x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

UK happy to hand power to foreigners

The United Kingdom has been relaxed, to say the least, about the fact that most of its energy network is now owned by foreign companies.

The United Kingdom has been relaxed, to say the least, about the fact that most of its energy network is now owned by foreign companies.

There are six big energy suppliers in the UK - Scottish Power, SSE (Scottish and Southern), British Gas, EDF Energy, NPower and E.On.

Four of the six are owned by foreign groups. Scottish Power was bought by the Spanish firm Iberdrola in 2007, NPower and E.On are owned by the German utilities RWE and E.On respectively; while EDF Energy, formerly London Electricity, is owned by the French state-owned power company Électricité de France (EDF), which is the biggest supplier of electricity by volume in Great Britain.

So how did this come about? The trigger was the privatisation of utilities in the late 1980s and 1990s, during which the regional electricity companies and power generators floated on the stock market.

Widespread public share ownership was an ambition of Margaret Thatcher when she was the British prime minister. Whether she foresaw its natural consequence, in mergers and acquisitions and foreign takeovers, is less clear.

Foreign companies, particularly US operators, rushed into the UK energy market - snapping up power generation companies and distribution companies. However, many sold up when over-capacity caused the wholesale market to collapse in the early 2000s.

London Electricity was bought by the US firm Entergy in 1996 for £1.3 billion (Dh7.19bn) and was sold two years later to EDF for £1.9bn. EDF then added two small power distributors and formed a new company - EDF Energy.

In 2009, it won control of Britain's nuclear power generators - which means that they, too, are effectively owned by the French government. In 2010 it sold its power distribution networks to Li Ka-shing, a Hong Kong tycoon, for £5.8bn.

"Foreign ownership of UK energy companies is a fact of life and not something that the UK should be afraid of. Today, we have German, French and Spanish companies owning four of our six largest electricity and gas businesses. From that point of view, far from being sceptical, the UK is most certainly a 'good European'," says David Porter, former chief executive of the UK's Association of Electricity Producers.

"But, just like any other country in Europe, the UK government has to be conscious of security of supply issues. A UK energy minister who stood up in the House of Commons and 'reassured' the House that we could rely entirely on the EU energy market would probably not be the energy minister for much longer."

Other nations in Europe have been more aggressive in protecting their energy companies and utilities by giving them special status, which made it difficult for the strong British firms - such as Centrica, which owns British Gas - to go shopping for companies in the wider European market.

The sale of the UK's nuclear generators to EDF was not the first time the British had chosen to offload aspects of their critical nuclear energy industry. In 2005 - just as countries such as China started to invest heavily in nuclear energy - the British government sold off Westinghouse, which built nuclear reactors, to the Japanese firm Toshiba.

The fact that such a strategic industry is controlled by overseas companies - and even overseas governments - would be less significant if the problems of security of supply in the UK were not so pressing. For more than a decade, there has been an impasse at the heart of the UK's energy strategy over the question of nuclear power. Nuclear power is regarded as a cheap and green long-term source of electricity but the price of building power stations has accelerated sharply.

The costs of the first new nuclear station have risen from about £9bn to £15bn over the past five years. So no private company would invest in new nuclear without a government guarantee to take a certain proportion of power at a guaranteed price.

Centrica was part of the consortium that was to build the UK's first nuclear power stations for a generation until it suddenly pulled out this year citing to rising costs and delays. RWE and E.On pulled the plug on their joint venture nuclear energy company, Horizon, in 2011.

That left just one company prepared to build new nuclear power stations - EDF - and means the British government appears to be beholden to a foreign power.

"The government has an ambitious programme for investment in a low-carbon energy industry. It is trying very hard to make sure that the UK is attractive enough to bring in an unprecedented level of investment," says Mr Porter.

"It is not easy because investors are cautious. Not just because of the financial crisis but because they have seen some governments change their mind about returns, when things get too expensive."

The UK government remains in talks with EDF Energy over the price it will guarantee for electricity from the new nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point in Somerset in west England. A spokesman for EDF says only that talks are continuing and that "both sides have characterised them as positive".

Talks are believed to have focused on a price of £90 to £95 per megawatt hour. The sum would guarantee tens of billions of pounds of income to EDF over the lifespan of the contract, which could be as long as 40 years.

However, people familiar with the talks, who did not wish to be named, said the government now felt able to take a tougher negotiating line since recent geological surveys showed there might be 1.3 million cubic feet of shale gas in the north of England - double the previous estimates.

Perhaps France's hold on the UK's energy sector is not quite as firm as it thought. It is certainly proving costly.

According to EDF, it made an operating profit of £801m in the UK last year but invested £1.3bn in its existing nuclear and coal stations, new generation capacity, gas storage and in its customer supply business.

Insiders say its residential business did not make a profit.