Friday, October 09, 2015

What the Congressional Hearing on VW Missed

I made time in my schedule to watch yesterday's Congressional hearing on the VW scandal on C-SPAN. It left me with very much the same sense tweeted by Amy Harder of the Wall Street Journal, though perhaps for different reasons:

Similarly to the Deepwater Horizon hearing, some of the Members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee used the occasion to demonstrate that their outrage over this event equaled or exceeded that of their constituents back home. This is par for the course. But just as when confronted with the highly technical issues of a well blowout in the deep water of the Gulf of Mexico, the committee's members would also have benefited from more technical advice prior to and during the hearing.

In particular, I thought they missed key opportunities to follow up on answers given by the CEO of Volskwagen's US subsidiary, Michael Horn. One example followed Mr. Horn's response to a question about the timeline for attempting to fix the company's non-complying diesel cars from model years 2009-2015.

He explained that the affected models included three generations of engine and emissions treatment technology. The oldest, which he described as "Gen-1" would be the hardest to fix and was clearly not amenable to merely updating the engine management software to remove the "defeat device" code. However, he also indicated that the newest generation might be fixed in exactly that way. That's because they already incorporate the Selective Catalytic Reduction and urea technology used in bigger, more expensive models. The question left hanging in the air but never asked was why VW would have abandoned the exhaust-gas-recirculation (EGR) technology that had been matched to the 2-liter diesel engine since 2009, if it was convinced the cheaper technology was doing the job.

Several members of the committee pointed out to both Mr. Horn and Christopher Grundler, the EPA official responsible for emissions compliance, that although the EPA had indicated these cars were safe to drive and would not be pulled off the road, they would be emitting unacceptable levels of NOx until they were recalled and repaired.  Mr. Horn had already indicated that might take up to two years, which seemed quite realistic.

Despite Mr. Grundler's expertise, everyone seemed to treat these emissions as an unalterable circumstance, ignoring the fact that NOx is a traded commodity in the US. In fact, the markets for NOx and SOx emissions credits--overseen by the EPA--have been so effective that they provided the intellectual spark for the whole idea of CO2 cap-and-trade. In light of that, I was surprised that no one suggested that VW, either voluntarily or at the direction of the EPA, should immediately purchase NOx credits equivalent to the excess emissions of the affected cars until they have been brought into compliance.

Of course that wouldn't be a perfect substitute for tailpipe compliance. Unlike CO2, NOx acts locally, rather than globally. However, as I understand it the NOx markets function regionally, and I would be surprised if there wasn't a reasonable overlap between the geographic concentrations of VW diesel car sales and the focus of the NOx markets in the Northeast, Midwest and California. Buying large blocks of  NOx credits would push  up the price for these instruments and prompt more emissions reductions from power plants and other participants in these markets, leaving the air cleaner.

I am sure many of those watching the hearings shook their heads when Mr. Horn expressed his belief that the responsibility for circumventing the cars' emission controls likely rested with a few software engineers, rather than a corporate decision. Representative Chris Collins (R-NY) channeled a lot of frustration when he rejected that idea on the basis that if VW had found software to fix diesel emissions it would have rushed to patent the idea. I'm less certain of that in this age of widespread technology outsourcing. For VW's diesels, much of the key hardware came from vendors, and I would expect the same to be true for software. I was hoping someone would ask whether the "defeat device" software itself had been sourced from a vendor.

Either way, it was clear that Mr. Horn was struggling with the disconnect between his own beliefs about the situation and the facts that had emerged. I experienced something similar when my former employer, Texaco Inc., was embroiled in a scandal over diversity in the 1990s. The newspaper accounts I read of blatant discrimination in closed-door meetings were at odds with everything I knew about a company for which I had worked for two decades. Mr. Horn expressed similar feelings, but I doubt they provided much consolation to those whom VW's actions have harmed.

In that vein, there was a lot of speculation about damages and remedies at yesterday's hearing.  It was clear that most of the committee shared the view of one member, who advised VW to be "aggressively compliant" in responding to its customers and dealers. However, suggestions that the company offer "loaners" to all 500,000 affected customers seemed detached from reality, as did the notion that VW should voluntarily refund the full purchase price of these cars. A quick calculation puts the price tag on that idea in the $10-20 billion range, before paying any of the fines and penalties that seem inevitable in this case. I don't know what compensation I'd want if I had bought a diesel VW, instead of a gasoline model, but I don't think I'd be counting on getting my purchase price back.

Yesterday's hearing had its share of posturing, but on balance I thought it contributed to our understanding of the scandal and the next steps in the process. The panel treated Mr. Horn with remarkable civility, under the circumstances. That is likely attributable to his having been among the first to admit that the company had "screwed up." Perhaps his most telling remark yesterday was that they would have to figure out how to manage a company of 600,000 people differently, after this. "This company has to bloody learn," was how he put it. I imagine we'll be hearing a lot more in the weeks and months ahead about exactly what those lessons are, and how much they will cost.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

How Shale Reduced US Energy Risks from Hurricanes

  • The Gulf of Mexico will be a key region for energy supplies for years to come, but shale development has boosted output elsewhere to such an extent that the US is much less vulnerable than a decade ago to shortages resulting from hurricanes.
Just in time for the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina last month, the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported on the reduced vulnerability of US energy supplies to Atlantic hurricanes, as a result of the energy shifts of the last decade. As the Houston Chronicle noted, this illustrates another benefit of the revolution in shale oil and gas. However, with oil still below $50 per barrel, it is also worth considering how durable these particular effects might be if low oil prices were to persist much longer.

Following hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which made landfall on the Gulf Coast within a few weeks of each other in 2005, I recall some lively  discussions concerning the concentration of US energy assets in the region, and what that meant for US energy security. There was talk of new inland refineries, and even proposed legislation to promote them. With the exception of one small refinery in North Dakota, which came online earlier this year, most of that talk led nowhere. The synergies of the Gulf Coast refining and petrochemical complex were and still are overwhelming.

From the perspective of diversifying US crude oil and natural gas supplies, the situation looked equally daunting in 2005, excluding higher imports of both--an outcome that already seemed unavoidable. The country's main onshore oil fields, including the Alaska North Slope, were in decline. In 2004 their combined output averaged less than 4 million barrels per day for the first time since the 1940s. The deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico were where the majority of accessible, unexploited US oil and gas was expected to be found.

With hindsight it now seems clear that in 2005 the first large-scale application of hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") and horizontal drilling to shale in the Barnett gas field near Dallas, TX was pointing to an entirely different set of possibilities.  The Barnett had just passed a major milestone: one billion cubic feet per day of production. However, other than visionary entrepreneurs like George Mitchell, few energy experts then foresaw how rapidly shale could scale up elsewhere.

Fast-forward to 2015, and the country has experienced a profound geographical diversification of its energy sources. As the following key chart from the EIA's analysis shows, since 2003 the offshore Gulf of Mexico's share of US production has fallen by 40% for crude oil and by nearly 80% for natural gas.

The divergence in those figures may seem surprising. "Tight" oil from deposits North Dakota, onshore Texas and the mountain West supplemented deepwater production that post-Deepwater Horizon has recovered to roughly the level of 2004, bringing total US oil output close to an all-time record earlier this year.  Meanwhile, rising shale gas output in Arkansas, Louisiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania  more than compensated for  the steady, long-term decline of Gulf of Mexico gas production. The extent of the shift in US gas sources has even raised questions about the viability of the benchmark Henry Hub (Louisiana) trading point for the main gas-futures contract

In fact, when we look beyond oil and gas to factor in the growth of renewable energy and the recent decline in coal consumption in the power sector, since 2004 the equivalent energy dependence of the US on the Gulf of Mexico--including imports--has fallen from 7% to roughly 4%, in terms of total energy consumption.

If oil prices had remained where they were a year ago, above $90 per barrel, there would be little doubt that this trend would continue. However, the latest short-term forecast from the EIA suggests that US onshore oil production will fall by about 6%, due to reduced shale drilling, while Gulf of Mexico production ticks up about the same percentage, as more projects that were begun under higher oil prices come onstream. This is generally consistent with the outlook of the International Energy Agency. By itself that could cause a small increase in Gulf of Mexico dependence.

As for gas, EIA projects that US onshore natural gas production will continue to grow, though at a slower rate than recently, while offshore gas continues its decline, reinforcing the shift away from the Gulf. The technology and techniques for developing onshore shale gas continue to improve, even with low natural gas prices, while the identified gas resources of the eastern Gulf of Mexico remain off-limits.

The relative importance of the large refining centers on the Gulf Coast may be evolving, too, for different reasons. US refined product exports have grown substantially since the financial crisis, with most of them sourced from the Gulf Coast. To the extent such shipments could be delayed in an emergency or swapped for product sourced abroad to be delivered to their original destinations, that effectively creates a buffer against storm-related disruptions in domestic deliveries.

The abundance of natural resources and the legacy of decades of infrastructure investment guarantee that the US Gulf Coast will remain a key region for US energy supplies. However, the technology for tapping resources elsewhere has greatly reduced the chances for a repeat of the events of 2005, when a pair of hurricanes set the stage for the highest natural gas prices in US history. Low oil prices might slow down further reductions in the relative energy contribution of the Gulf, but a significant reversal of this trend looks unlikely under either low or high oil prices.
A different version of this posting was previously published on the website of Pacific Energy Development Corporation.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Fallout from Volkswagen's "Defeat Device"

  • The repercussions from VW's error in judgment seem likely to extend beyond the hit to their reputation and stock price, and the unnecessary extra pollution from these cars.
  • This incident will make a useful, fuel-saving alternative to gasoline cars less attractive, at least for now, resulting in higher future oil consumption and CO2 emissions.

I find the revelations concerning Volkswagen's reported efforts to circumvent vehicle emissions rules disturbing, especially as a VW owner and someone who has advocated diesel technology as a tool for reducing oil consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. VW has apparently admitted its colossal error. However, I haven't seen anyone attempt to explore the implicit emissions tradeoffs involved. As bad as this decision was, did it at least, on balance, help the environment?

The details that have emerged so far have focused on a software routine that manipulated diesel engine performance to produce one level of emissions in regulatory testing, presumably on a dynamometer, and different, much less acceptable results in real-world driving. Aside from the obvious questions about ethics and compliance, what did this mean for actual emissions?

For many years regulators have been tightening restrictions on allowable emissions of so-called criteria pollutants from cars. These include oxides of sulfur and nitrogen, particulates, and hydrocarbons, but not CO2. A whole gamut of technology was developed to tackle these pollutants, starting with catalytic converters on cars and deep desulfurization of fuels in refineries. Today's cars are much cleaner than those of a generation ago.

Oxides of nitrogen, referred to as NOx, are combustion byproducts that don't originate in a car's fuel, but from the nitrogen and oxygen in the air in which it is burned. NOx emissions from diesel engines have always been challenging, because they operate at higher temperatures and compression ratios than gasoline engines. Manufacturers that produce diesel vehicles have deployed different technologies to control NOx. As far as I know the VW Group uses at least two, depending on model.

Larger (and more expensive) vehicles appear to use a process called Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR), in which small amounts of a liquid chemical such as urea chemically react with the NOx. The liquid must be refilled at service intervals. The technical manual for VW's 2-liter diesel engine involved in the current fiasco indicates it uses EGR, or exhaust-gas recirculation, which reduces the oxygen in the engine available to form NOx .

If controlling emissions from diesels is so challenging, why bother with them? Well, a typical diesel car uses up to a third less fuel than a comparably equipped gasoline model. After adjusting for the carbon content of the fuels, the lifecycle CO2 emissions are around 20% lower than for gasoline. Given the shortcomings of similarly priced electric vehicles in range and convenience, diesel provides a useful option. That helps explain why roughly half of European cars today are diesels, in many cases promoted by national fuel- and/or engine-tax policies.

That leads us to the question of whether such a reduction in CO2 might be worthwhile, even if it came at a penalty in NOx emissions, which act locally, rather than globally. To arrive at a ballpark answer let's assume that the 482,000 affected diesel cars couldn't have been sold at all if their engine software didn't fool emissions testers, and that the buyers would have otherwise chosen a comparable gasoline car. For comparison, the EPA rated the 2015 Jetta diesel at 36 miles per gallon (mpg) overall, while the 1.8 L turbo gasoline Jetta gets 30 mpg. At an average of 12,000 miles per year each, the collective annual fuel savings of the cars involved would be 32 million gallons, resulting in avoided CO2 emissions of about 300,000 metric tons per year, or 0.005% of US annual CO2 emissions.

If the tradeoff in extra NOx emissions is based on the reported maximum estimate of 40 times the EPA's allowed level of 0.07 grams per mile, then the affected cars would collectively emit an extra 16,000 metric tons of NOx per year. That's roughly 1% of the annual US NOx emissions tracked under the Clean Air Interstate and Acid Rain Program cap-and-trade markets in 2012. Even recognizing that those programs don't count all US NOx pollution, and that NOx and CO2 are very much apples and oranges in their environmental and health impacts, the relative proportions I calculated don't make this seem like a tradeoff worth making.

Whoever made the decision to circumvent the pollution controls on these cars did enormous damage to VW's brand and reputation. Unfortunately, the response in Europe and Asia suggests that this event has also raised questions about the emissions testing and compliance of the entire car fleet. Resolving them will take time and money, and if they are not seen to be dealt with properly, the impact on the public's trust of these processes on both sides--manufacturers and regulators--could be long-lasting.

Unlike in Europe, diesels made up just under 1% of new cars sold in the US last year. However, the technology was finally shedding the poor reputation that low-quality diesel cars earned in the 1980s, and the "take rate" was growing, along with the number of models offered.  VW's diesels are among the most affordable in the market. The NOx reduction technologies they use have been proven to work, when they are not circumvented, but that is not the message that this debacle will leave with the average consumer. Carmakers will have to work harder to convince buyers that this driver-friendly alternative to gasoline cars is worth a look, and that has implications for future oil consumption and CO2 emissions.

Monday, August 31, 2015

What Do Futures Markets Tell Us About Long-term Oil Prices?

  • The tendency to believe that the prices of oil futures contracts are predicting the future price of oil is understandable but not supported by the track record of such bets.
  • The prices of long-dated oil futures merely reflect where buyers and sellers are willing to strike a deal today, for their own, diverse reasons.
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal reminded me of numerous debates about the significance of energy futures prices, when I was a trader and later a trading manager for the former Texaco, Inc.  Do changes in futures contract prices actually predict future oil prices as the Journal's reporter suggests? If so, then it might be reasonable to conclude that today's low oil prices could persist for years. However, from my perspective that over-interprets the market data and ignores some important oil fundamentals.

As tempting as it might be to think so, the futures market for West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil isn't a crystal ball, and neither is the market for UK Brent crude. A futures price is simply the price someone is willing to pay or receive now for oil to be delivered (or settled without delivery) later. It is typically based on business needs, rather than deep analysis.  A concrete example might be helpful.

The parties who on August 11th bought or sold oil for $56 or $57 in December 2017 likely did so, not because they were certain what the price would be then, but because they couldn't be sure and either needed to hedge another transaction or activity, or thought it constituted a reasonable bet. Aggregating a modest number of such transactions--long-dated futures trade much less frequently than those for the near months--doesn't improve the accuracy of these bets on an inherently unpredictable commodity over long intervals. Anyone who thinks it does should examine the track record of oil futures as predictions; it is a sobering exercise, especially for those who have traded this market.

Consider that while the September 2015 WTI contract closed at a little over $43 per barrel that afternoon, traders were buying and selling the same contract for more than twice as much during long stretches of 2012--about as far removed from us as the late-2017 contract prices cited in the Journal article as evidence of a persistent oil-price slump. Prices for the September 2015 contract were even higher in the middle of last year, when traders knew nearly as much about the growth of US tight oil production and its rising productivity as we do today, but crucially didn't know that OPEC would choose not to cut output to alleviate an over-supplied market as they had done in the early 1980s and late 1990s. Similar examples abound.

So how else might one explain the fact that long-dated oil contracts are trading for less today than they were this spring, if not as a prediction of a longer period of low prices ahead? Behavior and learning play key roles. With the  first anniversary of this historic price collapse just a few months off, expectations of a quick rebound in prices have faded. The possibility that the US could produce as much tight oil, for now, with fewer than half as many drilling rigs in operation as a year ago has sunk in. So has the reality that as painful as $50 oil is for some of OPEC's members, cartel leaders like Saudi Arabia show little inclination to blink first.

However, others are blinking, and that's why I'm skeptical that oil prices can remain this low indefinitely. The cuts in staff and investment budgets by major oil companies and their national oil company peers have been breathtaking, totaling $180 billion this year according to one analysis. The cuts suggest that the projects in question require significantly higher oil prices to be profitable, even after recent cost reductions, or have become too risky at current prices.

Few of these companies are big players in shale. Their bread and butter is large, conventional onshore oil fields and enormously expensive deepwater oil projects, the collective output of which is inherently subject to annual declines in output. Decline is the "silent killer" of output, to the tune of 5% or so every year. The only way to offset this trend within the portfolios of these producers is to spend large sums every year on new wells and new projects--projects that according to Rystad Energy, as cited by Bloomberg, have been cut more than at any time since 1986.

We must also put the US shale revolution in its proper context. When added to a global market that was balanced between supply and demand at around $100 per barrel, it was a game-changer, not least because no other producer or group of producers was willing to reduce output enough to accommodate this new source. However, even at today's 5.4 million barrels per day US tight oil represents only about 6% of global supply. The combination of shale plus OPEC covers less than half the world's oil demand.

The remainder must come from onshore and offshore oil fields in non-OPEC countries like Brazil, Canada, Mexico, Norway, and Russia. This non-OPEC supply has grown thanks to  a wave of completions of  large projects begun 5-10 years ago, when prices were rising rapidly. However, reduced investment now surely means lower non-OPEC production within a year or two.

The key question for future oil prices is therefore when demand, which according to the International Energy Agency is growing rapidly under low prices, and supply, for which new investment has suddenly shifted from the accelerator to the brake pedal, will cross over, erasing today's glut. It's hard to infer the answer from the thinly traded market for long-dated oil futures contracts.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Return of Iran's Oil

  • If approved by all parties the negotiated nuclear agreement with Iraq could affect energy markets both directly and indirectly.
  • By adding to the current global oil glut, it would make big oil projects elsewhere riskier, while undermining outdated restrictions on US oil exports.
The signing of a nuclear agreement between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany represents more than a geopolitical milestone. In the context of today's lower oil prices it puts additional pressure on near-term prices, but perhaps more importantly creates the potential for significant shifts within the oil industry. Iran's expanded exports--once the conditions of the deal are met--will arrive in a market quite different from the one that prevailed when they were restricted in early 2012.

These differences include an OPEC that is now engaged in a contest for global market share, rather than one focused on maintaining oil prices at around $100 per barrel. This is the cartel's response to the rapid growth of non-OPEC production, mainly from US shale, or "tight oil" formations. Based on data from the International Energy Agency, non-OPEC production has increased by 5 million barrels per day (bpd) since 2012, while global demand has grown by just 3 million bpd.  The return of anywhere from 600,000 to 1 million bpd of Iranian exports would expand a global oil surplus and intensify competition.

 Iran's oil traders may find that placing additional volumes with refiners will not be as easy as it would have been just a few years ago. As the Wall Street Journal noted, the likeliest home for most of this incremental supply is in Asia, where competition between Saudi, Iraqi and Russian barrels is already keen. China and India have been the largest purchasers of Iranian oil during the sanctions (see chart below) but Iran is not the only producer seeking to expand its output of similar crude oil.  

Oil prices have two main dimensions, only one of which is widely understood outside the industry. Media reports focus on the absolute price level, particularly for benchmark grades such as Brent and West Texas Intermediate (WTI). However, differentials--the gaps in price for oils of different quality, or of similar quality in different regions--are nearly as important for producers and often more so for refiners.

Iranian oil is mainly sour (high in sulfur) and so competes principally with other sour grades, including those from Saudi Arabia, which is already at record output, and Iraq, where production is approaching 4 million bpd, compared with just under 3 million in 2012. OPEC's other big producers seem no more inclined to cut output to make room for extra Iranian oil than they were to accommodate surging US tight oil. Meanwhile, refineries in Europe, where sanctions on Iranian oil had the largest impact, are also "spoiled for choice" with various crude streams displaced from US refineries by the shale revolution.

If Iran's restored exports keep oil prices lower for longer, they are also likely to widen the "sweet/sour spread", or premium for light sweet crudes like those produced in the Bakken and Eagle Ford shales, over sour crudes like Saudi medium or Iranian heavy. That would lend greater urgency to calls for an end to 1970s-vintage restrictions on exporting US crude oil, because it would expand the potential economic opportunity for US exports.

As a result of opening the taps in Iran, we could also see deeper shifts in the structure of the global oil industry. OPEC's current production policy may be targeted at US shale, but shale producers have proven themselves much more adaptable than expected to prices in the $50-60 range. The same cannot necessarily be said for new conventional oil projects with price tags in the hundreds of millions to billions of dollars. 

Barring another shift as dramatic as the one that rippled through oil markets last fall, we may have witnessed the end of an era in which low-cost producers in OPEC held back production to drive up prices and, in the process, made room for much higher-cost production elsewhere. Iran appears poised to go beyond its pre-sanctions exports by inviting international investment in new developments that would be profitable at current prices.  If Iran's terms are attractive, the losers won't be shale producers that operate at dramatically lower scales of investment and risk per well, but big projects in places like the North Sea, which has already seen a wave of project cancellations. The recent lackluster Mexican bid round might be another signpost.

Could we end up in a few years with a global oil industry in which prices would be determined mainly by a new balance between a resurgent OPEC and US shale producers? That would be a very different world than we have experienced recently, and probably one with more price volatility.

Of course before any of this could happen, the nuclear agreement with Iran would have to go into effect and be widely seen to be holding. For anyone who recalls the periodic inspection crises with Iraq in the late 1990s, that can't be a foregone conclusion, even if the agreement survives review by a US Congress that asserted its right to scrutinize the deal's provisions and includes some surprising skeptics.
A different version of this posting was previously published on the website of Pacific Energy Development Corporation

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Energy Storage and the Cost of Going Off-Grid

  • New energy storage offerings from Tesla and other manufacturers are widely expected to enhance the attractiveness of rooftop solar power and other renewables.
  • However, recent analysis from the Brattle Group shows that even with rapid cost reductions, grid-independence will remain beyond the reach of most consumers.
Last month's Annual Energy Conference of the US Energy Information Administration included speakers and panels on topics such as crude-by-rail, potential US oil exports, and the role of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, all of which should be familiar to my readers here. However, the topic that really caught my interest this year was energy storage.

Storage has been in the news lately, particularly since the launch of Tesla's new home and commercial energy storage products. In fact, Tesla's Chief Technology Officer spoke on the first morning of the conference. Much of his talk (very large file) focused on Tesla's expectations for the cost of storage to decline sharply as electric vehicles (EVs) and non-vehicle battery applications grow. Whether battery costs can drop as quickly as those for solar photovoltaic (PV) cells or not, storage is likely to become a more important factor in energy markets in the years ahead.

One of the most interesting presentations I saw examined a provocative aspect of this question. Michael Kline of The Brattle Group, which consults extensively on electricity, took a detailed look at whether rooftop PV and home energy storage might become sufficiently attractive that a large number of consumers would employ the combination to enable them to disconnect from the power grid entirely.  That would be an extremely appealing idea for a lot of people. The author of a book I received from the publisher a few years ago referred to it as a movement.

Most people by now appear to understand that solar panels alone can't make a household independent of the grid. The daily and seasonal incidence of sunlight aligns imperfectly with the peaks and troughs of typical home electricity demand. This is why "net metering", under which PV owners sell excess power to their local utility--effectively using the grid as a free battery--has become contentious in some electricity markets.

In a true off-grid scenario, net metering would be unavailable. Onsite storage would thus be necessary to shift in time the kilowatt-hours of energy produced from a home PV array. However, a standalone PV + storage system must be sized to deliver enough instantaneous peak power to handle periodic high-load events like the startup of air conditioners and other devices. Another presenter on the same panel had a nifty chart demonstrating how wide those variations can be, with multiple spikes each day averaging above 12 kilowatts (kW)--several times the output of a typical rooftop PV array.

Brattle's off-grid model included PV and storage optimized to "meet load in every hour given a battery with 3 days of storage (at average load levels.)" Although that is still probably less than the peak load such a system would encounter, it is the equivalent of multiple Tesla "Powerwall" units and would only be practical with the kind of drastic cost reductions Mr. Kline assumed by 2025: PV at $1.50/W and storage at $100/kWh, installed. That equates to around a third of last year's average US residential PV installation and 1/7th the estimated installed cost of Tesla's offering on a retail basis.  

Mr. Kline framed this exercise as a "stress test", not just of the off-grid proposition but of the future of the electric power grid. If many millions of customers were to "cut the cord" for electricity as others have for wireline telephone service, even a "smart" power grid would become much less important and might shrink over time. That same logic should extend to the power generators supplying the grid. If most consumers went off-grid, the value of even the most flexible generation on the grid, which today is often provided by natural gas turbines, would fall, as would demand for the fuel on which they run.

In Brattle's assessment, despite the assumption of very cheap PV and storage, that prospect seems remote. For the three markets analyzed (California, Texas and Westchester County, NY) the levelized cost of energy (LCOE) for the off-grid configuration modeled was significantly more expensive than the EIA's projected cost of electricity in those markets in 2025. In fact, for consumers in California and Texas, as well as in all cases of the parallel commercial customer analysis Brattle performed, PV + storage would  be expected to cost a multiple of retail electricity prices.

As Mr. Kline explained, under more realistic assumptions the comparison was likely to be even worse for off-grid options. However, his conclusion that , "going unlikely to be the least expensive option for most consumers" does not mean that some consumers would not choose to do so, anyway. To them, a premium of 10-20 cents per kWh might seem like a small price to pay for personal energy independence. Yet at that price, it is hard to envision it would become a mass-market choice. 

Mr. Kline made a point of reminding his audience that Brattle's analysis did not mean that distributed energy  would  not be competitive in the future, or that it could not provide valuable services to customers and to the grid. Importantly, the figures he presented underlined the continued value of the power grid to customers, even in a future in which large quantities of PV and storage are deployed.  As he put it, "Distributed energy is a complement to the grid, not a substitute for it."

By extension, flexible generating assets like fast-reacting gas turbines should also continue to provide significant value, especially during those seasons when daily solar input is low, and in locations where average sun exposure is generally much weaker than in the US Southwest and other prime solar resource regions.  As appealing as the idea might be to some, storage seems unlikely to make either the grid or any class of generating technologies obsolete for the foreseeable future. As Bill Gates recently observed, that has implications for the cost of a wholesale shift to current renewables and away from fossil fuels.

A different version of this posting was previously published on the website of Pacific Energy Development Corporation.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Rare Earths Not So Rare?

  • The bankruptcy of the main US producer of "rare earth" materials signals the end of a multi-year crisis over their global supply and cost.
The announced Chapter 11 filing of US-based rare earths mining and refining company Molycorp effectively marks the end of a crisis that managed to escape the notice of most people. Rare earths are elements of low abundance, compared to the ores of metals like iron and copper. Despite their relative scarcity, they have proved extremely useful in industrial applications including renewable energy technologies. Five years ago it appeared that China had cornered the market on rare earths and was exercising its market power to, among other aims, lure businesses reliant on these minerals to shift their operations to China.

Molycorp's modernization of its rare earth mine in California and subsequent expansion into other aspects of the business were responses to a perceived global crisis. China's restrictions on rare earth exports threatened the economic competitiveness of hybrid and electric cars, wind turbines, non-silicon solar cells, compact fluorescent lighting (CFL), and other devices of interest to energy markets and policy makers.

The situation also raised concerns in the defense industry, due to the importance of rare earth metals and alloys in the manufacture of missile components, radar and sonar equipment, and other military hardware. Governments created or expanded strategic stockpiles for these materials, and took other steps to manage their reliance on supplies from China.

However, as reported by the Council on Foreign Relations last fall, the effectiveness of efforts by the Chinese government to leverage their control of rare earth supplies was short-lived. Its policies led to mostly market-based responses, involving both supply and demand, that undermined China's near-monopoly and ultimately contributed to Molycorp's present financial difficulties.

Molycorp wasn't the only company to bring new supplies into production, or the only one to struggle as the crisis unwound. New supplies were already in the pipeline at the time China restricted its exports, in reaction to price spikes that preceded the policy as global demand bumped up against the output of China's mines and processing facilities. Nor was government control of China's fragmented rare earth industry sufficient to prevent continued exports exploiting loopholes of the restrictions.

Finally, and probably most importantly for both China-based and non-China-based producers, innovators in the industries using these materials found ways to make do with lower proportions of rare earths in permanent magnet motors and generators, or to do without them altogether.

The upshot from an energy perspective is that if anything will slow the expansion of wind and solar power, hybrid cars and EVs, and other alternative energy and energy-saving technologies, it is unlikely to be a shortage of rare earths. They may be rare relative to other industrial commodities, but in the small proportions used it seems they are not rare enough to pose more than a temporary bottleneck.