The Structural (and Possibly Abrupt) Decline of Fossil Fuels
by Garvin Jabusch, cofounder and chief investment officer, Green Alpha Advisors
It has been a tough couple years for fossil fuels companies. In the immediate term, new drilling techniques and the lifting of the Iran economic embargo have opened up new supplies of oil and gas, and subsequently there has been a lot of damage to the oil price over the last year and a half. So much so, that according to The Economist, at $45 a barrel, oil is cheaper than it’s been since the first OPEC oil embargo in 1973. In real economic terms, this is about as cheap as oil has been in decades, the result of a supply/demand imbalance of nearly two million barrels a day, over about the last two years. It’s important to remember that two million barrels a day is only a shade over two percent of the daily global oil production function, showing that prices have been very sensitive to relatively minor increases in supply relative to the demand.
So today and in the recent past, times have been hard for producers and their investors, but what’s going to happen going forward?
Some, such as Chevron and OPEC’s Secretary-General, rest their thesis on the low price of oil slowing production investment, therefore causing base production to go down.Meanwhile, in their projection, demand goes up, and the two effects together lead to a $200 barrel of oil over the next decade and a half. In the short and near-medium term, this could be wrong. OPEC infighting and Iran regaining their four million barrels per day market share could conspire to keep supply on the high side. Or projections could be right, with production decreases resulting in more expensive oil.
Past that modicum of agreement, Green Alpha’s thesis is the opposite of Chevron’s.
We believe that fossil fuels are in the early stages (perhaps not so early in the case of coal) of a structural decline in demand that will ultimately result in coal, oil and gas no longer representing a meaningful percentage of the global economy’s energy mix by 2050, with investment and growth in the sector reversing long before that.
Fossil fuels may not be abandoned completely, but there is no credible scenario in which they are able to resume growth, economic superiority or a reliable pattern of risk-adjusted or even absolute returns. The two reasons for this are: 1. Renewable energies have become too economically competitive for fossil fuels to contend with, and 2. It is now widely understood that fossil fuels present systemic risks too great to be allowed to continue.
Rather than another long list of the economic advantages of renewables and the existential threats presented by extracting and burning fossil fuels, perhaps it’s more interesting to illustrate our thesis by responding to the most frequent objections that we hear. In no particular order, they go like this:
Solar and wind still aren’t cost competitive, and if they are, it’s only because of subsidies. Wrong. We now see electricity being contracted for sale at just under three pennies per kilowatt-hour on an unsubsidized basis from large-scale solar power generating plants. That’s $0.0299 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) in Dubai, which is admittedly one of the sunnier places in the world and therefore particularly advantageous for solar, but we also see right here in the United States that we are not far behind; San Jose, California, for example, has recently signed a solar power purchase agreement for 3.7 cents per kWw, which is competitive with any form of fossil electricity and cheaper than most. Wind, although not declining in price as rapidly as solar, is for now even cheaper. A 2015 report from analysts at Lazard Freres, as cited by Politifact, shows “the cost of wind production in Texas, not counting government subsidies, runs from $36 to $51 per megawatt-hour (Mwh) while an average national cost for coal-fired electricity ranges from $65 to $150 per MWh and for gas, depending on the type of plant, from $52/MWh to $218/MWh.”
Related: but solar isn’t growing very fast. You’re kidding, right? Solar is one of the world’s fastest growing industries. In a record-breaking year, the solar industry in the United States installed 7.3 gigawatt (GW) of solar PV (Photovoltaic) in 2015, and is poised to grow 119 percent in 2016, with installations to reach 16 GW. Entirely eclipsing this achievement, China just added 7.1 GW of new solar PV capacity in Q1 2016 alone.
Oil producers don’t agree that there is a decline going on. Right and wrong. Chevron and Exxon Mobil both do see oil demand going up in the next couple of decades, but the Deputy Crown Price of Saudi Arabia thinks the oil era will end, and is working hard on a transition plan to make his country much less dependent on fossil fuels revenues. He also has Bloomberg writing about “The $2 Trillion Project to Get Saudi Arabia’s Economy Off Oil.”
But if fossil fuels companies continue to do poorly, the economy will tank. Right and wrong, but mostly wrong. Yes, oil and gas firms have gone from boosting U.S. GDP (Gross Domestic Product) growth to reducing it, and recent GDP-by-industry numbers show that the oil and gas industry has continued to drag down GDP. Meanwhile, though, cheap oil and gas prices, combined with inexpensive renewables, are making most everything else in the economy far more productive and inexpensive. It’s important to keep in mind, as Jeremy Grantham has written, “The consumers of both oil and natural gas account for far more of U.S. economic activity than the producers do. For consumers, cheap energy is good. So eventually, whatever drag the oil and gas industry’s troubles exert on the economy should be more than compensated for by gains in other sectors.”Indeed, according to Bloomberg, “Bank of America Merrill Lynch…puts the oil move into a much bigger perspective, arguing that a sustained price plunge “will push back $3 trillion a year from oil producers to global consumers, setting the stage for one of the largest transfers of wealth in human history.” For context, again, Grantham: “Could there be a better financial input than this to the group that has been hurting for 30 years – the median wage earner? Not easily.”
Natural gas releases fewer greenhouse gasses than coal and can therefore be used indefinitely. Wrong. Yes, burning natural gas to make electricity releases less CO2 into the atmosphere than burning coal does, but the process of extracting, transporting and using natural gas releases far more methane into the atmosphere than does coal (which mainly releases CO2), — and methane is a far more powerful trapper of heat than CO2. In fact, many scientists think natural gas is worse than coal in global warming terms. Methane has a shorter life-span in the atmosphere than CO2, so the debate about which is worse in long-haul warming terms is difficult to resolve, but in the short term – meaning under a Century — “methane emissions from fracked shale gas are horrendously high; so yes, it’s unequivocally worse for the climate than is coal,” says Cornell University’s Robert W. Howarth, as quoted by Politifact, in a solid summary of points trying to get to the bottom of this issue. So natural gas is at least as bad as coal in terms of warming, and maybe much worse. Of course, both fuels present other risks as well, like mercury and soot pollution in the case of coal, and groundwater and aquifer contamination in the case of natural gas fracking.
But natural gas is the fastest growing energy in America. Nope, it’s being outpaced by renewables 2-to-1. In 2015, solar and wind together represented 69 percent of new electricity generation capacity additions in the U.S New U.S. electrical capacity from wind and solar in January 2016? One hundred percent. According to data cited by Joe Romm, “in the first three months of 2016, the U.S. grid added 18 MW (Megawatts) of new natural gas capacity. It added a whopping 1,291 MW of new wind and solar.”
Global warming isn’t real. Wrong. It’s all too real. Everyone knows it. There are now even meta-studies confirming consensus among studies revealing overwhelming consensus among scientists. Grow up.
We’re presently in a cooling phase. No. It’s hotter than ever. Keep up. It’s actually hard to avoid news about it right now. Here’s a May 16, 2016 summary from the Washington Post, selected at random from a Google search for “record warm:” “The planet’s torrid streak of record-warm months ballooned to seven in April, NASA data released over the weekend reveals. The average temperature of the planet was 2.0 degrees Fahrenheit (1.11 degrees Celsius) above the long-term average in April, shattering the old record from 2010 by 0.4 degrees (0.24 degrees Celsius). NASA data now indicates Earth has set record highs in every month since October 2015 and, in each instance, by a substantial margin.” If a few months seems like too short a time frame to worry about, consider NOAA’s revelation that “to date, including 2015, 15 of the 16 warmest years on record have occurred during the 21st century.” Note here that it is presently 2016, meaning all but one of the warmest 16 years ever recorded have occurred this century. That one outlier record year not in the 21st century? 1998.
Serious institutions don’t agree that greenhouse gases and warming are threats to the economy. Yes they do. In fact, warming and climate change are now cited both as being and causing the most serious global economic risks we face by such groups as the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland. The European Systemic Risk Board goes so far as to warn of a global economic “contagion” if the move to a low carbon economy happens too slowly or too late.
Serious institutions don’t agree that the global economy will soon evolve past fossil fuels. On the contrary, they very much do. MSSB Research summed up the positions of many banks on the subject when they recently wrote: “Investors cannot assume economic growth will continue to rely heavily on an energy sector powered predominantly by fossil fuels.”
Electric vehicles will not displace internal combustion, and therefore oil demand will remain robust. Only true in the short term. To assume that the changes we are now seeing emerge around the electrification of transportation and the subsequent ability of renewables to provide the energy required for transport is to ignore now obvious developments in technology and also in current events. For example, the Dutch Parliament has recently passed legislation seeking to prohibit the sale of internal combustion engine cars in Holland after 2025. Prime Minister Modi and others in India are working toward similar policy that would ban the sale of gas and diesel burning cars in India after 2030. According to The Independent, “Norway will ban the sale of all fossil fuel-based cars in the next decade, continuing its trend towards becoming one of the most ecologically progressive countries on the planet.” Bloomberg has written that they think there will be enough electric vehicles on the road by 2022 to have displaced 2 million barrels of oil per day worth of demand, with demand displacement of 5, 10, and 15 million barrels not far behind. Last year in China, we saw a 223 percent increase in sales of electric vehicles. In the U.S., it wasn’t quite as dramatic as in China, and yet we have seen in 2015 a 70 percent increase in EV (Electric Vehicle) demand, with growth of electric vehicles in both nations of course directly displacing oil. The Energy Collective has written that they don’t see any scenario where electric vehicles are not the majority of cars on the road by 2050.The Financial Times has gone as far as to print that fossil fuels must now accept that they are entering terminal decline.
Related: batteries are too expensive. Battery cost has been the primary factor keeping prices of electric vehicles high relative to internal combustion cars. However, Lithium Ion batteries that cost as much as $400 per kWh of storage when Tesla started making electric cars have now fallen to $160/kWh, and according to Greentech Media, “GM sees its battery cell cost hitting $100 per kilowatt-hour in 2022. Tesla could reach its <$100 per kilowatt-hour target in the intermediate term as Gigafactory production ramps, by 2018.” This will result in electric cars being very economically competitive, if not overwhelming, with internal combustion cars.
Related: lithium is too scarce to supply battery demand. Apparently, not so much. “Lithium, for example, is widely distributed and plentiful, takes little energy to produce, leaves no nasty waste behind, and faces predictable (steadily rising) demand,” according to Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, as reported by High Country News. HCN goes on, “Other countries, especially Chile, Argentina and Bolivia, have vast lithium-rich brine sources, low labor costs and political and regulatory regimes that favor maximum production. They don’t need hype. And they set the price.”
Corporations don’t care about using renewables. Apple and Google/Alphabet, the world’s two largest publicly traded companies by market capitalization, have both committed to power all their operations with renewable energies, and have already made remarkable progress. Currently, 93 percent of Apple’s facilities worldwide run on renewable energy, well on the path to CEO Tim Cook’s stated 100 percent goal. Google purchases the same volume of renewable energy that it consumes for operations, in addition to generating from solar and wind assets it owns., ,  Many firms large and small are following the lead of the world’s largest, starting with some in the Fortune 500. Some major corporate electricity users are now choosing to get a divorce from their utility, where laws allow, in order to speed up their renewable power use goals. MGM Mirage, for example, is leaving Nevada Energy because that utility has been too slow to implement renewable energies that MGM desires. Even though MGM will be required to pay an $80 million penalty to quit NV Energy, they are moving forward for three key reasons: 1. They will pay far less over time for electricity from their own solar generating facilities, 2. They want to meet corporate climate change mitigation goals, and 3. Perhaps most importantly, they can thus achieve something they never before dreamed possible: 20 to 40 years of locked-in, non-variable costs for their power., 
Renewables aren’t adding jobs. In fact, renewables destroy jobs. No. According to Bloomberg, “the number of U.S. jobs in solar energy overtook those in oil and natural gas extraction for the first time last year, helping drive a global surge in employment in the clean-energy business as fossil-fuel companies faltered. Employment in the U.S. solar business grew 12 times faster than overall job creation.” And, as reported by The Hill, “2.5 million people in the U.S. work in renewable energy, energy efficiency, clean vehicles and fuels, more than coal mining, petroleum extraction, pipeline and railroad industries combined,” and “in the US, solar jobs grew 22 percent and wind jobs grew 21 percent over the past year.” It’s safe to say that far from hurting the economy, renewables are adding tremendously to GDP, and might even be said to be dragging the rest of the economy along into positive territory.
A nation can’t transition to renewable energies while simultaneously growing its GDP. Obviously, this one is complicated and each nation faces its own intricacies on the road to fossil free energy standards. What we do know for now is that since 2000, there are at least 21 countries that have reduced their annual greenhouse gas emissions while simultaneously growing their economies as measured by GDP. In these 21 nations, economic growth and CO2 emissions have increasingly diverged, meaning economic growth has been decoupled from growth in carbon dioxide emissions. Given that these economies are growing, the most likely explanation is a structural shift of economies away from emissions-intensive electric power and transportation to renewable or at least zero Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions energies. Thanks to the results achieved by these 21, the aggregate global economy is growing, but global carbon emissions aren’t. According to analysis by the International Energy Agency (IEA), the surge in wind and solar energies, particularly over the last two years, combined with improvements in energy efficiencies have led to the ability of the global economy for the first time since the dawn of the industrial revolution to see a reduction in GHG emissions not caused by a recession or depression. “We now have seen two straight years of greenhouse gas emissions decoupling from economic growth,” concludes IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol.
The electricity grid can’t handle renewables. Here again we have a complicated issue. Some regions that historically have invested exclusively in hub and spoke grid architecture centered on burning fossil fuels may face difficulty adapting to widespread or large-scale renewables, at least without some upgrades. However, for the most part, most U.S. grids and areas are already capable of assimilating large percentages of solar and wind energy. The National Renewable Energy Lab, perhaps America’s leading authority on the subject, reports that “renewable electricity generation from technologies that are commercially available today, in combination with a more flexible electric system, is more than adequate to supply 80 percent of total U.S. electricity generation in 2050 while meeting electricity demand on an hourly basis in every region of the country.”
Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) can solve everything. The argument that ‘we can keep burning all the fossil fuels we like, we just need to invest in technology to capture the carbon emissions’ is dubious on many levels. First, it amounts to a capitulation that emissions are indeed dangerous. Second, it’s not clear to me that CCS can capture every power plant and every vehicle’s emissions in a way that works technologically, and even if it could, where would we store all that carbon? And if you could capture and store all those GHGs, how could you do it in a way that is economically competitive with a solar panel that’s now already very competitive with fossil generated electricity that can today dump its emissions into the sky for free? As I’ve written elsewhere, there’s really no way.
With utilities, transportation and the corporate world making the transition to renewables, it’s hard for me to see where an increase in demand for fossil fuels can come from. As investment managers, even if sustainability wasn’t part of our thesis, we couldn’t possibly have any investment interest in the shrinking global prospects for fossil fuels companies. The transition to a global economy powered by wind and solar is no longer a theoretical revolution, it is now demonstrably well underway. For investors, it has become dangerous to think of fossil fuel stocks as the same old source of safe risk-adjusted returns that they have been in past decades, and perhaps equally dangerous to assume that the stranding of fossil reserves is a process that will take decades into the future. Jeremy Grantham thinks that before 2030, investment growth in fossil fuels will have stopped. I personally think it will be long before that.
Article by Garvin Jabusch, cofounder and chief investment officer of Green Alpha® Advisors LLC (www.greenalphaadvisors.com). He is co-manager of the Shelton Green Alpha Fund [NEXTX] (http://sheltoncap.com/mutual-funds/domestic-equity/shelton-green-alpha-fund-fossil-free-investing) and of the Green Alpha Next Economy Index and of the Sierra Club Green Alpha Portfolio.
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44 National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Renewable Electricity Futures Study, ongoing.
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