Why I am still anti Lithium and EV

13 04 2017

Originally published at Alice Friedemann’s excellent blog, energyskeptic.com/

[ This is by far the best paper explaining lithium reserves, lithium chemistry, recycling, political implications, and more. I’ve left out the charts, graphs, references, and much of the text, to see them go to the original paper in the link below.

I personally don’t think that electric cars will ever be viable because battery development is too slow, and given that oil can be hundreds of times more energy dense than a battery of the same weight, the laws of physics will prevent them from ever achieving enough energy density — see my post at Who Killed the Electric Car. (and also my more-up-to-date version and utility-scale energy storage batteries in my book When Trains Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation.  Some excerpts from my book about lithium and energy storage:

Li-ion energy storage batteries are more expensive than PbA or NaS, can be charged and discharged only a discrete number of times, can fail or lose capacity if overheated, and the cost of preventing overheating is expensive. Lithium does not grow on trees. The amount of lithium needed for utility-scale storage is likely to deplete known resources (Vazquez, S., et al. 2010. Energy storage systems for transport and grid applications. IEEE Transactions on Industrial Electronics 57(12): 3884).

To provide enough energy for 1 day of storage for the United states, li-ion batteries would cost $11.9 trillion dollars, take up 345 square miles and weigh 74 million tons (DOE/EPRI. 2013. Electricity storage handbook in collaboration with NRECA. USA: Sandia National Laboratories and Electric Power Research Institute) 

Barnhart et al. (2013) looked at how much materials and energy it would take to make batteries that could store up to 12 hours of average daily world power demand, 25.3 TWh. Eighteen months of world-wide primary energy production would be needed to mine and manufacture these batteries, and material production limits were reached for many minerals even when energy storage devices got all of the world’s production (with zinc, sodium, and sulfur being the exceptions). Annual production by mass would have to double for lead, triple for lithium, and go up by a factor of 10 or more for cobalt and vanadium, driving up prices. The best to worst in terms of material availability are: CAES, NaS, ZnBr, PbA, PHS, Li-ion, and VRB (Barnhart, C., et al. 2013. On the importance of reducing the energetic and material demands of electrical energy storage. Energy Environment Science 2013(6): 1083–1092). ]

Vikström, H., Davidsson, S., Höök, M. 2013. Lithium availability and future production outlooks. Applied Energy, 110(10): 252-266. 28 pages

 

Abstract

Lithium is a highly interesting metal, in part due to the increasing interest in lithium-ion batteries. Several recent studies have used different methods to estimate whether the lithium production can meet an increasing demand, especially from the transport sector, where lithium-ion batteries are the most likely technology for electric cars. The reserve and resource estimates of lithium vary greatly between different studies and the question whether the annual production rates of lithium can meet a growing demand is seldom adequately explained. This study presents a review and compilation of recent estimates of quantities of lithium available for exploitation and discusses the uncertainty and differences between these estimates. Also, mathematical curve fitting models are used to estimate possible future annual production rates. This estimation of possible production rates are compared to a potential increased demand of lithium if the International Energy Agency’s Blue Map Scenarios are fulfilled regarding electrification of the car fleet. We find that the availability of lithium could in fact be a problem for fulfilling this scenario if lithium-ion batteries are to be used. This indicates that other battery technologies might have to be implemented for enabling an electrification of road transports.

Highlights:

  • Review of reserves, resources and key properties of 112 lithium deposits
  • Discussions of widely diverging results from recent lithium supply estimates
  • Forecasting future lithium production by resource-constrained models
  • Exploring implications for future deployment of electric cars

Introduction

Global transportation mainly relies on one single fossil resource, namely petroleum, which supplies 95% of the total energy [1]. In fact, about 62% of all world oil consumption takes place in the transport sector [2]. Oil prices have oscillated dramatically over the last few years, and the price of oil reached $100 per barrel in January 2008, before skyrocketing to nearly $150/barrel in July 2008. A dramatic price collapse followed in late 2008, but oil prices have at present time returned to over $100/barrel. Also, peak oil concerns, resulting in imminent oil production limitations, have been voiced by various studies [3–6].

It has been found that continued oil dependence is environmentally, economically and socially unsustainable [7].

The price uncertainty and decreasing supply might result in severe challenges for different transporters. Nygren et al. [8] showed that even the most optimistic oil production forecasts implied pessimistic futures for the aviation industry. Curtis [9] found that globalization may be undermined by peak oil’s effect on transportation costs and reliability of freight.

Barely 2% of the world electricity is used by transportation [2], where most of this is made up by trains, trams, and trolley buses.

A high future demand of Li for battery applications may arise if society choses to employ Li-ion technologies for a decarbonization of the road transport sector.

Batteries are at present time the second most common use, but are increasing rapidly as the use of li-ion batteries for portable electronics [12], as well as electric and hybrid cars, are becoming more frequent. For example, the lithium consumption for batteries in the U.S increased with 194 % from 2005 to 2010 [12]. Relatively few academic studies have focused on the very abundance of raw materials needed to supply a potential increase in Li demand from transport sector [13]. Lithium demand is growing and it is important to investigate whether this could lead to a shortfall in the future.

 

[My comment: utility scale energy storage batteries in commercial production are lithium, and if this continues, this sector alone would quickly consume all available lithium supplies: see Barnhart, C., et al. 2013. On the importance of reducing the energetic and material demands of electrical energy storage. Energy Environment Science 2013(6): 1083–1092.]

Aim of this study

Recently, a number of studies have investigated future supply prospects for lithium [13–16]. However, these studies reach widely different results in terms of available quantities, possible production trajectories, as well as expected future demand. The most striking difference is perhaps the widely different estimates for available resources and reserves, where different numbers of deposits are included and different types of resources are assessed. It has been suggested that mineral resources will be a future constraint for society [17], but a great deal of this debate is often spent on the concept of geological availability, which can be presented as the size of the tank. What is frequently not reflected upon is that society can only use the quantities that can be extracted at a certain pace and be delivered to consumers by mining operations, which can be described as the tap. The key concept here is that the size of the tank and the size of the tap are two fundamentally different things.

This study attempts to present a comprehensive review of known lithium deposits and their estimated quantities of lithium available for exploitation and discuss the uncertainty and differences among published studies, in order to bring clarity to the subject. The estimated reserves are then used as a constraint in a model of possible future production of lithium and the results of the model are compared to possible future demand from an electrification of the car fleet. The forecasts are based on open, public data and should be used for estimating long term growth and trends. This is not a substitute for economical short-term prognoses, but rather a complementary vision.

Data sources

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) has been particularly useful for obtaining production data series, but also the Swedish Geological Survey (SGU) and the British Geological Survey (BGS) deserves honourable mention for providing useful material. Kushnir and Sandén [18], Tahil [19, 20] along with many other recent lithium works have also been useful. Kesler et al. [21] helped to provide a broad overview of general lithium geology.

Information on individual lithium deposits has been compiled from numerous sources, primarily building on the tables found in [13–16]. In addition, several specialized articles about individual deposits have been used, for instance [22–26]. Public industry reports and annual yearbooks from mining operators and lithium producers, such as SQM [27], Roskill [28] or Talison Lithium [29], also helped to create a holistic data base.

In this study, we collected information on global lithium deposits. Country of occurrence, deposit type, main mineral, and lithium content were gathered as well as published estimates for reserves and resources. Some deposits had detailed data available for all parameters, while others had very little information available. Widely diverging estimates for reserves and resources could sometimes be found for the same deposit, and in such cases the full interval between the minimum and maximum estimates is presented. Deposits without reserve or resource estimates are included in the data set, but do not contribute to the total. Only available data and information that could be found in the public and academic spheres were compiled in this study. It is likely that undisclosed and/or proprietary data could contribute to the world’s lithium volume but due to data availability no conclusions on to which extent could be made.

Geological overview

In order to properly estimate global lithium availability, and a feasible reserve estimate for modelling future production, this section presents an overview of lithium geology. Lithium is named after the Greek word “lithos” meaning “stone”, represented by the symbol Li and has the atomic number 3. Under standard conditions, lithium is the lightest metal and the least dense solid element. Lithium is a soft, silver-white metal that belongs to the alkali group of elements.

As all alkali elements, Li is highly reactive and flammable. For this reason, it never occurs freely in nature and only appears in compounds, usually ionic compounds. The nuclear properties of Li are peculiar since its nuclei verge on instability and two stable isotopes have among the lowest binding energies per nucleon of all stable nuclides. Due to this nuclear instability, lithium is less abundant in the solar system than 25 of the first 32 chemical elements [30].

Resources and reserves

An important frequent shortcoming in the discussion on availability of lithium is the lack of proper terminology and standardized concepts for assessing the available amounts of lithium. Published studies talk about “reserves”, “resources”, “recoverable resources”, “broad-based reserves”, “in-situ resources”, and “reserve base”.

A wide range of reporting systems minerals exist, such as NI 43-101, USGS, Crirsco, SAMREC and the JORC code, and further discussion and references concerning this can be found in Vikström [31]. Definitions and classifications used are often similar, but not always consistent, adding to the confusion when aggregating data. Consistent definitions may be used in individual studies, but frequently figures from different methodologies are combined as there is no universal and standardized framework. In essence, published literature is a jumble of inconsistent figures. If one does not know what the numbers really mean, they are not simply useless – they are worse, since they tend to mislead.

Broadly speaking, resources are generally defined as the geologically assured quantity that is available for exploitation, while reserves are the quantity that is exploitable with current technical and socioeconomic conditions. The reserves are what are important for production, while resources are largely an academic figure with little relevance for real supply. For example, usually less than one tenth of the coal resources are considered economically recoverable [32, 33]. Kesler et al. [21] stress that available resources needs to be converted into reserves before they can be produced and used by society. Still, some analysts seemingly use the terms ‘resources’ and ‘reserves’ synonymously.

It should be noted that the actual reserves are dynamic and vary depending on many factors such as the available technology, economic demand, political issues and social factors. Technological improvements may increase reserves by opening new deposit types for exploitation or by lowering production costs. Deposits that have been mined for some time can increase or decrease their reserves due to difficulties with determining the ore grade and tonnage in advance [34]. Depletion and decreasing concentrations may increase recovery costs, thus lowering reserves. Declining demand and prices may also reduce reserves, while rising prices or demand may increase them. Political decisions, legal issues or environmental policies may prohibit exploitation of certain deposits, despite the fact significant resources may be available.

For lithium, resource/reserve classifications were typically developed for solid ore deposits. However, brine – presently the main lithium source – is a fluid and commonly used definitions can be difficult to apply due to pumping complications and varying concentrations.

Houston et al. [35] describes the problem in detail and suggest a change in NI 43-101 to account for these problems. If better standards were available for brines then estimations could be more reliable and accurate, as discussed in Kushnir and Sandén [18].

Environmental aspects and policy changes can also significantly influence recoverability. Introduction of clean air requirements and public resistance to surface mining in the USA played a major role in the decreasing coal reserves [33].

It is entirely possible that public outcries against surface mining or concerns for the environment in lithium producing will lead to restrictions that affect the reserves. As an example, the water consumption of brine production is very high and Tahil [19] estimates that brine operations consume 65% of the fresh water in the Salar de Atacama region. [ The Atacama only gets 0.6 inches of rain a year ]

Regarding future developments of recoverability, Fasel and Tran [36] monotonously assumes that increasing lithium demand will result in more reserves being found as prices rise. So called cumulative availability curves are sometimes used to estimate how reserves will change with changing prices, displaying the estimated amount of resource against the average unit cost ranked from lowest to highest cost. This method is used by Yaksic and Tilton [14] to address lithium availability. This concept has its merits for describing theoretical availability, but the fact that the concept is based on average cost, not marginal cost, has been described as a major weakness, making cumulative availability curves disregard the real cost structure and has little – if any – relevance for future price and production rate [37].

Production and occurrence of lithium

The high reactivity of lithium makes it geochemistry complex and interesting. Lithium-minerals are generally formed in magmatic processes. The small ionic size makes it difficult for lithium to be included in early stages of mineral crystallization, and resultantly lithium remains in the molten parts where it gets enriched until it can be solidified in the final stages [38].

At present, over 120 lithium-containing minerals are known, but few of them contain high concentrations or are frequently occurring. Lithium can also be found in naturally occurring salt solutions as brines in dry salt lake environments. Compared to the fairly large number of lithium mineral and brine deposits, few of them are of actual or potential commercial value. Many are very small, while others are too low in grade [39]. This chapter will briefly review the properties of those deposits and present a compilation of the known deposits.

Lithium mineral deposits

Lithium extraction from minerals is primarily done with minerals occurring in pegmatite formations. However, pegmatite is rather challenging to exploit due to its hardness in conjunction with generally problematic access to the belt-like deposits they usually occur in. Table 1 describes some typical lithium-bearing minerals and their characteristics. Australia is currently the world’s largest producer of lithium from minerals, mainly from spodumene [39]. Petalite is commonly used for glass manufacture due to its high iron content, while lepidolite was earlier used as a lithium source but presently has lost its importance due to high fluorine content. Exploitation must generally be tailor-made for a certain mineral as they differ quite significantly in chemical composition, hardness and other properties[13]. Table 2 presents some mineral deposits and their properties.

Recovery rates for mining typically range from 60 to 70%, although significant treatment is required for transforming the produced Li into a marketable form. For example, [40, 41] describe how lithium are produced from spodumene. The costs of acid, soda ash, and energy are a very significant part of the total production cost but may be partially alleviated by the market demand for the sodium sulphate by-products.

Lithium brine deposits

Lithium can also be found in salt lake brines that have high concentrations of mineral salts. Such brines can be reachable directly from the surface or deep underground in saline expanses located in very dry regions that allow salts to persist. High concentration lithium brine is mainly found in high altitude locations such as the Andes and south-western China. Chile, the world largest lithium producer, derives most of the production from brines located at the large salt flat of Salar de Atacama.

Lithium has similar ionic properties as magnesium since their ionic size is nearly identical; making is difficult to separate lithium from magnesium. A low Mg/Li ratio in brine means that it is easier, and therefore more economical to extract lithium.

Lithium Market Research SISThe ratio differs significant at currently producing brine deposits and range from less than 1 to over 30 [14]. The lithium concentration in known brine deposits is usually quite low and range from 0.017–0.15% with significant variability among the known deposits in the world (Table 3).

Exploitation of lithium brines starts with the brine being pumped from the ground into evaporation ponds. The actual evaporation is enabled by incoming solar radiation, so it is desirable for the operation to be located in sunny areas with low annual precipitation rate. The net evaporation rate determines the area of the required ponds [42].

It can easily take between one and two years before the final product is ready to be used, and even longer in cold and rainy areas.

The long timescales required for production can make brine deposits ill fit for sudden changes in demand. Table 3. Properties of known brine deposits in the world.

Lithium from sea water

The world’s oceans contain a wide number of metals, such as gold, lithium or uranium, dispersed at low concentrations. The mass of the world’s oceans is approximately 1.35*1012 Mt [47], making vast amounts of theoretical resources seemingly available. Eckhardt [48] and Fasel and Tran [36] announce that more than 2,000,000 Mt lithium is available from the seas, essentially making it an “unlimited” source given its geological abundance. Tahil [20] also notes that oceans have been proclaimed as an unlimited Li-source since the 1970s.

The world’s oceans and some highly saline lakes do in fact contain very large quantities of lithium, but if it will become practical and economical to produce lithium from this source is highly questionable.

For example, consider gold in sea water – in total nearly 7,000,000 Mt. This is an enormous amount compared to the cumulative world production of 0.17 Mt accumulated since the dawn of civilization [49]. There are also several technical options available for gold extraction. However, the average gold concentration range from <0.001 to 0.005 ppb [50]. This means that one km3 of sea water would give only 5.5 kg of gold. The gold is simply too dilute to be viable for commercial extraction and it is not surprising that all attempts to achieve success – including those of the Nobel laureate Fritz Haber – has failed to date.

Average lithium concentration in the oceans has been estimated to 0.17 ppm [14, 36]. Kushnir and Sandén [18] argue that it is theoretically possible to use a wide range of advanced technologies to extract lithium from seawater – just like the case for gold. However, no convincing methods have been demonstrated this far. A small scale Japanese experiment managed to produce 750 g of lithium metal from processing 4,200 m3 water with a recovery efficiency of 19.7% [36]. This approach has been described in more detail by others [51–53].

Grosjean et al. [13] points to the fact that even after decades of improvement, recovery from seawater is still more than 10–30 times more costly than production from pegmatites and brines. It is evident that huge quantities of water would have to be processed to produce any significant amounts of lithium. Bardi [54] presents theoretical calculations on this, stating that a production volume of lithium comparable to present world production (~25 kt annually) would require 1.5*103 TWh of electrical energy for pumping through separation membranes in addition to colossal volumes of seawater. Furthermore, Tahil [20] estimated that a seawater processing flow equivalent to the average discharge of the River Nile – 300,000,000 m3/day or over 22 times the global petroleum industry flow of 85 million barrels per day – would only give 62 tons of lithium per day or roughly 20 kt per year. Furthermore, a significant amount of fresh water and hydrochloric acid will be required to flush out unwanted minerals (Mg, K, etc.) and extract lithium from the adsorption columns [20].

In summary, extraction from seawater appears not feasible and not something that should be considered viable in practice, at least not in the near future.

Estimated lithium availability

From data compilation and analysis of 112 deposits, this study concludes that 15 Mt areImage result for lithium reasonable as a reference case for the global reserves in the near and medium term. 30 Mt is seen as a high case estimate for available lithium reserves and this number is also found in the upper range in literature. These two estimates are used as constraints in the models of future production in this study.

Estimates on world reserves and resources vary significantly among published studies. One main reason for this is likely the fact that different deposits, as well as different number of deposits, are aggregated in different studies. Many studies, such as the ones presented by the USGS, do not give explicitly state the number of deposits included and just presents aggregated figures on a national level. Even when the number and which deposits that have been used are specified, analysts can arrive to wide different estimates (Table 5). It should be noted that a trend towards increasing reserves and resources with time can generally be found, in particularly in USGS assessments. Early reports, such as Evans [56] or USGS [59], excluded several countries from the reserve estimates due to a lack of available information. This was mitigated in USGS [73] when reserves estimates for Argentina, Australia, and Chile have been revised based on new information from governmental and industry sources. However, there are still relatively few assessments on reserves, in particular for Russia, and it is concluded that much future work is required to handle this shortcoming. Gruber et al. [16] noted that 83% of global lithium resources can be found in six brine, two pegmatite and two sedimentary deposits. From our compilation, it can also be found that the distribution of global lithium reserves and resources are very uneven.

Three quarters of everything can typically be found in the ten largest deposits (Figure 1 and 2). USGS [12] pinpoint that 85% of the global reserves are situated in Chile and China (Figure 3) and that Chile and Australia accounted for 70 % of the world production of 28,100 tonnes in 2011 [12]. From Table 2 and 3, one can note a significant spread in estimated reserves and resources for the deposits. This divergence is much smaller for minerals (5.6–8.2 Mt) than for brines (6.5– 29.4 Mt), probably resulting from the difficulty associated with estimating brine accumulations consistently. Evans [75] also points to the problem of using these frameworks on brine deposits, which are fundamentally different from solid ores. Table 5. Comparison of published lithium assessments.

Recycling

One thing that may or may not have a large implication for future production is recycling. The projections presented in the production model of this study describe production of lithium from virgin materials. The total production of lithium could potentially increase significantly if high rates of recycling were implemented of the used lithium, which is mentioned in many studies.

USGS [12] state that recycling of lithium has been insignificant historically, but that it is increasing as the use of lithium for batteries are growing. However, the recycling of lithium from batteries is still more or less non-existent, with a collection rate of used Li-ion batteries of only about 3% [93]. When the Li-ion batteries are in fact recycled, it is usually not the lithium that is recycled, but other more precious metals such as cobalt [18].

If this will change in the future is uncertain and highly dependent on future metal prices, but it is still commonly argued for and assumed that the recycling of lithium will grow significantly, very soon. Goonan [94] claims that recycling rates will increase from vehicle batteries in vehicles since such recycling systems already exist for lead-acid batteries. Kushnir and Sandén [18] argue that large automotive batteries will be technically easier to recycle than smaller batteries and also claims that economies of scale will emerge when the use for batteries for vehicles increase. According to the IEA [95], full recycling systems are projected to be in place sometime between 2020 and 2030. Similar assumptions are made by more or less all studies dealing with future lithium production and use for electric vehicles and Kushnir and Sandén [18] state that it is commonly assumed that recycling will take place, enabling recycled lithium to make up for a big part of the demand but also conclude that the future recycling rate is highly uncertain.

There are several reasons to question the probability of high recycling shares for Li-ion batteries. Kushnir and Sandén [18] state that lithium recycling economy is currently not good and claims that the economic conditions could decrease even more in the future. Sullivan and Gaines [96] argue that the Li-ion battery chemistry is complex and still evolving, thus making it difficult for the industry to develop profitable pathways. Georgi-Maschler [93] highlight that two established recycling processes exist for recycling Li-ion batteries, but one of them lose most of the lithium in the process of recovering the other valuable metals. Ziemann et al. [97] states that lithium recovery from rechargeable batteries is not efficient at present time, mainly due to the low lithium content of around 2% and the rather low price of lithium.

In this study we choose not to include recycling in the projected future supply for several reasons. In a short perspective, looking towards 2015-2020, it cannot be considered likely that any considerable amount of lithium will be recycled from batteries since it is currently not economical to do so and no proven methods to do it on a large scale industrial level appear to exist. If it becomes economical to recycle lithium from batteries it will take time to build the capacity for the recycling to take place. Also, the battery lifetime is often projected to be 10 years or more, and to expect any significant amounts of lithium to be recycled within this period of time is simply not realistic for that reason either.

The recycling capacity is expected to be far from reaching significant levels before 2025 according to Wanger [92]. It is also important to separate the recycling rates of products to the recycled content in new products. Even if a percentage of the product is recycled at the end of the life cycle, this is no guarantee that the use of recycled content in new products will be as high. The use of Li-ion batteries is projected to grow fast. If the growth happens linearly, and high recycling rates are accomplished, recycling could start constituting a large part of the lithium demand, but if the growth happens exponentially, recycling can never keep up with the growth that has occurred during the 10 years lag during the battery lifetime. In a longer time perspective, the inclusion of recycling could be argued for with expected technological refinement, but certainties regarding technology development are highly uncertain. Still, most studies include recycling as a major part of future lithium production, which can have very large implications on the results and conclusions drawn. Kushnir and Sandén [18] suggest that an 80% lithium recovery rate is achievable over a medium time frame. The scenarios in Gruber et al. [16], assumes recycling participation rates of 90 %, 96% and 100%. In their scenario using the highest assumed recycling, the quantities of lithium needed to be mined are decreased to only about 37% of the demand. Wanger [92] looks at a shorter time perspective and estimates that a 40% or 100% recycling rate would reduce the lithium consumption with 10% or 25% respectively by 2030. Mohr et al. [15] assume that the recycling rate starts at 0%, approaching a limit of 80%, resulting in recycled lithium making up significant parts of production, but only several decades into the future. IEA [95] projects that full recycling systems will be in place around 2020–2030.

The impact of assumed recycling rates can indeed be very significant, and the use of this should be handled with care and be well motivated.

Future demand for lithium

To estimate whether the projected future production levels will be sufficient, it isImage result for lithiuminteresting to compare possible production levels with potential future demand. The use of lithium is currently dominated by use for ceramics and glass closely followed by batteries. The current lithium demand for different markets can be seen in Figure 7. USGS [12] state that the lithium use in batteries have grown significantly in recent years as the use of lithium batteries in portable electronics have become increasingly common. Figure 7 (Ceramics and glass 29%, Batteries 27%, Other uses 16%, Lubrication greases 12%, Continuous casting 5%, Air treatment 4%, Polymers 3%, Primary aluminum production 2%, Pharmaceuticals 2%).

Global lithium demand for different end-use markets. Source: USGS [12] USGS [12] state that the total lithium consumption in 2011 was between 22,500 and 24,500 tonnes. This is often projected to grow, especially as the use of Li-ion batteries for electric cars could potentially increase demand significantly. This study presents a simple example of possible future demand of lithium, assuming a constant demand for other uses and demand for electric cars to grow according to a scenario of future sales of

electric cars. The current car fleet consists of about 600 million passenger cars. The sale of new passenger cars in 2011 was about 60 million cars [98]. This existing vehicle park is almost entirely dependent on fossil fuels, primarily gasoline and diesel, but also natural gas to a smaller extent. Increasing oil prices, concerns about a possible peak in oil production and problems with anthropogenic global warming makes it desirable to move away from fossil energy dependence. As a mitigation and pathway to a fossil-fuel free mobility, cars running partially or totally on electrical energy are commonly proposed. This includes electric vehicles (EVs), hybrid vehicles (HEVs) and PHEVs (plug-in hybrid vehicles), all on the verge of large-scale commercialization and implementation. IEA [99] concluded that a total of 1.5 million hybrid and electric vehicles had been sold worldwide between the year 2000 and 2010.

Both the expected number of cars as well as the amount of lithium required per vehicle is important. As can be seen from Table 9, the estimates of lithium demand for PEHV and EVs differ significantly between studies. Also, some studies do not differentiate between different technical options and only gives a single Li-consumption estimate for an “electric vehicle”, for instance the 3 kg/car found by Mohr et al. [15]. The mean values from Table 9 are found to be 4.9 kg for an EV and 1.9 kg for a PHEV.

As the battery size determines the vehicles range, it is likely that the range will continue to increase in the future, which could increase the lithium demand. On the other hand, it is also reasonable to assume that the technology will improve, thus reducing the lithium requirements. In this study a lithium demand of 160 g Li/kWh is assumed, an assumption discussed in detail by Kushnir and Sandén [18]. It is then assumed that typical batteries capacities will be 9 kWh in a PHEV and 25 kWh in an EV. This gives a resulting lithium requirement of 1.4 kg for a PHEV and 4 kg for an EV, which is used as an estimate in this study. Many current electrified cars have a lower capacity than 24 kWh, but to become more attractive to consumers the range of the vehicles will likely have to increase, creating a need for larger batteries [104]. It should be added that the values used are at the lower end compared to other assessments (Table 9) and should most likely not be seen as overestimates future lithium requirements.

Figure 8 shows the span of the different production forecasts up until 2050 made in this study, together with an estimated demand based on the demand staying constant on the high estimate of 2010– 2011, adding an estimated demand created by the electric car projections done by IEA [101]. This is a very simplistic estimation future demand, but compared to the production projections it indicates that lithium availability should not be automatically disregarded as a potential issue for future electric car production. The amount of electric cars could very well be smaller or larger that this scenario, but the scenario used does not assume a complete electrification of the car fleet by 2050 and such scenarios would mean even larger demand of lithium. It is likely that lithium demand for other uses will also grow in the coming decades, why total demand might increase more that indicated here. This study does not attempt to estimate the evolution of demand for other uses, and the demand estimate for other uses can be considered a conservative one. Figure 8. The total lithium demand of a constant current lithium demand combined with growth of electric vehicles according to IEA’s blue map scenario [101] assuming a demand for 1.4 kg of lithium per PHEV and 4.0 kg per EV. The span of forecasted production levels range from the base case Gompertz model

Concluding discussion

Potential future production of lithium was modeled with three different production curves. In a short perspective, until 2015–2020, the three models do not differ much, but in the longer perspective the Richards and Logistic curves show a growth at a vastly higher pace than the Gompertz curve. The Richards model gives the best fit to the historic data, and lies in between the other two and might be the most likely development. A faster growth than the logistic model cannot be ruled out, but should be considered unlikely, since it usually mimics plausible free market exploitation [89]. Other factors, such as decreased lithium concentration in mined material, economics, political and environmental problems could also limit production.

It can be debated whether this kind of forecasting should be used for short term projections, and the actual production in coming years can very well differ from our models, but it does at least indicate that lithium availability could be a potential problem in the coming decades. In a longer time perspective up to 2050, the projected lithium demand for alternative vehicles far exceeds our most optimistic production prognoses.

If 100 million alternative vehicles, as projected in IEA [101] are produced annually using lithium battery technology, the lithium reserves would be exhausted in just a few years, even if the production could be cranked up faster than the models in this study. This indicates that it is important that other battery technologies should be investigated as well.

It should be added that these projections do not consider potential recycling of the lithium, which is discussed further earlier in this paper. On the other hand, it appears it is highly unlikely that recycling will become common as soon as 2020, while total demand appears to potentially rise over maximum production around that date. If, when, and to what extent recycling will take place is hard to predict, although it appears more likely that high recycling rates will take place in electric cars than other uses.

Much could change before 2050. The spread between the different production curves are much larger and it is hard to estimate what happens with technology over such a long time frame. However, the Blue Map Scenario would in fact create a demand of lithium that is higher than the peak production of the logistic curve for the standard case, and close to the peak production in the high URR case.

Improved efficiency can decrease the lithium demand in the batteries, but as Kushnir and Sandén [18] point out, there is a minimum amount of lithium required tied to the cell voltage and chemistry of the battery.

IEA [95] acknowledges that technologies that are not available today must be developed to reach the Blue Map scenarios and that technology development is uncertain. This does not quite coincide with other studies claiming that lithium availability will not be a problem for production of electric cars in the future.

It is also possible that other uses will raise the demand for lithium even further. One industry that in a longer time perspective could potentially increase the demand for lithium is fusion, where lithium is used to breed tritium in the reactors. If fusion were commercialized, which currently seems highly uncertain, it would demand large volumes of lithium [36].

Further problems with the lithium industry are that the production and reserves are situated in a few countries (USGS [12] in Mt: Chile 7.5, China 3.5, Australia 0.97, Argentina 0.85, Other 0.135]. One can also note that most of the lithium is concentrated to a fairly small amount of deposits, nearly 50% of both reserves and resources can be found in Salar de Atacama alone. Kesler et al. [21] note that Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and China hold 70% of the brine deposits. Grosjean et al. [13] even points to the ABC triangle (i.e. Argentina, Bolivia and Chile) and its control of well over 40% of the world resources and raises concern for resource nationalism and monopolistic behavior. Even though Bolivia has large resources, there are many political and technical problems, such as transportation and limited amount of available fresh water, in need of solutions [18].

Regardless of global resource size, the high concentration of reserves and production to very few countries is not something that bode well for future supplies. The world is currently largely dependent on OPEC for oil, and that creates possibilities of political conflicts. The lithium reserves are situated in mainly two countries. It could be considered problematic for countries like the US to be dependent on Bolivia, Chile and Argentina for political reasons [105]. Abell and Oppenheimer [105] discuss the absurdity in switching from dependence to dependence since resources are finite. Also, Kushnir and Sandén [18] discusses the problems with being dependent on a few producers, if a problem unexpectedly occurs at the production site it may not be possible to continue the production and the demand cannot be satisfied.

Final remarks

Although there are quite a few uncertainties with the projected production of lithium and demand for lithium for electric vehicles, this study indicates that the possible lithium production could be a limiting factor for the number of electric vehicles that can be produced, and how fast they can be produced. If large parts of the car fleet will run on electricity and rely on lithium based batteries in the coming decades, it is possible, and maybe even likely, that lithium availability will be a limiting factor.

To decrease the impact of this, as much lithium as possible must be recycled and possibly other battery technologies not relying on lithium needs to be developed. It is not certain how big the recoverable reserves of lithium are in the world and estimations in different studies differ significantly. Especially the estimations for brine need to be further investigated. Some estimates include production from seawater, making the reserves more or less infinitely large. We suggest that it is very unlikely that seawater or lakes will become a practical and economic source of lithium, mainly due to the high Mg/Li ratio and low concentrations if lithium, meaning that large quantities of water would have to be processed. Until otherwise is proved lithium reserves from seawater and lakes should not be included in the reserve estimations. Although the reserve estimates differ, this appears to have marginal impact on resulting projections of production, especially in a shorter time perspective. What are limiting are not the estimated reserves, but likely maximum annual production, which is often missed in similar studies.

If electric vehicles with li-ion batteries will be used to a very high extent, there are other problems to account for. Instead of being dependent on oil we could become dependent on lithium if li-ion batteries, with lithium reserves mainly located in two countries. It is important to plan for this to avoid bottlenecks or unnecessarily high prices. Lithium is a finite resource and the production cannot be infinitely large due to geological, technical and economical restraints. The concentration of lithium metal appears to be decreasing, which could make it more expensive and difficult to extract the lithium in the future. To enable a transition towards a car fleet based on electrical energy, other types of batteries should also be considered and a continued development of battery types using less lithium and/or other metals are encouraged. High recycling rates should also be aimed for if possible and continued investigations of recoverable resources and possible production of lithium are called for. Acknowledgements We would like to thank Steve Mohr for helpful comments and ideas. Sergey Yachenkov has our sincerest appreciation for providing assistance with translation of Russian material.





Crisis? Which crisis are we actually talking about…?

16 03 2017

Since writing about the perceived ‘crisis’ in Australia’s gas supplies, the amount of bullshit coming out of the media, not least social media, is bewildering…… Some of it is downright amusing, and most of it would be really funny, were it not so tragic.

There is so much disinformation out there, it’s hard to even know where to start. The Lock the Gate Alliance fell right into the fossil fuel industry trap with this ridiculous youtube video….

The last thing you need to do if you want to stop the fracking fiasco is to tell everyone there is a shortage of gas… because how do you deal with a shortage? You frack for more..! Especially when there is no shortage and Australia is swimming in gas.

There are no winners in this. The gas companies are forced to sell gas cheaply to Japan and South Korea, neither of which have any energy resources of their own. Australia is the second largest gas exporter after Qatar, and will overtake it within a few years. We export to the nations with the highest demand too. Japan alone, which imports 34% of the world’s gas, so desperate are they for the stuff, could take all our gas, were it not for the fact other arrangements are already in place. Ironically, we sell our gas there so cheaply, it beggars belief. Worse…Qatar raises three times as much in royalties as Australia for selling  the same amount of gas. You can blame John Howard for this….. he didn’t believe in peak energy all those years ago when the contracts were signed, and literally forced the hands of the companies to agree to stupid prices which they are now unable to get out of. Unless the government steps in again.

It borders on the ridiculous that Japanese gas customers buy Australian gas more cheaply than Australians, especially as the gas is drilled in the Bass Strait, piped to Queensland, turned into liquid and shipped 6,700 kilometres to Japan … but the Japanese still pay less than Victorians. And I’m reliably informed that piping the gas from Victoria to Queensland costs ten times as much as moving oil…… imagine the ERoEI of doing this..?

Notwithstanding Alan Kohler announcing on ABC news the other night that the era of cheap energy was over (yes, he actually said this… nearly fell of my chair…), energy is not dear. Remember this video? If people were paid for their labour energy at the same rate as fossil fuels, they would be paid SIX CENTS AN HOUR…… that sounds so dreadfully expensive….

While AGL was earnestly talking up gas shortages in 2014, BHP Petroleum chief Mike Yeager told journalists:

We want to make sure that the market knows that the Bass Strait field still has a large amount of gas that’s undeveloped … We have a lot of gas in eastern Australia that’s available. It’s more important to let the citizens of Victoria and New South Wales, and to some degree, you know, even Queensland … there’s plenty of gas to supply those provinces for – you know, indefinitely.

AGL later quietly issued a release to the ASX conceding it had plenty of gas supply. So there you go, it has nothing to do with those greenies locking their gates up after all….

Even the Guardian is at it…..:

Gas prices have doubled and in some cases tripled because gas suppliers are now capable of exporting our gas to high paying customers in Asia.

Like whom exactly…?

And…

Complicating matters is that gas suppliers rushed in to sign export contracts and then subsequently found they didn’t have enough gas to fulfill them. This has left the Australian domestic market very short of gas.

For pity’s sake, where do these people get their information from…?

Australia swimming in gas

Now, keeping all our gas to ourselves gets complicated here, and I hope I get this right, as this whole issue is really starting to make my head spin. It turns out, much of the money invested in the gas export system was actually borrowed from Japan. Ever heard of the yen carry trade? It is when investors borrow yen at a low interest rate, then exchange it for U.S. dollars or any other currency in a country that pays a higher interest rate on its bonds. Like Australia does. So if we decide to tell the Japanese to get stuffed, their banks may well want their money back, at which stage the brown stuff hits the fan…… Does our merchant banker PM know this I wonder……?

Luckily for us, last September, Japan’s energy minister informed the world that imports of LNG would continue falling. They fell by 4.7% in 2015 and another 2% in 2016 amid a rising commitment to renewables and the rebooting of nuclear reactors that were shut down after the Fukushima disaster……

Meanwhile, they are all panicking here in Australia trying to keep our ‘energy security’ intact by building batteries and a new gas powered station in SA, and pumped hydro energy storage in NSW at a cost of some three billion dollars. All made with fossil fuels of course, because there’s nothing like them… Most of the benefits will be swamped by population growth within less than a decade……

Because dear reader, the crisis is not a gas crisis, it’s a growth crisis, and it’s all coming to a head. But you already knew that, and we all know nobody will do a thing about it.





On the Thermodynamic Black Hole…..

23 09 2016

I recently heard Dmitry Orlov speaking to Jim Kunstler regarding the Dunbar Number in which he came up with the term ‘Thermodynamic Trap’. As the ERoEI of every energy source known to humanity starts collapsing over the energy cliff, I thought it was more like a thermodynamic black hole, sucking all the energy into itself at an accelerating pace… and if you ever needed proof of this blackhole, then Alice Friedemann’s latest book, “When the trucks stop running” should do the trick.

alice_friedemann

Alice Friedemann

Chris Martenson interviewed Alice in August 2016 about the future of the trucking industry in the face of Peak Oil, especially now the giant Bakken shale oil field in the US has peaked, joining the conventional oil sources. This podcast is available for download here.trucks_stop_running

Alice sees no solutions through running trucks with alternative energy sources or fuels. I see an increasing number of stories about electric trucks, but none of them make any sense because the weight of the batteries needed to move such large vehicles, especially the long haul variety, is so great it hardly leaves space for freight.

A semi trailer hauling 40 tonnes 1000km needs 1000L of liquid fuel to achieve the task. That’s 10,000kWh of electric energy equivalent. Just going by the Tesla Wall data sheet, a 6.4kWh battery pack weighs in at 97kg. So at this rate, 10,000kWh would weigh 150 tonnes….. so even to reduce the weight of the battery bank down to the 40 tonne carrying capacity of the truck, efficiency would have to be improved four fold, and you still wouldn’t have space for freight..

There are not enough materials on the entire planet to make enough battery storage to replace oil, except for Sodium Sulfur batteries, a technology I had never heard of before. A quick Google found this…..:

The active materials in a Na/S battery are molten sulfur as the positive electrode and molten sodium as the negative. The electrodes are separated by a solid ceramic, sodium alumina, which also serves as the electrolyte. This ceramic allows only positively charged sodium-ions to pass through. During discharge electrons are stripped off the sodium metal (one negatively charged electron for every sodium atom) leading to formation of the sodium-ions that then move through the electrolyte to the positive electrode compartment. The electrons that are stripped off the sodium metal move through the circuit and then back into the battery at the positive electrode, where they are taken up by the molten sulfur to form polysulfide. The positively charged sodium-ions moving into the positive electrode compartment balance the electron charge flow. During charge this process is reversed. The battery must be kept hot (typically > 300 ºC) to facilitate the process (i.e., independent heaters are part of the battery system). In general Na/S cells are highly efficient (typically 89%).

Conclusion

Na/S battery technology has been demonstrated at over 190 sites in Japan. More than 270 MW of stored energy suitable for 6 hours of daily peak shaving have been installed. The largest Na/S installation is a 34-MW, 245-MWh unit for wind stabilization in Northern Japan. The demand for Na/S batteries as an effective means of stabilizing renewable energy output and providing ancillary services is expanding. U.S. utilities have deployed 9 MW for peak shaving, backup power, firming windcapacity, and other applications. Projections indicate that development of an additional 9 MW is in-progress.

I immediately see a problem with keeping batteries at over 300° in a post fossil fuel era… but there’s more….

Alice has worked out that Na/S battery storage for just one day of US electricity generation would weigh 450 million tons, cover 923 square miles (2390km², or roughly the area of the whole of the Australian Capital Territory!), and cost 41 trillion dollars….. and according to European authorities, 6 to 30 days of storage is what would be required in the real world.

The disruption to the supply lines of our ‘just in time’ world caused by trucks no longer running is too much to even think about.

Empty supermarket shelves, petrol stations with no petrol, even ATMs with no money and pubs with no beer come to mind. I remember seeing signs on the Bruce highway back in Queensland stating “Trucks keep Australia going”.  Well, oil keeps trucks running; for how much longer is the real question.

 





Eight Pitfalls in Evaluating Green Energy Solutions

4 07 2016

Does the recent climate accord between US and China mean that many countries will now forge ahead with renewables and other green solutions? I think that there are more pitfalls than many realize.

Pitfall 1. Green solutions tend to push us from one set of resources that are a problem today (fossil fuels) to other resources that are likely to be problems in the longer term.  

The name of the game is “kicking the can down the road a little.” In a finite world, we are reaching many limits besides fossil fuels:

  1. Soil quality–erosion of topsoil, depleted minerals, added salt
  2. Fresh water–depletion of aquifers that only replenish over thousands of years
  3. Deforestation–cutting down trees faster than they regrow
  4. Ore quality–depletion of high quality ores, leaving us with low quality ores
  5. Extinction of other species–as we build more structures and disturb more land, we remove habitat that other species use, or pollute it
  6. Pollution–many types: CO2, heavy metals, noise, smog, fine particles, radiation, etc.
  7. Arable land per person, as population continues to rise

The danger in almost every “solution” is that we simply transfer our problems from one area to another. Growing corn for ethanol can be a problem for soil quality (erosion of topsoil), fresh water (using water from aquifers in Nebraska, Colorado). If farmers switch to no-till farming to prevent the erosion issue, then great amounts of Round Up are often used, leading to loss of lives of other species.

Encouraging use of forest products because they are renewable can lead to loss of forest cover, as more trees are made into wood chips. There can even be a roundabout reason for loss of forest cover: if high-cost renewables indirectly make citizens poorer, citizens may save money on fuel by illegally cutting down trees.

High tech goods tend to use considerable quantities of rare minerals, many of which are quite polluting if they are released into the environment where we work or live. This is a problem both for extraction and for long-term disposal.

Pitfall 2. Green solutions that use rare minerals are likely not very scalable because of quantity limits and low recycling rates.  

Computers, which are the heart of many high-tech goods, use almost the entire periodic table of elements.

Figure 1. Slide by Alicia Valero showing that almost the entire periodic table of elements is used for computers.

When minerals are used in small quantities, especially when they are used in conjunction with many other minerals, they become virtually impossible to recycle. Experience indicates that less than 1% of specialty metals are recycled.

Figure 2. Slide by Alicia Valero showing recycling rates of elements.

Green technologies, including solar panels, wind turbines, and batteries, have pushed resource use toward minerals that were little exploited in the past. If we try to ramp up usage, current mines are likely to deplete rapidly. We will eventually need to add new mines in areas where resource quality is lower and concern about pollution is higher. Costs will be much higher in such mines, making devices using such minerals less affordable, rather than more affordable, in the long run.

Of course, a second issue in the scalability of these resources has to do with limits on oil supply. As ores of scarce minerals deplete, more rather than less oil will be needed for extraction. If oil is in short supply, obtaining this oil is also likely to be a problem, also inhibiting scalability of the scarce mineral extraction. The issue with respect to oil supply may not be high price; it may be low price, for reasons I will explain later in this post.

Pitfall 3. High-cost energy sources are the opposite of the “gift that keeps on giving.” Instead, they often represent the “subsidy that keeps on taking.”

Oil that was cheap to extract (say $20 barrel) was the true “gift that keeps on giving.” It made workers more efficient in their jobs, thereby contributing to efficiency gains. It made countries using the oil more able to create goods and services cheaply, thus helping them compete better against other countries. Wages tended to rise, as long at the price of oil stayed below $40 or $50 per barrel (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Average wages in 2012$ compared to Brent oil price, also in 2012$. Average wages are total wages based on BEA data adjusted by the CPI-Urban, divided total population. Thus, they reflect changes in the proportion of population employed as well as wage levels.

More workers joined the work force, as well. This was possible in part because fossil fuels made contraceptives available, reducing family size. Fossil fuels also made tools such as dishwashers, clothes washers, and clothes dryers available, reducing the hours needed in housework. Once oil became high-priced (that is, over $40 or $50 per barrel), its favorable impact on wage growth disappeared.

When we attempt to add new higher-cost sources of energy, whether they are high-cost oil or high-cost renewables, they present a drag on the economy for three reasons:

  1. Consumers tend to cut back on discretionary expenditures, because energy products (including food, which is made using oil and other energy products) are a necessity. These cutbacks feed back through the economy and lead to layoffs in discretionary sectors. If they are severe enough, they can lead to debt defaults as well, because laid-off workers have difficulty paying their bills.
  2.  An economy with high-priced sources of energy becomes less competitive in the world economy, competing with countries using less expensive sources of fuel. This tends to lead to lower employment in countries whose mix of energy is weighted toward high-priced fuels.
  3. With (1) and (2) happening, economic growth slows. There are fewer jobs and debt becomes harder to repay.

In some sense, the cost producing of an energy product is a measure of diminishing returns–that is, cost is a measure of the amount of resources that directly and indirectly or indirectly go into making that device or energy product, with higher cost reflecting increasing effort required to make an energy product. If more resources are used in producing high-cost energy products, fewer resources are available for the rest of the economy. Even if a country tries to hide this situation behind a subsidy, the problem comes back to bite the country. This issue underlies the reason that subsidies tend to “keeping on taking.”

The dollar amount of subsidies is also concerning. Currently, subsidies for renewables (before the multiplier effect) average at least $48 per barrel equivalent of oil.1 With the multiplier effect, the dollar amount of subsidies is likely more than the current cost of oil (about $80), and possibly even more than the peak cost of oil in 2008 (about $147). The subsidy (before multiplier effect) per metric ton of oil equivalent amounts to $351. This is far more than the charge for any carbon tax.

Pitfall 4. Green technology (including renewables) can only be add-ons to the fossil fuel system.

A major reason why green technology can only be add-ons to the fossil fuel system relates to Pitfalls 1 through 3. New devices, such as wind turbines, solar PV, and electric cars aren’t very scalable because of high required subsidies, depletion issues, pollution issues, and other limits that we don’t often think about.

A related reason is the fact that even if an energy product is “renewable,” it needs long-term maintenance. For example, a wind turbine needs replacement parts from around the world. These are not available without fossil fuels. Any electrical transmission system transporting wind or solar energy will need frequent repairs, also requiring fossil fuels, usually oil (for building roads and for operating repair trucks and helicopters).

Given the problems with scalability, there is no way that all current uses of fossil fuels can all be converted to run on renewables. According to BP data, in 2013 renewable energy (including biofuels and hydroelectric) amounted to only 9.4% of total energy use. Wind amounted to 1.1% of world energy use; solar amounted to 0.2% of world energy use.

Pitfall 5. We can’t expect oil prices to keep rising because of affordability issues.  

Economists tell us that if there are inadequate oil supplies there should be few problems:  higher prices will reduce demand, encourage more oil production, and encourage production of alternatives. Unfortunately, there is also a roundabout way that demand is reduced: wages tend to be affected by high oil prices, because high-priced oil tends to lead to less employment (Figure 3). With wages not rising much, the rate of growth of debt also tends to slow. The result is that products that use oil (such as cars) are less affordable, leading to less demand for oil. This seems to be the issue we are now encountering, with many young people unable to find good-paying jobs.

If oil prices decline, rather than rise, this creates a problem for renewables and other green alternatives, because needed subsidies are likely to rise rather than disappear.

The other issue with falling oil prices is that oil prices quickly become too low for producers. Producers cut back on new development, leading to a decrease in oil supply in a year or two. Renewables and the electric grid need oil for maintenance, so are likely to be affected as well. Related posts include Low Oil Prices: Sign of a Debt Bubble Collapse, Leading to the End of Oil Supply? and Oil Price Slide – No Good Way Out.

Pitfall 6. It is often difficult to get the finances for an electrical system that uses intermittent renewables to work out well.  

Intermittent renewables, such as electricity from wind, solar PV, and wave energy, tend to work acceptably well, in certain specialized cases:

  • When there is a lot of hydroelectricity nearby to offset shifts in intermittent renewable supply;
  • When the amount added is sufficient small that it has only a small impact on the grid;
  • When the cost of electricity from otherwise available sources, such as burning oil, is very high. This often happens on tropical islands. In such cases, the economy has already adjusted to very high-priced electricity.

Intermittent renewables can also work well supporting tasks that can be intermittent. For example, solar panels can work well for pumping water and for desalination, especially if the alternative is using diesel for fuel.

Where intermittent renewables tend not to work well is when

  1. Consumers and businesses expect to get a big credit for using electricity from intermittent renewables, but
  2. Electricity added to the grid by intermittent renewables leads to little cost savings for electricity providers.

For example, people with solar panels often expect “net metering,” a credit equal to the retail price of electricity for electricity sold to the electric grid. The benefit to electric grid is generally a lot less than the credit for net metering, because the utility still needs to maintain the transmission lines and do many of the functions that it did in the past, such as send out bills. In theory, the utility still should get paid for all of these functions, but doesn’t. Net metering gives way too much credit to those with solar panels, relative to the savings to the electric companies. This approach runs the risk of starving fossil fuel, nuclear, and grid portion of the system of needed revenue.

A similar problem can occur if an electric grid buys wind or solar energy on a preferential basis from commercial providers at wholesale rates in effect for that time of day. This practice tends to lead to a loss of profitability for fossil fuel-based providers of electricity. This is especially the case for natural gas “peaking plants” that normally operate for only a few hours a year, when electricity rates are very high.

Germany has been adding wind and solar, in an attempt to offset reductions in nuclear power production. Germany is now running into difficulty with its pricing approach for renewables. Some of its natural gas providers of electricity have threatened to shut down because they are not making adequate profits with the current pricing plan. Germany also finds itself using more cheap (but polluting) lignite coal, in an attempt to keep total electrical costs within a range customers can afford.

Pitfall 7. Adding intermittent renewables to the electric grid makes the operation of the grid more complex and more difficult to manage. We run the risk of more blackouts and eventual failure of the grid. 

In theory, we can change the electric grid in many ways at once. We can add intermittent renewables, “smart grids,” and “smart appliances” that turn on and off, depending on the needs of the electric grid. We can add the charging of electric automobiles as well. All of these changes add to the complexity of the system. They also increase the vulnerability of the system to hackers.

The usual assumption is that we can step up to the challenge–we can handle this increased complexity. A recent report by The Institution of Engineering and Technology in the UK on the Resilience of the Electricity Infrastructure questions whether this is the case. It says such changes, ” .  .  . vastly increase complexity and require a level of engineering coordination and integration that the current industry structure and market regime does not provide.” Perhaps the system can be changed so that more attention is focused on resilience, but incentives need to be changed to make resilience (and not profit) a top priority. It is doubtful this will happen.

The electric grid has been called the worlds ‘s largest and most complex machine. We “mess with it” at our own risk. Nafeez Ahmed recently published an article called The Coming Blackout Epidemic, discussing challenges grids are now facing. I have written about electric grid problems in the past myself: The US Electric Grid: Will it be Our Undoing?

Pitfall 8. A person needs to be very careful in looking at studies that claim to show favorable performance for intermittent renewables.  

Analysts often overestimate the benefits of wind and solar. Just this week a new report was published saying that the largest solar plant in the world is so far producing only half of the electricity originally anticipated since it opened in February 2014.

In my view, “standard” Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI) and Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) calculations tend to overstate the benefits of intermittent renewables, because they do not include a “time variable,” and because they do not consider the effect of intermittency. More specialized studies that do include these variables show very concerning results. For example, Graham Palmer looks at the dynamic EROEI of solar PV, using batteries (replaced at eight year intervals) to mitigate intermittency.2 He did not include inverters–something that would be needed and would reduce the return further.

Figure 4. Graham Palmer's chart of Dynamic Energy Returned on Energy Invested from "Energy in Australia."

Palmer’s work indicates that because of the big energy investment initially required, the system is left in a deficit energy position for a very long time. The energy that is put into the system is not paid back until 25 years after the system is set up. After the full 30-year lifetime of the solar panel, the system returns 1.3 times the initial direct energy investment.

One further catch is that the energy used in the EROEI calculations includes only a list of direct energy inputs. The total energy required is much higher; it includes indirect inputs that are not directly measured as well as energy needed to provide necessary infrastructure, such as roads and schools. When these are considered, the minimum EROEI needs to be something like 10. Thus, the solar panel plus battery system modeled is really a net energy sink, rather than a net energy producer.  

Another study by Weissbach et al. looks at the impact of adjusting for intermittency. (This study, unlike Palmer’s, doesn’t attempt to adjust for timing differences.) It concludes, “The results show that nuclear, hydro, coal, and natural gas power systems . . . are one order of magnitude more effective than photovoltaics and wind power.”

Conclusion

It would be nice to have a way around limits in a finite world. Unfortunately, this is not possible in the long run. At best, green solutions can help us avoid limits for a little while longer.

The problem we have is that statements about green energy are often overly optimistic. Cost comparisons are often just plain wrong–for example, the supposed near grid parity of solar panels is an “apples to oranges” comparison. An electric utility cannot possibility credit a user with the full retail cost of electricity for the intermittent period it is available, without going broke. Similarly, it is easy to overpay for wind energy, if payments are made based on time-of-day wholesale electricity costs. We will continue to need our fossil-fueled balancing system for the electric grid indefinitely, so we need to continue to financially support this system.

There clearly are some green solutions that will work, at least until the resources needed to produce these solutions are exhausted or other limits are reached. For example, geothermal may be solutions in some locations. Hydroelectric, including “run of the stream” hydro, may be a solution in some locations. In all cases, a clear look at trade-offs needs to be done in advance. New devices, such as gravity powered lamps and solar thermal water heaters, may be helpful especially if they do not use resources in short supply and are not likely to cause pollution problems in the long run.

Expectations for wind and solar PV need to be reduced. Solar PV and offshore wind are both likely net energy sinks because of storage and balancing needs, if they are added to the electric grid in more than very small amounts. Onshore wind is less bad, but it needs to be evaluated closely in each particular location. The need for large subsidies should be a red flag that costs are likely to be high, both short and long term. Another consideration is that wind is likely to have a short lifespan if oil supplies are interrupted, because of its frequent need for replacement parts from around the world.

Some citizens who are concerned about the long-term viability of the electric grid will no doubt want to purchase their own solar systems with inverters and back-up batteries. I see no reason to discourage people who want to do this–the systems may prove to be of assistance to these citizens. But I see no reason to subsidize these purchases, except perhaps in areas (such as tropical islands) where this is the most cost-effective way of producing electric power.

Notes:

[1] In 2013, the total amount of subsidies for renewables was $121 billion according to the IEA. If we compare this to the amount of renewables (biofuels + other renewables) reported by BP, we find that the subsidy per barrel of oil equivalent in was $48 per barrel of oil equivalent. These amounts are likely understated, because BP biofuels include fuel that doesn’t require subsidies, such as waste sawdust burned for electricity.

[2] Palmer’s work is published in Energy in Australia: Peak Oil, Solar Power, and Asia’s Economic Growth, published by Springer in 2014. This book is part of Prof. Charles Hall’s “Briefs in Energy” series.





When it rains it pours…..

18 05 2016

And I mean literally, as well as metaphorically.  We’re just half way through May, and Tasmania has already tallied more than its average May rainfall, following months and months of well below average rain.

On the metaphorical side, while the sawmilling is still happening (when the rain pauses), the excavator turned up.  In total darkness, and drizzling rain, with a huge truck that almost didn’t make it through our driveway which is flanked by two deep ditches at the

digger

Dawn of a new era…?

roadside.  Because the guy who normally floats Trevor’s excavator let him down, he had to use this oversized low loader, which then got immediately bogged almost to the axle behind my shed after unloading the digger….. which had to be used to pull the truck out.  Trust me, it was more excitement than I could wish for at dinner time.

That very evening, I get an email saying my batteries were at a depot 20km North of Hobart, so I spent a fine day driving to the big smoke to pick them up, over 500kg….  After so much rain, the farm is getting very slippery for my two wheel drive ute, and reaching some of the places I’ve been taking for granted is getting much harder, but I managed to get to the container in one go without getting bogged!

20160517_145235The batteries came in crates meant to be used just once, there was no way of dismantling them carefully for reuse; they were solid enough for the job, but totally fell to pieces when prized apart.  And so many nails and screws, it was unbelievable.  The crate labeled ‘accessories’ had the electrolyte powders (caustic), heavy duty rubber aprons and gloves, eye protection, battery hydrometer, thermometer, insulated spanners for bolting the things together with the links supplied, terminal protectors, and even a special tool for removing the filler caps.  You’d think there would be instructions for mixing the electrolyte (as promised), but that was not the case, a minor issue I’m sure as I will 20160517_160653certainly get them as necessary from Ironcore.

The first thing you notice when lifting them up is how light they are.  Each 1.2V battery is the size of a heavy duty car battery, but easily half the weight.  Less actually, because I eventually started moving them into the container two at a time, one under each arm! Even filling them up with electrolyte would only increase their weight by one kg, so it wasn’t why they were this light, they simply don’t have lead in them.

These Nickel iron batteries were originally designed over 100 years ago to be used in electric vehicles, and now it’s got me thinking about using them for doing this too if I ever get around to converting one of my utes to EV status.  Ironcore sell 1.2V 10Ah batteries that weigh just 1.2kg each, which would be a good size as an EV would need at least 400 of them to reach a working voltage of 480V DC; such a battery bank would cost ‘only’ $6000, and with a capacity of 4kWh should give the ute a range of maybe 50 km….. enough to get from here to Huonville……..

Now the batteries are on the floor, I’ve decided that they are not staying there, and I will have to build or buy some shelving to raise them up.  There’s no way I’m going to be bending over to maintain this many cells on a regular basis at floor level… Shelving’s always handy for storing tools etc anyway, so now I have something else to keep me occupied!  No time to get bored around here……





A Market Collapse Is On The Horizon

18 02 2016

The bit that worries me the most is this……:
The many problems of 2016 (including rapid moves in currencies, falling commodity prices, and loan defaults) are likely to cause large payouts of derivatives, potentially leading to the bankruptcies of financial institutions, as they did in 2008. To prevent such bankruptcies, most governments plan to move as much of the losses related to derivatives and debt defaults to private parties as possible. It is possible that this approach will lead to depositors losing what appear to be insured bank deposits.
I better spend that money quick smart.  Just had a quote for $17,000 for the blocks to go into the retaining wall.  By the time I’ve bought the double glazing and the roof, most of my big expenses, apart from the footings and slab, will have gone…..
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By

tverberg

Gail Tverberg

Posted on Sat, 13 February 2016

What is ahead for 2016? Most people don’t realize how tightly the following are linked:

1. Growth in debt
2. Growth in the economy
3. Growth in cheap-to-extract energy supplies
4. Inflation in the cost of producing commodities
5. Growth in asset prices, such as the price of shares of stock and of farmland
6. Growth in wages of non-elite workers
7. Population growth

It looks to me as though this linkage is about to cause a very substantial disruption to the economy, as oil limits, as well as other energy limits, cause a rapid shift from the benevolent version of the economic supercycle to the portion of the economic supercycle reflecting contraction. Many people have talked about Peak Oil, the Limits to Growth, and the Debt Supercycle without realizing that the underlying problem is really the same–the fact the we are reaching the limits of a finite world.

There are actually a number of different kinds of limits to a finite world, all leading toward the rising cost of commodity production. I will discuss these in more detail later. In the past, the contraction phase of the supercycle seems to have been caused primarily by too high a population relative to resources. This time, depleting fossil fuels–particularly oil–plays a major role. Other limits contributing to the end of the current debt supercycle include rising pollution and depletion of resources other than fossil fuels.

The problem of reaching limits in a finite world manifests itself in an unexpected way: slowing wage growth for non-elite workers. Lower wages mean that these workers become less able to afford the output of the system. These problems first lead to commodity oversupply and very low commodity prices. Eventually these problems lead to falling asset prices and widespread debt defaults. These problems are the opposite of what many expect, namely oil shortages and high prices. This strange situation exists because the economy is a networked system. Feedback loops in a networked system don’t necessarily work in the way people expect.

I expect that the particular problem we are likely to reach in 2016 is limits to oil storage. This may happen at different times for crude oil and the various types of refined products. As storage fills, prices can be expected to drop to a very low level–less than $10 per barrel for crude oil, and correspondingly low prices for the various types of oil products, such as gasoline, diesel, and asphalt. We can then expect to face a problem with debt defaults, failing banks, and failing governments (especially of oil exporters).

The idea of a bounce back to new higher oil prices seems exceedingly unlikely, in part because of the huge overhang of supply in storage, which owners will want to sell, keeping supply high for a long time. Furthermore, the underlying cause of the problem is the failure of wages of non-elite workers to rise rapidly enough to keep up with the rising cost of commodity production, particularly oil production. Because of falling inflation-adjusted wages, non-elite workers are becoming increasingly unable to afford the output of the economic system. As non-elite workers cut back on their purchases of goods, the economy tends to contract rather than expand. Efficiencies of scale are lost, and debt becomes increasingly difficult to repay with interest. The whole system tends to collapse.

How the Economic Growth Supercycle Works, in an Ideal Situation

In an ideal situation, growth in debt tends to stimulate the economy. The availability of debt makes the purchase of high-priced goods such as factories, homes, cars, and trucks more affordable. All of these high-priced goods require the use of commodities, including energy products and metals. Thus, growing debt tends to add to the demand for commodities, and helps keep their prices higher than the cost of production, making it profitable to produce these commodities. The availability of profits encourages the extraction of an ever-greater quantity of energy supplies and other commodities.

The growing quantity of energy supplies made possible by this profitability can be used to leverage human labor to an ever-greater extent, so that workers become increasingly productive. For example, energy supplies help build roads, trucks, and machines used in factories, making workers more productive. As a result, wages tend to rise, reflecting the greater productivity of workers in the context of these new investments. Businesses find that demand for their goods and services grows because of the growing wages of workers, and governments find that they can collect increasing tax revenue. The arrangement of repaying debt with interest tends to work well in this situation. GDP grows sufficiently rapidly that the ratio of debt to GDP stays relatively flat.

Over time, the cost of commodity production tends to rise for several reasons:

1. Population tends to grow over time, so the quantity of agricultural land available per person tends to fall. Higher-priced techniques (such as irrigation, better seeds, fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides) are required to increase production per acre. Similarly, rising population gives rise to a need to produce fresh water using increasingly high-priced techniques, such as desalination.

2. Businesses tend to extract the least expensive fuels such as oil, coal, natural gas, and uranium first. They later move on to more expensive to extract fuels, when the less-expensive fuels are depleted. For example, Figure 1 shows the sharp increase in the cost of oil extraction that took place about 1999.

Figure 1. Figure by Steve Kopits of Westwood Douglas showing the trend in per-barrel capital expenditures for oil exploration and production. CAGR is “Compound Annual Growth Rate.”

3. Pollution tends to become an increasing problem because the least polluting commodity sources are used first. When mitigations such as substituting renewables for fossil fuels are used, they tend to be more expensive than the products they are replacing. The leads to the higher cost of final products.

Related: The Hidden Agenda Behind Saudi Arabia’s Market Share Strategy

4. Overuse of resources other than fuels becomes a problem, leading to problems such as the higher cost of producing metals, deforestation, depleted fish stocks, and eroded topsoil. Some workarounds are available, but these tend to add costs as well.

As long as the cost of commodity production is rising only slowly, its increasing cost is benevolent. This increase in cost adds to inflation in the price of goods and helps inflate away prior debt, so that debt is easier to pay. It also leads to asset inflation, making the use of debt seem to be a worthwhile approach to finance future economic growth, including the growth of energy supplies. The whole system seems to work as an economic growth pump, with the rising wages of non-elite workers pushing the growth pump along.

The Big “Oops” Comes when the Price of Commodities Starts Rising Faster than Wages of Non-Elite Workers

Clearly the wages of non-elite workers need to be rising faster than commodity prices in order to push the economic growth pump along. The economic pump effect is lost when the wages of non-elite workers start falling, relative to the price of commodities. This tends to happen when the cost of commodity production begins rising rapidly, as it did for oil after 1999 (Figure 1).

The loss of the economic pump effect occurs because the rising cost of oil (or electricity, or food, or other energy products) forces workers to cut back on discretionary expenditures. This is what happened in the 2003 to 2008 period as oil prices spiked and other energy prices rose sharply. (See my article Oil Supply Limits and the Continuing Financial Crisis.) Non-elite workers found it increasingly difficult to afford expensive products such as homes, cars, and washing machines. Housing prices dropped. Debt growth slowed, leading to a sharp drop in oil prices and other commodity prices.

Figure 2. World oil supply and prices based on EIA data.

It was somewhat possible to “fix” low oil prices through the use of Quantitative Easing (QE) and the growth of debt at very low interest rates, after 2008. In fact, these very low interest rates are what encouraged the very rapid growth in the production of US crude oil, natural gas liquids, and biofuels.

Now, debt is reaching limits. Both the US and China have (in a sense) “taken their foot off the economic debt accelerator.” It doesn’t seem to make sense to encourage more use of debt, because recent very low interest rates have encouraged unwise investments. In China, more factories and homes have been built than the market can absorb. In the US, oil “liquids” production rose faster than it could be absorbed by the world market when prices were over $100 per barrel. This led to the big price drop. If it were possible to produce the additional oil for a very low price, say $20 per barrel, the world economy could probably absorb it. Such a low selling price doesn’t really “work” because of the high cost of production.

Debt is important because it can help an economy grow, as long as the total amount of debt does not become unmanageable. Thus, for a time, growing debt can offset the adverse impact of the rising cost of energy products. We know that oil prices began to rise sharply in the 1970s, and in fact other energy prices rose as well.

Figure 3. Historical World Energy Price in 2014$, from BP Statistical Review of World History 2015.

Looking at debt growth, we find that it rose rapidly, starting about the time oil prices started spiking. Former Director of the Office of Management and Budget, David Stockman, talks about “The Distastrous 40-Year Debt Supercycle,” which he believes is now ending.

Figure 4. Worldwide average inflation-adjusted annual growth rates in debt and GDP, for selected time periods. See post on debt for explanation of methodology.

In recent years, we have been reaching a situation where commodity prices have been rising faster than the wages of non-elite workers. Jobs that are available tend to be low-paid service jobs. Young people find it necessary to stay in school longer. They also find it necessary to delay marriage and postpone buying a car and home. All of these issues contribute to the falling wages of non-elite workers. Some of these individuals are, in fact, getting zero wages, because they are in school longer. Individuals who retire or voluntarily leave the work force further add to the problem of wages no longer rising sufficiently to afford the output of the system.

The US government has recently decided to raise interest rates. This further reduces the buying power of non-elite workers. We have a situation where the “economic growth pump,” created through the use of a rising quantity of cheap energy products plus rising debt, is disappearing. While homes, cars, and vacation travel are available, an increasing share of the population cannot afford them. This tends to lead to a situation where commodity prices fall below the cost of production for a wide range of types of commodities, making the production of commodities unprofitable. In such a situation, a person expects companies to cut back on production. Many defaults may occur.

China has acted as a major growth pump for the world for the last 15 years, since it joined the World Trade Organization in 2001. China’s growth is now slowing, and can be expected to slow further. Its growth was financed by a huge increase in debt. Paying back this debt is likely to be a problem.

Figure 5. Author’s illustration of problem we are now encountering.

Thus, we seem to be coming to the contraction portion of the debt supercycle. This is frightening, because if debt is contracting, asset prices (such as stock prices and the price of land) are likely to fall. Banks are likely to fail, unless they can transfer their problems to others–owners of the bank or even those with bank deposits. Governments will be affected as well, because it will become more expensive to borrow money, and because it becomes more difficult to obtain revenue through taxation. Many governments may fail as well for that reason.

The U. S. Oil Storage Problem

Oil prices began falling in the middle of 2014, so we might expect oil storage problems to start about that time, but this is not exactly the case. Supplies of US crude oil in storage didn’t start rising until about the end of 2014.

Related: Why Today’s Oil Bust Pales In Comparison To The 80’s

Figure 6. US crude oil in storage, excluding Strategic Petroleum Reserve, based on EIA data.

Cushing, Oklahoma, is the largest storage area for crude oil. According to the EIA, maximum working storage for the facility is 73 million barrels. Oil storage at Cushing since oil prices started declining is shown in Figure 7.

Figure 7. Quantity of crude oil stored at Cushing between June 27, 2014, and June 1, 2016, based on EIA data.

Clearly the same kind of run up in oil storage that occurred between December and April one year ago cannot all be stored at Cushing, if maximum working capacity is only 73 million barrels, and the amount currently in storage is 64 million barrels.

Another way of storing oil is as finished products. Here, the run-up in storage began earlier (starting in mid-2014) and stabilized at about 65 million barrels per day above the prior year, by January 2015. Clearly, if companies can do some pre-planning, they would prefer not to refine products for which there is little market. They would rather store unneeded oil as crude, rather than as refined products.

Figure 8. Total Oil Products in Storage, based on EIA data.

EIA indicates that the total capacity for oil products is 1,549 million barrels. Thus, in theory, the amount of oil products stored can be increased by as much as 700 million barrels, assuming that the products needing to be stored and the locations where storage are available match up exactly. In practice, the amount of additional storage available is probably quite a bit less than 700 million barrels because of mismatch problems.

In theory, if companies can be persuaded to refine more products than they can sell, the amount of products that can be stored can rise significantly. Even in this case, the amount of storage is not unlimited. Even if the full 700 million barrels of storage for crude oil products is available, this corresponds to less than one million barrels a day for two years, or two million barrels a day for one year. Thus, products storage could easily be filled as well, if demand remains low.

At this point, we don’t have the mismatch between oil production and consumption fixed. In fact, both Iraq and Iran would like to increase their production, adding to the production/consumption mismatch. China’s economy seems to be stalling, keeping its oil consumption from rising as quickly as in the past, and further adding to the supply/demand mismatch problem. Figure 9 shows an approximation to our mismatch problem. As far as I can tell, the problem is still getting worse, not better.

Figure 9. Total liquids oil production and consumption, based on a combination of BP and EIA data.

There has been a lot of talk about the United States reducing its production, but the impact so far has been small, based on data from EIA’s International Energy Statistics and its December 2015 Monthly Energy Review.

Figure 10. US quarterly oil liquids production data, based on EIA’s International Energy Statistics and Monthly Energy Review.

Based on information through November from EIA’s Monthly Energy Review, total liquids production for the US for the year 2015 will be about 700,000 barrels per day higher than it was for 2014. This increase is likely greater than the increase in production by either Saudi Arabia or Iraq. Perhaps in 2016, oil production of the US will start decreasing, but so far, increases in biofuels and natural gas liquids are partly offsetting recent reductions in crude oil production. Also, even when companies are forced into bankruptcy, oil production does not necessarily stop because of the potential value of the oil to new owners.

Figure 11 shows that very high stocks of oil were a problem, way back in the 1920s. There were other similarities to today’s problems as well, including a deflating debt bubble and low commodity prices. Thus, we should not be too surprised by high oil stocks now, when oil prices are low.

(Click to enlarge)

Figure 11. US ending stock of crude oil, excluding the strategic petroleum reserve. Figure by EIA.

Many people overlook the problems today because the US economy tends to be doing better than that of the rest of the world. The oil storage problem is really a world problem, however, reflecting a combination of low demand growth (caused by low wage growth and lack of debt growth, as the world economy hits limits) continuing supply growth (related to very low interest rates making all kinds of investment appear profitable and new production from Iraq and, in the near future, Iran). Storage on ships is increasingly being filled up and storage in Western Europe is 97% filled. Thus, the US is quite likely to see a growing need for oil storage in the year ahead, partly because there are few other places to put the oil, and partly because the gap between supply and demand has not yet been fixed.

What is Ahead for 2016?

1. Problems with a slowing world economy are likely to become more pronounced, as China’s growth problems continue, and as other commodity-producing countries such as Brazil, South Africa, and Australia experience recession. There may be rapid shifts in currencies, as countries attempt to devalue their currencies, to try to gain an advantage in world markets. Saudi Arabia may decide to devalue its currency, to get more benefit from the oil it sells.

Related: OPEC-Russia Rumors Persist After Comments From Rosneft Chief

2. Oil storage seems likely to become a problem sometime in 2016. In fact, if the run-up in oil supply is heavily front-ended to the December to April period, similar to what happened a year ago, lack of crude oil storage space could become a problem within the next three months. Oil prices could fall to $10 or below. We know that for natural gas and electricity, prices often fall below zero when the ability of the system to absorb more supply disappears. It is not clear the oil prices can fall below zero, but they can certainly fall very low. Even if we can somehow manage to escape the problem of running out of crude oil storage capacity in 2016, we could encounter storage problems of some type in 2017 or 2018.

3. Falling oil prices are likely to cause numerous problems. One is debt defaults, both for oil companies and for companies making products used by the oil industry. Another is layoffs in the oil industry. Another problem is negative inflation rates, making debt harder to repay. Still another issue is falling asset prices, such as stock prices and prices of land used to produce commodities. Part of the reason for the fall in price has to do with the falling price of the commodities produced. Also, sovereign wealth funds will need to sell securities, to have money to keep their economies going. The sale of these securities will put downward pressure on stock and bond prices.

4. Debt defaults are likely to cause major problems in 2016. As noted in the introduction, we seem to be approaching the unwinding of a debt supercycle. We can expect one company after another to fail because of low commodity prices. The problems of these failing companies can be expected to spread to the economy as a whole. Failing companies will lay off workers, reducing the quantity of wages available to buy goods made with commodities. Debt will not be fully repaid, causing problems for banks, insurance companies, and pension funds. Even electricity companies may be affected, if their suppliers go bankrupt and their customers become less able to pay their bills.
5. Governments of some oil exporters may collapse or be overthrown, if prices fall to a low level. The resulting disruption of oil exports may be welcomed, if storage is becoming an increased problem.

6. It is not clear that the complete unwind will take place in 2016, but a major piece of this unwind could take place in 2016, especially if crude oil storage fills up, pushing oil prices to less than $10 per barrel.

7. Whether or not oil storage fills up, oil prices are likely to remain very low, as the result of rising supply, barely rising demand, and no one willing to take steps to try to fix the problem. Everyone seems to think that someone else (Saudi Arabia?) can or should fix the problem. In fact, the problem is too large for Saudi Arabia to fix. The United States could in theory fix the current oil supply problem by taxing its own oil production at a confiscatory tax rate, but this seems exceedingly unlikely. Closing existing oil production before it is forced to close would guarantee future dependency on oil imports. A more likely approach would be to tax imported oil, to keep the amount imported down to a manageable level. This approach would likely cause the ire of oil exporters.

8. The many problems of 2016 (including rapid moves in currencies, falling commodity prices, and loan defaults) are likely to cause large payouts of derivatives, potentially leading to the bankruptcies of financial institutions, as they did in 2008. To prevent such bankruptcies, most governments plan to move as much of the losses related to derivatives and debt defaults to private parties as possible. It is possible that this approach will lead to depositors losing what appear to be insured bank deposits. At first, any such losses will likely be limited to amounts in excess of FDIC insurance limits. As the crisis spreads, losses could spread to other deposits. Deposits of employers may be affected as well, leading to difficulty in paying employees.

9. All in all, 2016 looks likely to be a much worse year than 2008 from a financial perspective. The problems will look similar to those that might have happened in 2008, but didn’t thanks to government intervention. This time, governments appear to be mostly out of approaches to fix the problems.

10. Two years ago, I put together the chart shown as Figure 12. It shows the production of all energy products declining rapidly after 2015. I see no reason why this forecast should be changed. Once the debt supercycle starts its contraction phase, we can expect a major reduction in both the demand and supply of all kinds of energy products.

Figure 12. Estimate of future energy production by author. Historical data based on BP adjusted to IEA groupings.

Conclusion

We are certainly entering a worrying period. We have not really understood how the economy works, so we have tended to assume we could fix one or another part of the problem. The underlying problem seems to be a problem of physics. The economy is a dissipative structure, a type of self-organizing system that forms in thermodynamically open systems. As such, it requires energy to grow. Ultimately, diminishing returns with respect to human labor–what some of us would call falling inflation-adjusted wages of non-elite workers–tends to bring economies down. Thus all economies have finite lifetimes, just as humans, animals, plants, and hurricanes do. We are in the unfortunate position of observing the end of our economy’s lifetime.

Most energy research to date has focused on the Second Law of Thermodynamics. While this is a contributing problem, this is really not the proximate cause of the impending collapse. The Second Law of Thermodynamics operates in thermodynamically closed systems, which is not precisely the issue here.

We know that historically collapses have tended to take many years. This collapse may take place more rapidly because today’s economy is dependent on international supply chains, electricity, and liquid fuels–things that previous economies were not dependent on.





Gail Tverberg on 2016

10 01 2016

Oil is currently at $33 a barrel. You’d expect that oil companies must by now be losing some $40 a barrel, and yet they keep pumping…… the glut is now so big, some oil is actually put back in the ground! Read on, Gail is one person whose opinion I really respect when it comes to energy.

2016: Oil Limits and the End of the Debt Supercycle

What is ahead for 2016? Most people don’t realize how tightly the following are linked:

  1. Growth in debt
  2. Growth in the economy
  3. Growth in cheap-to-extract energy supplies
  4. Inflation in the cost of producing commodities
  5. Growth in asset prices, such as the price of shares of stock and of farmland
  6. Growth in wages of non-elite workers
  7. Population growth

It looks to me as though this linkage is about to cause a very substantial disruption to the economy, as oil limits, as well as other energy limits, cause a rapid shift from the benevolent version of the economic supercycle to the portion of the economic supercycle reflecting contraction. Many people have talked about Peak Oil, the Limits to Growth, and the Debt Supercycle without realizing that the underlying problem is really the same–the fact the we are reaching the limits of a finite world.

There are actually a number of different kinds of limits to a finite world, all leading toward the rising cost of commodity production. I will discuss these in more detail later. In the past, the contraction phase of the supercycle seems to have been caused primarily by too high population relative to resources. This time, depleting fossil fuels–particularly oil–plays a major role. Other limits contributing to the end of the current debt supercycle include rising pollution and depletion of resources other than fossil fuels.

The problem of reaching limits in a finite world manifests itself in an unexpected way: slowing wage growth for non-elite workers. Lower wages mean that these workers become less able to afford the output of the system. These problems first lead to commodity oversupply and very low commodity prices. Eventually these problems lead to falling asset prices and widespread debt defaults. These problems are the opposite of what many expect, namely oil shortages and high prices. This strange situation exists because the economy is a networked system. Feedback loops in a networked system don’t necessarily work in the way people expect.

I expect that the particular problem we are likely to reach in 2016 is limits to oil storage. This may happen at different times for crude oil and the various types of refined products. As storage fills, prices can be expected to drop to a very low level–less than $10 per barrel for crude oil, and correspondingly low prices for the various types of oil products, such as gasoline, diesel, and asphalt. We can then expect to face a problem with debt defaults, failing banks, and failing governments (especially of oil exporters).

The idea of a bounce back to new higher oil prices seems exceedingly unlikely, in part because of the huge overhang of supply in storage, which owners will want to sell, keeping supply high for a long time. Furthermore, the underlying cause of the problem is the failure of wages of non-elite workers to rise rapidly enough to keep up with the rising cost of commodity production, particularly oil production. Because of falling inflation-adjusted wages, non-elite workers are becoming increasingly unable to afford the output of the economic system. As non-elite workers cut back on their purchases of goods, the economy tends to contract rather than expand. Efficiencies of scale are lost, and debt becomes increasingly difficult to repay with interest.  The whole system tends to collapse.

How the Economic Growth Supercycle Works, in an Ideal Situation

In an ideal situation, growth in debt tends to stimulate the economy. The availability of debt makes the purchase of high-priced goods such as factories, homes, cars, and trucks more affordable. All of these high-priced goods require the use of commodities, including energy products and metals. Thus, growing debt tends to add to the demand for commodities, and helps keep their prices higher than the cost of production, making itprofitable to produce these commodities. The availability of profits encourages the extraction of an ever-greater quantity of energy supplies and other commodities.

The growing quantity of energy supplies made possible by this profitability can be used to leverage human labor to an ever-greater extent, so that workers become increasingly productive. For example, energy supplies help build roads, trucks, and machines used in factories, making workers more productive. As a result, wages tend to rise, reflecting the greater productivity of workers in the context of these new investments. Businesses find that demand for their goods and services grows because of the growing wages of workers, and governments find that they can collect increasing tax revenue. The arrangement of repaying debt with interest tends to work well in this situation. GDP grows sufficiently rapidly that the ratio of debt to GDP stays relatively flat.

Over time, the cost of commodity production tends to rise for several reasons:

  1. Population tends to grow over time, so the quantity of agricultural land available per person tends to fall. Higher-priced techniques (such as irrigation, better seeds, fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides) are required to increase production per acre. Similarly, rising population gives rise to a need to produce fresh water using increasingly high-priced techniques, such as desalination.
  2. Businesses tend to extract the least expensive fuels such as oil, coal, natural gas, and uranium first. They later move on to more expensive to extract fuels, when the less-expensive fuels are depleted. For example, Figure 1 shows the sharp increase in the cost of oil extraction that took place about 1999.Figure 1. Figure by Steve Kopits of Westwood Douglas showing trends in world oil exploration and production costs per barrel. CAGR is "Compound Annual Growth Rate."
  3. Pollution tends to become an increasing problem because the least polluting commodity sources are used first. When mitigations such as substituting renewables for fossil fuels are used, they tend to be more expensive than the products they are replacing. The leads to the higher cost of final products.
  4. Overuse of resources other than fuels becomes a problem, leading to problems such as the higher cost of producing metals, deforestation, depleted fish stocks, and eroded topsoil. Some workarounds are available, but these tend to add costs as well.

As long as the cost of commodity production is rising only slowly, its increasing cost is benevolent. This increase in cost adds to inflation in the price of goods and helps inflate away prior debt, so that debt is easier to pay. It also leads to asset inflation, making the use of debt seem to be a worthwhile approach to finance future economic growth, including the growth of energy supplies. The whole system seems to work as an economic growth pump, with the rising wages of non-elite workers pushing the growth pump along.

The Big “Oops” Comes when the Price of Commodities Starts Rising Faster than Wages of Non-Elite Workers

Clearly the wages of non-elite workers need to be rising faster than commodity prices in order to push the economic growth pump along. The economic pump effect is lost when the wages of non-elite workers start falling, relative to the price of commodities. This tends to happen when the cost of commodity production begins rising rapidly, as it did for oil after 1999 (Figure 1).

The loss of the economic pump effect occurs because the rising cost of oil (or electricity, or food, or other energy products) forces workers to cut back on discretionary expenditures. This is what happened in the 2003 to 2008 period as oil prices spiked and other energy prices rose sharply. (See my article Oil Supply Limits and the Continuing Financial Crisis.) Non-elite workers found it increasingly difficult to afford expensive products such as homes, cars, and washing machines. Housing prices dropped. Debt growth slowed, leading to a sharp drop in oil prices and other commodity prices.

Figure 2. World oil supply and prices based on EIA data.

It was somewhat possible to “fix” low oil prices through the use of Quantitative Easing (QE) and the growth of debt at very low interest rates, after 2008. In fact, these very low interest rates are what encouraged the very rapid growth in the production of US crude oil, natural gas liquids, and biofuels.

Now, debt is reaching limits. Both the US and China have (in a sense) “taken their foot off the economic debt accelerator.” It doesn’t seem to make sense to encourage more use of debt, because recent very low interest rates have encouraged unwise investments. In China, more factories and homes have been built than the market can absorb. In the US, oil “liquids” production rose faster than it could be absorbed by the world market when prices were over $100 per barrel. This led to the big price drop. If it were possible to produce the additional oil for a very low price, say $20 per barrel, the world economy could probably absorb it. Such a low selling price doesn’t really “work” because of the high cost of production.

Debt is important because it can help an economy grow, as long as the total amount of debt does not become unmanageable. Thus, for a time, growing debt can offset the adverse impact of the rising cost of energy products. We know that oil prices began to rise sharply in the 1970s, and in fact other energy prices rose as well.

Figure 4. Historical World Energy Price in 2014$, from BP Statistical Review of World History 2015.

Looking at debt growth, we find that it rose rapidly, starting about the time oil prices started spiking. Former Director of the Office of Management and Budget, David Stockman, talks about “The Distastrous 40-Year Debt Supercycle,” which he believes is now ending.

Figure 4. Worldwide average inflation-adjusted annual growth rates in debt and GDP, for selected time periods. See post on debt for explanation of methodology.

In recent years, we have been reaching a situation where commodity prices have been rising faster than the wages of non-elite workers. Jobs that are available tend to be low-paid service jobs. Young people find it necessary to stay in school longer. They also find it necessary to delay marriage and postpone buying a car and home. All of these issues contribute to the falling wages of non-elite workers. Some of these individuals are, in fact, getting zero wages, because they are in school longer. Individuals who retire or voluntarily leave the work force further add to the problem of wages no longer rising sufficiently to afford the output of the system.

The US government has recently decided to raise interest rates. This further reduces the buying power of non-elite workers. We have a situation where the “economic growth pump,” created through the use of a rising quantity of cheap energy products plus rising debt, is disappearing. While homes, cars, and vacation travel are available, an increasing share of the population cannot afford them. This tends to lead to a situation where commodity prices fall below the cost of production for a wide range of types of commodities, making the production of commodities unprofitable. In such a situation, a person expects companies to cut back on production. Many defaults may occur.

China has acted as a major growth pump for the world for the last 15 years, since it joined the World Trade Organization in 2001. China’s growth is now slowing, and can be expected to slow further. Its growth was financed by a huge increase in debt. Paying back this debt is likely to be a problem.

Figure 5. Author's illustration of problem we are now encountering.

Thus, we seem to be coming to the contraction portion of the debt supercycle. This is frightening, because if debt is contracting, asset prices (such as stock prices and the price of land) are likely to fall. Banks are likely to fail, unless they can transfer their problems to others–owners of the bank or even those with bank deposits. Governments will be affected as well, because it will become more expensive to borrow money, and because it becomes more difficult to obtain revenue through taxation. Many governments may fail as well for that reason.

The U. S. Oil Storage Problem

Oil prices began falling in the middle of 2014, so we might expect oil storage problems to start about that time, but this is not exactly the case. Supplies of US crude oil in storage didn’t start rising until about the end of 2014.

Figure 6. US crude oil in storage, excluding SPR, based on EIA data.

Once crude oil supplies started rising rapidly, they increased by about 90 million barrels between December 2014 and April 2015. After April 2015, supplies dipped again, suggesting that there is some seasonality to the growing crude oil supply. The most “dangerous” time for rapidly rising amounts added to storage would seem to be between December 31 and April 30. According to the EIA, maximum crude oil storage is 551 million barrels of crude oil (considering all storage facilities). Adding another 90 million barrels of oil (similar to the run-up between Dec. 2014 and April 2015) would put the total over the 551 million barrel crude oil capacity.

Cushing, Oklahoma, is the largest storage area for crude oil. According to the EIA, maximum working storage for the facility is 73 million barrels. Oil storage at Cushing since oil prices started declining is shown in Figure 7.

Figure 7. Crude oil stored at Cushing between June 27, 2014, and June 1, 2016. based on EIA data.

Clearly the same kind of run up in oil storage that occurred between December and April one year ago cannot all be stored at Cushing, if maximum working capacity is only 73 million barrels, and the amount currently in storage is 64 million barrels.

Another way of storing oil is as finished products. Here, the run-up in storage began earlier (starting in mid-2014) and stabilized at about 65 million barrels per day above the prior year, by January 2015.  Clearly, if companies can do some pre-planning, they would prefer not to refine products for which there is little market. They would rather store unneeded oil as crude, rather than as refined products.

Figure 7. Total Oil Products in Storage, based on EIA data.

EIA indicates that the total capacity for oil products is 1,549 million barrels. Thus, in theory, the amount of oil products stored can be increased by as much as 700 million barrels, assuming that the products needing to be stored and the locations where storage are available match up exactly. In practice, the amount of additional storage available is probably quite a bit less than 700 million barrels because of mismatch problems.

In theory, if companies can be persuaded to refine more products than they can sell, the amount of products that can be stored can rise significantly. Even in this case, the amount of storage is not unlimited. Even if the full 700 million barrels of storage for crude oil products is available, this corresponds to less than one million barrels a day for two years, or two million barrels a day for one year. Thus, products storage could easily be filled as well, if demand remains low.

At this point, we don’t have the mismatch between oil production and consumption fixed. In fact, both Iraq and Iran would like to increase their production, adding to the production/consumption mismatch. China’s economy seems to be stalling, keeping its oil consumption from rising as quickly as in the past, and further adding to the supply/demand mismatch problem. Figure 9 shows an approximation to our mismatch problem. As far as I can tell, the problem is still getting worse, not better.

Figure 1. Total liquids oil production and consumption, based on a combination of BP and EIA data.

There has been a lot of talk about the United States reducing its production, but the impact so far has been small, based on data from EIA’s International Energy Statistics and its December 2015 Monthly Energy Review.

Figure 10. US quarterly oil liquids production data, based on EIA data.

Based on information through November from EIA’s Monthly Energy Review, total liquids production for the US for the year 2015 will be over 800,000 barrels per day higher than it was for 2014. This increase is likely greater than the increase in production by either Saudi Arabia or Iraq. Perhaps in 2016, oil production of the US will start decreasing, but so far, increases in biofuels and natural gas liquids are partly offsetting recent reductions in crude oil production. Also, even when companies are forced into bankruptcy, oil production does not necessarily stop because of the potential value of the oil to new owners.

Figure 11 shows that very high stocks of oil were a problem, way back in the 1920s. There were other similarities to today’s problems as well, including a deflating debt bubble and low commodity prices. Thus, we should not be too surprised by high oil stocks now, when oil prices are low.

Figure 2. US ending stock of crude oil, excluding the strategic petroleum reserve. Figure produced by EIA. Figure by EIA.

Many people overlook the problems today because the US economy tends to be doing better than that of the rest of the world. The oil storage problem is really a world problem, however, reflecting a combination of low demand growth (caused by low wage growth and lack of debt growth, as the world economy hits limits) continuing supply growth (related to very low interest rates making all kinds of investment appear profitable and new production from Iraq and, in the near future, Iran). Storage on ships is increasingly being filled up and storage in Western Europe is 97% filled. Thus, the US is quite likely to see a growing need for oil storage in the year ahead, partly because there are few other places to put the oil, and partly because the gap between supply and demand has not yet been fixed.

What is Ahead for 2016?

  1. Problems with a slowing world economy are likely to become more pronounced, as China’s growth problems continue, and as other commodity-producing countries such as Brazil, South Africa, and Australia experience recession. There may be rapid shifts in currencies, as countries attempt to devalue their currencies, to try to gain an advantage in world markets. Saudi Arabia may decide to devalue its currency, to get more benefit from the oil it sells.
  2. Oil storage seems likely to become a problem sometime in 2016. In fact, if the run-up in oil supply is heavily front-ended to the December to April period, similar to what happened a year ago, lack of crude oil storage space could become a problem within the next three months. Oil prices could fall to $10 or below. We know that for natural gas and electricity, prices often fall below zero when the ability of the system to absorb more supply disappears. It is not clear the oil prices can fall below zero, but they can certainly fall very low. Even if we can somehow manage to escape the problem of running out of crude oil storage capacity in 2016, we could encounter storage problems of some type in 2017 or 2018.
  3. Falling oil prices are likely to cause numerous problems. One is debt defaults, both for oil companies and for companies making products used by the oil industry. Another is layoffs in the oil industry. Another problem is negative inflation rates, making debt harder to repay. Still another issue is falling asset prices, such as stock prices and prices of land used to produce commodities. Part of the reason for the fall in price has to do with the falling price of the commodities produced. Also, sovereign wealth funds will need to sell securities, to have money to keep their economies going. The sale of these securities will put downward pressure on stock and bond prices.
  4. Debt defaults are likely to cause major problems in 2016. As noted in the introduction, we seem to be approaching the unwinding of a debt supercycle. We can expect one company after another to fail because of low commodity prices. The problems of these failing companies can be expected to spread to the economy as a whole. Failing companies will lay off workers, reducing the quantity of wages available to buy goods made with commodities. Debt will not be fully repaid, causing problems for banks, insurance companies, and pension funds. Even electricity companies may be affected, if their suppliers go bankrupt and their customers become less able to pay their bills.
  5. Governments of some oil exporters may collapse or be overthrown, if prices fall to a low level. The resulting disruption of oil exports may be welcomed, if storage is becoming an increased problem.
  6. It is not clear that the complete unwind will take place in 2016, but a major piece of this unwind could take place in 2016, especially if crude oil storage fills up, pushing oil prices to less than $10 per barrel.
  7. Whether or not oil storage fills up, oil prices are likely to remain very low, as the result of rising supply, barely rising demand, and no one willing to take steps to try to fix the problem. Everyone seems to think that someone else (Saudi Arabia?) can or should fix the problem. In fact, the problem is too large for Saudi Arabia to fix. The United States could in theory fix the current oil supply problem by taxing its own oil production at a confiscatory tax rate, but this seems exceedingly unlikely. Closing existing oil production before it is forced to close would guarantee future dependency on oil imports. A more likely approach would be to tax imported oil, to keep the amount imported down to a manageable level. This approach would likely cause the ire of oil exporters.
  8. The many problems of 2016 (including rapid moves in currencies, falling commodity prices, and loan defaults) are likely to cause large payouts of derivatives, potentially leading to the bankruptcies of financial institutions, as they did in 2008. To prevent such bankruptcies, most governments plan to move as much of the losses related to derivatives and debt defaults to private parties as possible. It is possible that this approach will lead to depositors losing what appear to be insured bank deposits. At first, any such losses will likely be limited to amounts in excess of FDIC insurance limits. As the crisis spreads, losses could spread to other deposits. Deposits of employers may be affected as well, leading to difficulty in paying employees.
  9. All in all, 2016 looks likely to be a much worse year than 2008 from a financial perspective. The problems will look similar to those that might have happened in 2008, but didn’t thanks to government intervention. This time, governments appear to be mostly out of approaches to fix the problems.
  10. Two years ago, I put together the chart shown as Figure 12. It shows the production of all energy products declining rapidly after 2015. I see no reason why this forecast should be changed. Once the debt supercycle starts its contraction phase, we can expect a major reduction in both the demand and supply of all kinds of energy products.

Figure 4. Estimate of future energy production by author. Historical data based on BP adjusted to IEA groupings.

Conclusion

We are certainly entering a worrying period. We have not really understood how the economy works, so we have tended to assume we could fix one or another part of the problem. The underlying problem seems to be a problem of physics. The economy is adissipative structure, a type of self-organizing system that forms in thermodynamically open systems. As such, it requires energy to grow. Ultimately, diminishing returns with respect to human labor–what some of us would call falling inflation-adjusted wages of non-elite workers–tends to bring economies down. Thus all economies have finite lifetimes, just as humans, animals, plants, and hurricanes do. We are in the unfortunate position of observing the end of our economy’s lifetime.

Most energy research to date has focused on the Second Law of Thermodynamics. While this is a contributing problem, this is really not the proximate cause of the impending collapse. The Second Law of Thermodynamics operates in thermodynamically closed systems, which is not precisely the issue here.

We know that historically collapses have tended to take many years. This collapse may take place more rapidly because today’s economy is dependent on international supply chains, electricity, and liquid fuels–things that previous economies were not dependent on.

I have written many articles on related subjects (unfortunately, no book). These are a few of them:

Low Oil Prices – Why Worry?

How Economic Growth Fails

Deflationary Collapse Ahead?

Oops! Low oil prices are related to a debt bubble

Why “supply and demand” doesn’t work for oil

Economic growth: How it works; how it fails; why wealth disparity occurs

We are at Peak Oil now; we need very low-cost energy to fix it