AES Corporation History

1001 North 19th Street
Arlington, Virginia 22209

Telephone: (703) 522-1315
Fax: (703) 528-4510

Public Company
Incorporated: 1981 as Applied Energy Sources
Employees: 38,000
Sales: $9.3 billion (2001)
Stock Exchanges: New York
Ticker Symbol: AES
NAIC: 221122 Electric Power Distribution; 221121 Electric Bulk Power Transmission and Control; 221111 Hydroelectric Power Generation; 221112 Fossil Fuel Electric Power Generation; 221119 Other Electric Power Generation

Company Perspectives:

Our mission is to help serve the world's need for electricity. One of the only centrally-controlled aspects of AES is our commitment to four major shared principles: to act with integrity, to be fair, to have fun, and to be socially responsible. These principles are goals and aspirations to guide the efforts of the people of AES as we carry out the mission of the company.

Key Dates:

PURPA is enacted into law.
Roger W. Sant and Dennis W. Bakke establish Applied Energy Sources.
Nearly all of the company's assets are invested in a coal-burning plant in Beaver Valley, Pennsylvania.
The Beaver plant begins production.
The firm changes its name to AES Corp. and goes public.
AES begins to pursue ventures in developing countries.
Britain's coal-fired Drax plant and Cilcorp Inc. are acquired; the company enters the retail electricity market.
AES launches a major restructuring effort and announces the sale of several assets and plants.

Company History:

AES Corporation is one of the largest independent producers of electrical power in the world, with an ownership stake in 177 facilities in Argentina, Australia, Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, China, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Hungary, India, Kazakhstan, the Netherlands, Mexico, Pakistan, Panama, the United Kingdom, Venezuela, and the United States. The company supplies more than 59 gigawatts of electricity worldwide to 16 million customers through its electricity distribution network. The company's operations are grouped into four major business segments: Contract Generation; Competitive Supply; Large Utilities; and Growth Distribution. AES experienced remarkable growth during the 1990s and into 2000, with assets growing from $11 billion in 1997 to $37 billion in 2001. Due to an economic slowdown and volatile overseas markets, AES began a major restructuring effort in 2002 that included the sale of certain assets.

The Development of PURPA: Late 1970s

AES was the invention of Roger W. Sant and Dennis W. Bakke, who had served together in the Federal Energy Administration (FEA) during the Nixon and Ford administrations in the early to mid-1970s. Sant had been a lecturer at the Stanford School of Business; Bakke, a Harvard MBA and career government employee, was his assistant. As part of their work at the FEA, the two had been instrumental in drafting preliminary versions of the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA).

The law was part of the federal government's attempt to deal with America's energy crisis, which, according to prevailing opinion at the time, was caused largely by American dependence on foreign oil. Seeking to reduce this dependence, PURPA mandated that electrical utilities fulfill any need they might have for new power by seeking out qualified cogenerators and independent, small-scale, private-sector power producers. The law further stipulated that the cost of power provided by these facilities be less than a utility's "avoided cost"--that is, the cost incurred by the utility if it generated the power itself.

Prior to PURPA, by contrast, utilities typically secured additional power by building a new power-generating facility, which was usually oil dependent. Otherwise they purchased new power on the open market from yet another oil-dependent utility. PURPA, however, changed that, since it effectively required utilities to fulfill their energy needs by turning instead to cogenerators and other oil-independent power producers.

PURPA was enacted into law in 1978--four years after Sant and Bakke had left the government to found an energy research institute, or "think tank," at Carnegie Mellon University. That was also the year in which President Carter declared America's energy crisis to be the "moral equivalent of war," as Americans experienced oil and gas shortages, long lines at the gas pumps, and fear of what the crisis portended for its future. Because of their formative work experience in government at the height of this crisis and their subsequent related work experience in academe, Sant and Bakke were well familiar with the contours of this problem--and familiar as well with the rapidly emerging business opportunities spawned by the new law.

What Sant and Bakke were quick to realize--and, at the time, were virtually alone in recognizing--was that PURPA had the paved the way for a burgeoning market in independent, private-sector power production. In part this was because of the new law's mandate that outside purchases of power be made from cogenerators and independent, small-scale, private-sector power producers. It also stemmed, however, from the fact that PURPA shielded new producers from costly state government regulation and subjected them instead to less onerous federal rules and strictures. In practice, this meant that new producers typically could undercut a utility's "avoided cost."

Applied Energy Sources Is Established: 1981

AES was founded in 1981 as Applied Energy Sources, and it took several years for Sant and Bakke to taste real success. The novelty of their idea and the untested nature of the market in which they sought to do business made it difficult to attract capital financing. Investors were understandably wary and skeptical of the firm's chances for success. One year's worth of effort netted the firm only $1.1 million in venture capital--a inadequate sum on which to build an electric power company. "From 1981 to 1985," reported the Washington Post, "one potential project participant after another--including ARCO, IBM, Bechtel Corp. and other large companies--marched in and then backed out of agreements with tiny AES."

The firm's luck took a turn for the better in 1985, when Sant and Bakke invested all of AES's assets in a single deal: a Beaver Valley, Pennsylvania, coal-burning plant. The deal was closed in September 1985 and the plant commenced production in 1987, marking a turning point for the company, which would never again have to depend upon the success of a single project for its very survival.

By then, in fact, AES had two plants up and running: its Beaver Valley facility supplied 125 megawatts of electricity to residents and commercial outfits in the Pittsburgh area; its Deepwater, Texas, power plant, which, fueled by petroleum coke, went on line in June 1986, supplied 143 megawatts of electricity to homeowners and businesses in the Houston area. Financial arrangements for Deepwater had been completed on December 30, 1983, and, in addition to AES, involved 12 other companies: ARCO, Bechtel, J.P. Morgan, eight supporting banks, and the General Electric Credit Corporation.

It was an auspicious start for the struggling company, which, over the course of the next 11 years (1984-94), proceeded to build or acquire ten new power plants. According to an article in a 1993 issue of Financial World magazine, the average utility, by contrast, might "build one large facility every 10 or 15 years." AES sales, consequently, more than tripled in two years, rising from only $55.4 million in 1988 to $190.2 million in 1990. Sales grew an additional 75 percent the following year, while net company income witnessed similarly spectacular growth, soaring from $1.6 million in 1988 to $42.6 million in 1991.

AES Goes Public: 1991

Buoyed by its success, the company changed its name from Applied Energy Sources to AES and became a publicly traded company on the NASDAQ stock exchange in 1991--the company listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 1996. Company stock began and closed the year priced at $22.18 a share, with investors earning 66 cents per share. Sant assumed the position of company chairman, while Bakke became the firm's president and CEO. Together, they owned approximately 27 percent of all AES stock.

In these early growth years, AES's primary source of profits and revenue was the domestic U.S. power market. Bakke, for instance, estimated that up until about the mid-1992, 70 percent of the money that AES spent on new business activity was spent in the United States. The remaining 30 percent, he noted, was spent in the United Kingdom.

These investments yielded very good results. A November 1993 report by the investment banking firm of Kidder Peabody, for example, found that from 1988 to 1992 AES revenues grew at an annual compounded rate of 64 percent. Company earnings during that same time period, the report noted, likewise soared at an annual rate of 136 percent. In 1991, AES was recognized by the leading chronicler of American business, Forbes magazine, as one of "America's fastest growing companies," an honor it again earned in 1992 and 1993.

Promoting a Socially Conscious Image

In conjunction with this success, AES staked out a reputation as one of the world's most socially conscious and organizationally innovative companies. Such distinctions were a legacy of Sant and Bakke and a direct consequence of their backgrounds. Bakke was a devout Christian who readily acknowledged that his religious beliefs formed the basis of his world view. Sant, too, was raised a Christian, specifically a Mormon, and was an ardent environmentalist. Moreover, Bakke and Sant shared a common formative work experience in the federal bureaucracy, which inspired in them a deep and abiding distrust of centralized bureaucracies in either the public or private sector. Nevertheless, their youthful and idealistic desire to work for the government resulted in a strong and life-long commitment to public service.

Such principles and beliefs made AES a rather unique company. Indeed, Bakke and Sant maintained that the firm's primary goal was to build and nurture a firm that embodied their shared values, specifically integrity, fairness, fun, and social responsibility. A company that embodied these values, they felt, would in all likelihood make money. For AES, however, profits were neither an end in and of themselves nor the chief reason for the firm's existence. Rather, according to Bakke and Sant, money was the natural and inevitable byproduct of the firm's shared values. As Bakke told CFO magazine in 1995: "The most socially responsible thing we can do is to do a really good job of fulfilling our business mission, which is to provide clean, reliable, safe, low-cost electricity around the world."

By conscious design, in fact, AES plants were among the safest and cleanest in the world, with pollution-emissions rates, accident rates, and "plant availability" time all setting the standard for the electric power industry. "Plant availability" referred to the percentage of total potential capacity at which a plant was able to operate; taken as a group, AES power-generating facilities consistently averaged at least 90 percent availability. Moreover, Financial World magazine reported in 1993 that "the company's number of lost-time accidents is 44 percent below the national average." Regarding its pollution-emissions rates, AES plants were reportedly running an estimated 58 percent below permitted emission levels for sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, averaging nearly one-sixth the rate reported by the majority of American plants.

To further protect the environment, AES committed itself to a tree planting and preservation program, whereby the company agreed to plant or preserve enough trees to offset the carbon dioxide emissions from its power-generating facilities. Study into such a program was initiated in 1987 after growing concern by company executives that such emissions were contributing to global warming and therefore having a deleterious effect on the environment. The program got underway in earnest two years later when AES committed itself to planting more than 52 million trees in Guatemala over roughly a ten-year period. The project cost the company an estimated $2 million, an amount that reportedly nearly equaled AES profits for that year.

Similar company efforts to plant and preserve trees, woodlands, and forests followed, including a $3 million effort undertaken in conjunction with Oxfam America, an international development group, to preserve 3.7 million acres of South American forest. The program was unique in that to save this land from development and exploitation, AES and Oxfam were helping pioneer a private property-rights approach to environmental protection by helping indigenous peoples in South America establish ownership rights to their territorial homelands. It also involved developing land-management programs that would help keep this land in good condition for decades to come.

Other company-sponsored social programs included the funding and construction of a $1.5 million public elementary school in Panama, Oklahoma, the site of one of its power-generating facilities. According to AES's chief financial officer, Barry Sharp, this was done to give something back to the town, which had given AES generous tax breaks to build the facility. In 1994, when construction of the school was completed, it was dedicated and turned over to the local school district. AES also established a consulting arm, AES Greenhouse Offset Group, to help other electric power companies be environmentally responsible and progressive. In recognition of these efforts, Harvard University honored AES in 1994 with its George S. Dively Award for Corporate Public Initiative.

Organizationally, AES established a decentralized corporate culture that gave company employees responsibility for most all aspects of business management. "Frequent and intensive cross-training, role rotation, and finance education for everyone are the rule," reported CFO magazine. At AES, no more than three layers of management separated an AES entry-level employee from the firm's plant supervisor, each power-generating facility was responsible for its own affairs, and there were no company-wide departments for finance, human resources, operations, purchasing, or public relations. Consequently, the few company officers assigned to these areas acted typically as distant in-house advisors to the plant project management team responsible for a given project rather than as more conventional hands-on corporate facilitators. For plant financing, for example, CFO Barry Sharp raised less than 10 percent of the estimated $3.5 billion needed for AES's first ten power plants; most of the necessary financing was raised by each plant's own multi-disciplinary project team, composed of a broad cross-section of AES employees. By all accounts, this management system worked spectacularly well for AES. By giving workers a greater sense of involvement in, and responsibility for, their own professional destiny, employee morale was boosted. In 1995, annual employee turnover was averaging less than 1 percent, according company executives.

Like all management systems, however, the AES program faced challenges. One of the earliest and most significant breakdowns occurred in 1992 when the company disclosed that employees at its plant in Oklahoma had falsified the results of waste-water test samples in order to retain pollution permits from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The workers responsible for the infraction said they feared losing their jobs if their violation of EPA pollution standards became known. In fact, the infraction actually had little substantive impact on AES since the pollution effect being covered up proved negligible and the company itself disclosed to the government that it had broken the law. The workers responsible were fined, demoted, and placed on probation, but not fired. Sant and Bakke voluntarily cut their own bonus pay for that year by 65 percent and 85 percent, respectively. The company publicly apologized for the incident and paid a $125,000 EPA fine. In addition, employees at the Oklahoma plant imposed upon themselves another layer of management supervision and environmental monitoring before eventually re-adopting AES's standard management system.

Also in 1992, the state of Florida charged AES with misleading state officials about the environmental impact of a coal-fired power plant then under construction in Jacksonville. A subsequent state investigation cleared AES of any wrongdoing. By the time the state eventually concluded its investigation, however, the banks providing financing for the facility had cut off funding for the power plant, thus forcing AES to sell off its financial interest in the facility, cut its losses, and abandon the project, despite the fact that construction was nearly complete.

In spite of these difficulties, AES appeared to have a bright and promising future. In the early 1990s, independent, small-scale, private-sector power producers generated only 9 percent of electricity in the United States. The U.S. Department of Energy estimated, however, that they would account for nearly 40 percent of all new electrical generating capacity added in the United States by the turn of the century. Certainly, AES's growth record bore this out, as company profits grew by some 650 percent from 1990 to 1994, and earnings per share during that same time period also grew dramatically, by approximately 500 percent.

International Expansion: Mid- to Late 1990s

Despite the opportunities for continued growth in the U.S. power market, however, AES began to look abroad for most of its new business ventures in the early 1990s. In fact, by 1995, the firm was spending an estimated 85 percent of its venture capital abroad. Six AES divisions worldwide emerged: AES Electric, which serviced Europe, the Middle East, and Africa; AES Enterprise; AES Chigen, which serviced China; AES Transpower (Asia, Hawaii, and the American West Coast); AES Shady Point; and AES Americas (Latin America).

The company's shift to the developing world was in part a natural reaction to its experience with its defunct Jacksonville power plant. The plant's failure underscored the relative difficulty independent power producers had doing business in the United States as opposed to overseas, where environmental restrictions were more flexible in part because the cost of pollution there was more easily offset by the benefits of electrical power. As AES company executive Sheryl Sturges told the Washington Post in 1995: "In the developing world, electricity produced from coal and other sources can make the difference between life and death. It can mean refrigeration for medicines and light for schoolchildren to study by."

AES's U.S. government tax levy rose sharply in the mid-1990s, from an effective rate of taxation of 23 percent in 1993 to 40 percent in 1996. In the developing world, by contrast, which was hungry for electrical energy, governments were eliminating tax and regulatory barriers that stymied the efforts of independent power producers.

In fact, the developing world's heightened need for electrical power was the chief reason AES shifted most of its new business ventures abroad. Electricity consumption in the United States, for instance, was expected to grow at an average annual rate of 1.9 percent until the year 2010, according to the Edison Electric Institute. The demand for electricity in the rest of the world, however, was projected to grow at nearly twice that rate, at an estimated annual rate of 4 percent during that same time period, according to the International Energy Agency.

According to Sant, the world needed $30 billion worth of new power plants a year through the year 2000. China and India alone, he suggested, would need three times more generating power over the next ten years than all of North America combined, and thus would require some $500 billion in power plant financing. As such, AES began an international expansion effort that would position it as the world's largest independent power company. As overseas governments began privatizing their utilities sectors, AES stepped in by making acquisitions and constructing new plants.

By 1999, the Virginia-based company operated in 24 countries and over half of its profits stemmed from its operations outside the United States and Europe. That year, AES paid National Power plc $3 billion for the Drax power station, which supplies power to England and Wales. The company also began diversifying into telecommunications and investing in fiber optic networks in Brazil and Bolivia.

While the company completed a series of acquisitions during the late 1990s and 2000 as part of its global strategy, it made several key moves on the home front as well. In 1998, it announced its $885 million purchase of U.S.-based Cilcorp Inc., which was completed the following year. The firm also acquired California-based NewEnergy Inc. in July 1999. AES then took advantage of deregulation in the U.S. energy sector by creating Power Direct, a retail subsidiary that served U.S. consumers in deregulated markets. Then, in 2000, the firm acquired Indiana-based IPALCO Enterprises Inc. for $3 billion.

Success for AES continued into the new century. The company acquired Venezuelan utility C.A. La Electricidad de Caracas in a $1.7 billion hostile takeover. The firm also set plans in motion to acquire a stake in Chilean utility Gener S.A., and expanded into Bolivia, Nigeria, and Oman. In 2000, revenues climbed to $7.5 billion, up from $2.2 billion in 1997. In early 2001, AES's growth and expansion appeared to be unflappable.

Overcoming Hardships in the New Century

By this time, the majority of the firm's revenues stemmed from its South American operations. The firm's reliance on global economies, however, eventually caught up with it. An economic slowdown, which worsened after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, threatened future growth at AES. Falling power prices in Britain, a political and social crisis in Argentina, and faltering currency exchange rates in Brazil also caused earnings to plummet. Overall, earnings fell to $273 million in 2001, down from $795 million in 2000.

In order to combat falling electricity prices, tumultuous emerging markets, and a slowdown in capital, AES announced a major restructuring and cost cutting effort in early 2002, which included a possible sale of various Latin American holdings. Select construction projects were put on hold and capital spending was reduced by $490 million. The company announced plans to sell Cilcorp, an interest in IPALCO, a portion of Dominican Republic-based Itabo, and certain AES facilities. The firm also began to divest its merchant generation businesses and in June 2002 announced the sale of its NewEnergy arm to Constellation Energy Group.

That month, Paul Hanrahan took over as president and CEO after Bakke announced his retirement. "The entire power sector has undergone a crisis of confidence, and investors are demanding change. Although AES has grown a great deal during my tenure, it became clear to me that this is a time for a new CEO. Different times require different leaders," proclaimed co-founder Bakke in a June 2002 company press release. The new leader indeed had his work cut out for him and pledged to restore and maximize shareholder value. While AES appeared to have some tough times ahead, its remarkable history of success left it on a solid platform for future growth.

Principal Subsidiaries: IPALCO Enterprises Inc.; Eletropaulo Metropolitana (Brazil); Companhia Energetica de Minas Gerias (CEMIG) (Brazil); C.A. La Electricidad de Caracas (Venezuela).

Principal Competitors: Duke Energy Corp.; Endesa S.A.; Mirant Corporation.

Further Reading:

  • "AES: Back to Basics," Project Finance," March 2002, p. 6.
  • "The AES Corporation (AESC)," Wall Street Transcript, February 27, 1995.
  • Birchard, Bill, "Power to the People," CFO: The Magazine for Senior Financial Executives, March 1995, pp. 38-43.
  • Buchanan, Leigh, "The Way We Work," CIO: The Magazine for Information Executives, August 1994, pp. 33-77.
  • "Cilcorp Sold for $1.4 Billion, Crain's Chicago Business, May 6, 2002, p. 58.
  • Cropper, Carol M., "A Four-Letter Dirty Word," Forbes, January 17, 1994, p. 83.
  • Egan John, "Power Plays," Financial World, February 4, 1992, pp. 28-29.
  • Markels, Alex, "A Power Producer Is Intent on Giving Power to Its People," Wall Street Journal, July 3, 1995.
  • McDonald, Duff, "Why AES Is a Smart Power Play," Money, April 1, 1999, p. 56A.
  • Rubino, John, "Powering the Planet--and Saving It," Virginia Business, September 1993, pp. 49-52.
  • Southerland, Daniel, "The International Power Generators: Arlington's AES Corporation Leads a Battery of U.S. Energy Companies Expanding Overseas," Washington Post, May 22, 1995, Bus. Sec., pp. 1, 12-13.
  • Waterman, Jr., Robert H. "Values from the Start: Culture Is Strategy at the AES Corporation," in What America Does Right, New York: Penguin Books, 1994, pp. 111-36.
  • Webb-Vidal, Andy, "The Predator Strikes Again," LatinFinance, November 2001, p. 48.
  • Wee, Heesun, "AES: A High-Powered Utility With a Conscience," Business Week, March 29, 2001.
  • ------, "A Nasty Short-Circuit as AES," Business Week, October 4, 2001.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 53. St. James Press, 2003.