Saturday, December 26, 2015

Opec faces a mortal threat from electric cars (!)

I don't believe it but the Business Editor of the Telegraph has drawn together below a great range of optimistic prophecies which claim that electric cars will become the normal car in the near future.  But prophecies are a dime a dozen in economics and are mostly wrong.  The key of course is a big leap in battery capacity but that is only a promise so far.

The author below could easily have  quoted problems which puncture his balloon but he prefers to talk only of do-gooder prophecies.  Just off the top of my head:

Take the problem of winter. Nobody these days would drive an unheated car during a snowy winter. Yet heating drains batteries at a great rate.  Driving with the heater on can easily halve the distance you can drive.   To overcome that would require a miracle in battery development.

And then there is the SUV.  Where would a Texan be these days without his big SUV?   But SUVs are heavy and most owners of them like them that way.  And electric cars are usually the opposite of that.  They are tiny little bubble cars.  They have to be.  They are tiny so that the batteries don't have to push much weight. A battery-powered SUV is possible but you won't be able to drive it far.

The failure of a very well-thought-out and well-executed electric car experiment in Israel is also instructive. As a small densely populated place with a moderate climate, Israel should have been ideal for electric cars but the whole thing was a flop.

So I can't see electric cars selling in the Northern United States because of the winter problem and I can't see them selling in Texas and other places where SUVs are immensely popular.  That doesn't leave much of a market, does it?

The greatest marketing flop of all times was Ford's Edsel. And the Edsel was only a minor change.  Ford sunk $250 million into Edsel development for nothing.  And that was in the late '50s when a dollar was worth a dollar.  The funds being poured into electric cars are far greater than that but are equally no greater guarantee of success

OPEC’s World Oil Outlook released today is a remarkable document, the apologia of a pre-modern vested interest that refuses to see the writing on the wall.

The underlying message is that the COP21 deal is of no relevance to the oil industry. Pledges by world leaders to drastically alter the trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions before 2040 - let alone to reach total "decarbonisation" by 2070 - are simply ignored.

Global demand for crude oil will rise by 18m barrels a day (b/d) to 110m by 2040. The cartel has shaved its long-term forecast slightly by 1m b/d, but this is in part due to weaker economic growth.

One is tempted to compare this myopia to the reflexive certainties of the 16th Century papacy, even as Erasmus published in Praise of Folly, and Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg’s Castle Church.

The 407-page report swats aside electric vehicles with impatience. The fleet of cars in the world will rise from 1bn to 2.1bn over the next 25 years – topping 400m in China – and 94pc will still run on petrol and diesel.

“Without a technology breakthrough, battery electric vehicles are not expected to gain significant market share in the foreseeable future,” it said. Electric cars cost too much. Their range is too short. The batteries are defective in hot or cold conditions.

OPEC says battery costs may fall by 30-50pc over the next quarter century but doubts that this will be enough to make much difference, due to "consumer resistance".

This is a brave call given that Apple and Google have thrown their vast resources into the race for plug-in vehicles, and Tesla's Model 3s will be on the market by 2017 for around $35,000.

Ford has just announced that it will invest $4.5bn in electric and hybrid cars, with 13 models for sale by 2020. Volkswagen is to unveil its "completely new concept car" next month, promising a new era of "affordable long-distance electromobility."

The OPEC report is equally dismissive of Toyota's decision to bet its future on hydrogen fuel cars, starting with the Mirai as a loss-leader. One should have thought that a decision by the world's biggest car company to end all production of petrol and diesel cars by 2050 might be a wake-up call.

Goldman Sachs expects 'grid-connected vehicles' to capture 22pc of the global market within a decade, with sales of 25m a year, and by then - it says - the auto giants will think twice before investing any more money in the internal combustion engine. Once critical mass is reached, it is not hard to imagine a wholesale shift to electrification in the 2030s.

Goldman is betting that battery costs will fall by 60pc over the next five years, driven by economies of scale as much as by technology. The driving range will increase by 70pc.

This is another world from OPEC's forecast. Even this may well be overtaken soon by further leaps in science. A team of Cambridge chemists says it has cracked the technology of a lithium-air battery with 90pc efficiency, able to power a car from London to Edinburgh on a single charge. It promises to cut costs by four-fifths, and could be on the road within a decade.

There is now a global race to win the battery prize. The US Department of Energy is funding a project by the universities of Michigan, Stanford, and Chicago, in concert with the Argonne and Lawrence Berkeley national laboratories. The Japan Science and Technology Agency has its own project in Osaka. South Korea and China are mobilising their research centres.

A regulatory squeeze is quickly changing the rules of global energy.The Grantham Institute at the London School of Economics counts 800 policies and laws aimed at curbing emissions worldwide.

Goldman Sachs says the model to watch is Norway, where electric vehicles already command 16.3pc of the market. The switch has been driven by tax exemptions, priority use of traffic lanes, and a forest of charging stations. [And acceptance of tiny cars]

California is following suit. It has a mandatory 22pc target for 'grid-connected' vehicles within ten years. New cars in China will have to meet emission standards of 5 litres per 100km by 2020, even stricter than in Europe.

Beijing's pilot scheme to promote electric cars has fallen short - chiefly because there are not yet enough charging sites - but this will change soon with drastic rationing of permits for petrol cars. If you want a car as the authorities grapple with 'airpocalypse', it may have to be electric.

China's Geely Automobile aims to generate 90pc of its sales from electric vehicles by 2020. Bill Russo from Gao Feng Advisory in Shanghai says China is about to "leapfrog" the rest of the world and become the epicentre of the electrification drive.

OPEC does not deny that the Paris accords change the energy landscape, but they view this as a problem strictly for the coal industry. There will be a partial switch from coal to gas, with a little nuclear thrown in, along with a risible contribution from wind and solar.

Their own charts seems to show that coal, gas, and oil will together emit a further 1,200 gigatonnes of carbon by 2040. This would blow through the maximum carbon budget deemed allowable by scientists if we are to stop temperatures rising by more than 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels by 2100 - let alone to achieve the 1.5 degree 'ambition' agreed by world leaders in Paris.

Saudi Arabia's belief that it can carry on with business as usual into the mid 21st Century is what informs the current OPEC strategy of flooding the crude market to eliminate rivals.

The report admits that this is proving to be a costly undertaking. Tight oil and shale in North America has not buckled - as presumed in last year's forecast - and OPEC now expects it to keep rising slightly in 2016 to 4.5m b/d, and again to 4.7m in 2017.

In the meantime, OPEC revenues have crashed from $1.2 trillion in 2012 to nearer $400bn at today's Brent price of $36.75, with fiscal and regime pain to match.

This policy has eroded global spare capacity to a wafer-thin 1.5m b/d, leaving the world vulnerable to a future shock. It implies a far more volatile market in which prices gyrate wildly, eroding confidence in oil as a reliable source of energy.

The more that this Saudi policy succeeds, the quicker the world will adopt policies to break reliance on its only product. As internal critics in Riyadh keep grumbling, the strategy is suicide.

Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are lucky. They have been warned in advance that OPEC faces slow-run off. The cartel has 25 years to prepare for a new order that will require far less oil.

If they have any planning sense, they will manage the market to ensure crude prices of $70 to $80. They will eke out their revenues long enough to control spending and train their people for a post-petrol economy, rather than clinging to 20th Century illusions.

Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, the former Saudi oil minister, warned in an interview with the Telegraph fifteen years ago that this moment of reckoning was coming and he specifically cited fuel-cell technologies.

"Thirty years from now there will be a huge amount of oil - and no buyers. Oil will be left in the ground. The Stone Age came to an end, not because we had a lack of stones."

They did not listen to him then, and they are not listening now.


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