* Nuclear unit still accounts for 17 pct of profits
* Lower returns could hit network profit by 150 mln euros
* Enerjisa IPO on track for February, no exit from Turkey (Adds additional executive comments, context)
By Christoph Steitz and Tom Käckenhoff
BERLIN, Jan 24 (Reuters) - E.ON aims to offset a looming drop in profit from its German nuclear plants, which are being phased out by 2022, by increasing earnings from networks, renewables and retail, one of its board members said.
Germany is getting out of nuclear power after Japan’s Fukushima disaster and E.ON’s legacy business contributed 357 million euros ($442 million), or about a sixth, to its operating profit in the first nine months.
But that will disappear once its remaining German nuclear plants - Grohnde, Brokdorf and Isar 2 - stop operating, leaving E.ON with regulated gas and power grids, energy retail operations and renewable assets, mostly wind.
“We aim to compensate the expected profit deficit in the area of nuclear power by growing our other three divisions,” Leonhard Birnbaum, chief operating officer for E.ON’s networks and renewables, told Reuters.
E.ON now has the financial firepower to fund growth, having raked in more than 8 billion euros recently through a capital increase, a refund on nuclear fuel taxes and the sale of its remaining stake in Uniper, which it spun off in 2016.
Networks account for about two third of E.ON’s profits and form the core its business. They benefit from guaranteed returns on investments set by regulators and needed no acquisitions or disposals to grow, Birnbaum said. “Our networks business is a fundamentally growing area, even without M&A ... We see this growth not only in Germany, but also in Sweden and eastern Europe. Those are booming markets.”
But networks must also shoulder the cost of integrating large amounts of intermittent renewable energy sources, mostly solar and wind, which will require billions of euros in investment over the next few years.
E.ON’s network business also faces a profit squeeze, as Germany’s network agency plans to cut investment returns, causing grid operators to take legal action to protect their earnings.
If implemented in their current form, these lower returns would cut profit by about 150 million euros a year from 2019, Birnbaum said, adding that the exact impact was still unclear given ongoing legal proceedings.
Birnbaum said that a more efficient dismantling process of its nuclear plants could lead to lower costs, which would benefit the bottom line, adding E.ON hoped to ultimately spend less than the 9.6 billion euros set aside for the task.
A planned February listing of Enerjisa could also help, with strong demand expected for the sale of up to a fifth of the its Turkish joint venture with Sabanci, which IFR reported could be valued at more than $2 billion.
“There are no plans to exit Turkey,” Birnbaum said. ($1 = 0.8080 euros) (Editing by Maria Sheahan and Alexander Smith)