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  James Metcalfe
  "Right now, there are no easy answers" to balancing energy needs and environmental concerns, says James Metcalfe.  Photo © David Neff

Theory into practice

James Metcalfe '91 sheds light on global power market

By Aubrey Henretty

When the national average price-per-gallon of gas tops $3, it is headline news. Nervous television personalities bombard pundits with the usual battery of questions: Is it permanent? Has world oil production peaked? Is the nation in crisis? Should we panic?

But for James Metcalfe '91, the global head of the power and utilities group in investment banking for international investment banking and wealth management firm UBS, it's just another day at the office.

"The effects of oil prices going up or down are muted" for many consumers, he says. "The U.S. market is looking at oil and feeling an enormous increase in prices," but a thriving world economy and a weak U.S. dollar have exaggerated the stateside surge. "Europe is not feeling it as much because they've seen such a conversion in dollars to euros." 

Metcalfe, previously a managing director and head of power M&A at Lehman Brothers, joined the Switzerland-based company in August. "I don't perceive myself to be — and don't want to be — a manager of managers," he says. "I love the client service business and being involved in deals."

The details of the global power market are frequently lost on consumers as energy costs rise and fall. Metcalfe points out that there's a lot more to it than the change in the price of oil.

"There have been three or four major thematic shifts that have taken place in the power sector," he says. In the 1990s, deregulation was meant to drive down prices for consumers and generate profits for investors, but power supply quickly exceeded demand. The 2001 Enron scandal "led people to believe this business was a lot riskier than it was" and scared away all but the most daring investors. In the years immediately following, says Metcalfe, management teams shifted the focus back to regulated business models concerned with reliability and cost of services. Today, funding is easier to come by, but the threat of global warming has sparked speculation in renewable energy and on a possible carbon tax.

"Right now," adds Metcalfe, "there are no easy answers."

First, he says, the U.S. government and the private sector should be asking themselves, "With higher prices for commodities, can the United States become more self-sufficient and environmentally friendly?" They should also consider how best to serve a population accustomed to cheap, reliable power but often hostile to expanding energy companies. Almost no one reacts favorably to the news that a new coal plant is coming to the neighborhood, and lingering public discomfort with nuclear power can create PR problems for companies that invest in it.

Some investors have their money on clean, renewable wind power, but Metcalfe doubts the solution will be that simple. "Wind power is predictable," he says, but not like flipping a switch. Statistical models can predict approximately when wind power will be available, but the wind won't blow on command.  Wind currently accounts for only 1 percent of electricity supplied in the U.S., he adds, so wind power alone is not going to keep America's air conditioners running all summer. A more sustainable power supply will have to come from a variety of sources — some more popular than others.

Metcalfe says his Kellogg education prepared him to approach difficult questions from every possible angle.

"Kellogg has such a unique culture," he says, and the school encourages teamwork and a certain "mental flexibility" that equips students to thrive in dynamic, high-pressure industries that transcend business environment, culture and time zone. Metcalfe advises students interested in global power to pay attention.

"Get ready for change," he says. "Be prepared to be mentally flexible."

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