Navigant Research Blog

Criticism of EV Battery Environmental Impacts Misses the Point

— April 2, 2014

The environmental impact of electric vehicles (EVs) remains the subject of debate, with Tesla Motors becoming the latest scapegoat for allegedly contributing to acid rain in China.  Bloomberg News points out that EV batteries require the use of graphite, which is mostly mined and processed in China.  Graphite mining pollutes the air and water and harms agricultural crops.  The average electric car contains about 110 lbs of graphite, and Tesla’s proposed Gigafactory is expected to single-handedly double the demand for graphite in batteries.

While these are valid concerns, they ignore a few larger facts: the oil industry has far greater overall environmental impact; the production of electricity is much cleaner than refining and burning gasoline; and recycling and reuse techniques are revolutionizing the battery industry.  Tesla, meanwhile, has responded to the graphite concerns. The recent 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill reminds us of one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history, in which 10.8 million gallons of crude oil was spilled into Prince William Sound, off the coast of Alaska.  Ironically, the congested Houston Ship Channel (one of the world’s busiest waterways) was partially closed over the Valdez anniversary because of a weekend oil spill of nearly 170,000 gallons of tar-like crude.

Compared to Gas

Overall, the equivalent lifecycle environmental impact of electricity is much less harmful than gasoline – assuming it isn’t entirely generated by coal.  According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a gallon of gasoline produces 8,887 grams (g) of carbon dioxide (CO2) when burned in a vehicle.  An equivalent 10 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity emits about 9,750g of CO2 when generated in a coal-fired power plant, 6,000g when generated in a natural gas plant, 900g from a hydroelectric plant, 550g from solar, and 150g each from wind and nuclear.  These figures include the entire lifecycle analysis, including mining, construction, transportation, and the burning of fuel.  Since 63% of the 2012 electricity mix in the United States was derived from non-coal energy sources, it has been estimated that EVs emit about half the amount of carbon pollution per mile as the average conventional vehicle.

At the same time, innovative recycling and reuse techniques are significantly increasing the sustainability of EV batteries.  In the United States and Europe, all automotive batteries are required by law to be recycled.  This has made the lead-acid battery industry one of the most sustainable industries in the world, with nearly 99% recycling rates of all the batteries’ components.  Additionally, the world’s first large-scale power storage system made from reused EV batteries was recently completed in Japan.

Second Lives for Batteries

While these approaches do not fully solve the problems associated with graphite mining, the environmental impact created by the manufacturing, transportation, and disposal of batteries is significantly lowered for each additional cycle a battery supplies.  If battery lifetimes can be doubled, the negative environmental impact is cut in half.  Navigant Research’s report, Second-Life Batteries: From PEVs to Stationary Applications, also points out that a global second-life battery market will create new businesses and jobs in addition to improving sustainability.  The global second-life battery business is expected to be worth near $100 million by 2020.

Even with the negative externalities associated with graphite production, EVs still offer an improved overall environmental picture than traditional internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles.  And Tesla, perhaps in response to pollution criticisms, has announced that it will source the raw materials for the proposed Gigafactory exclusively from North American supply chains. Producing graphite in North America is a much cleaner process than in China.

 

Keystone Opponents Should Focus on U.S. Oil Consumption

— March 17, 2014

Last month, the contentious debate over the Keystone XL Pipeline resurfaced as the U.S. State Department concluded its final environmental impact analysis, finding the construction of the pipeline will have no significant impact on U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.  The assumption underlying the analysis is that the oil, derived from Athabasca oil sands in Canada, is going to be consumed regardless of development of the pipeline.  Opponents of the Keystone project decried the decision, but they are overlooking a key lever for slowing production from the oil sands: just use less oil in the United States.

Canada is determined to develop the resource, which has been slowly ramping production since 2003.  As such, advocates of the pipeline point out that if not transported via pipeline to the United States, it will be transported via rail (as is the current method) or via a combination of rail and tanker.  An additional scenario involves exporting the oil across the Pacific to meet growing demand in China.  While this is not a near-term prospect, its realization would increase global carbon emissions, not to mention the potential for oil spills because of increased oil tanker transport.  And, oil demand in the United States that would be met from a stable partner, and the largest source of U.S. petroleum imports, would have to be sourced from unstable supply lines from the Middle East.

Opponents argue that oil sands development is not yet a done deal, since alternative transport options besides the pipeline also face opposition.  Opponents take particular exception to the oil sands, as their development is far more carbon-intense than other forms of oil  production.  However, if it is true that the pipeline itself is irrelevant to oil sands development, then opposition efforts should shift to confronting consumption in end-use markets – specifically the U.S. road transportation sector.

Demand Side

In 2012, the United States  accounted for almost 20% of global oil consumption, the majority of which is consumed by vehicles on the roads.  Government programs and policies designed to blunt U.S. demand for oil, such as the Renewable Fuel Standard, can be highly influential on global oil prices, since the United States is the world’s largest consumer.  An increase in global oil supply, due to either increased domestic production of non-oil sand liquid fuels or a significant fall in U.S. demand, would lower the global price of oil.  A price dive in oil would dampen interest in costly oil sands development.

Although the existence of the oil sands has been known for almost a century, widespread development has not been economically viable until the last decade.  The cost of oil production from the oil sands is higher than production from more accessible reserves elsewhere.  Past oil price spikes have sparked interest in tar sands development, but those spikes have been short-lived and interest has faded with falling prices.  The steadily increasing price of oil over the last decade has sustained interest in the oil sands, leading to the development now taking place.  However, oil sands development is still a risky gamble, as shown by the losses incurred by Total and China Investment Corporation in 2013.

Increasing oil supply and cutting demand through increased domestic production of shale gas, rising biofuels penetration in the fuel supply chain, improved fuel economy of conventional gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles, and spreading adoption of electric and other alternative fuel vehicles could effectively slow, if not halt, further development in Canada’s tar sands.  Oil consumption in the United States has declined since its peak in 2005; accelerating that decline, to more than offset increasing consumption in China and other growing economies, could displace much of the economic rationale for tapping Canada’s oil sands.  That would be more effective than asking the federal government to cancel a pipeline.

 

China’s ‘Solar Bubble’ a Coal Bubble in Disguise

— March 14, 2014

Tremors rippled through global financial markets this week after Shanghai Chairo Solar Energy Science and Technology defaulted on its corporate debt.  The first Chinese company to default on domestically issued bonds, Shanghai Chairo is seen as a signal of the over-inflation of China’s red-hot solar market – and, worse, as an indication that the whole edifice of “shadow banking,” shaky corporate debt, excessive property lending, and unsustainable economic growth in China could come crashing down, leading to another global financial meltdown.

That seems overly alarmist.  China’s leaders have for some time been forecasting a modest slowdown in economic growth for 2014, to the 7%-8% range, which would still be the envy of any Western economy.  And Chinese premier Li Keqiang warned on Thursday that future corporate debt failures are “unavoidable” as the country deregulates its financial markets and the government stops propping up unprofitable enterprises.  China’s economy is maturing beyond export-led growth based on cheap commodities, and some regrettable bankruptcies aside, that’s good not only for the Chinese people, but also, ultimately for the stability of the global financial system.

At least that’s the official, reassuring line.  In the energy sector things are slightly more complicated.

King Dethroned

There’s no question that the Chinese solar industry finds itself in a situation of overinvestment and overcapacity.  The spectacular bankruptcy of Suntech, previously headed by China’s “Solar King,” Zhengrong Shi, signaled clearly that the dot-com phase of China’s solar power boom is officially over and a period of sober reassessment – and disinvestment – must inevitably follow.

Still, overseas solar markets, particularly the United States, are enjoying sustained growth, largely thanks to innovative leasing models.  And last month the Chinese government upped its target for new solar installations for 2014 to 14 gigawatts (GW) – a mark that would surpass last year’s total of 12 GW, which itself was the most any nation had added in a single year.  China’s solar industry must adjust to market realities going forward; but the market is growing.

That’s not necessarily true of the coal sector, which could be the real bubble now threatening China’s sustained economic growth.  Nearly 40GW of new coal-fired power generation capacity was added last year, and it’s no longer obvious that demand will continue to grow to soak up all that power.  China has actually closed down more than 80 GW of coal capacity in the last dozen years, and the government reportedly plans to shutter another 20 GW in the coming years.

Wobbly Steel

Indeed, within 5 years there may well be a nationwide cap on coal consumption in China – an extraordinary development in a country whose economic miracle of the last 20 years has been powered almost completely by coal. The less-noticed default of Haixin Steel, a steelmaker based in the coal-producing region of Shanxi Province, China’s Appalachia, could be a more troubling episode than Shanghai Chaori.  Haixin was involved in “triangular debt” arrangements with coal producers and other investors, and its failure could forebode turbulence in China’s heavy industry – and its commodities markets, including coal.

“The truth is Chinese coal consumption is peaking,” writes Justin Guay, of the Sierra Club, “and its plans to build the world’s largest coal pipeline is a bubble that may have already burst.”

If the coal/steel nexus that has fueled China’s growth turns into a bubble, concerns over solar companies going belly up will look minor by comparison.

 

ExxonMobil’s Energy Outlook Gives Reasons for Hope

— January 9, 2014

ExxonMobil released its annual Outlook for Energy on December 12, 2013.  The Outlook is breathtaking in its detail, but one sentence in the press release caught my eye:

“Energy used for power generation will continue to be the largest component of global demand and is expected to grow by more than 50 percent by 2040 as improved living standards that come with urbanization and rising incomes lead to increased household and industrial electricity consumption through wider penetration of electronics, appliances and other modern conveniences.”

First, it caught my eye as one who writes for a living: here at Navigant Research, we avoid really long sentences such as the above 56-word leviathan.

More seriously, ExxonMobil forecasts that electricity usage will increase by 90% between 2010 and 2040, and that power generation will remain the leading component of energy demand.  The Outlook suggests that much of this demand will come from the increasing electrification of developing economies and the resulting surge in energy demand within those economies.  For the quality-of-life improvements these increases portend in developing economies, I am thankful.

Other Factors

ExxonMobil also forecasts that, “In the power generation sector, policies to stem GHG emissions will likely raise electricity costs for consumers, slowing demand growth.  Power producers will also seek to utilize more efficient electricity-generating technologies, and shift from coal toward lower-emission fuel sources like natural gas, nuclear and renewables.”

While ExxonMobil’s Outlook focuses on electricity generation, there are other influences upon energy demand that must be considered:

  • Demand-side management (DSM) programs, such as demand response (DR) and time-of-use (TOU) pricing, can influence consumers to shift consumption to off-peak periods, when renewable energy resources may exceed demand.
  • Then again, some energy demand is nearly inelastic.  We Texans don’t like higher energy bills any more than anyone else, but we like boiling hot homes during the summer even less.  We really wish the winds out in the Panhandle would blow in the middle of the summer afternoon, instead of 3 a.m. on a cold winter’s morning.
  • Conservation voltage reduction – the subject of an upcoming report from Navigant Research– can reduce energy requirements with no customer action.  Automated control of capacitor banks or voltage regulators enables utilities to run their distribution grids at slightly lower voltages, reducing energy consumption by up to 4% with zero effect upon service to customers.
  • Advances in transmission and distribution (as covered in Navigant Research’s report, High-Voltage Direct Current Transmission Systems) can reduce reactive loss for energy transmission, delivering more of the generated energy to consumers.  This becomes critical as renewable energy sources are exploited far from the load centers (i.e., cities).

Reasons for Optimism

These are all topics that we cover at Navigant Research and will continue to cover during 2014.  In one sense, the smart grid is all about getting more out of the same amount of energy.  More power from the same power, if you will.

I am nearly certain that ExxonMobil’s prognosticators will have considered all these issues in their forecasts.  Still, it bears repeating that there are lots of reasons to feel optimistic about our energy future.  To the degree that improved technology makes life better in developing economies, that’s one more reason to be optimistic.

 

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