Tesla Batteries and Climate Change

By Paolo von Schirach —

WASHINGTON – Notwithstanding solemn pledges issued by many governments, no country that really matters is taking the fight against climate change seriously. Headline grabbing global agreements detailing ambitious emission reduction goals mean almost nothing, as they are purely voluntary, and therefore non verifiable, and certainly not enforceable.

Policy-makers will not act

Do not expect more on this front. The truth is that all policy-makers live under the constraints and pressures of urgent matters that require immediate attention. Catastrophic climate change scenarios regarding what will materialize in our world years or even decades from now do not motivate anybody in a position of responsibility to engage –today– in serious and very costly policy changes.

Innovation will deliver results

That said, there is hope when it comes to drastically reducing dangerous emissions. And hope rests on coming up with cost-effective technological innovation. Man made global warming leading to climate change is largely due to the continuing use of dirty emission producing technologies and industrial processes, most of them developed quite a long time ago. The reason why we keep using them, with only some improvements here and there, is because any currently available alternatives would be far too expensive. However, innovation may change all this. Human ingenuity should not be discounted.

Tesla leading on new battery technologies

Take Tesla, for example. Under Elon Musk, its controversial founder, Tesla dared to think of commercially viable electric vehicles (EVs) many, many years ago, when nobody –literally nobody– in the automotive business believed that this might be possible.

Well, fast forward to today and we see how tiny Tesla has become an EVs sector leader. True, the jury is still out on Tesla’s long term commercial viability. However, a relentless effort to improve its battery technology and therefore reduce cost structure and increase both vehicle performance and company profitability may indicate that this maverick EV company may not just survive but actually lead a boom in EVs production.

We know that the main obstacle on the way to mass produced, affordable electric cars is relative unsophisticated battery technology. While there has been progress, the batteries used to power most EVs are still expensive, very heavy, and not very efficient compared to the traditional internal combustion engines running on oil derived gasoline.

A game changer

Tesla, however, (and many others innovators around the world working on the same or similar issues), seem to have made very significant progress in improving battery performance on all fronts: life of the battery, cost and weight of the battery, amount of energy stored in the battery, and therefore distance that can be covered with a single charge, and shorter recharging time. Many of these battery technology breakthroughs have just been announced by Tesla, and it remains to be seen how the actual vehicles sold to real customers will perform. Still, assuming that most of what Tesla announced is true or close to becoming true, then we are getting to, or very close to a tipping point when it comes to the mass adoption of electric vehicles.

Cheap, high performance electric vehicles will generate mass markets

It is no secret that so far electric vehicles have had only limited appeal. They are still regarded by most consumers as too expensive. They are fancy gadgets for the rich who can afford to pay extra money for a high-tech car so that they can brag about being green and cool.

Most budget conscious people considering buying a new car look at the price and then the operating cost of the car (mostly fuel) over the time in which they will use it. For these reasons, an expensive EV coming with the additional problems of limited range, limited numbers of charging stations and a long recharging time does not look appealing.

But a new generation of Tesla vehicles powered by a super efficient, low cost, lower weight, high performance battery that will essentially last for ever, would be a true game changer. It would signal a new era for EVs: from experimentation and tinkering to mass production based on proven superior technology and lower prices.

End of gasoline

When this happens, high performance and cheaper EVs will inevitably displace gasoline powered traditional cars. Assuming that these battery technology breakthroughs will work as expected, we can reasonably conclude that EVs will begin to dominate the global auto industry in just a few years. This will be the beginning of the end for traditional cars. And this will also be the end for many refiners currently producing the rivers of gasoline necessary to power hundreds of millions of traditional cars. Further upstream, the virtual end of gasoline will also mean significantly lower demand for crude oil.

Oil will survive, at least for a while

Of course, we do know that even if it all happens as planned regarding a new generation of batteries, with Tesla and many others inundating the global automotive market with affordable, state of the art, super efficient EVs, it will take years before the world automotive fleet will become totally electric. In the meantime, there will be still demand for gasoline and therefore oil.

The oil industry will survive. Let’s not forget that beyond gasoline oil is also used to make diesel fuel for trucks and other heavy vehicles, and powering ships’ engines, not to mention jet fuel, heating oil, and plastics, and what not. Therefore we can expect that there will still be an oil industry ten or even twenty years from now, (unless other technological disruptions will introduce alternatives to other oil-derived products). However, it will be a smaller, streamlined oil industry; and it will be dominated by the low cost producers, (think Saudi Arabia). In a world market characterized by lower and declining demand for oil, only those who can be and stay profitable with oil at $ 10 per barrel or less will be able to survive.

The end of shale?

This being the case, the future of the recently reborn US oil industry appears very uncertain at best. The economic sustainability of the US shale revolution, itself the fruit of American technological ingenuity, was and is predicated on fairly high oil prices. While the cost of fracking operations has come down significantly in the last few years, fracking is still a fairly expensive activity. It is hard to believe that companies struggling in 2019 to stay alive, let alone do well, with oil at around $ 50 per barrel or less, will be able to survive when crude will go down to $15 or less, on account of soft global demand.

Innovation spill over

Improved battery technologies will also transfer to other applications, such as efficient storage for electricity produced by renewable sources such as wind and solar, something that will most likely increase their appeal and marketability vis-a-vis traditional fossil fuel based electric power generation. Overtime, expect fewer (if any) coal fired power plants, and eventually fewer natural gas power plants that are now necessary given intermittent generation from renewables.

You see where we are going here. We are looking at the real possibility of cascading positive effects, affecting different sectors, all born out of technological innovation spurred by the goal of getting a better battery for Tesla’s EVs. And this is the magic of innovation. It spreads. Tesla was not born out of the need to address a well defined market need. True enough, American drivers were routinely complaining about the high cost of gasoline. But all they wanted was cheaper gas. They had not articulated this complaint into a demand for an alternative to the traditional car powered by an internal combustion engine.

And here is the beauty of innovative minds. Elon Musk launched into an industrial adventure that most analysts dismissed as silly, and therefore destined to failure. But now Tesla, the company he created, despite all its challenges, may be on the verge of deploying another generation of technological innovation that is likely to transform the EV sector, and consequently the entire automotive industry in the US and worldwide.

We need more than new batteries

Back to global warming, it is clear that even radical transformations in the automotive sector leading to sharply lower demand for gasoline and therefore crude oil will not be enough to cause dramatic emissions reductions. More innovation will be needed to radically transform industrial processes, from cement production to petrochemical plants and more, that currently produce harmful emissions.

Green and profitable can go together

However, the Tesla relentless quest for better and more efficient car batteries is a good illustration that it is possible to pursue at the same time profits, a more efficient propulsion technology, and drastically reduced greenhouse emissions. It is not true that trying to be green is a luxury that is simply not practical nor affordable for most industries.

Tesla’s innovation efforts may be driven in part by the desire to produce a perfectly green car. But we should keep in mind that Tesla is a business, not a charity. Ultimately Tesla has to serve its shareholders. They want to see a return on their investments. And this means more cars sold at a profit. By pursuing better batteries that will increase performance while reducing cost, the company is strengthening its competitiveness vis-a-vis conventional vehicles, with the hope that millions of consumers will prefer affordable EVs, not because they are green, but because they are better value for money.

By the same token, assuming that some new industrial technologies will be able to eliminate emissions and increase productivity and profits at the same time, you will have classic win-win propositions in which being green is also good for business.

A long shot, but the only one we have

While this innovation driven approach may be a long shot, this is the only practical way to cut down emissions, stay profitable, and avoid the dire effects of global warming. International agreements that cannot be enforced produce short-lived feel good moments, and not much else. Innovation will be the game changer.

Paolo von Schirach is the Editor of the Schirach Report He is also the President of the Global Policy Institute, a Washington DC think tank, and Chair of Political Sciencand International Relations at Bay Atlantic University, also in Washington, DC.




Can Tesla Make It?

By Paolo von Schirach –

WASHINGTON – Tesla’s recent massive stock price rise has no rational explanation. Believe it or not, electric vehicles (EVs) manufacturer Tesla now is worth more than the combined value of General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler. It is worth almost the same as Volkswagen and BMW combined. And yet the company produced only 500,000 cars last year, and has yet to be consistently profitable for at least a year. How is this possible? Clearly many of those who buy and hold Tesla’s stock are part of something akin to a cult, rather than savvy, rational investors. And yet, Tesla is no cult or joke. Far from it.

There is something there

There is definitely something “there”, there. But the something is not what most normal people are looking for: that is a well-structured manufacturing company that has a credible business plan that demonstrates when and how this car maker will become consistently profitable, this way rewarding its investors.

With Tesla, the usual parameters do not apply. And yet, at some point the company will have to become profitable. Yes, of course; but it is not clear when this will happen. Thus far, Tesla’s faithful investors are willing to believe that this will happen “soon”. Even though they do not know when, they are willing to believe this. So, is this EVs manufacturer a hallucination, a dream, or –worse– a hoax?

The fact is that nobody knows for sure what Tesla is.

Musk broke all the rules

That said, what we do know for sure is that Elon Musk, Tesla’s co-founder and CEO, successfully broke all the rules, and single handedly upended the entire automotive industry. And this is most welcome.

All analysts would agree that, before Tesla, electric vehicles were a dream, at best a concept, something we could think about, but whose time had not come yet.

Making EVs a reality

Well, Elon Musk made the EV dream a reality. Starting from scratch, his company designed and made appealing, interesting electric vehicles that people actually wanted to buy. Sure enough, he smartly took advantage of politically motivated subsidies in the form of federal and state tax brakes that increased the appeal of EVs. That was a big help, especially at the beginning.

Still, it is a fact that Tesla over time managed to design and produce models that are becoming cheaper, more efficient, with increased mileage per battery charge. In other words, thanks to Tesla, EVs are much closer to becoming truly competitive vis-a-vis even the most efficient, traditional internal combustion engine vehicles.

The battle is still on

I realize that the epochal battle for market dominance has not been won yet. Especially at a time of very low oil prices, and consequently cheap gasoline, the challenge to make EVs that are more cost-effective than traditional gasoline powered cars is huge. But it seems that Tesla is constantly working on refining its products. Can they make better, cheaper, more efficient batteries? Can they further reduce production costs? I have no idea. And I truly believe that nobody really knows for sure.

Musk is a genuine innovator

But I would like to bet on Elon Musk’s abilities. Whatever you can say about his bluster, braggadocio, exaggerations, wild predictions and what not, this successful South African immigrant is an extremely welcome addition to an uninspiring American industrial scene made out of unimaginative leaders who in most cases are at best capable of tweaking and fine tuning old stuff.

Think about it. The internal combustion engine is a more than 100 years old invention. It is most disappointing that no truly radical innovation has been produced by the major brands that have been designing and producing cars for decades.

It took Elon Musk –an immigrant and a complete outsider, with zero prior experience in the automotive sector– to shake up the entire industry. For that alone Musk deserves a great deal of credit.

Tesla opened a new chapter

Tesla opened a new chapter. It creatively linked renewable energy, automotive technology, sophisticated electronics, and more into a new way to think about personal transportation. Whatever your opinion about Tesla’s viability as a profit-making company, we should all welcome bold innovation.

Of course, being bold and daring does not always mean being right. Eventually the numbers will have to validate the new formula. However, for the time being, most Tesla investors are willing to suspend judgement. They are willing to believe the seemingly impossible, if not outright absurd. And, in the end, they may be proven wrong.

But, whatever Tesla’s future, I still believe that Elon Musk is a genuine trail blazer. With zero assurances of success, he dared to go where no one else would. That by itself is a great achievement, and (I hope) a powerful source of inspiration for all the would-be innovators in the United States.

Same old, same old does not do it anymore.

Paolo von Schirach is the Editor of the Schirach Report He is also the President of the Global Policy Institute, a Washington DC think tank, and Chair of Political Science and International Relations at Bay Atlantic University, also in Washington, DC.




Self-Driving Electric Cars Coming Soon

By Paolo von Schirach –

WASHINGTON – Imagine this: affordable, driverless electric cars, EVs. This would be the true game changer for urban transportation and urban living. I say “would be” because this revolution, prophesized and announced many times, has not quite arrived. We know that there has been significant technological progress in these areas in the last few years; but not enough to make this vision into a reality. Still, I am hopeful that some day we shall see it.

When the revolution comes

If and when these affordable, autonomous EVs will hit the road, the impact of this radical technological revolution will be immense. I am not just talking about the environmental gains deriving from zero emissions electric engines, and therefore the overall reduction of greenhouse gases and significant air quality improvements in all large urban areas.

The real game changer will be that most people will no longer want to own a car, because hiring one will be very easy, and very cheap. Hence a true revolution in the way most of us will deal with all personal mobility needs, especially in large urban areas.

Changes in the way we think of mobility and cars

Even today, relying only on established, gasoline powered cars driven by humans who need to be paid for their driving, the availability of app-connected transportation services like Uber and Lyft convinced many city dwellers that calling a vehicle via smart phone whenever needed is easier and probably cheaper than owning and driving your own car.

How so? Uber of course is not free. However, for many users who rely on Uber or equivalent services any app-connected car service is more cost-effective than going through the trouble of buying and keeping a car.

It is true that you have to pay for each Uber ride, while you pay only a little (the cost of gasoline) each time you drive your own car. Still, you have to consider all the costs connected with owning a vehicle. You have to factor the substantial cost of the initial purchase, plus the cost of registration, insurance, parking, fuel, ordinary (oil changes) and extraordinary maintenance, (new tires, new brakes, new transmissions). Then add odds and ends like the cost of parking tickets, (some people collect many of those), the cost and aggravation caused by possible car accidents, and then the aggravation of the daily stress of driving on congested roads, and all of a sudden the Uber option, while it has a price, seems more cost-effective, at least for some.

Driverless, electric Uber

Well, if relying on smart phone connected car services as opposed to owning a car is the emerging trend today, imagine the appeal of this car hire option in a not so distant future in which your Uber or equivalent vehicle will have an electric engine and no driver. These radical innovations obviously will mean very low operating costs for the service provider, hence much lower fees charged to users, and guaranteed, fast 24 hour service.

The rides will be cheaper because there will be no payments to a human doing the driving. Besides, the driverless car will stay on the road day and night. It does not get sick and it does not need to take a break. And the cost of the electric charges will be much lower than gasoline.

The future of personal mobility

So, here is tomorrow’s scenario. Think of driverless EVs that will be on the road almost 24/7, (taking a break only for the time necessary to recharge the car’s battery). Since these vehicles will cost much less to operate, the companies providing the service will be able to pass on to the consumers significant savings.

And this will mean that almost anybody will be able to afford rides, probably several rides a day. At the same the service providers will be able to guarantee that there will be plenty of vehicles constantly on the road available to quickly meet demand for rides. And this means almost no wait time for your ride.

No more need for private cars

In this new scenario, for the vast majority of urban dwellers, owning a private vehicle will become unnecessary, because all mobility needs will be easily and inexpensively met by driverless EVs. If this is so, let’s think about the significant ripple effects of this radical reorientation of consumers’ preferences.

Fewer cars

As a result of all this, there will be a complete restructuring of the automobile industry. Only EVs will be manufactured, of course; but fewer of them, because it will no longer be one vehicle per individual driver. One vehicle on the road 24/7 will serve many customers during the day. This will mean far fewer cars on the road. And probably improved road safety, because driverless vehicles will not get distracted, they will not cause accidents. They will not be under the influence of alcohol. They will not be tired and sleepy.

Empty parking garages

Furthermore, far fewer cars constantly in circulation will mean plenty of redundant parking spaces. In most large cities enormous parking garages have been built for commuters. They are filled every day by tens of thousands of cars parked there by commuters. In the future commuters will be able to rely on services provided by driverless cars, therefore all these parking lots and garages will sit empty. This will create an opportunity for re-purposing a great deal of valuable urban real estate.

A better future

So, here the picture. No more private automobiles on the roads, or at least far, far fewer of them. And this means that the substantial capital devoted by millions of individuals to purchasing a vehicles will be used for other goals. Besides, given far fewer cars on the road, there will be no more road congestion, and no more street noise caused by the internal combustion engines and related air pollution. And, finally, no more stressed out drivers/workers who have to fight the traffic twice a day, every day, commuting to and from their work places. All in all, with the driverless EV doing the driving, this will translate into a much more enjoyable, more relaxing urban life experience for millions of people across the globe.

Paolo von Schirach is the Editor of the Schirach Report He is also the President of the Global Policy Institute, a Washington DC think tank, and Chair of Political Science and International Relations at Bay Atlantic University, also in Washington, DC




Mass Produced Electric Cars? Sooner Than You Think

WASHINGTON –  The still unresolved issue that will determine if and when there will be real mass demand for Electric Vehicles, EVs, is how to design and manufacture cheaper, lighter batteries for EVs with a higher energy reservoir, and therefore capable of traveling longer distances with one electric charge.

Getting there

The optimists tell us that we are getting there. They cite significant technological innovations and dramatic cost reductions already achieved in the past few years. All true. Batteries are cheaper. EVs now can travel farther. And the optimists also tell us that new collaborative efforts now underway may help expedite additional progress in battery design and effectiveness.

Cheaper batteries, coming soon 

Here is a good example. “Cheaper, more powerful electric car batteries are on the horizon.” This headline appeared on ScienceDaily, 9 August 2016. The story is about a new joint effort linking the U.S. Department of Energy, several U.S. academic institutions and the private sector, under the leadership of a Binghamton University expert.

“The White House —Science Daily wrote— recently announced the creation of the Battery500 Consortium, a multidisciplinary group led by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) working to reduce the cost of vehicle battery technologies. The Battery500 Consortium will receive an award of up to $10 million per year for five years to drive progress on DOE’s goal of reducing the cost of vehicle battery technologies.”

“[Assuming success, this effort] will result in a significantly smaller, lighter weight, less expensive battery pack (below $100/kWh) and more affordable electric vehicles. 

M. Stanley Whittingham, distinguished professor of chemistry at Binghamton University, will lead his Energy Storage team in the charge.”

“We hope to extract as much energy as possible while, at the same time, producing a battery that is smaller and cheaper to produce,” said Whittingham. “This consortium includes some of the brightest minds in the field, and I look forward to working with them to create lithium batteries that will power future electric vehicles more affordably.”

According to the Science Daily story, other Battery500 Consortium members include:

• Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

• Brookhaven National Laboratory

• Idaho National Laboratory

• SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

• Stanford University

• University of California, San Diego

• University of Texas at Austin

• University of Washington

• IBM (advisory board member)

• Tesla Motors, Inc. (advisory board member)

Breakthrough? 

Well, is this an indication that we are on the verge of a major breakthrough when it comes to the most critical component of future generation EVs? Who knows, really.

Still, if I were the CEO of a major oil company, I would feel very nervous.

Never mind OPEC and its mixed signals regarding its willingness and ability to freeze/cut production in order to stabilize global oil prices. Never mind the ongoing tensions between political rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran and their potential impact on oil markets.

Oil will become obsolete

The real scary thought is that oil may soon become obsolete. Yes, you got it right: “Oil may soon become obsolete”.

Of course this will not happen suddenly. And of course there will still be a significant need for many oil derived products other than gasoline for automobiles. (Think jet fuel, diesel for heavy trucks, oil for plastics and other petrochemical products, and a lot more).

Still, the fact is that on a global scale crude is used mostly to produce the gigantic rivers of oil-derived gasoline that end up in the tanks of hundreds of millions of cars powered by internal combustion engines. Tanks that need to be refilled very often with more and more gasoline.

End of the conventional car

If and when cheaper EVs powered by cost-effective new generation batteries hit the road, there will be a fairly rapid revolution. This will be the end of the conventional car powered by an internal combustion engine.

Indeed, an electric charge is much cheaper than filling your tank with gasoline. Much cheaper batteries, assuming some companies will manage to manufacture them relatively soon, will lower the price of future electric vehicles, while increasing the distance EVs can cover with one charge.

As soon as this happens, there will be a consumers-led revolution. Millions of drivers across the world will quickly switch to EVs because they will be finally affordable, dependable, and much cheaper to operate, not to mention far cleaner than their gasoline powered counterparts. (By the way: not entirely clean. EVs run on electricity, a zero emission fuel. However, a significant percentage of electricity in the U.S. and elsewhere is produced by burning coal and natural gas. Which is to say that if you consider the source of their fuel, although emissions free, EVs are still not entirely “clean”).

How soon? 

That said, the big, open question for any oil executive is: “How much time do we have left before the whole oil sector will collapse, due to lack of demand”?

It is very clear that this revolutionary transformation brought about by mass-produced EVs will happen. But nobody knows when: 5 years? 10 Years? 15 Years?

And here is the big problem for the oil industry. In order to properly run their businesses, oil executives must plan ahead. And these plans entail major capital investments needed now in order to reap significant gains to be realized several years down the road in terms of new oil production coming on line.

Indeed, for oil companies to stay profitable, mature wells close to exhaustion need to be replaced by fresh production. And this means investing now, sometimes on a massive scale, in order to secure continuity of future oil production. This is how the industry works. Except that now this traditional approach is no longer a sure bet.

Given developments in EV battery technologies, today oil executives know that this cycle of investments-exploitation-new investments-future exploitation will no longer work indefinitely.

The end of oil companies as giant players 

If and when EVs will become dominant because of technological and cost breakthroughs in batteries technology, this will signal the beginning of the end for major oil companies.

In the not so distant future, many of them will run the risk of being caught with new expensive projects half completed that all of a sudden are no longer economically viable on account of collapsing demand for their product –oil– once coveted, and now out of fashion.

Beyond these contingencies, because of EVs almost all oil companies will have to cut production, concentrating on the cheapest crude, in order to survive in a new energy era characterized by drastically diminished demand for oil and oil products. The weakest players will not be able to make it. They will go under, or they will be bought by bigger companies.

Oil will still be needed 

Having said all this, will EVs amount to a final catastrophe for the oil sector? Not entirely. Let’s keep all this in perspective. Even assuming state of the art, cost-effective EVs quickly replacing an enormous global fleet of gasoline powered vehicles, there will still be demand for oil.

Heavy trucks and ships will continue to run on oil derived diesel fuel for many, many years. Likewise, thousands upon thousands of civilian and military airplanes will still rely on jet fuel made from crude oil. Petrochemical and plastics industries across the globe will continue to need oil derived products.

All this is true. However, assuming a fairly rapid switch to EVs, the global demand for oil, now driven largely by demand for oil derived gasoline, will collapse. All of a sudden, the global oil industry will face gigantic over capacity: too much oil and too little demand. Only the ultra lean, low-cost operators with a solid financial base will survive.

Good bye Exxon? 

Hard to think of a world in which Exxon Mobil will be a mid-sized company confined to producing oil for jet fuel and diesel trucks only, since millions of cars will run on electricity, and no longer on gasoline. But we are getting there. And this may happen sooner than we think. Call it the next “oil shock”.

 




Oil Prices Will Stay Low

WASHINGTON – I am not at all surprised to see that the Doha oil talks aimed at finding an agreement about stabilizing output among major producers failed. Saudi Arabia would have liked to freeze production at current levels, which means at the Kingdom’s highest level in modern times, (more than 10 million barrels a day).

No deal with Iran 

However, it was obvious that Iran could not possibly have agreed to freeze its own production at current levels. Tehran wants to ramp production up to its pre-sanctions peak. And how could anybody have assumed anything else? Of course the Iranians want to increase their oil production and regain lost market share.

Therefore, no deal. As a consequence, oil prices are once again headed lower. There was a time in which low prices were really good news in the West. But now it is a mixed bag, especially in the U.S.A.

Oil was good news in America 

And how so? Well, because “unconventional oil” exploration and recovery –we are talking about shale oil– has been one of the brightest spots in the otherwise timid U.S. post 2008 economic recovery. Tens of thousands of new, high paying jobs made things better in many oil-producing states, from North Dakota to Texas.

U.S. oil in recession 

But now, lower prices are bad news for a sector composed primarily of small to medium-sized companies, many of them under capitalized and highly indebted.

For small U.S. energy companies it was easy to get bank loans when oil was at $ 100 a barrel, and therefore future profitability was not in question. But now it is at $ 40, possibly headed even lower. And therefore the U.S. oil patch is in a recession. Moody’s just downgraded many U.S. energy companies. Tens of thousands of good jobs have already been lost, with more losses to come. This will have a nasty effect in the affected regions, and some negative impact on the overall American economy.

Resilience 

Things are not awful across the board. In fact, the shale oil sector has proven to be much more resilient than most analysts had predicted. A combination of aggressive cost cutting and vastly improved production technologies allows at least some shale oil companies to stay profitable even with oil at $ 40. But this is only about some companies.

The other good news is that shale oil production is relatively flexible. It is not too complicated to shut down wells and then start production again in better times, when prices have recovered. Still, idled wells do not generate any income. Weak producers close down, or go bankrupt. Some may be bought by bigger competitors with deeper pockets.

Sure, at some point this cycle will end. Saudi Arabia cannot afford huge budget deficits for ever. Its bizarre policy of keeping production at these levels, (this way depressing prices), while the Kingdom needs to get into debt in order to fund current government operations (and that includes almost the entire country getting some money from the Royal Family) will end. But it will take a while. In the meantime, hard for U.S. oil workers to find other jobs that will pay so well.

Good news for consumers 

That said, depressed oil prices, while they hurt an important sector of the U.S. economy, on balance are positive. America is still a major net oil importer. Lower prices translate into a smaller balance of trade deficit. And for the average consumer cheap oil must be good news. Who can complain when finding lower prices at the pump? For tens of millions of American drivers low gasoline prices are equivalent to a tax cut. More money in their pockets.

The future of oil

That said, going forward, the real challenge for the U.S. oil sector is not Saudi Arabia flooding the global market. The real challenge will be new, non oil-based technologies.

Despite its uncertain beginnings, the electric car sooner or later will become economically viable. Elon Musk of Tesla has bet everything on making affordable, mid-sized electric vehicles, EVs. We are not there yet. Money losing Tesla may be will fail. But even if it does, others will follow. And when someone will hit the sweet spot with easy to recharge, attractive EVs with a good range that the average consumer can afford, it is good-bye to oil.

Saying good-bye 

And that will be a real good-bye. It will not be about temporary sector recessions, or fluctuating prices due to Saudi shenanigans. It will be the end of the oil era.

Here in the U.S. at least someone will be prepared for this gigantic transformation. But economies such as Russia, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia which depend entirely on oil revenues to fund “everything” will be in deep, deep trouble.

All told, better to be in America. This society, with all its problems, is still capable of promoting change while embracing it when it comes.




Will Tesla Be The Electric Car Maker of The Future?

WASHINGTON – Thank God, US IT tech companies are still in the lead. It is hard to match the combined strength of Apple, Google, Intel, Facebook, Cisco, Microsoft, Oracle, and so many others.

A high-tech car company

But now we also have Tesla, the high-tech electric vehicle (EV) manufacturer, aspiring to be part of the super high-tech, high valuation technology companies club.

And here is a problem. Undoubtedly, Tesla is a tech company. But it makes cars, not software. Can Elon Musk, its founder, keep saying that because he is creating a technology revolution about to transform the automotive sector the metrics about unit costs and profitability that would apply to traditional car makers do not apply to Tesla?

You buy into the revolution 

Who knows really. As Philip Delves Broughton notes in a well crafted FT op-ed piece, (To be rational about Tesla is to miss the point, August 27, 2015), if you are buying Tesla’s stock you are buying into a huge bet. And the bet is that this particular EV technology will indeed disrupt the entire car industry, soon enough displacing the old, established players.

If this is indeed so, then forget about the traditional metrics. Forget about the fact that Tesla’s stock is absurdly over valued. Indeed, as Broughton notes, the entire company is worth about half as much as BMW, a competitor that makes 35 times as many cars.

You buy Tesla stock simply because you believe what Musk says about massive future sales based on the guaranteed success of new, affordable EV models that have yet to be produced.

Well, if Musk is right, then he is the man who will transform the world automotive industry. Again, if this is so, then Tesla stock at $ 200 or even $ 300 a share is a bargain.

If Musk is wrong 

But if Musk is just a clever marketer, your investment most likely will be worth nothing in just a few years. Indeed, what if Tesla EVs cannot deliver any real profits? What if there are other companies out there that will come up with a more efficient electric engine and/or a new generation of truly revolutionary low-cost, high charge, low weight batteries?

Well, then it is good-bye Tesla, the trail-blazer that got it only half right.

Subsidies 

And just one more thing. Tesla current lousy numbers would be a lot worse without the subsidies that Tesla and other EV manufactures receive from the federal and state governments.

Policy-makers love anything that replaces the internal combustion engine. Therefore Tesla buyers benefit from a tax rebate, while the company gets carbon credits that it can sell to others, this way making extra profits.

Look, nobody denies that Tesla already makes a great car. The Model S gets fantastic reviews. But it is not a cost-effective product.

The Concorde was great, but it kept losing money 

By the same token, when a French-British consortium launched the Concorde, back in the late 70s, many thought that we had entered a brand new era of cost-effective supersonic air travel.

Well, it was not so. Nobody said that flying the Concorde was a bad experience. On the contrary, it was wonderful. But it was a commercial disaster. Therefore, after a long agony, the Concorde was finally pulled out of service in 2003. This does not mean that supersonic commercial jets will never be made. It simply means that it will have to be something other than Concorde.

Now, are Tesla vehicles the real thing, or just the automotive versions of the old Concorde?




Tesla Motors Stock Is Incredibly Overvalued

WASHINGTON – I have written before that Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla Motors, is a real pioneer. With dogged determination, he proved that it is possible to make an attractive, high performance, highly desirable electric vehicle. Now Musk is trying to go to the next level, by creating new, lower priced models that will be affordable for the general buyer.

Overvalued stock

All this is good. What is not good, however, is the incredible ascendance of Tesla’s stock. It grew more than 70% in 2014. It retreated a bit more recently, but it is still fantastically high.

Consider this. Right now, the market capitalization of Tesla is about $ 26 billion. And yet Tesla makes only 33,000 vehicles a year. Fiat Chrysler is worth about $ 20 billion, considerably less. And yet Chrysler made 1,8 million vehicles in the US in 2012. The group’s worldwide production was 2.37 million.

Ford is worth about $ 60 billion, a bit more than double Tesla’s value. But Tesla’s total annual production is the equivalent of the number of cars Ford makes in just one day. Got that? A full year production versus just one day.

How about another interesting comparison? As a recent WSJ article put it: “Tesla sells about 90 cars a day. GM sells 90 every five minutes. But Tesla is worth nearly half as much as GM”.

And, by the way, Tesla is not profitable. In the first 9 months of 2014 it lost $ 186 million.

What’s going on?

So, what is going on here? I am not sure. But, whatever it is, as a minimum it is not healthy. Worse case scenario, those who buy Tesla’s stock at these prices are certifiable.

Look, we understand that stock valuations are a reflection of what investors believe to be not so much today’s value of a company, but tomorrow’s. A high stock price is a vote of confidence on future prospects.

And it may very well be true that Elon Musk is onto something really big. It may very well be that Tesla’s new, lower priced electric vehicle models will engineer a major revolution in the automotive world. Hence the vote of confidence that yielded this fantastic stock valuation.

Think again

And yet, think again. Tesla’s total production is the equivalent of what Ford makes in just one day. But Tesla’s market capitalization is about half Ford’s.

This is absolutely crazy.




Electric Vehicle Technology Advances May Destroy The Global Oil Industry

WASHINGTON – Joseph Schumpeter famously called it “creative destruction”. This was and still is the best way to describe how in a free market, capitalistic economy technological advances, (this is the “creative” part), inevitably cause the death of pre-existing technologies, systems and modalities (and here you have the “destruction” part). The problem with truly disruptive innovation (the outcome of very good creation) is that incredibly positive technological developments in many cases spell disaster for established industries, especially capital-intensive industries.

Oil sector, always a winner?

Take energy, for instance. I applaud American ingenuity that pushed the development of technologies –hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling– that now allow the successful economic exploitation of domestic shale oil and shale gas. Considering America’s (seemingly) never-ending need for oil in order to produce the rivers of gasoline needed to power our hundreds of millions of vehicles, more oil discovered and produced here at home is good news.

Indeed, the more oil we get at home, the less we need to buy from other producers, some of them troubled Middle Eastern OPEC countries. Therefore, investing in additional domestic oil production should be looked at as a very smart move. It is good for our balance of payments, (more of our money stays at home), and definitely good for our energy security. Finally, it is very good business for the oil industry.

EVs, Electric Vehicles, may change everything

All true –until yesterday. Today, we do not know for sure anymore, on account of possible technological advances that can make most, if not all, of the oil industry obsolete. What? Oil obsolete?

Yes, this seemingly outrageous prediction may be true. The fact is that right now –and even more so going forward– the oil industry has to deal with the potentially catastrophic consequences of disruptive breakthroughs occurring in the relatively new electric vehicles, EV, sector. Indeed, if and when technologically viable and truly cost competitive EVs come to market, this will be the end of the oil industry as we know it. This will be capitalism’s “creative destruction” on a gigantic scale.

Let’s look at this in perspective. Until a few years ago, the world knew only the internal combustion engine. And this engine required oil-derived gasoline. There were no alternatives.

Technological breakthroughs?

But now it is different. Now we know that there can be  alternatives. Granted, EV technology is still in its infancy. However, looking at the global offerings of electric vehicles (totally electric, as well as hybrids) I see well over 20 models. In other words, we begin to see a real effort, on the part of newcomers as well as established auto manufacturers, in the USA, Europe and Asia to make and sell more advanced electric cars.

We all know that the still unsolved technological challenge faced by this new industry is to create cheap batteries that will allow you to drive your vehicle for longer distances before you have to stop and recharge.

This is still a real problem holding back EVs. But we also know that lots of smart people across the globe, from Japan, to China, to Germany, France and the US are busy working on it.

Invest in oil?

Now, if I were in the shoes of a major oil company CEO, knowing all this would make me nervous, very nervous. I know that, in order to stay in business, I need to identify, secure the drilling rights and then put into production more and more oil fields. This requires committing a huge percentage of my profits, billions and billions of dollars for the likes of Exxon and Chevron, into developing new resources. All this will done on the basis of some key assumption about demand for oil products and therefore prices.

Cheap EVs coming tomorrow?

However, how do I prepare for an announcement coming, say, a year from now in which Tesla Motors declares that it has come up with a brand new battery that costs 1/3 of its cheapest model, while it allows you to drive 400 miles before recharging? This is unlikely; but not impossible.

If and when electric vehicles become affordable and viable, given the lower cost of electric power, gasoline demand will dwindle and then vanish. Indeed. And this will spell the end of the oil industry as we know it today. (We shall still need oil for jet fuel and other uses. But they would amount to a small fraction of today’s demand).

Given all this, and the rather uncertain future created by R&D in EVs, is it really smart to invest massive amounts of capital in oil?

Who knows really. Real breakthroughs in EV technology may be around the corner, or they may happen 20 years from now. It is impossible to make believable predictions when it comes to rapidly evolving technologies.

Risk

Capitalism is about taking risks. Sometimes huge risks. And this is difficult, as so many predictions (based on incorrect assumptions, we find out later) turn out to be wrong. It is really hard to be in a capital-intensive, mature industry threatened by potentially viable newcomers.




Elon Musk, Tesla Motors’ Founder, Came to America Because He Believed That This Country Would Offer Opportunity

By Paolo von Schirach

Related story:

http://schirachreport.com/index.php/2013/08/07/electric-cars-are-not-selling-well-but-quality-will-improve-for-heavy-trucks-though-the-future-fuel-is-natural-gas-not-electricity/

August 12, 2013

WASHINGTON – I wrote recently that it is going to be a while before electric vehicle (EV) maker Tesla Motors and others like it will be able to radically transform the US automotive industry. (See link above to related story). Indeed, while Tesla’s model S is doing very well, it is on track to sell at most 21,000 vehicles this year. This is obviously very good for a company that sells very expensive, high performance EVs; but it is hardly transformative.

The value of new ideas

Still, having said that, it is really important to reflect on the incredible value of entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, Tesla’s founder. What needs to be stressed here is that Musk is a true, modern trail blazer. Musk ventured into practically virgin territory with what appeared to most analysts a really crazy idea: making a high performance, high price, sporty EV. Remember that many years ago when Musk got started people thought that EVs should be designed for young or middle aged tree-huggers, people focused on saving the planet. Whereas Musk focused on an entirely different market: quality conscious wealthy people interested in a brand new experience: a high performance (and consequently high price) EV.

Well, this is beginning to work. Of course, when it comes to market expansion, much will depend on Tesla’s ability to roll out equally interesting but much more affordable electric cars. We shall see.

Enterprise is our future

But this is not the point today. The point today is to celebrate Elon Musk and many others like him. These are the people willing to take huge chances in order to see if they can indeed push the envelope. It is obvious that when it comes to innovation many “Grand Ideas” are destined to fail. But some will not. And the record shows how, failures notwithstanding, many determined entrepreneurs will keep going at it. May be on their second or third try they will come up with something really important.

Focus on stagnant sectors

And we should be grateful for all these efforts. Indeed, it is mostly because of people like Musk that America can keep its position as technology leader. In a recent TV appearance Musk  indicated that innovators should really focus on sectors that have been stagnant, sectors that no longer deliver any special value. Real entrepreneurs should really look at ways in which they can introduce disruptive innovation that will cause a real paradigm shift. He talked for instance about the “Hyperloop”. This is really science fiction stuff. A totally new idea for an ultra fast inter city transportation system that is light years ahead of even the best super fast trains that still rely on tracks and locomotives, however advanced.

The “Hyperloop” is on the drawing boards, and most likely it will not happen any time soon. Still, this is just an example of Musk’s ability to think big and think boldly, even when some of his ideas may invite jokes.

Once again, many “Bold Ideas” that promise huge technological transformation will be failures. Sometimes costly failures. But it does not matter. Hopefully, those who tried and failed will not be discouraged. They will learn from their  lessons and try something else.

Policy makers have to keep America’s unique pro-business environment

That said, US policy makers must realize that they need to put in place every possible incentive for innovators. Indeed, for America to keep its coveted position as the world’s premiere “Innovation Hub”, it needs to attract people like Elon Musk who are willing to think big and take big chances. To this end, we need to do our best to reaffirm America’s credentials as the best place for true innovators. Do keep in mind that Tesla’s Elon Musk was born in South Africa. He came to America because he thought that the US would be an ideal home base. If people around the world stop believing this, if we lose this edge, the smart innovators will go somewhere else. 

 




Electric Cars Do Not Sell – Just Like Renewable Energy, A Good Idea Whose Time Has Yet To Come – Innovation Will Replace Carbon Based Energy, But Not Today

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By Paolo von Schirach

February 4, 2013

WASHINGTON – The New Green Economy that would have created tens of thousands of new and highly paid jobs was one of Obama’s first term promises. It sounded good, and it seemed to be in step with the unfolding new era of expensive (and scarce) oil and global warming. Going green appeared both smart and virtuous.

Steven Chu to the rescue

America would finally shake off its dependence on oil, while creating new, sustainable and at the same time highly profitable sectors. To make all this happen, Obama called upon Steven Chu, eminent scientist and Nobel Prize recipient, to run the Department of Energy. The mandate was clear: Washington would deliberately push forward the development and the adoption of the best renewable energy solutions.

Bad timing

Great plan, at least in principle. But horrible timing. As Chu was providing credits and grants to renewables, the US shale oil and gas revolution was unfolding, with zero Washington backing and zero US Government appreciation of its enormous consequences. Shale oil and gas represent a real game changer. At least for a few decades, America will have much more carbon based energy reserves than any estimates had previously envisaged. The US has now the cheapest gas in the developed world. These reserves will last for about a century. So much for shortages and sky high prices for imported natural gas.

This shale revolution undercut at least part of the rationale for the quick adoption of renewable energy sources. Especially when it comes to power generation, hard to beat current prices for US natural gas.

Electric cars doing poorly

And what about the revamped and re-engineered electric cars, (EVs)? Well, the millions of anti-carbon US environmentalists looking for truly green alternatives apparently do not like them enough. Nobody is buying them. Worldwide sales are pitiful. In the US only 14,687 EVs sold in 2012. This is 0.1% of total US auto sales of 14.5 million, well below all auto makers projections.

At some point some kind of vehicle not relying on internal combustion will be developed. But we are not there yet. The unresolved issues plaguing EVs are the cost of batteries, the still limited distance you can travel with one charge, the long time required to recharge, and the lack of a national infrastructure of recharging stations.

There will be new technologies

All these problems may be resolved at some point. Or we may be surprised by some totally unexpected and different breakthrough that will transform the auto industry. Still, for the moment, auto companies do well with more fuel efficient gasoline engines, while hybrids also do well.

Lesson: Government should not try to time innovation

The lesson of all this is that it is unwise for public policy to try and time the level and pace of innovation deployments. Common sense tells us that “at some point” we shall have to move away from limited and environmentally unfriendly carbon energy sources. (In this respect please note that abundant US natural gas is also the cleanest hydrocarbon). But only when we have something better that really works.

Departing Secretary Chu should reflect on this

Forced adoption of renewables via subsidies and mandates to utilities often resulted in sub optimal choices and waste of money. As Secretary Chu is getting ready to leave office, he may want to reflect on this. Broadly speaking, the Green Tech plan was good; its timing unfortunately was not.