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Utilities Like Newspapers in 2000: An Industry Primed for Disruption

August 12, 2011 | About:
Electric utilities today look a lot like newspapers in 2000: too much debt in an industry primed for disruption.
  1. Both had long been considered to be safe businesses with dependable income.
  2. Both took advantage of the seemingly dependable income to increase leverage (debt).
  3. Both face pressure from a disruptive technology (the Internet, and distributed generation and efficiency) with the potential to undermine their businesses.

Speaking at the Economist's Intelligent Infrastructure Conference, Brad Tirpak, managing partner at the private investment fund Locke Partners made the case that electric utilities are as woefully unprepared for the coming disruption of cheap, distributed solar power as newspapers were unprepared for the disruption of the Internet in 2000. Mr. Tirpak expects a similar story to play out in utilities as solar becomes cheaper and reaches grid parity.

In March of 2011, energy produced from renewable sources surpassed past both current and historical levels generated by nuclear energy. As older coal burning plants come offline due to age or regulatory concerns, there will be increased opportunity and incentive to expand the use of renewable energy sources.

Case study: The end of the newspaper era

Newspapers have not gone away and both local and national news journalism will always have a place on most people's home pages. However, the business of the traditional newspaper was undermined by changes in distribution channels. As readers and advertisers increasingly migrated to the Internet, circulation numbers dropped. When a company is highly leveraged with debt, a small drop in revenue is magnified into a proportionately larger drop in profit. To stay solvent, newspapers had to raise prices. Rising prices drove more readers away, starting the cycle all over again, and eventually leading to insolvency for many papers.

Applied learning: How this relates to the utility sector

In the present climate of rapidly rising energy costs, utilities such as Duke Energy (NYSE:DUK) must face the prospect that large industrial or commercial customers may choose to satisfy their energy needs independently. One small example of such initiative is the installation of solar windows on the south side of Chicago's historic Willis Tower, better known as the original Sear's Tower. Investment in on-site solar projects could result in a negative feedback loop similar to the one experienced by the newspaper industry at the end of the last century.

The basic economic model is that utility companies build large projects over many years and at great upfront capital expense, with the expectation that demand will justify the cost. This leaves the utility company exposed to risk from demand uncertainty and changes in energy costs. As the social agenda continues to adopt both voluntary and mandatory conservation efforts, this could drive demand down (cash-strapped and/or environmentally conscious consumers on the one hand and increased government regulation on the other). Scarcity of traditional energy resources, such as oil and coal, will drive up energy costs in the coming years.

As costs increase in the traditional energy generation sector, solar power will achieve cost parity more quickly. Thus, both cost and conservation concerns could drive businesses to adopt on-site solar power generation. If more customers are able to satisfy (a large enough part of) their own energy needs, utilities will have to increase prices to earn back their cost of capital, thus potentially creating a self-sustaining loop like the one experienced by the newspaper industry.


There are several important factors to take into consideration regarding any similarities between the utility industry and the newspaper industry.

First and foremost, utility customers are captive in a way that newspaper customers never were. The option of installing solar photovoltaic cells will most certainly change the way we pay for electricity, but the technology lacks the scalability necessary to free us from the grid.

Second, regulators and state budget makers have an extremely vested interest in insuring that utilities earn back their invested capital. Utility regulators are charged both with ensuring that utility customers get service at a reasonable cost, and also that utility investors will continue to be willing to provide capital for necessary utility investments. If the rapid adoption of alternative energy were to threaten utility solvency, regulators would be forced to take action.


Regulated utilities should be able to handle the imminent changes to the industry brought about by the implementation of solar energy and other renewable sources, but at the cost of their profit margins, as they must be willing to accept lower returns on capital to remain competitive with new energy sources.

Traditional utilities like Southern Company (NYSE:SO) will see lower rates of return on invested capital and thus most likely a contraction in P/E multiples. Independent power producers like NRG Energy (NYSE:NRG) could face severe headwinds trying to sell their energy into a newly competitive spot market.

I would be particularly bearish of coal power producers, primarily due to the threat of regulatory action.

Furthermore, I would be reluctant to view this demographic trend as necessarily implying that solar module manufacturers like First Solar (NASDAQ:FSLR) are a safe play based on implications of rising demand. The solar industry is highly commoditized and the increase in demand for product may not translate into higher profits across the board.

The real winner in this may ultimately be the consumer, who will have more options for realizing his or her energy needs at competitive prices, while reducing the aggregate demand for fossil fuels.


1. http://escholarship.org/uc/item/9kw6t4h5#page-9

2. http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=2450

3. ttp://www.altenergystocks.com/archives/2007/08/why_energy_efficiency_is_a_hard_sell_2.html

4. http://www.eia.gov/cneaf/solar.renewables/page/solarreport/solarpv.html

5. http://www.pythagoras-solar.com/company/news-and-events/pressrelease-willis-tower.php

6. http://gigaom.com/cleantech/the-vision-for-solar-windows/

Rating: 3.5/5 (28 votes)


Graemew - 6 years ago    Report SPAM
I think the high leverage of utility companies is a huge risk in itself, irrespective of whether solar energy becomes a viable alternative in the medium term. This is because of the uncertainty regarding future interest rates...which in my opinion have only one way to go now, and that isn't down.
Tonyg34 - 6 years ago    Report SPAM
@Graemew - thank you for taking the time to comment

Correct: the basic assumption in investing in utilities is sell on inflation, buy on deflation, and hold on stagflation. Regulated utilities feel the most pain during high-inflation periods with their mostly fixed rates, required infrastructure investments, and constant financing needs. Independent power producers (renewable or traditional) rely on demand growth to reward their high up front investment costs. It will be interesting to see how deregulation affects long term results in the sector as new supplies come online to compete with the regulated utilities. Obviously, I am worried about the prospects for regulated utilities longer term.

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