Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Message to Durban: It's The Economy

What if they held a UN climate conference and no one came? That's certainly not the case at this year's COP-17 (Conference of the Parties) meeting now underway in Durban, South Africa, but with expectations for dramatic progress low, and a breakthrough on the scale needed to salvage the expiring Kyoto Protocol nearly unimaginable, it could be where the UN-led process is headed. If Durban fails to deliver the goods, it won't be because the participants were any less concerned about climate change than those at past sessions. Nor will it be because of the latest release of Climategate emails, as embarrassing as some of them should be for the scientists involved. The reason is much simpler, and it's the same one that helped Bill Clinton unseat George H.W. Bush in 1992: "It's the economy, stupid." The solution to climate change is unlikely to be found in Durban or any future COP site until the leaders in Brussels, Washington and other capitals come to grips with the massive economic challenges they face and create the framework for a return to robust growth.

That observation might seem paradoxical, given the linkage between economic growth and the growth of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. One climate change expert at Shell recently questioned whether it's even possible to reduce these emissions, because the expansion of low-emission energy sources is merely displacing fossil fuels into other markets where the appetite for them remains insatiable. We've also seen the rebound in emissions that occurred once the US economy began to recover from the worst effects of the financial crisis and recession that began in 2008, and a new report from the International Energy Agency projects a similar result globally. Yet it's also the case that prosperity and concern for the environment go hand in hand, along with the capacity to afford the costs and penalties that a massive global reduction in GHGs would entail. It's no coincidence that the UN climate process and parallel US efforts lost most of their previous momentum during the Great Recession.

Although the "road map" that came out of 2007's Bali climate conference was ambitious, its timetable for developing a new set of binding emission-reduction commitments to dovetail with the end of the 2008-12 "first measurement period" of Kyoto looked achievable, allowing for some slippage. Just two years later, the delegates to Copenhagen were lucky to come away with a last-minute set of voluntary, non-binding commitments that, even if they were all implemented, would barely shift the trajectory of rising emissions. Nor did last year's meeting in Cancun restore the Bali road map.

At this point, even the less ambitious proposals on the agenda in Durban ultimately depend on developed countries that are grappling with high unemployment, crippling deficits and debt, and political turmoil underwriting large investments in the developing world. The present structure of the European Union--the primary supporter of action on climate change--is itself in jeopardy, and European economies are facing an oil price shock arguably as large as that of 2008. It's questionable that the EU can even pay for its own future emissions reductions, let alone subsidizing reductions and climate adaptation in the developing world. Meanwhile, support for Kyoto among other large emitting countries is flagging, and the US appears little closer to taking on binding emissions commitments than it was in 1997.

I don't dismiss the possibility that the Durban talks may accomplish more than just punting the ball to next year's session in Qatar. However, if they don't, then the folks that are footing the bills for this seemingly endless succession of sprawling confabs--wonderful for local chambers of commerce and tourism, but practically meaningless for tackling global emissions--should consider calling a hiatus pending the resolution of the global economic problems that will undermine any agreement they could reach in the interim. There might even be a scientific justification for that, in the form of a new, peer-reviewed paper in Science suggesting that the global climate's sensitivity to increasing concentrations of CO2 might not be as strong as previously thought. If Schmittner, et al, are correct, then we might have a bit more time before extreme climate change becomes imminent. Let's hope so, because it looks a lot more fruitful to reboot this whole effort once the global economy is back on an even keel.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Our Shifting Energy Diet

It's fairly easy to agree on the desirability of shifting our energy diet away from fossil fuels and toward more renewable or sustainable sources, but it's much harder to agree on the time scale involved. While recognizing the great potential of renewable energy technologies such as wind, solar and geothermal power, along with advanced, non-food-based biofuels, I am convinced that the transition will take much longer than many hope--longer than many will have patience for, in light of pressing concerns about energy security and the environment. When considering future shifts in our energy diet, it's instructive to review some of the changes we've already experienced, and how long they took. The graph below displays the relative contribution of America's main energy sources since 1949, based on data from the Energy Information Agency of the US Department of Energy.

This chart, which compares the proportional, rather than absolute contribution of each source as a percent of the total, shows that the US energy diet has experienced constant change over the last seven decades. Some of these changes have been dramatic, such as the erosion of coal's market share in the 1950s and '60s by oil and natural gas, while others, such as the resurgence of biomass-based energy since the 1970s are less dramatic but still noticeable. On the scale of this graph the non-biomass renewables that I've lumped together appear relatively steady, because the recent rapid growth of wind and solar energy has so far only compensated for a contemporaneous decline in hydropower output. I'd expect the growth of that green segment to be more obvious in a few years, though still not on the scale of nuclear power.

The chart also reminds us that however prominent a given energy source might have become during this period, none overwhelmed the others. We talk a great deal about oil's dominance, yet it never exceeded a 48% share of our energy diet, and it has recently fallen below 37%. In fact, you'd have to go all the way back to the 1920s to find an energy source with a market share above 60%, which coal still enjoyed during the early years of oil's rise as the combination of mass-produced cars and the big oil finds in East Texas and Oklahoma upended the US energy landscape. That's one reason I generally find forecasts of renewables capturing 80% of the energy market within a few decades to be improbable.

Perhaps the most relevant example for renewables of a disruptive energy technology capturing a significant share of the market is commercial nuclear power, which contributed just 0.1% of US energy in 1962. That's about what solar provides today. Yet even with a major push by utilities and government and broadly favorable market acceptance until after the Three Mile Island accident, it still took nuclear power 25 years to reach a 6% share of total US primary energy, and nearly 40 years to reach its current 8% or so. Today's renewables also face similar limits on their potential market penetration, albeit due to very different factors relating to intermittency and the high cost of energy storage.

What would it take for renewables to repeat the model of oil's success against coal? In the absence of a high carbon price or incentives on a level unlikely to be either politically feasible or affordable in the current environment, I believe it would require technologies that don't just reduce greenhouse gas emissions or local pollutants, but actually enable something new and very attractive to consumers and businesses, along the lines of the quantum leaps in mobility and other economic activity that oil made possible. Otherwise, their promoters should be prepared to play a long game, in much the same way that the conventional energy industry did when it was building its market post World War II. Do investors and policy makers have the patience that requires?

By the way The Energy Collective is offering a free virtual conference on November 30 on the subject of "How to Save A Planet on A Budget." The conference includes panel discussions and case studies moderated by Marc Gunther of Fortune magazine, Jesse Jenkins of the Breakthrough Institute, and Gernot Wagner, economist at the Environmental Defense Fund. To register click here.

I'd also like to wish my US readers a pleasant Thanksgiving weekend.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Is the Photovoltaic Price Trend Sustainable?

It has been widely assumed among pundits and policy makers that the continued expansion of solar photovoltaic (PV) installations will drive down PV costs until the electricity they produce is competitive with conventional power sources without the need for subsidies. This belief is grounded in both recent PV cost trends and the well-known "experience curve" effect in manufacturing, in which costs tend to fall in proportion to cumulative output. However, anyone following the fortunes of big PV manufacturers like First Solar, SunPower, and China-based Suntech and Trina Solar might have reason to question this conventional wisdom. Their latest earnings reflect an industry stressed by softening demand in its core market in Europe and facing global overcapacity along the supply chain. This has me wondering how much of the recent decline in PV prices was due to the inherent progression of the technology, and how much to unsustainable market and competitive pressures.

The solar industry has made tremendous progress in the last several years. One indication of that is the price trend for PV in the annual "Tracking the Sun" survey from Lawrence Berkeley Lab. Between 2007 and 2010 the average cost of PV installed in the US fell by around 22%, with the largest portion of that drop occurring last year, followed by a further 11% decline in the first half of this year. Most of the reduction is attributable to the falling price of solar modules, rather than from the non-module, or "balance of system" costs (inverters, structures, installation, etc.) The fact that these declines coincided with an explosion of global PV capacity and output seems entirely consistent with expectations about the likely path of PV costs. Cumulative global PV capacity doubled twice in that interval, based on figures in the newly released Renewables 2011 Global Status report from REN21, so we'd expect to see strong experience-curve cost reductions.

The problem is that the industry dynamic behind this trend didn't much resemble the pristine image that the term "experience curve" evokes, of diligent engineers relentlessly focused on continuous improvement. Without diminishing the contribution of a lot of smart people, a key driver was the tough competition for market share between silicon-based PV, which had to overcome a major bottleneck in the supply of its primary raw material, polysilicon--the price for which spiked and subsequently collapsed--and cheaper but less efficient thin-film PV technologies relying on entirely different chemistries such as cadmium telluride and copper, indium, gallium and selenium.

A further hint that this wasn't quite the standard picture of predictable cost declines promoted by the PV industry is that PV prices appear to have been falling faster than actual costs, which in the case of at least some manufacturers are no longer dropping much at all. This can be inferred from the compression of gross margins reported by the leading firms, and in results that show profits stalling or falling even as volume grows. SunPower, the largest US silicon-based PV maker, reported a net loss for the third quarter of 2011, following a loss in Q2, and issued guidance forecasting a loss in 4Q, as well. We'll get a better picture of the health of the big China-based producers when they report 3Q earnings next week, but in the second quarter Suntech, the world's largest solar panel maker, reported a substantial loss, even though sales were up by a third from a year earlier, similar to results at rival JA Solar. In response Suntech and other Asian producers have apparently slowed planned expansions and reduced throughput at existing facilities, while US PV leader First Solar postponed its new factory in Vietnam.

It's a testament to the ingenuity of the big, established PV producers that they haven't all shared the fate of Solyndra after investing so much in expanding capacity ahead of demand--a major accomplishment in itself when demand has been growing by roughly 80% per year--only to see the market weaken due to a prolonged economic slump and a financial crisis in Europe that has undermined the ability of governments to provide generous subsidies for PV installations. Assumptions about the future cost trend of PV won't mean much if the industry doesn't emerge from its current difficulties as a collection of healthy firms with solid balance sheets and financial performance that investors find attractive. That will require better margins achieved by some combination of improved pricing power--implying better matching of capacity to demand--and cost reductions that don't just rely on further scale-up, which will become less fruitful as experience-curve benefits stretch out.

In other words, even if PV manufacturing costs continue to fall quickly for the next few years, it's less clear that the PV prices paid by project developers, businesses and consumers will follow suit, particularly if the current low margins lead to a global shakeout or consolidation among producers. Time will tell whether the solar industry can sustain the cost path that it's been on, or if future cost reductions will be more modest, in which case a number of scenarios for future PV penetration and renewables-based emissions reductions would require revision.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Iran Oil Price Risk Returns

Between the Libyan revolution and the shaky US and European economies, oil markets hadn't been paying much attention to Iran's nuclear program until last week's release of a new report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA.) For the first time, the IAEA presented a detailed picture of a well-organized Iranian effort encompassing projects and technologies that go beyond what could reasonably be construed as having purely civilian purposes. Traders are once again talking about an "Iran risk premium," though the market's initial response has been sufficiently muted that it's hard to distinguish from other factors, such as the narrowing of the spread between West Texas Intermediate and Brent crude and worries about the Euro. As long as the international reaction to Iran remains confined to the well-worn pattern of diplomatic protests followed by incrementally tweaked sanctions that dampen speculation about military options, oil will probably just exhibit some extra volatility.

I've been following this issue for a long time, and almost from the start I've been skeptical of the Iranian government's insistence that their nuclear effort was aimed only at producing electricity. Iran has cheaper and less controversial energy options in abundance. Perhaps the biggest surprise in the IAEA report was that the agency would risk the controversy inherent in releasing a thorough accounting of Iran's efforts to develop capabilities unique to designing and building a nuclear warhead that could be mounted on a missile. Moreover, the report suggests that at least some of these activities did not end in 2003, as the controversial US National Intelligence Estimate of 2007 concluded, but "may still be ongoing."

The oil market risk has several dimensions, the most obvious of which relates to a preemptive attack by the US or Israel. Yet even a stepped-up sanctions regime might either directly impede oil exports from Iran or provoke an Iranian reaction having the same effect, at a time when oil prices are already relatively high. Either scenario might trigger an oil price spike that would largely undo recent efforts to revive the global economy. At the moment, however, neither outcome seems very likely to me.

Whatever the IAEA's findings indicate about Iran's intentions or proximity to becoming a nuclear weapons state, the US has little appetite for initiating an attack with such uncertain outcomes on the basis of intelligence that remains incomplete. The public is hardly clamoring for another war, and the administration seems understandably reticent to take such a step, particularly going into an election year. Israeli public opinion--and even its leaders--appear split on the advisability of independent action against Iran's nuclear complex. Even in terms of sanctions, I would expect a response with more bark than bite that stops short of antagonizing Iran's regime to the point at which it might use its oil weapon. Unfortunately, the longer this protracted confrontation over Iran's nuclear program drags out, the greater the risk of one or more parties miscalculating, with results that could spin out of anyone's control.

The Council on Foreign Relations has put out some useful interviews and analysis on the IAEA report and the possible responses to it. Have a look and draw your own conclusions.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Breaking Our Oil Addiction

In an article in today's Washington Post an official of the National Wildlife Federation was quoted linking rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline with breaking our addiction to oil. Even with the administration apparently having delayed its decision on the project until 2013--quite possibly killing it--this point merits further exploration. Just how might we go about breaking that "addiction", and when could we reasonably expect the task to be accomplished? As with everything else to do with energy, the answers to those questions must be based on facts and figures, rather than wishfulness.

The brief quote and its context imply that a decision to forgo additional supplies of oil from Canada or any other source would, by itself, move us significantly closer to breaking our addiction to oil, a rather vague phrase brought into common usage by President Bush's 2006 State of the Union address. Of course if delaying or rejecting the pipeline only results in continued or additional oil imports from other countries, that would be counterproductive from an energy security standpoint, and perhaps even from an environmental perspective. Ending our oil addiction requires more than just a real or artificial supply constraint; it calls for enormous quantities of energy from other sources, mainly for transportation, along with significant improvements in the efficiency with which we use that energy. How soon should we expect such a transformation?

Start with electric vehicles, which are essentially the only pathway by which renewable electricity sources like wind, solar and geothermal power would have any impact on our oil consumption, because less than 1% of US electricity is now generated from oil. Even if EVs turn out to be the long-term solution to our transportation needs, as I suspect, it will be many years before they can displace enough fuel demand to make a dent in our oil addiction. The current goal is to have a million EVs on the road by 2015. As ambitious as that target seems compared to current sales of less expensive hybrid cars, that would constitute just 0.4% of the 238 million cars and light trucks in the US as of 2008. Moreover, even if EVs replaced cars of only average efficiency, one million of them would displace just 31,000 barrels per day of gasoline. In other words, it would take more than 20 million EVs to save the volume of oil that the Keystone Pipeline could have delivered annually.

If we want to kick our oil habit quicker than by waiting for a hundred million EVs to turn up, we'll need an energy source that's compatible with the vast majority of existing cars, and the ones like them that will probably dominate new car sales for some time. Consider ethanol, our largest and most successful alternative energy initiative so far. Through August, ethanol accounted for 9.2% of 2011 US gasoline consumption, nearly four times its contribution in 2005. However, before we could use a lot more ethanol in our cars, in the way Brazil has, we would need to overcome some big hurdles. Raising the proportion of ethanol in gasoline above 10% creates logistical and reliability problems, and the flexible fuel vehicles that can run on nearly pure ethanol are relatively scarce. In addition, we would need to produce most of the incremental ethanol from a feedstock other than corn. With the latest disappointing crop forecast from the US Department of Agriculture, ethanol production will consume about 41% of this year's harvest. Whether or not that's already enough to cause major food vs. fuel concerns, doubling corn use for ethanol would clearly push corn prices up drastically and cause ripple effects throughout the global food economy.

The good news is that biofuels--including better fuels than ethanol--can be produced from a wide variety of non-food crops, along with their efficient production from sugar cane in the tropics. The bad news is that with the exception of cane ethanol, none of these has been demonstrated on anything close to the scale required. Two of the largest cellulosic ethanol projects under construction, POET's Emmetsburg, Iowa project and the Vero Beach, FL facility of INEOS Bio, will together be capable of supplying just 0.02% of US vehicle fuel needs. And until these plants are up and running, their owners won't know whether their economics are sufficiently favorable--even with the current $1.01 per gallon cellulosic tax credit--to provide a basis for building more and larger versions. Although some of the many competing processes for producing biofuels from non-food biomass including wood, waste, dedicated energy crops and algae look very promising, they all face major uncertainties in development and scaling-up, including the scale-up of their supply chains, and none is yet ready for prime time. That might still be the case ten years from now.

Of course there are many other fuels we could put in our cars, after some modifications, including methanol, compressed natural gas (CNG), liquefied natural gas (LNG) or possibly even ammonia. However, the production of all of these, aside from a relatively small amount of landfill gas, is currently based on fossil natural gas, and all would require major investments in infrastructure and/or vehicle fleets. For that matter, 78% of the energy content of corn ethanol comes from natural gas and other fossil fuels--it also consumes enormous quantities of water--and most of the incremental electricity consumed by the first EVs will likely be generated from gas.

Although it appears that we have ample resources of natural gas to expand its use beyond current demand, I'm not sure that's quite what environmentalists have in mind when they talk about breaking our addiction to oil. And so far we've only considered alternatives to gasoline, without factoring in the significant demand for petroleum products for moving goods by truck, train and ship, along with aviation fuels, lubricants and many other products. Together, they account for as much oil as we use in cars, with non-oil alternatives for most of them at an earlier stage than for gasoline. And while energy efficiency measures, including the substantial improvements in vehicle fuel economy that are possible on a technology-neutral basis--including shifting cars to fuel-efficient diesels--can help to reduce the size of the mountain we must climb, they can't turn it into a valley.

Taking all these considerations into account it's not realistic to imagine that we could break our addiction to oil to any great extent for at least another decade. In the interim, we should certainly pursue all options that could alter the feasibility of such a shift in the years ahead, in a manner consistent with the fiscal constraints we face. I'm also not oblivious to what that implies for greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, though I would point out that our use of oil in transportation is neither the worst emissions offender, nor the easiest high-emitting segment of the US energy economy to tackle in that time frame. In the meantime, we are committed by virtue of scale, infrastructure and fleet requirements to burn many billions of barrels of oil over the next few decades, from wherever they may come. In that light, the administration's decision on the Keystone XL pipeline could prove to be a costly misstep, no matter how much political pressure they were under to withhold approval.

Addendum: Bloomberg has put out an interesting post-decision editorial suggesting that there's no reason for the review of an alternate pipeline route to take as long as the State Dept. has indicated.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Will Energy Determine the 2012 Election?

A year from today Americans will know who will serve as President from 2013 to 2017. Even though $4 gasoline was still fresh in the minds of voters, energy played only a minor role in the outcome of the 2008 election, overshadowed by two wars and a crippling financial crisis. Will that be the case again in 2012, or will energy loom larger, propelled by its close connection with the economy? Several Republican candidates have already raised energy as a campaign issue, and the administration has repeatedly emphasized the linkages between energy, jobs and taxes. Whether any of those arguments gains traction in a race that at this point seems likely to be dominated by unemployment and deficits could depend on how deftly the administration handles decisions such as the Keystone XL Pipeline permit, as well as the degree to which voters become interested in the details of the country's shifting energy balances.

From day one, the Obama administration has taken a calculated risk on energy by focusing most of its non-crisis-response attention on promoting renewables such as biofuels and wind, solar and geothermal power. According to the latest figures from the Energy Information Agency the combined contribution to our total energy diet from these sources increased from 2.2% in 2008 to 3.2% in 2010. Rightly or wrongly, the Solyndra fiasco could leave voters questioning the wisdom of the whole suite of renewables policies that promise large future benefits but have had little tangible impact so far. Nor do the administration's efforts to claim credit for increasing US oil production look very credible when they demonstrably reflected the characteristic time lags of investments made during the Bush years, and occurred largely in spite of policies such as the Gulf of Mexico drilling moratorium and various onshore lease cancellations.

Meanwhile, the single largest energy development of recent years, the harnessing of vast shale gas resources, which last year supplied the equivalent of more than triple the combined output of US wind, solar and geothermal power, has occurred against a background of governmental ambivalence and occasional outright hostility, as in the case of New York's state moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking". Unless the Obama administration moves to embrace shale gas, which David Brooks of the New York Times referred to in his column last week as a "wondrous gift", it might not be very hard for the President's challenger next year to portray his policies as being focused on only 3% of the energy that drives the economy, while neglecting the other 97%.

In that context, the Keystone XL decision could prove crucial. The State Department has signaled that the decision, which was anticipated by year-end, might be delayed into next year or beyond. Recent remarks hinted that the President may make the call personally. And in an interview during last Thursday's Washington Post Smart Energy Conference, Energy Secretary Chu backed away from his previous partial endorsement of the project. Taken together, these moves have me questioning the conventional wisdom that expects a grudging approval of Keystone. Turning it down outright, or killing it by attaching a set of uneconomical conditions to a contingent approval, would play well with portions of the President's base, but it might be hard to defend to independent voters later, particularly if higher oil prices or some event moved energy up the list of top election issues. Delaying a decision past the election would probably satisfy no one.

Whoever wins in 2012, the nation will need a renewed energy policy that balances the need to continue funding research and development aimed at delivering renewable energy technologies that can compete with conventional energy with little or no need for further subsidies, while simultaneously and just as vigorously promoting domestic and wider North American production of the conventional energy sources we will still need for at least another several decades, if we don't want to return to our former trend of becoming steadily more dependent on imported energy. Even if today's 3% from new renewable sources grows to 30%, we will still depend on oil, gas, nuclear and coal for the other 70%, nor can we rely on energy efficiency to end our reliance on the latter sources. I look forward to seeing more detailed energy proposals from both sides over the next year.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Do LNG Exports Threaten the Shift to Gas?

Last week US liquefied natural gas provider Cheniere signed a long-term agreement to sell BG (formerly British Gas) LNG exported from the Gulf Coast. The governor of Alaska was also recently quoted suggesting that his state's surplus natural gas might find a better market in Asia than if sent to the lower-48 via a new pipeline. Both stories indicate just how much the shale gas revolution has altered the US energy balance. They also provide further validation of its likely staying power. Coincidentally, they reminded me that time was running short to respond to my residential gas supplier's offer to lock in an annual fixed price, as I did last year. That's relevant, because even though the risk of a big spike in natural gas prices looks very low now, the prospect of future US gas exports--an unthinkable idea only a few years ago--serves notice that the shale bonanza is also stimulating new segments of demand that compete with existing ones and will tend to drive prices higher.

Cheniere's role in all this looks like a classic lemons-to-lemonade story. Their Sabine Pass LNG terminal and two others in development on the Gulf Coast were designed to import gas and feed it into the domestic pipeline system. They weren't the only ones to pursue this idea, which looked entirely reasonable when they were planned. In the first half of the last decade US gas production was in decline and LNG imports were climbing, facilitated by rising gas prices that made imports at the higher global gas price attractive, at least seasonally. The combination of a surge of shale gas output and the largest US recession in decades turned these plans on their head. Now Cheniere is redeveloping Sabine as an LNG liquefaction and export facility, with construction scheduled to begin next year.

The Wall St. Journal's Heard on the Street column had a good analysis of Cheniere's deal with BG. It closed with the observation that, "...it is natural that excess supply should seek a market." That got me thinking, not just about what I might be paying for natural gas to heat my home in a few years, but about whether exports pose a threat to ambitious notions of displacing large increments of coal-fired electricity with power from gas turbines, shifting large numbers of US cars and long-haul trucks to compressed natural gas (CNG) or LNG, and building new US chemical plants to capitalize on the abundance of shale gas. Most of these plans depend on gas remaining fairly cheap, particularly relative to oil. The current price of natural gas at its key Henry Hub trading point is the equivalent of $22.50 per barrel, a level that we haven't seen for oil since March 2002. Could gas exports drive up domestic prices to the point at which these other uses couldn't compete?

The answer depends both on how much gas would be exported and on the shape of the supply curve for shale gas. If the latter is steep--if not much extra supply can be brought on without requiring big increases in price--then exports could begin to look like a zero-sum-game at the expense of today's consumers and tomorrow's other new uses for gas. However, if large quantities of shale gas are waiting in the wings for only small increases in price, then while all these uses would be in competition with each other, they should be able to coexist at prices that leave gas considerably more attractive than oil, and competitive with both coal and the cheapest renewables. Assessing which view is likelier isn't simple, because it involves multiple shale basins and evolving federal and state regulations, but in general the data I've seen supports the more optimistic view. Many estimates suggest that most US shale plays would produce attractive returns at around $5-6 per million BTUs (MMBTU), compared to current prices around $4, which have left some producers with poor wellhead economics.

If that's correct, then even a big increase in demand from multiple sources, including a stronger economy, additional power generation, new chemical plants and LNG exports, might not boost natural gas prices by more than $1-2/MMTBU before significant additional supply came onstream. (A reality check on that is the sharp drop in the number of gas wells being drilled when prices slid below $6/MMBTU in late 2008, as the recession and financial crisis took hold.) $1/MMBTU sounds like a big jump at the wellhead, but for consumers it would represent an increase of only about 8% after transmission and distribution costs are added. For power generation in efficient combined cycle plants, it would raise costs by less than $0.01/kWh. And for vehicle use, it equates to an extra $5/bbl, or around 12.5 cents per gallon of gasoline-equivalent fuel. Although not trivial, such increases would be smaller than we've seen from market volatility over the last few years.

Putting the Cheniere/BG deal in perspective, the 3.5 million tons of LNG per year involved equate to 0.5 billion cubic feet per day of gas, or 0.8% of 2010 US "dry gas" production (natural gas with the valuable ethane, propane and butane removed.) The facility's total planned capacity of 9 million ton/y works out to 2% of US gas last year. By comparison the Department of Energy has forecasted US gas production growing by about 3.3 BCFD, or 6% in the next five years in their base case, and by up to 14% in their high-shale-resource case. These figures indicate that there's room for several of these demand sectors to expand, including both power generation and LNG exports, without putting intense pressure on prices. This issue is attracting some attention, including from the US Senate, which has scheduled a hearing next week to consider the consequences of gas exports.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

How Many More Solyndras?

Another firm that received a loan guarantee from the Department of Energy has just filed for bankruptcy. Beacon Power had drawn down $39.1 million of the $43 million authorized by the DOE for the construction of its 20 MW energy storage facility in Stephenstown, NY, but was still operating at a loss and unable to find additional backing. As was the case for Solyndra, the DOE's "loan guarantee" actually took the form of a direct loan from the Federal Financing Bank, an arm of the US Treasury, rather than from a commercial bank or other private-sector lender. If two data points can indicate a pattern, the one here reflects poorly on venture capital decisions made solely by government officials lacking any stake in the eventual outcome of the investment. Real venture capitalists make bad bets, too, but with an entirely different degree of accountability.

The Beacon failure is especially disheartening, because it involves the application of energy storage to grid services, which many believe is crucial for integrating large increments of intermittent renewable energy--mainly wind and solar power--into our electricity supply. In particular, Beacon's use of flywheels, rapidly rotating disks capable of storing and releasing large amounts of energy quickly, looked like a promising alternative to chemical batteries. I've long been intrigued by this technology, which is also being applied to race cars. Beacon's problems appear to be both technical and financial, with two of the company's flywheels having failed catastrophically since startup due to manufacturing defects, and the business model generating insufficient revenue to support the company's obligations.

Unlike Solyndra, the DOE's investment in Beacon Power might not turn out to be a complete loss, though I don't share the confidence of the DOE's spokesman that the "valuable collateral asset" will enable the government to recover the entire sum it lent Beacon. With an operating facility and ongoing revenues, it's possible that the firm's liabilities could be reorganized in such a way than it could emerge from bankruptcy as a viable entity. However, if its reported second-quarter revenue of $525,000 is indicative, it's very hard to see that either the business or the underlying assets could be worth more than a fraction of the $39 million federal loan liability, let alone their $72 million book value. "Haircuts" seem to be in vogue, and I'm guessing that Uncle Sam will take one on Beacon, in order to realize any value at all from the deal.

I'm relieved that the administration has finally ordered an independent review of the entire loan guarantee program, though it's a little late for that to accomplish much more at this stage than bringing additional problems to light. The main 1705 loan guarantee program is out of money and unlikely to receive further appropriations, at least until after the 2012 election. Meanwhile, another energy-related stimulus beneficiary, advanced-battery maker Ener1, was just de-listed from NASDAQ last Friday. The best coda on this whole situation may come from the blog of VC David Gold, who wrote yesterday that the administration's cleantech stimulus is turning out to be "Bad Policy, Bad Politics, and Bad for Cleantech." I'll bet there are many executives at cleantech firms who now wish they had never heard of Treasury grants and DOE loan guarantees.