By Christoph Steitz and Tom Käckenhoff
FRANKFURT/DUESSELDORF (Reuters) - A latecomer to renewable energy, Germany's RWE is trying to turn itself green at a time when it lacks the two resources it needs most: time and money.
Struggling with falling earnings, 35 billion euros ($48.2 billion) in net debt and a 72-percent drop in its shares from their 2008 peak, Germany's no. 2 utility has slashed the amount of its own cash that it plans to invest in wind, solar and other renewables, and is embarking on a search for partners.
Documents seen by Reuters this week outline a new 'capital-light' approach, under which RWE would bank on third parties to come up with most of the funds for expensive renewable projects.
"We are convinced that we are not the best capital provider for that investment program, even if we had the financial resources available," says one of the documents, entitled "RWE Corporate Story".
Outsourcing some of the green energy spending may be wise, given RWE's investment track record, but achieving the transformation will be neither quick nor easy. It is banking on financial investors, the papers show, and aiming to benefit from their growing interest in renewable assets.
RWE declined to comment on the new strategy.
"TRAIL OF TEARS"
The documents do not name prospective partners, but Allianz, Europe's biggest insurer, and Munich Re, Europe's biggest reinsurer, have started to pour billions into solar and wind parks, taking advantage of state-guaranteed returns.
Large wind parks usually require investments of at least 1 billion euros, but returns are guaranteed over roughly 20 years, giving pension funds a good and stable investment case.
RWE, in turn, has a proven track record of constructing and operating these plants.
Investors should not expect a quick fix, however.
"Debt-laden RWE is facing multiple and transformational challenges," said Michael Schaefer, analyst at Equinet Bank. "The 'trail of tears' is long, longer than the market may think."
German utilities face unprecedented challenges: a state-ordered exit from nuclear power; tepid energy demand in Europe; and a massive boom in renewable energy that is pushing conventional sources out of the market.
The installation of millions of solar panels has turned households into mini-producers of power and cut dependency on big players like RWE, E.ON and EnBW.
The squeeze forced RWE earlier this year to slash its investment goal for renewable unit RWE Innogy to 2 billion euros by 2015, down from 5 billion. It also scrapped a target of deriving more than a fifth of its production capacity from renewables by 2020, up from 8 percent now.
"Conventional power generation used to be the biggest profit driver at RWE. If this shrinks, so do investments," said Hans Peter Lafos, a member of RWE's supervisory board.
RWE has invested about 46 billion euros in new plants, technologies and acquisitions since 2006, the documents show, while operating profit has grown just 5 percent. Some 30-40 percent of its plants are loss-making, as a massive surplus in energy from renewable sources takes priority in being fed into the grid, increasingly edging out gas and coal plants.
RWE anticipates that profits from traditional power generation could plunge to zero by 2020, and could raise the share of earnings derived from renewables to up to 10 percent by that date, the documents show. The ratio is now less than 3 percent, compared with more than 12 percent at E.ON.
But in a country where some 25 gigawatts (GW) of solar capacity have been installed since 2010 -- equivalent to the capacity of 25 nuclear plants -- it takes patience as well as investment to catch up with the green trend, analysts say.
RWE Chief Executive Peter Terium, a soft-spoken 50-year-old Dutchman, can afford neither, repeatedly saying he aims to get the group back on track in the next two years.
Apart from seeking cash to finance its renewable expansion, RWE also aims to expand in the retail market, which includes energy services and management. But the peculiarities of these highly fragmented sectors make them hard to penetrate quickly.
RWE sees at least 370 million euros in additional operating earnings by 2022 that could come from decentralized business models, such as energy efficiency, according to the documents. This equates to 6 percent of group operating profit in 2012.
Terium has also said that RWE could serve as a fossil-fuel backstop for villages and cities that rely solely on green energy sources, adding RWE could also manage energy flows for those entities as a business model.
But there too, the going will be tough: the company will have to compete with many small and nimble start-ups that have been in play for some time. They include groups like power plant operator Next Kraftwerke, which links solar, wind and biogas units to respond fast and flexibly to big shifts in energy demand.
"This is a very laborious and small-scale business," said Thomas Deser, senior portfolio manager at Frankfurt-based Union Investment.
"E.ON and RWE are too far away." ($1 = 0.7262 euros)
(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)