Navigant Research Blog

Volkswagen Scandal Deflates Clean Diesel Image

— October 5, 2015

We finally have a more important scandal to discuss than air pressure in footballs. On September 18, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) laid out a case for a notice of violation against Volkswagen. The issue? Computer software within Volkswagen clean diesel vehicles that allows the cars to sense an emissions test and activate emissions controls. The vehicles then could easily pass stringent U.S. Tier 2, Bin 5 emission standards. A Tier 2 vehicle must meet an average nitrogen oxide (NOx) emission limit of 0.07 grams per mile. However, when the programmed vehicles were not under emissions testing, emissions controls were disabled and Volkswagen vehicles spewed up to 40 times that level of NOx emissions.

Immediate Impacts

In a matter of days, Volkswagen lost $17 billion in shareholder value as the company’s stock plummeted over 30%. Volkswagen recently became the largest car seller in the world, selling nearly 10 million vehicles globally in 2014. The automaker will face up to $18 billion in fines from the U.S. government, and has also committed $7.3 billion toward recalling nearly 500,000 vehicles for the reprogramming necessary to comply with pollution standards. Volkswagen has also halted sales of affected 2015 models, and the EPA will not certify the company’s 2016 models.

While the U.S. market accounts for 6% of Volkswagen sales, the damage to the company’s environmentally responsible image is significant. Diesel vehicles account for over half of vehicle sales in Europe, and European government policies have made diesel fuels cheaper than gasoline. Emissions standards for diesels are also less strict in Europe compared to in the United States.

The U.S. Clean Diesel Market

Volkswagen TDIs represented nearly 30% of diesel sales in the U.S. market. Effective greenwashing campaigns by diesel automakers have created a reputation for diesel as a clean fuel source for our vehicles. Diesel has a higher energy density than fuel and diesel engines also operate more efficiently, so higher miles per gallon can be achieved. A clean image and a high fuel efficiency greatly increased the popularity of diesel models in the United States.

Whether arguing for or against diesel as a clean fuel source, it is important to discuss the emissions contents of diesel versus traditional fuel. Traditional fuel-burning vehicles give off higher yields of carbon monoxide and hydrocarbon emissions than diesel vehicles. These emissions are minimized by improved catalytic converter designs. Diesel vehicles emit more NOx, which in turn creates smog (ozone). The EPA is likely to take final action on stronger smog standards before the end of 2015. While diesel automakers utilize a variety of treatment systems to reduce NOx emissions, the Volkswagen scandal has significantly squashed the idea of diesel as a clean fuel source. How the public will respond to this breach of trust is yet to be seen.

Hybrid and Electric Vehicle Market growth

As the smog clears on the Volkswagen scandal, what opportunity is presented to hybrid and electric vehicles? As the image of clean diesel fades, the growing consumer base for fuel-efficient and environmentally friendly vehicles is expected to turn toward hybrid and electric vehicles. With the disgrace of the country’s most popular diesel model and growing interest in electrification, the auto industry may soon see a significant restructuring.


Are LCOE Analyses Still Useful?

— September 29, 2015

Earlier in September, the International Energy Agency (IEA) published its 2015 edition of the Projected Costs of Generating Electricity report. Not surprisingly, the report shows a dramatic fall in the levelized cost of energy (LCOE) for solar electricity and a minor fall in the LCOE for wind in comparison to the IEA’s 2010 report.

Several media outlets have highlighted that the cost of a kilowatt-hour (kWh) coming from renewables is now similar to—or even lower than—costs coming from fossil fuel technologies, and therefore are citing renewables as the cheaper option. While this may be true in certain scenarios, what the reporters and the LCOE analysis fail to highlight is that, while all kWh are equal, some are more equal than others.

kWh and World Cup Coverage

Take, for example, the Germany versus Argentina game from the 2014 FIFA World Cup. The price of a kWh in Germany at the end of this game rose to the high of €46/MWh, than dropped €15/MWh 2 hours later. In the evening, electricity production from wind turbines reached almost full capacity from the day’s demand. Then the next day, lacking an event interesting enough to keep televisions on, that demand plunged.  Location, like time of production, can also make a significant difference in the quality of a kWh. There is no data to support the following hypothesis, but demand in Argentina had to have dropped after Germany scored, while demand in Germany likely stayed high for at least a few more hours.

Simplifying LCOE

A traditional LCOE analysis would assume a capacity factor for a turbine depending on the local wind resource data, then aggregate the hours that the turbine is expected to operate in its lifetime, and finally divide the overnight (capital expenditures) and operating costs by the expected hours to get the LCOE. This made sense in a world where wind generation was managed primarily to follow demand. It was enough when the costs were multiple that of other options—like Feed-in Tariffs and basic net metering. In those options, energy quality is not the incentive, and the most common policy support mechanism is allocated toward wind and solar.

But in the world we are headed toward—where supply and demand for solar energy may not match—a newer, simpler metric that media outlets could use to educate people would be useful. For example, something like a revenue generation cost analysis (the cost of producing $1 of revenue) that takes into account the cost of delivering a kWh and the time in which it is delivered, could be more interesting to the public—and could even help in moving renewables policy and innovation forward.


Automotive Mapping: A New Digital World

— September 15, 2015


German automakers Audi, BMW, and Daimler have announced plans to acquire Nokia’s mapping service HERE in a move that seems part of the continued blending of the automotive and digital worlds. HERE is one of a handful of companies that supplies mapping data to a wide range of end users, competing with Google Maps and TomTom. HERE’s strengths lie in the automotive sector, as its service is the most often used in vehicle navigation systems.

It may be that the automakers simply want to secure the availability of this mapping service to ensure that Google Maps won’t be the only game in town. The same could be said for another interested party in the HERE sale: Uber, which has recently acquired mapping expertise and intellectual property from Microsoft. This was seen as partly a defensive move. It appears that Uber is trying to position itself away from Google, which has been signaling through its investment through Google Ventures a desire to launch its own ride hailing app that could compete with Uber. But Uber has also expressed an interest in autonomous vehicle technologies, declaring to Tesla that it would be prepared to buy a fleet of autonomous electric vehicles. As Navigant Research has discussed, high-quality mapping is critical to the autonomous vehicle sector.

Meanwhile, Apple has continued to make moves that suggest it may launch an electric vehicle of its own. After reports in early 2015 hinted that the company was building an electric van, speculation have only increased when the company moved to hire a former quality control executive from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and to use BMW’s i3 electric vehicles in a trial project.

Blurred Lines

This brings us back to the story of Audi, BMW, and Daimler acquiring HERE. All of these activities demonstrate that the digital and physical worlds are now fully integrated within auto manufacturing, and that the lines between these industries will continue to blur. Auto companies are now well-established in Silicon Valley, and it is apparent to the OEMs that they will have to be more than just car manufacturers in the future, but also mobility providers. German automakers are especially far along in this realization. BMW, for example, has its own smart parking app and carsharing business. Indeed, most automakers are exploring some of these new mobility concepts. Ford’s 25 global mobility experiments include vehicle sharing, carsharing, and smart parking services, while Toyota has its electric vehicle carsharing trial programs. Other OEMs are also launching carsharing services, developments that will be discussed in Navigant Research’s upcoming Carsharing Programs report.

Acquiring mapping expertise plays into the shift from automakers to total mobility providers. What will be interesting to watch is how daring the auto companies are prepared to be in making this transition. So far, much of the OEM activity is labeled as a trial, indicating that some OEMs are still unsure about the real value of these new services. Indeed, some of the services may well be low revenue generators, but they can help automakers stake out their role in the new urban mobility landscape. This is especially the case in the mature and highly regulated car markets of North America and Western Europe, where private cars will be just one more mobility tool among many.


August Presents Prospects and Threats for Renewable Energy

— September 15, 2015

Rough_Seas_webOil prices experienced a tumultuous year in 2015. With an increase in North American shale oil supply and a lack of management of Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) production, an imbalance in the supply and demand of oil has led to wild spikes in oil prices. As oil prices have plummeted over 50% in the past year, renewable energy companies are understandably concerned.

Simple economics explains that when commodities prices are low, consumers will want to purchase and use more of the product. This is no different when it comes to energy prices. Dropping oil prices makes renewable energy sources appear comparatively more expensive, and thus consumers will return to oil.

However, simple economic models are too basic to describe why dropping oil prices aren’t always a harbinger of challenges for the renewable energy market. Volatility is one reason why oil prices won’t collapse renewable energy stocks. Investors understand that markets are erratic. Despite the current downswing, investors in oil should expect an eventual recovery. Lack of control in oil production leads to little price stability. By comparison, investors may view renewable energy technologies as a far more consistent opportunity. Additionally, the decline in the use of oil for electricity generation has limited the impact of oil prices on solar and wind generation sources.

Global Stock Market Crash

This August, China’s stock market suffered a significant fall. An initial 8.5% drop in the world’s second-largest economy had a significant impact globally. This market crash led to immediate further dips in oil prices, causing stock prices for renewable energies to continue to decline as well. One cause of the Chinese market crash was a decision by the Chinese government to devalue its currency in an attempt to reduce costs of exports. China is currently the largest manufacturer of solar panels, often exporting solar panels globally below the production costs of competing manufacturers. As a result of the country’s currency devaluation, there are concerns from competitors that Chinese solar panels will continue to decrease in cost.

A New Clean Power Policy

President Barack Obama rolled out a new clean power policy this month that will provide federal backing for clean energy technologies. The plan calls for $1 billion in additional loans to be made available for distributed energy projects that aggregate numerous distributed energy resources in new and cost-effective ways. Clean energy technology will also be more readily available for residential customers through improvements being made to the property-assessed clean energy (PACE) program. The plan will also allow for significant innovation in distributed energy projects.

Challenges and Potential

While decreased oil prices and a struggling global stock market have had an immediate negative impact on the renewable energy industry, significant policy changes will allow companies the opportunity to fund innovative distributed generation technologies moving forward.


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