Navigant Research Blog

Amid Global Turmoil, Oil Prices Oddly Stable

— July 18, 2014

The world has entered a zone of maximum upheaval.  From the Atlas Mountains of North Africa to the Hindu Kush, in Afghanistan, the Middle East is in flames.  The destruction of a Malaysian airline over Ukraine, almost certainly shot down by Russian-backed separatist rebels, threatens war in the Black Sea region.  Libya is being torn apart by competing militias, while parts of Iraq are under assault by the murderous Islamist force known as ISIS.  Syria remains a bloody horror show, and Israeli troops have launched a ground invasion of Gaza.  At no time since the terror attacks of 2001 has the world seen such conflict and instability.

So why aren’t oil prices higher?

Prices spiked briefly after the news on July 17 that Malaysian Air flight 17, en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was shot down by a surface-to-air missile fired from eastern Ukraine.  U.S. oil futures rose $1.99 a barrel, up 2% on the New York Mercantile Exchange, to reach nearly $104.  That was the largest one-day jump since June 12, when ISIS launched its offensive in Iraq, according to The Wall Street Journal.  But markets quickly calmed: the next day, benchmark crude had retreated below $103 a barrel on the NYME.  The shocks of recent days had caused a tremor across world petroleum markets, not a tsunami.

No Lost Sleep

“At any given point of time, global financial markets are always at risk from geopolitical disturbances, but this time around nobody’s losing sleep over it,”  wrote Malini  Bhupta in the  Business Standard, India’s leading economic newspaper, in a column headlined “Markets shrug off geopolitical risks as oil prices remain stable.”

Before the latest outrage in Ukraine, oil prices had actually been easing: in mid-July U.S. crude fell below $100 a barrel for the first time since May.  That’s not to say that prices aren’t high; as Steve LeVine, of Quartz, points out, geopolitical disturbances have removed around 3.5 million barrels of oil a day from world markets since last fall, and if the world were a more stable and peaceful place, oil prices would likely be well below $100 a barrel.  But given the current unrest, a price per barrel of $125, or higher, would not be startling.

The ability of the market to absorb multiple shocks and keep prices relatively stable is an indication of structural changes that have taken place in recent years.

Awash in Conflict, and Oil

According to Liam Denning, writing in The Wall Street Journal’s “Heard on the Street” column, the “forward curve” – the price of oil scheduled for delivery months or years in the future, based on the trade in futures contracts – has flipped in recent weeks, meaning that prices for contracts nearer in time are now lower than those further out.  When the curve slopes upward like that, it’s an indication that supplies are plentiful.  “The global oil market no longer looks quite so panicked about Iraq,” commented Denning.

More broadly, the world’s supply of oil has been climbing for years, and continues to do so despite the current crises.  What’s more, the sources of that supply have diversified; the Middle East no longer has as a dominant role in world production as it did 10 or even 5 years ago.

Defying “peak oil” predictions, world crude production increased roughly 50% over the last 30 years, rising from about 50 million barrels a day in 1983 to 76 million in 2012.  Regions that were negligible producers before the turn of the century are now significant oil suppliers: Africa’s production has doubled since 1983, as has South America’s.  Despite the current civil war, oil production in Iraq has soared, growing from about 300,000 barrels a day in 1991 to 3 million in 2012.  Driven by new drilling in the tar sands, Canada has more than doubled its production in the last 20 years.

And then, of course, there’s the United States, which in 2011 became a net exporter of petroleum products for the first time since the post-World War II era.  In  short, the world is awash in petroleum, and barring an all-out war between Putin’s Russia and the West, is likely to remain that way for some time.

 

How Can the United States Pay for Road Upkeep?

— July 17, 2014

More vehicles throng U.S. roads each year, expansion necessary to support them and with less money to fund road repairs.  The root of the problem is that road construction funds are largely derived from taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel, and U.S. consumption of both is declining and will continue to decline.  The increasing fuel economy of new vehicles combined with rising penetrations of alternative fuel vehicles (AFVs) is having a marked impact on U.S. fuel demand.

In the upcoming report Global Fuel Consumption, Navigant Research forecasts that liquid fuels (gasoline, diesel, and biofuels) consumed by U.S. vehicles will decrease from approximately 160 billion gallons in 2014 to around 104 billion gallons in 2035.  Meanwhile, forecasts from the Navigant Research reports Light Duty Vehicles and Medium and Heavy Duty Vehicles indicate that the U.S. vehicle fleet will grow from approximately 250 million to nearly 270 million in 2027 before beginning a slow decline.

More per Gallon

If the status quo funding mechanism is maintained, annual federal gasoline and diesel tax revenue will decline from current levels of about $30 billion to near $20 billion in 2035.  Meanwhile, over the same time period, the fleet of vehicles in use will grow by 10 million.  However, in the near term, the federal Highway Trust Fund and Mass Transit Fund are headed for insolvency before the end of the year.

A number of short-term funding options have been proposed that will likely push a decision on a long-term solution out past the November mid-term elections.  However, one long-term solution emerged last month from two U.S. senators who proposed raising the federal gasoline and diesel tax by $0.06 per gallon over 2 years and then indexing the tax to inflation for following years.  The tax has been stagnant since 1993, at $0.184/gallon of gasoline and $0.244/gallon of diesel.  Raising it would probably be the easiest long-term solution to implement, since the machinery for tax collection is already in place.

U.S. Federal Gasoline/Diesel Tax Revenue and Vehicles in Use, United States: 2014-2035

(Source: Navigant Research)

What this proposal has in ease of implementation, though, it lacks in political appeal and fairness.  Taxes are a bitter pill for any Republican member to swallow, and pushing through a hike on gasoline and diesel, no matter how small or sensible, is likely to be impossible.  Additionally, as the tax stands now and the proposal will maintain, motorists who drive newer fuel efficient vehicles pay less tax.  Those who drive AFVs pay no tax per mile driven, despite the fact that they are using the same roads as owners of less fuel efficient conventional vehicles who bear more of the tax burden.  Since the tax was designed to make those who use the road pay for the road, the above scenario is an unintended consequence to the advantage of alternative fuel and fuel efficient vehicle owners.

Dollars per Mile

In early 2009, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood recommended that the federal government should look into a vehicle miles traveled (VMT) tax.  The VMT tax would clock vehicle owners’ mileage and then tax them on a per-mile basis.  While this solution would not be easy to implement, it would be a fair way of collecting taxes in line with the original purpose of federal gasoline and diesel taxes.  It could also be used as a tool to manage traffic along specific congested corridors.

Despite the suitability of a VMT tax, it is unlikely it will emerge as a legitimate policy option in the near term, due to a lack of political support and a tested method for implementation.  Rather, owners of older conventional vehicles will likely pay more at the pump – or traffic is only going to get worse.

 

Coming to the Motor City: A Smarter Grid

— July 13, 2014

The smart grid in Detroit is about to get smarter – and so are utility industry executives exploring options for real-time grid data and analytics.  Distribution grid sensor developer Tollgrade Communications recently announced a $300,000 project to deploy its LightHouse sensors and predictive grid analytics solution across DTE Energy’s Detroit network.  The companies aim to demonstrate how outages can be prevented.

The 3-year program was selected as a Commitment to Action project by the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) at the recent CGI event in Denver, where Tollgrade CEO Ed Kennedy took to the stage with former president Bill Clinton to discuss the project.  Tollgrade, Kennedy said, will make public quarterly reports on the project, beginning in 1Q 2015, identifying best practices and sharing detailed performance statistics.

Cheaper Than Building a Substation

With 2.1 million customers and 2,600 feeder circuits, DTE Energy has already begun piloting the system around Detroit, and Tollgrade says that it hopes to prevent 500,000 outage minutes over the next 3 years.  Because of the heavy concentration of auto manufacturing in the Detroit area, those saved minutes should translate into substantial economic benefits.  The system will leverage several communications protocols, including DTE’s advanced metering infrastructure communications network, reducing the startup cost and improving the return on investment.

The sensors will be placed along troublesome feeders as well as outside substations where older infrastructure increases the likelihood of outages.  Combined with the predictive analytics solution, the sensors cost just a few thousand dollars per location and could help DTE Energy avoid or defer replacing a million-dollar substation.  Both investors and regulators are sure to like those stats.

Predicting Change

Predictive grid analytics has been a hot topic in the industry for the last few years, but only recently have the prices of solutions and sensors fallen to a level where utilities can justify the cost to deploy them widely throughout the distribution network.  Navigant Research expects the market for distribution grid sensor equipment to grow from less than $400 million worldwide today to 4 times that amount by 2023.  (Detailed analysis of distribution grid sensors can be found in Navigant Research’s report, Asset Management and Condition Monitoring.)

Since its first meeting in 2011, CGI America participants have made more than 400 commitments valued at nearly $16 billion when fully funded and implemented.  The Modern Grid was one of 10 working groups this year; others include efforts in Sustainable Buildings and Infrastructure for Cities and States.

Another CGI Commitment to Action grant announced last week will fund a market-based, fixed-price funding program for solar and renewable technologies.  The Feed-Out Program from Demeter Power will support solar-powered carports with electric vehicle charging stations at a net-negative cost to the customer.  In other words, eligible businesses pay a fixed monthly fee to Demeter Power (lower than their previous monthly electricity bill) and their employees and customers enjoy free car charging while parked there.  Demeter will own and maintain the infrastructure.

The program will initially make financing available to commercial properties located in Northern California communities participating in the California FIRST property assessed clean energy (PACE) Program, which is offered through the California Statewide Community Development Authority.  Interested participants must register with Demeter Power Group to participate in the program, which is expected to launch in the first quarter of 2015.

 

Leasing EV Chargers and Profiting

— July 10, 2014

There are about as many business models for operating electric vehicle (EV) charging stations as there are flavors of Baskin-Robbins ice cream, but so far, none of them have been clearly profitable.  While worldwide sales of plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) have grown to more than 12,000 monthly, in most locations today, there isn’t enough traffic for EV charging stations to directly pay back their cost within 3 years, which is a typical required return on investment.

Several hardware companies are trying to lower the cost of the equipment, which could reduce the payback period.  In the United Kingdom, electric vehicle supply equipment (EVSE) company POD Point is now leasing charging stations to lower the upfront cost.  For approximately £50 ($85) per month installed, POD Point will provide a commercial charger, which the company says requires just two charging sessions per day to be profitable.  Leasing can be a viable option for companies looking for an easy way to enter the market, and the leasing company has a vested interest in making sure that the stations remain operational.

Dig It

For companies that prefer to purchase the hardware outright, ClipperCreek recently began to offer a commercial charger for just $395 before installation costs.  A pay-by-mobile phone system from Liberty Access Technologies that manages up to 10 charging stations and enables fees to be collected can be added on.

The cost of installation, which can require trenching, running conduit curbside, and upgraded power delivery to the location, remains the Achilles’ heel of profitable EV charging, and unfortunately, there’s little leeway in reducing the contractor and cabling fees.

Automakers are getting involved to lower the cost and pain of EV charging.  Tesla bundles the costs of accessing its SuperCharger network with the vehicle purchase price, while Nissan is paying for the first 2 years of charging a LEAF with its recently announced No Charge to Charge program.  Nissan has teamed up with AeroVironment, NRG, and the Car Charging Group on the EZ-Charge program, which gives EV owners a single payment card for accessing chargers from these EVSE providers.  EV charging company ChargePoint was supposed to work with EZ-Charge too, but backed out of the agreement.

In Japan, Nissan has joined with Toyota, Honda, and Mitsubishi to form Nippon Charge Service, an EV charging company that will provide incentives for companies to offer commercial EV charging at retail outlets.

Lattes Not Included

As detailed in Navigant Research’s Electric Vehicle Charging Equipment report, to be profitable today, most commercial EV charging stations need to bundle the cost of charging with some other service or fee structure.  These include combining EV charging with conventional parking fees, valet service at a hotel, or offering subscription services that combine home and public charging (a la the NRG eVgo network).  Startup Volta in Hawaii and Juice Bar have taken another approach by using advertising revenue to reduce the cost of a charging station, a growing trend that is likely to increase in popularity.

There will come a day soon, however, when EV penetration will be sufficient in some regions to make pay-as-you-go EV charging services profitable.  Gas prices will likely continue to rise (gasoline in the United States  is up $0.16 from last year at this time, according to AAA) and EV charging service providers will have more flexibility in pricing, since electricity as a fuel will increasingly be a better deal ‑ making profitability easier to attain.

 

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