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, 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 $.184/gallon of gasoline and $.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, and those who drive AFVs pay no tax per mile driven, despite that they are using the same roads as owners of less fuel efficient conventional vehicles who bear more of the tax burden.  As 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 specifically 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.

 

Japan Doubles Down on Fuel Cell Vehicles

— July 13, 2014

Two recent announcements out of Japan have dramatically cut the price that Japanese drivers will pay for a fuel cell car.  Toyota unveiled its completed design for the fuel cell vehicle (FCV) it will put on the market in 2015.  More importantly, the company revealed the price would be around ¥7 million, or $70,000.  This is a big drop from the $100,000 price tag floated, alarmingly, a few years ago.

A day earlier, Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe called for subsidies of FCVs beginning next year.  A part of the government’s economic growth strategy, these incentives reflect the hydrogen energy roadmap adopted by Japan’s trade ministry.

As described in my Fuel Cell Vehicles report, I’ve long said that the two impediments to fuel cell cars taking hold in the market are cost and infrastructure.  Automakers like Honda and Daimler have already shown that the technology works, resolving early issues such as cold-start capability.  FCVs will also deliver on the key performance characteristics that make them intriguing, as compared to battery electric vehicles: range and refueling.  The Toyota FCV will have a 420-mile range and refuel in 3 minutes.

The Post-Fukushima Strategy

For longtime fuel cell technology followers, I am stating the obvious.  The potential benefits of fuel cells in transportation have been well-understood for years.  Honda, General Motors (GM), Daimler, Hyundai, and Toyota have all shown they can make cars that meet those performance targets.  Nevertheless, in the U.S. media, the perception persists that fuel cells were made obsolete by the successful introduction of plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs).  In Navigant Research’s recent white paper, The Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Industries: 10 Trends to Watch, I noted that the U.S. media would continue to tie these two technologies together – and would misunderstand the rationale for pursuing them both.  Sure enough, this article asserts that the Japanese government’s goal is to crush Tesla.

Not quite.  The Japanese government’s plan is to promote technologies and fuels that will help ensure the country never has another experience like the Fukushima disaster in 2011.  The Japanese government also wants to grow the economy by supporting domestic industries.

The Market Will Decide

To take a phrase from President Obama, Japan has taken an “all of the above” approach in pursuing these two goals.  Nissan and Toyota have done well in the PEV market.  But fuel cells offer an alternative for consumers who may find that a plug-in car doesn’t meet their driving needs.

Japan has also made a huge commitment to fuel cells that provide residential power.  The country’s residential fuel cell program has supported the deployment of over 42,000 combined heat and power (CHP) fuel cells in Japan.  Manufactured by Toshiba, Panasonic, and Eneos Celltech, these residential units are sold through gas companies like Tokyo Gas.  After Fukushima, when the plant’s backup diesel generators were rendered useless and employees scavenged car batteries to power monitoring equipment, the Japanese government set a requirement that the fuel cells be capable of starting up when the power is off.  While these fuel cells employ a different technology from automotive fuel cells, the CHP program demonstrates both Japan’s commitment to pursuing whatever technology the country believes will support its energy resiliency (utilizing domestic expertise) and its willingness to support that technology in its early market introduction.

Japan has already committed to building 100 hydrogen fueling stations in key metro areas.  The country’s energy companies are partnering in that effort.  Note that the Japanese government is also supporting the automaker deployment of 12,000 charging stations in Japan.  Again, it’s not an either/or prospect for Japan.  The announcement on the FCV subsidies will put the cars at a price point where they might have a chance in the market.  If the infrastructure is in place to make fueling reasonably convenient, then it will be up to consumers to decide whether FCVs will succeed in the market or not.  Success will be measured over many years, not in 18 months.

 

To Win, Utilities Must Play Offense as well as Defense

— July 10, 2014

Since I’m originally from the Netherlands and spent several years living in Brazil, the semifinal results of this week’s World Cup soccer (or football, as we Europeans call it) matches have been disappointing, to say the least.  One thing that’s clear from the tournament ‑ one of the most exciting World Cups in my memory, by the way ‑ is that to succeed at this level, teams must play well on both ends of the field: offense and defense.  The Netherlands squad, the Orange, played superb defense on Argentinean superstar Lionel Messi, but failed to muster a goal in 120 minutes of regular and extra time and lost on penalty kicks.  As for Brazil, it played neither offense nor defense.

The same is true for utilities in today’s rapidly transforming power sector.  Playing defense – by sticking with established ways of operating and traditional forms of customer service – is no longer enough to succeed.  Utilities must also play offense; they must proactively develop new capabilities and innovative business models to thrive in a world of proliferating distributed energy resources (DER), greater customer choice, and rising competition from new players.

A Shifting Landscape

Widespread coal plant retirements, stiff renewable portfolio standards in many U.S. states, and the spread of renewable generation are all irrevocably changing the mix of generation assets while increasing the need for load balancing and frequency regulation on the grid.  Navigant forecasts that cumulative solar capacity in the United States will reach nearly 70,000 MW – 60% of it distributed – by the end of 2020.

At the same time, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) proposed limits on CO2 emissions from existing power plants will drive further changes in the generation landscape.  These limits will bring new natural gas capacity online, put upward pressure on wholesale electricity prices, and make demand response and energy efficiency programs key parts of the answer.

(Source: Navigant Consulting)

Today’s centralized, one-way power system is quickly evolving into an energy cloud in which DER support multiple inputs and users, energy and information flows two ways across the system, and market structures and transactions grow more complex.  The energy cloud is more flexible, dynamic, and resilient than the traditional power grid, but it also brings new challenges to a power sector that until recently has changed little in its fundamental structure for almost a century.

Lead or Lose

Facing declining revenue as customers consume less and produce more of their own power, utilities are faced with large investments to build new transmission capacity, upgrade distribution systems, and invest in new DER businesses.  Given these challenges, utilities must be adept at playing offense and defense.  An updated defensive strategy will entail:

  • Engaging with customers and regulators to understand customer choices vis-à-vis price and reliability
  • Improving customer service and grid reliability at the lowest prices possible
  • Finding equitable ways to charge net metering customers for transmission and distribution services
  • Developing utility-owned renewable assets to appeal to environmentally conscious customers

Playing offense is even more important.  Utilities must:

  • Create new revenue streams through the development of new business models, products, and services
  • Transform their organizations and culture in order to fully integrate sales, customer service, and operations
  • Upgrade the grid and operations to facilitate the integration of DER

These objectives can only be accomplished by implementing new business models that include developing, owning, and operating DER such as rooftop solar, customer-sited storage, and home energy management systems; providing third-party financing for DER; and offering new products and services focused on energy efficiency and demand response.

There is no going back to the old ways of doing business.  Utilities must lead – by playing both offense and defense – or they run the risk of being out of the competition.

 

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