The automotive industry is on the brink of a major upheaval due to the arrival of electric vehicles. Not only cars, also delivery vans, trucks, buses – you name it. After the automotive industry tried to pretend for years that nothing serious was going on, it is now increasingly clear that change is unavoidable, and may come much faster than many think. There is presently a lot of arguing and sweating in the board rooms. Some will take right decisions, some will take wrong. Some well-known car companies may survive and prosper – others may disappear ingloriously in the coming years. But change will come.
Electric vehicles are presently ridiculously expensive. Could be the cost of the battery, couldn’t it? That is only part of the explanation. The other is scale: the production volume is too low to secure economies of scale. And to this comes a lack of competition: existing car producers are not really interested in selling quantities, as they will cannibalize their own profitable traditional car business. The answer is regulation and more competition. Not more subsidies.
We have just seen a flurry of new reports on Climate Change, and they are not funny reading. Before we fall into gloom and accept that the end is nigh, the good news is that with what we already know and the instruments we have at hand, it is absolutely within our reach to avoid the worst climate change scenarios, and the cost is absolutely not scaring. But it needs bold and determined policies and willingness to take risks. The lack of capacity for this is the biggest risk we are facing.
The cost of solar energy has plunged in recent years, and solar panels are now dirt cheap. We have just installed a 46 kW solar roof top system here in Leon, Nicaragua, which produces energy at 7.5 cents of a US dollar – that is around a third of what the electricity company charges us. So there is no excuse for continuing contributing to global warming. The energy revolution is here, right now.
The Paris summit ended with an agreement, fortunately. Not good enough to save our grandchildren from climate disaster, but at least a beginning, which we hopefully will be able to build upon. Apart from the climate change deniers, who live in their own claustrophobic world, much of the disagreement is about justice: which are the countries to blame, and which should clean up their acts first? The Paris summit tried to avoid the question of justice and convince us that we all have to contribute, including the developing countries. And the developing countries seem to have gruntingly accepted that.
Independently of the outcome of the Paris Climate Change summit, big oil and coal have started an irreversible decline, facing the competition from renewable energies and an increasing political pressure to de-carbonize our societies. This changes completely the game and eliminates the incentive to reduce supply to get higher prices. In stead, the rush is now to exploit the oil and gas before it is too late. Who comes too late, loses. So OPEC has lost its power for good, and there is no chance it will get it back again.
As oil prices have plummeted, they have overshadowed the other important reality: renewable energy prices are also falling. And contrary to oil prices, the fall will continue in the future. So renewables are becoming a viable and profitable alternative for electricity generation, helping the world to get off its dependency on fossil fuels. But what about cars? They are intimately linked to fossil fuels, or – if need be – biofuels, to make the internal combustion engine work. Worldwide, transport is actually responsible for around 27% of all energy consumption, and 63% of oil consumption. So is there any future for renewables here?
The recent fall in oil prices has obscured another tendency: renewable energy and energy storage is fast becoming cheaper. In the lack of political will to face the global warming, this fall in the price of renewable energy is now our best hope to assure that much of the coal, oil and gas will stay in the underground, as it will only be profitable to exploit the deposits that are easy to access. We are not there yet, but we may come there faster than expected. So we may be at the turning point for fossil energy.
As oil prices have plummeted, the question has naturally come up: does this mean the end for renewable energies? Can they compete with this cheap fossil energy? The short answer is: yes, it will of course now be less profitable to invest in renewable energies. However, paradoxically, the longer story is more complex. Wind energy is already competitive with fossil energy, and solar has also passed the break-even point in more sunny places. And unlike non-renewable energy sources, the long run trend is towards falling costs. So we may be at a turning point for the fossil energy.
We have heard a lot of nonsense about oil the last couple of months. First we were told that the fall in the oil price would continue to 20 dollars per barrel or even lower – from 100 dollars less than a year ago. Secondly that the fall in the oil price would not affect the US shale oil and gas miracle – US technology and prowess would outsmart the low cost producers as Saudi Arabia. Then, when the number of active oil rigs in operation in the US fell to half, we heard that there was not any connection any more between drilling and production. Of course it now turns out that it is all just that: nonsense.