Tuesday, 17 April 2018

ESB - A Financial Perspective

This post will be a longer examination into the financials of electricity generation plant around the country (mainly wind). It will get a bit technical in places but I will do my best to explain terms used. 

ESB is the largest energy company in Ireland and is 95% owned by the Irish State. Last year, it recorded a loss of €31 million after writing down the value of their generating assets by € 276 million. The operating profit before the impairment was € 490m, the lowest profit in the past five years.

Following impairment reviews of the generation assets ESB recognised an exceptional impairment charge of €276 million in relation to Moneypoint (€142 million), Aghada Unit 2 (€69 million), Synergen (€30 million), Poolbeg (€21 million), Marina (€1 million) power stations and €13 million across five wind farms

Moneypoint is a critical piece of infrastructure. Without it, the 400kv lines in the west of Ireland will have insufficient voltage to carry the power eastwards.  The impairment now means that Moneypoint coal power station is practically worthless. However, it must be noted that Moneypoint has been around since the 1980s.

Two of their power stations are to close altogether - Marina and Aghada (steam unit)
Capacity contracts were not accepted for ESB’s open-cycle gas unit at Marina and the conventional steam unit at Aghada and, after many years of excellent performance and service to electricity customers, once I-SEM starts in May, there will be no commercial basis for the continued operation of these units. 
The loss of the steam unit at Aghada will increase emissions from the site as this generator would be more efficient than the open gas cycle turbines built there around the same time in the 1980s (there still remains a separate and very efficient CCGT at Aghada built in 2010).

The published accounts do not show a breakdown of operating profit into fossil fuel / renewables (which seems to be a trend among the large energy companies), which would have been very useful.  But there are indications that the renewables part of their business is not performing as might have been as expected. 

Return on Capital Employed (ROCE) 

The Return on Capital Employed (ROCE) is used as an indicator for the Return on an Investment i.e. how much one pound spent on assets generates in profits. I have calculated it by taking the Operating Profit (profit before interest and tax) and divided by total assets less current liabilities.  The sweet spot seems to be in the 14-17% range and this crops up in successful companies from across different industries. Successful Irish companies like Ryanair, Kingspan, Glanbia and Kerry Gold have ROCEs in the region of 14 - 17%. In the UK, Marks and Spencer's recent report shows an ROCE of 14%

The ROCE for ESB seems to be around 6% historically. The highest I can find was 10% in 2007 when the prices of fossil fuels peaked. It now stands at 4.6% for 2017, which is historically low.  It has dropped every year for the past three years from 6.5% to 6.1% to 4.6%. Low wholesale prices are of course a contributing factor. However, the average wholesale price rose from €41.82 in 2016 to € 47.48 in 2017 so we should have in theory have seen an improved ROCE ratio.

Comparable companies like SSE and E.ON have recently reported ROCE ratios in the region of 10% so ESB's ratio is comparatively low.

Interest Cover

A company needs to have enough profit left over from paying normal business expenses to cover interest payments on their loans. From Investopedia:
The interest coverage ratio is used to determine how easily a company can pay their interest expenses on outstanding debt. The ratio is calculated by dividing a company's earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT) by the company's interest expenses for the same period. The lower the ratio, the more the company is burdened by debt expense. When a company's interest coverage ratio is only 1.5 or lower, its ability to meet interest expenses may be questionable.

ESB in 2016 had a healthy interest cover of 3.5. However, this has dropped below the safety threshold to 1.1 in 2017.

Financial Statements

I will only be taking a look at the Generation part of ESB's business. ESB also have a retail and grid development business. The financial statements for the gas power station and wind farms are published on the CRO website. Only financial reports for 2016 and 2015 are currently available. There was a deterioration in profits in 2016.  Presumably, things got even worse for the company in 2017. 

Gas power

A look at the most recent accounts (2016) of ESB's gas power station in Dublin shows that it was still making good profits despite the low gas prices. Dublin Bay (400MW) made net profits of €28m and €43m in 2016 / 2015. The drop in profits was presumably due to a drop in wholesale prices of 18%. It had very healthy ROCEs of 19% and 29%.  With accumulated profits of €41m by the end of 2016, the power station was doing very well. In 2015, a dividend had been paid out of € 37 million. It proves that the business model for gas generation is still very strong. The power station was built in 2002 so a very strong performance after 13-14 years of operation. 

Of course, it is based in a high demand centre and is generating power to the grid most of the time. I was unable to find financial statements for any other power stations. I presume most of the other ones wouldn't have been as profitable.

Wind power

I looked at the financial statements of nine of ESB's wind farms in the South of Ireland. A total of 175MW of wind generation. 2015 is a good year to begin with as most of the farms had high load factors, equal to or above the national average of 33% (except for one - Derrybrien). All wind farms made an operating profit, however two made net losses, most notably Garvagh Glebe, a 26MW wind farm in Leitrim which made a loss of € 480,000 despite having the highest load factor at 42%. This was because of very high interest payments - which were about 45% of turnover. 

The average ROCE was 6%, in line with the overall average for ESB Group. Another Leitrim wind farm, Blackbanks, had the highest ROCE at 11%. Blackbanks has a smaller 10MW output and interestingly has smaller (0.85kw) turbines than nearby Garvagh which has 2MW turbines, yet the smaller wind farm had double the ROCE of the larger one (remember that ROCE is based on profit before interest). This seems to fly in the face of conventional wisdom that says the bigger the turbine, the bigger the return.

Combined operating profits in 2015 for the nine wind farms was € 9.2m and net profits was € 2.1m. Depending on how you measure it, this gives an operating profit of €52,000 per MW and net profit of €12,000 per MW for 2015. Compare this with the gas power station in Dublin which had an operating profit of € 127,000 per MW and a net profit of € 107,000 per MW in the same year. Gas power was 2.5 times more profitable in 2015 than wind before interest and and nine times more profitable after. Operating profit, however, is the best way to compare the two generation sources as the gas power station had paid off most it's loans by 2016 and so had very low interest payments. Therefore, gas, which has fuel input costs, is two and half times more profitable than wind, which has no fuel input costs (and wind gets priority on the grid). This fact deserves a separate article on it's own but presumably the much higher load factor for gas has a lot to do with it.

By the end of 2015, accumulated profits from all these wind farms was € 14 million. One dividend of € 1.5m was paid out by Mount Eagle wind farm in Kerry. Again, this wind farm has the smaller older style wind turbine. 

In 2016, the average load factor was still decent at 31% but the ROCE had switched to negative. All wind farms made a net loss apart from two. Combined losses for the year were € 5m. Over the two years, combined losses were € 3m. 

In 2016, interest cover went from positive to negative. Average interest cover over the two years was 1.09, which falls short of the recommended baseline of 1.5. The ROCE would need to rise to at least 10% to reach a safe interest cover and to 15-16% to reach an ideal one.

The worse performing wind farms were the larger ones built in 2010 and 2011. The larger 2MW turbines on average cost 4.5 times more than the smaller older models for 2.3 times the capacity.  In fact, these newer wind farms had high accumulated losses by the end of 2016 of € 6m and some had notes in their accounts stating that they were dependent on financial support from ESB group, which indicates that the higher output from their bigger turbines was not enough to compensate for the additional associated costs.

Two dividends were paid out, € 1m from Mount Eagle and € 1.5m from Blackbanks, both older wind farms with smaller 0.850KW turbines. They were both in good financial health by the end of 2016. 

In total, ESB group had loans outstanding of €170 million to all nine wind farms by the end of the year. 

In 2017, total impairments for wind farms was € 13 million. In Northern Ireland, the value of a wind farm in Tyrone had been written down by nearly €5m :
A review of the Hunters Hill 20 MW wind farm in Co. Tyrone, Northern Ireland was undertaken at year end. An impairment loss of €4.9 million has been recognised in the income statement in respect of this wind farm. This impairment has arisen as a result of a reduction in load factor.
ESB Networks division were also investing heavily in the grid infrastructure required to support renewables :
The focus of the 2017 investment in the transmission network was on continuing the reinforcement of the system to facilitate the connection of new renewable electricity generation. 
Capital investment in the networks businesses continued in 2017 with €644 million (74% of total capital investment) invested in the networks infrastructure in ROI and Northern Ireland (NI)

ESB's traditional generation model in Ireland has changed from investment in reliable power generation to renewables. However, there are signs that things have not turned out quite as planned with wind energy, in particular the newer and more costly wind farms have built up considerable losses. In essence, the older profit making gas generation fleet is subsidizing the newer loss making renewable generation. The older and smaller wind farms may well be benefiting from better sites, but it could also be the case that the smaller 1MW technology is more efficient. These smaller wind farms have by and large turned out to be good investments.  The same cannot be said for the more recent wind investments.

There are still gains to be made from conventional baseload generation. As the grid becomes increasingly unstable in the future, there will be gains to be made for ESB in building fast acting fossil fuel generators that can be switched on quickly. If Moneypoint is converted to gas, it will certainly be profitable like Dublin Bay, but will leave ESB (and Ireland) increasingly dependent on gas lines from the UK which may not be as dependable in the future

Wholesale prices are recovering so we should be seeing better profits for ESB. Investing in large loss making wind farms may be negating some of the benefits from higher wholesale prices. Other benefits from investing in wind farms such as carbon credits are no longer financially lucrative as the carbon price has fallen too low. ESB's investment in wind energy should be reviewed.

ESB Financial Report for 2017 : https://esb.ie/docs/default-source/investor-relations-documents/annual-report-and-financial-statements-2017-single-pages.pdf?sfvrsn=dae93bf0_2

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Daffodils Blooming Late This Year - Media Silence

Photo credit: Irish Examiner

Daffodils have only begun to bloom in Ireland in the last week due to the very cold winter and spring. This is about four or five weeks later than usual. In recent years, the media have whipped up hysteria when there was an early bloom in January, such as happened in 2012 and 2016.

But now that they are very late blooming, there is stone cold silence in the media as it doesn't suit their narrative that the world is warming dangerously.

We have installed 3,000MW of wind turbines all around Ireland in the past ten years in the hope that we could stave off climate change. But still, the climate keeps doing it's own thing, it goes through periodic changes, as it's been doing since forever, completely oblivious to what man is doing.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Brookfield Renewables Sale Part 2

Canadian company Brookfield Renewables sold two wind farms to Greencoat Renewables last week - Knockacummer and Killhill. I took a look at Knockacummer in my last post. This time I will examine Killhill.  Things don't look any better from a financial point of view.

Killhill is outside Cashel in Co.Tipperary. It has sixteen Enercon 2.0 MW turbines and was commissioned in 2014. The latest accounts show operating profits for 2015 and 2016 but a net loss for both years after interest is accounted for. In fact, since it came into operation, it made a loss every single year  and now has accumulated losses of nearly € 900,000. It had net current liabilities of €3.2m and was completely dependent on financial support from Brookfield, the parent company, to meet it's debts. There were about €37m of loans outstanding by the end of 2016. 

Im speculating, but it could be that the banks will be paid out of the sale proceeds leaving the company completely financed by equity under Greencoat. This could account for the apparently large, but undisclosed, sale price of both wind farms. 

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Canadian Company Sell a Loss Making Wind Farm for a Profit to State Backed Investors

A wind farm sold for a profit in the region of €7 million last year made a net loss of € 4 million in the latest accounts filed with the companies office for 2016.

The wind farm, Knockacummer, in Cork, has a capacity of 87.5MW, was commissioned in 2013 and has thirty five 2.5MW turbines. It was sold by Canadian company Brookfield Renewables.

It paid interest of € 12m (at 7.5%) in 2016, which was 54% of it's turnover. The interest was higher than it's operating profit which turned the profit into a net loss. It also made a net loss in 2015. 

At 31st December 2016, it was carrying Accumulated Losses of € 5.7m.

It's outstanding loans stood at €145m at end of 2016. €3.8m of which was written off by Brookfield during the year. The company was financed by loans from Brookfield, which in turn was financed by external loans. 

The buyer was Greencoat Renewables. Last year, the Irish State, through ISIF and AIB, acquired a 33% stake in the company. Which could potentially rise to 49%

Greencoat also bought another loss making wind farm, Lisdowney, last month

One has to question as to why the Irish State is helping to purchase loss making wind farms. Are we looking at another NAMA in the making ?

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Storms Linked to Power Station Trips

Eirgrid published this list of power station trips from the past few months:

I couldnt help but notice that most of these dates coincided with storms or very windy conditions:

5th october - Cyclone Xavier
12th october - Hurricane Ophelia
16th october - Hurricane Ophelia
21st october - Storm Brian
27th November - gale force winds
24th December - record wind penetration on the grid
3rd January - Storm Eleanor
17th January - Storm Fionn

It appears that as very high amounts of wind generation is allowed into the grid, the frequency can drop to a dangerously low level.

One of our key tasks is to maintain balance between electricity supply and electricity demand. Electrical frequency is the measure of balance between supply and demand. When supply and demand are balanced, the electrical frequency is at 50 Hz. We must maintain this balance on the system all day, every day. The normal operational frequency range is 49.8 Hz to 50.2 Hz [Eirgrid].

You can see from the above diagram that the frequency has dropped below 49.8Hz on a few occasions over this period.  As a result, the power station tripped and went offline. This then results in the frequency falling even further. At this stage, cutting demand is one of the few options open to the grid operator. This may explain some of the blackouts on these days.

Monday, 26 March 2018

The Energy Bubble is Clearly Unsustainable

by Owen Martin

The Energy Regulator has reported that there is currently a backlog of 36,000MW of renewable and conventional generation connection applications (See above graph). This would increase the current capacity of 10,500MW to a staggering 46,500MW if all of these applications were accepted. As the regulator points out we only have an electricity demand for about 7,000MW. 

Under normal circumstances, only capacity that replaced existing capacity or was required to meet additional demand or reserve requirements would be accepted. Now, because of the rush to meet EU targets, thousands of megawatts of inefficient and intermittent renewable generation are being added. Renewable generation, mostly wind and solar, make up about 70% of the planned generation figure. 

This will lead to a low capacity factor across the board, with all generators operating inefficiently and intermittently. As this blog reported recently, many wind farm companies are making losses. As more generation is added, the market share for all generators will be eroded and we will see more loss making generators. Which will require yet more government intervention to keep the lights on (and possibly another NAMA to be set up).

And it gets worse. The Grid will require a large upgrade as most of these solar and wind farms will be in remote and dispersed regions far away from centres of demand. The costs will simply keep rising exponentially. 

In particular, the CRU notes that the existing backlog of connection applications amounting to 36,000MW is already significantly in excess of the all-island total electricity requirement. Keeping the non-GPA process open to further applications during the consultation period would only increase this volume. This would potentially add to consumer costs with no discernible benefit. 

 For example, with this much renewable generation, it will become increasingly difficult to stabilize and manage the grid frequency. That is why more conventional generation is required to maintain stability and of course this adds to the costs. The Regulator refers to these generators as DS3 providers and has proposed giving them priority over renewable generation :
DS3 system services are required by the system in order to accommodate increasing volumes of non-synchronous renewable generation. The CRU decided in CER/16/284 that providers of those services will be prioritised for a connection offer under the non-GPA process, and requested the system operators to develop a process for this prioritisation. 

The regulator also plans on suspending some of the renewable generation which would of course be a wise decision and be in the interests of all consumers.  Naturally, the renewable lobby groups are not happy and have somehow managed to spin this as a decision that will "result in higher electricity prices." It's difficult to understand why they are lobbying for more supply in an already over-saturated market which will erode the market share of existing renewable generators. 

The energy regulator should stick to the facts and figures as presented in her document. That way she can defend her actions later. It could be the first time an energy regulator has stood up to the green lobby and protected consumer's rights. The Energy Bubble is clearly unsustainable. I for one am hoping that for the first time in recent Irish history, an Irish regulator does the right thing before it's too late.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Media Hypocrisy on Leo's Wind Farm Gaffe

By Owen Martin

Image result for leo varadkar failte ireland
The email Leo Varadkar sent to Failte Ireland

There was much consternation in the media over Leo Varadkar's wind farm "gaffe" at the White House where he boasted that he rang the local council and managed to stop a wind farm from being built beside Trump's golf resort in County Clare. There was talk of cronyism and political favors. The facts turned out to be different. Varadkar, then the tourism minister, emailed the tourist board Failte Ireland advising that they make a submission on the development. Failte Ireland make submissions on planning applications all the time, including on wind farms. If one thinks logically about it, how could a tourist board not oppose a wind farm in a tourist region ? The only issue is should they really need prompting from a minister to know that a wind farm might damage tourism in an area

Compare the outrage from the media about Varadkar's comments to the appeasement when the Government announced they would change the planning rules to facilitate large multinationals by taking rights away from objectors to data centres (see here). Here, the government is not as much interfering in the planning system, but radically changing it to favour developers. There was no outcry from the media. There was no rally call to defend the rights of citizens. Suddenly, the concept of equality took a backseat to expediency and the latest fad of the day. 

In January of this year, the Irish Courts determined that An Bord Pleanala (the main planning authority in Ireland) must, in relation to European Union Projects of Common Interest (PCIs) :

    act as a clearing-house or framework coordinator for the development consent process. It is not a role that requires any substantive decisions to be taken regarding the acceptability of a proposed development  [Martin Vs An Bord Pleanala].

In other words, once the European Commission decides something needs to be built, the planning authorities in Ireland must approve it. The High Court also ruled that "it is not the function of An Bord Plean├íla to review government policy or to consider public submissions in relation to government policy. 

Once again, this ruling, which effectively limits the rights of citizens to challenge government and EU decisions, was ignored by the media. This is the kind of environment where cronyism thrives unchallenged and unhindered. Objections to developments based on logic and evidence can be easily dismissed. 

An independent and effective planning system is simply not possible with the current system, let alone with the system that is being planned to facilitate data centres. If the rights of citizens were protected in the planning system, then there wouldn't be any problem with cronyism or political favors as the system would have to take account of facts, evidence, transparency and due legal process.