As I wrote in this blog in 2012 and in 2013, rising volatility in the oil-to-gas ratio points to a substantial shift in market dynamics for clean energy. Even if short-lived, this shift will have substantial implications for investment in new energy technologies.
In recent years, as the price of oil climbed to over $100 a barrel, the oil-to-gas ratio—which compares the price of a barrel of crude oil to that of a million Btu (mmBtu) of natural gas—spiked to as high as 52:1 in a single month from a relative constant of around 10:1. While this apparent equilibrium had held steady since the mid-1980s, the widening gap between the price of oil and that of gas seemed to represent a new reality, with natural gas prices holding below $3 per mmBtu (Henry Hub).
In the last several months, as oil prices have slid to less than $50 per barrel, that ratio has come crashing back down to Earth. At a current 13:1, the oil-to-gas ratio is once again nearing historic levels—and again reshuffling the deck for a cleantech industry yearning for macroeconomic certainty.
Ratio of Crude Oil to Natural Gas: 1990-2015
(Source: Navigant Research)
While the boom in shale oil and gas recovery (among other factors) has ushered in an apparent return to historical equilibrium, experts are divided on what the future holds. Some argue that the recent spike in the oil-to-gas ratio was a short-term anomaly and that forces will continue to act to bring prices back into their long run equilibrium. Others question whether a stable long-term relationship between crude oil prices and natural gas prices even existed in the first place.
While the jury is still out on the putative correlation between oil and gas prices, we can expect continued volatility in the oil-to-gas ratio. This creates a challenging environment for new energy technologies going head-to-head with existing infrastructure.
The Incumbent Edge
Volatility dampens growth in new energy technologies in several ways. First, it cools investors’ appetite for clean energy ventures, due to the potential risk that seemingly profitable investments one day may turn out to be unprofitable due to changing fuel costs. Building natural gas infrastructure may look attractive in 2012 if you’re in the United States, for example, but not so wise when the price of a barrel of crude oil drops by more than 50% in 2014. This is an issue of asset stranding.
Second, it lowers customers’ tolerance for risk. As noted in our recently published report, Combined Heat and Power for Commercial Buildings, the impact of price swings are most acutely felt by consumers looking to hedge with one fuel against the other. When oil prices accelerated past $100, consumers of heating oil and gasoline, for example, began looking to natural gas alternatives. These decisions can be straightforward when price signals are stable, but actual (or even perceived) volatility favors a wait-and-see approach.
Third, it undermines the role of incentives and other mechanisms for stimulating the deployment of new energy technologies. Still more expensive than incumbent technology in most cases, clean energy has enjoyed incentives that put emerging energy technologies on an even playing field with fossil fuels. Fuel price volatility can make it especially challenging to establish reasonable incentive levels for the long term.
While Navigant Research’s forecasts for distributed generation technologies like solar PV (see our Global Distributed Generation Deployment Forecast report) and energy storage (see our Community, Residential, and Commercial Energy Storage report) in the United States remain strong despite lower energy prices, volatility is likely to mostly benefit the status quo.