PARIS (Reuters) - Every new solar panel installed on European rooftops chips away at power utilities' centralised production model. Unless they reinvent themselves soon, these giants risk becoming the dinosaurs of the energy market.
The industry faces drastic change as renewable energy turns consumers into producers and hollows out the dominance of utilities. With their stocks at decade lows and a millstone of debt around their necks, Europe's utilities have little margin for error.
In Germany, where 22 percent of its electricity came from renewable sources in 2012, the big four utilities - E.ON (EONGn.DE), RWE (RWEG.DE), EnBW and Vattenfall Europe - are nearly absent in this new sector.
Of the 71 gigawatts of renewable energy capacity installed at the end of 2011, the four owned just 7 percent, environment ministry data show. A gigawatt roughly corresponds to the capacity of one nuclear plant.
Individuals owned 40 percent of renewables capacity, energy niche players 14 percent, farmers 11 percent, various energy-intensive industrial companies 9 percent, and financial companies 11 percent. Small regional utilities and international utilities owned another 7 percent.
In the solar industry the big four are even more marginal, having ceded 97 percent to investors from outside the power industry, Lueneburg University researcher Mario Richter said.
"Utilities produce electricity, and here's a new technology for producing electricity, and they are not in there. They have completely missed the opportunity," Richter said.
Richter, who has interviewed 20 German utilities managers about the impact of renewables on their firms, said it has taken them years to acknowledge the potential of solar and wind.
In Bavaria alone, 200,000 of the 2.3 million electricity users have their own solar panels, turning 8.5 percent of electricity consumers there into independent producers.
In Italy and Spain, where solar also contributes around 3 percent of total power, the situation is similar to Germany.
In countries like France and the UK, with solar at just 0.4 and 0.1 percent of generation, centralised production still reigns supreme, but decentralised production by corporations and municipalities - with biomass and windmills - is eating into utilities' market share.
Peter Terium, CEO of RWE, acknowledges that the move from large conventional power stations towards decentralised plants and renewables is a fundamental change that is hurting the economic viability of RWE's power plant fleet.
"We have to adjust to the fact that, in the longer term, earning capacity in conventional electricity generation will be markedly below what we've seen in recent years," he said, adding that this put strains on RWE's business model.
The renewables wave could not have come at a worse time.
The liberalisation of Europe's energy markets has sparked a rush for consolidation among utilities, leaving the continent with about a dozen big but highly indebted behemoths.
Worse, electricity demand, already hit by the drive for energy efficiency, has shrunk since the euro zone crisis began.
As a result, utilities shares have been the worst performers among 19 major sectors since early 2008.
The Stoxx Euro 600 Utilities index .SX6P, with its January 1, 2008, level rebased to 100, now trades at 46, compared with 81 for the all-industry Stoxx Europe 600 . The euro zone-only utilities index .SX6E is at 35 and has lost 312 billion euros (271 billion pounds) in market cap.
Gerard Mestrallet, CEO of French gas utility GDF Suez GSZ.PA, said that 10 years ago the European energy world was a juxtaposition of regional monopolies. "Those days are gone forever," he told reporters this month.
"Some consumers have become producers; it is a real revolution," he said.
GDF Suez is adapting its strategy to this new world, embarking on three new lines of business, all of which have been tried by other utilities in Europe, with varying success.
The first was to seek growth in energy-hungry emerging markets, where the model of centralised production in thermal plants still works - 40 percent of GDF Suez's 116 gigawatt generation capacity is now in high-growth markets.
Secondly, it set up a division to help institutional clients use energy more efficiently. The unit, with more than a third of GDF Suez's 220,000 staff, operates heating and cooling systems, including in landmark skyscrapers like Dubai's Burj Khalifa.
"Our philosophy is to embrace energy efficiency and renewable energy and, more fundamentally, to be energy partners for our customers," Mestrallet said.
Thirdly, like nearly all its peers, it is building up its own renewables business, but it is behind the curve. Renewables represent only about 3 percent of its generation capacity, compared with over 30 percent for Spain's Iberdrola (IBE.MC). Many utilities have set up renewables units, and some have listed, like Italy's Enel Green Power EGPW.MI.
Ultimately, utilities could become aggregators of electric power, much as Google aggregates content, with the difference that regulators will require that power keeps flowing and the lights stay on. Several countries, including France, Spain and the UK, are preparing legislation to set up capacity mechanisms, under which utilities would be paid for keeping capacity on standby.
"In a future electricity system, the electricity network company could essentially be an insurance company, providing insurance against not having sunshine when you need power," said International Energy Agency economist Laszlo Varro.
Meanwhile, utilities have not quite figured out how to engage with Europe's sun-harvesting citizens, which Varro says number about a million, mainly in Germany and Italy.
Utilities could benefit greatly if they did not treat rooftop solar as competition for their thermal plants but as a gateway into that new market, Richter argues.
Utilities could sell solar panels, provide financing and grid connection, and build a service relationship to generate a revenue stream.
But while there is a lot of talk about this model, working examples are few and far between. In the United States, Austin Energy and New Jersey's PSEG (PEG.N) have experimented with helping customers run solar panels on a small scale.
"It is overly optimistic to think that utilities could offset reduced consumption or increased renewable micro-generation simply by creating value for customers in managing that decrease," said Liberum Capital analyst Guillaume Regdwell.
The most likely scenario is that value lost by utilities will be captured by non-utility players who sell products that enable more energy autarky.
If utilities are the losers in this game, the winners are solar panel and windmill makers, the hundreds of small firms that install solar systems, and the thousands of consumers who have turned their roofs into mini-power plants.
Other winners are companies in the energy efficiency business: building materials firms like Saint Gobain (SGOB.PA) that sell double glazing, chemical firms like Recticel (RECT.BR) that sell insulation, and heating systems manufacturers like privately owned Vaillant and Viessmann, which sell heat pumps, solar systems and energy-saving equipment.
As if to illustrate the power shift from once-mighty utilities, GDF Suez this month lost its place in the blue-chip Stoxx Europe 50 index .STOXX50 to Schneider Electric (SCHN.PA), a specialist in energy management systems and smart grids.
Even renewables fans agree that centralised generation will not disappear, as renewable energy will need the back-up of traditional power plants.
But the longer renewables are subsidised, said Redgwell, allowing them to obtain critical mass and become cheaper, the greater the possibility that their price will rival retail electricity prices, in a classic threat of substitution.
"In the long term, competitive, non-subsidised renewables could be a big win for society. And a big loss for utilities."
Additional reporting by Christoph Steitz; Editing by Will Waterman