enjoying more than 300 days of sunshine a year. Solar power plants can typically expect around 1,900 hours of operation per year, double the levels typically found in Europe. The added benefit is that solar output tends to match daily variations in demand, especially from high air conditioning use. Meanwhile, the region has plentiful land and a deep talent pool to draw upon. Across GCC countries, investment in new solar is therefore increasing in size and scope:

  • Solar prices in the GCC are following the international trend. Large-scale solar PV projects have dropped from 5.98 US cents/kWh in 2014 to 2.4 US cents/kWh in 2018, making it the most cost-effective source of electricity generation in the GCC.
  • The UAE has announced a power strategy to achieve 50% clean energy by 2050, with solar power expected to contribute 25% of its generation mix. The Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park in the Emirates will generate 1,000 MW by 2020 and 5,000 MW by 2030.
  • Bahrain has raised its renewable energy target from 5% to 10% by 2035 and has mandated installation of solar panels on new buildings.
  • Rooftop solar installations are gaining in popularity in the UAE following the introduction of net metering schemes. These allow customers to use solar power to generate electricity for their own use, with any excess fed back into the grid.
  • Kuwait has set a target of having renewable energy contribute 15% of the total energy mix by 2030.
  • Renewables provide an opportunity to reduce water used in power generation by up to 15%, whilst clean energy sources offer a more cost-effective option in water desalination projects.

At the end of 2018, the region had 146 GW of installed power capacity, of which renewable energy accounted for less than 1%.Despite the large capacity, significant investment will be needed in additional generation and for transmission and distribution over the coming years.4 In the next five years, for example, the region is expected to invest US$55b for an additional 43 GW of generating capacity and US$34b for transmission and distribution to meet rising demand.5 From which, renewable energy deployment is expected to accelerate, and nearly 7 GW of renewable capacity is expected online by the early 2020s. Our analysis suggests renewables could contribute one-third of the region’s energy mix by 2050, with solar PV and solar CSP making up 20% of this figure, if investment and regulatory commitment continue.

Can GCC utilities adapt in time?

Change is on its way to the GCC energy sectors, with renewable energy expected to play a vital role in the region’s economic diversification plans. The question is — can the region’s state-owned, vertically integrated utilities adapt in time? Signs are positive. Utilities here are different: they don’t fit the typical stereotype of the slow-moving incumbent utility. They operate within a fast-moving culture that has been shaped by innovation, rapid growth and a willingness to invest in high-quality infrastructure.

Even so, success in a new energy market will require decisive action now from utilities, with support from governments and regulators.

Action points for utilities include:
  • Building the right operating and business models:  Reshaping for success in a very different energy world will require similarly transformed models that position utilities for new roles. Time is short to get these in place, especially as tipping point 1 may hit certain customer segments, such as large industry, ahead of others. This presents opportunities for utilities to play a partnering role as big Gulf companies explore self-sufficiency and off-grid options.
  • Developing new skills and capabilities: A digitally-enabled, renewables-centered energy market will require utilities to develop an entirely new tranche of skills and capabilities. Some may develop these in-house while others will use strategic collaborations or joint ventures to tap the talent they need. GCC utilities are fortunate to have access to a large pool of high-quality talent and a growing population.
  • Becoming customer-focused: Developing a new customer focus may be an even bigger challenge. In some countries, there are indications that energy reforms may include opening the electricity market to private players. This will create an urgent need to put the customer at the center of the business. Developing new ways to create value for different customer segments will be critical to growing revenue and maintaining the continued competitiveness of the region, once cheap fuel is no longer an inherent advantage.
  • Reconsidering investment strategies: As the tipping points loom, utilities will need to consider the implications for project payback. Decisions will need to be made about whether to continue existing infrastructure projects as planned, adapt financing models or even delay or discontinue altogether.
Two action points for governments and regulators to enable a smooth energy transition are:
  • Broaden the range of funding mechanisms: Over the last two decades, the public-private partnership (PPP) model has become the most attractive financing mechanism for the GCC power market, with the region having the highest level of investment in power infrastructure (public and private) of any group of countries. Governments are increasingly relying on independent power producers (IPPs) to share the burden, adding significant capacity in recent years. With a budgetary shortfall since the oil price decline, governments need to tackle rising demand, while at the same time adopting a more market-oriented structure that encourages the private sector to invest in the reliable supply of competitively priced power. 
  • Consider how to introduce competition: As some governments consider opening electricity markets to private investors, policymakers will need to carefully consider how best to introduce competition. Opening markets to private players would accelerate innovation and possibly bring the tipping points closer, but governments will need to make certain that reforms do not jeopardize the ability of incumbent utilities to fulfil their vital role in water desalination.

Bold action needed now

The countdown is on to a new energy market in the GCC — one reshaped by renewables, digital technologies, smart grid infrastructure and changing consumer demands. For the region’s utilities, adapting to very different conditions will require overcoming some significant challenges, as well as supportive policies from government and regulators.

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Utilities must decide now which role they will take in this new energy market, and how they will develop different capital strategies and operating models for changing conditions. As bold decisions are made about future strategy, the biggest risk may be to move too slowly — the tipping points of change are on their way.

About this article

By Serge Colle

EY Global Energy & Resources Industry Market Leader; Global Power & Utilities Sector Leader

Global energy advisor. Connecting clients with EY insights, services, assets and the broader energy ecosystem.