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The journey of US light tight oil production towards a financially sustainable business

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The financing model underpinning the US shale oil industry is fundamentally different from that of large companies producing predominantly in conventional oil. Small and medium-size independent producers, which dominate the US shale industry, generally have much higher leverage with high levels of debt and hedging.  Since its inception, the industry has been characterised by negative free cash flow as expectations of rising production and cost improvements led to continuous overspending in the sector. Over the last few months, the industry as a whole has seen a notable improvement in financial conditions, though the picture varies markedly by company, and the overall health of the industry remains fragile.

In order to try to assess as precisely as possible the developments of shale industry throughout the decade, we identified four distinct phases that have characterised the shale industry since 2010 up to now.

2010-14: The start-up phase

In the 2010-14 period, technology developments and high and stable oil prices triggered a massive investment wave in the US shale sector. Investment more than quadrupled, leading to an eightfold increase in shale oil production, from 0.44 million barrels per day (mb/d) to over 3.6 mb/d – the fastest growth in oil production in a single country since the development of Saudi Arabia’s super-giant oilfields in the 1960s.

However, the growth came with a huge bill. The sector as a whole generated cumulative negative free cash flow of over USD 200 billion over those five years. Throughout this phase, companies were forced to rely extensively on external sources of financing, predominantly debt and receipts from the sale of non-core assets, in order to finance their operations. In addition to issuing bonds, companies benefited from the reserve base lending structure – a bank-syndicated revolving credit facility secured by the companies’ oil and gas reserves as collateral. This structure was used heavily by small and medium-sized companies with non-investment credit rating that did not have as easy access to the corporate bond market.

2015‑16: The survival phase

The collapse of prices in the second half of 2014 and throughout 2015 and early 2016 had a major impact on the way the shale industry operates. Companies switched to survival mode, focusing on improving efficiency and cutting costs. The number of firms declaring bankruptcy and filling for Chapter 11 protection, a form of bankruptcy involving reorganisation, skyrocketed to almost 100 in 2015-16.

The fall in prices also changed the way the shale industry was financed. Debt finance dried up as banks were unwilling to lend during a period of market turmoil, with bond yield spreads widening to over 1 000 basis points and the credit rating of the majority of companies being downgraded. Asset sales also dropped by 70% in 2015 as owners were unwilling to part with assets at the much lower prices on offer. While the main buyers of the assets were US independent companies, the market turmoil discouraged bank lending, opening up opportunities for financial firms such as private equity firms, which typically have a higher risk profile. Those firms accounted for around 30% of reported asset deals over 2015-16. Available funding from the reserve base lending structure also declined as the value of proved reserves for collateral shrank with lower oil prices. The net result was that companies were obliged to raise equity to finance their operations – a more expensive option.

Despite the slump in revenues throughout this period, the shale industry actually saw an improvement in free cash flow as a result of huge cuts in capital spending and costs. Between 2014 and 2016, investment fell by 70% and costs by around half. Cost reductions helped to offset the impact of less investment, such that shale oil production declined only modestly in 2016.

2017: The consolidation phase

The recovery of oil prices since mid-2016 following the collective decision by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and some non-OPEC producers to cut output led to a revival in confidence in the US shale sector. Further advances in technology, huge efficiency gains and cost reductions, and an upward revision of the shale resource base triggered an increase of 60% in investment in 2017. In the meantime, the shale industry proved that its upstream cost structure had been rebased as it was able to offset inflationary pressures coming from overheating of the supply chain, further reducing the overall costs per barrel produced.

Despite the improvements achieved, however, the shale sector continued to slightly over-spend the cash flow generated from its operations, with 2017 cumulative free cash flow remaining overall negative. Asset sales once again became the main source of financing operations, with most transactions occurring between US independent companies. Asset sales involved mainly acreage rather than whole companies, as companies sought to do relatively small deals as a way of making gains in operational efficiency. The confidence in the shale sector, traditionally dominated by private investors and small and medium-sized companies, received a boost from announcements by large US oil companies of their intention to make substantial investments.

2018: Profitability at last?

Current trends suggest that the shale industry as a whole may finally turn a profit in 2018, although downside risks remain. Thanks to a 60% increase in investment in 2017 and, based on company plans, an estimated 20% increase in 2018, production is projected to grow by a record 1.3 mb/d to over 5.7 mb/d this year. Several companies expect positive free cash flow based on an assumed oil price well below the levels seen so far in 2018 and there are clear indications that bond markets and banks are taking a more positive attitude to the sector, following encouraging financial results for the first quarter. On this basis, this we estimate that the shale sector as a whole is on track to achieve, for the first time in its history, positive free cash flow in 2018. This result is all the more impressive given the context of rising investment.

Structural changes also augur well for the sector. Recent consolidation, such as the recent USD 9.5 billion Concho-RSP Permian merger, and the increased participation of the majors and other international companies could bring significant economies of scale and accelerate technology developments, including through digitalization. Larger companies generally have a more robust financial structure and rely less on external sources of financing, so their shale investment will be less vulnerable to future downswings in oil prices and financial conditions.

The potential risks for shale independent from rising interest rates are currently attracting a lot of attention. The impact of rising interest rates on independent oil and gas companies in the US shale industry may also be small. Most companies are highly leveraged, benefiting from the ample availability of low-cost bond finance. However, given the high depletion rate, the time horizon of shale projects is so low that the discount rate has only a minor impact on the net present value of a given project. Rising interest rates often coincide with tighter lending conditions, which may make it harder for companies to service their debts and refinance their operations. But this risk can be managed through asset sales to less-capital-constrained companies, such as the majors, and increased reliance on equity raising through IPOs and private equity.

A lot of attention has been focused on interest expenses – the cost of repaying debt. The development of shale production has been accompanied by constantly rising interest expenses, which has impeded companies from generating profits sustainably. For the first time, the overall amount of interest expenses paid by shale companies declined in 2017. While US shale companies remain far more leveraged (measured by the net debt/equity ratio) than traditional operators, leverage is falling from its peak in 2015 and the average interest rate paid by shale companies – currently around 6% – has been broadly stable in recent years despite rising interest rates generally since the end of 2015, though they still pay more than conventional oil producers. Improving financial conditions mean that shale companies are able to borrow more cheaply than before.

The US shale industry seems to have reached a turning point with the recent significant improvement in its financial sustainability. But major uncertainties and important downside risks to the future of the shale industry remain:

Above-ground constraints: With production rising very rapidly in certain basins, such as the Permian, timely investment in takeaway capacity and pipeline infrastructure will be vital to the further expansion of the industry. At present, several producers in the Permian Basin are forced to discount their crude oil by more than USD 15 per barrel compared with the price on the Gulf Coast due to a lack of pipeline capacity. No significant pipeline capacity expansion is expected before 2019. The importance of infrastructure applies not only to oil but also to associated gas production, wastewater and other products. In the absence of new pipeline capacity, companies might be forced to curb drilling or ship their production using trucks or rail, which are usually much more expensive.

Further productivity gains: The continued ability of the companies to offset inflationary pressures with improved productivity stemming from technology or improved project execution remains very uncertain. In most active basins, especially the Permian, there are clear signs of overheating and bottlenecks in skilled labour, materials and equipment. In addition to the potential for further technological advances, there may be scope for more efficiency gains, for instance by expanding operations in continuous acreages, improved understanding of the resource base and more accurate spacing of wells.

Grabbing the fruits of the “digital revolution”: Companies are putting more effort into developing and adopting innovative digital technologies and big-data analytics in order to reduce costs, by optimising operations, improving reservoir modelling and enhancing processes.

Competition from other sources of oil: The US shale sector has not been alone in reducing its costs and will need to continue to do so to remain competitive in international markets. Most onshore resources, especially in OPEC countries, cost less to produce than shale oil, while the bulk of new deepwater projects are competitive with the cheapest shale basins. Consequently, the US shale industry is required to keep improving.

This analysis was written by IEA Senior Programme Officer Alessandro Blasi and IEA Energy Investment Analyst Yoko Nobuoka, and was adapted from World Energy Investment 2018. Source: IEA

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A Century of Russia’s Weaponization of Energy

Todd Royal

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In 1985 a joint meeting between U.S. President Ronald Reagan, and former Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev conveyed this enduring sentiment during the height of the Cold War, “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” This sentiment began moving both countries, and the world away from Mutually Assured Destruction (M.A.D.); and soon thereafter the Cold War ended. With the rise of Vladimir Putin, and the return of the Russian strongman based on the Stalin-model of leadership, Russia now uses and wields Russian energy assets, as geopolitical pawns (Syrian and Crimean invasions) the way they once terrorized the world with their nuclear arsenal.

Russia will remain a global force – even with an economy over reliant on energy – and Putin being the political force that controls the country. What makes the Russian weaponization of energy a force multiplier is “its vast geography, permanent membership in the UN Security Council, rebuilt military, and immense nuclear forces,” while having the ability to disrupt global prosperity, and sway political ideologies in the United States, Europe, Middle East, Asia, and the entire Artic Circle.

Putin understands that whoever controls energy controls the world – mainly fossil fuels – oil, petroleum, natural gas, coal, and nuclear energy to electricity is now added to this dominating mix. Now that Stalin has taken on mythological status under Putin’s tutelage, Joseph Stalin once said“The war (WWII) was decided by engines and octane.”Winston Churchill agreed with Stalin on the critical importance of fuel: “Above all, petrol governed every movement.”

The most devastating war in human history, and one that killed millions of Russians continues driving Putin’s choice to make energy the focal point of their economy, military, and forward-projecting foreign policy. This began the modern, energy-industrial complex that mechanized and industrialized energy as a war-making tool that still affects people-groups, countries, and entire regions of the world.

Russia, then the U.S.S.R. (former Soviet Union), and now current Russia have always thought of energy as a way for their government to dominate their countrymen, traditional spheres of influence (Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Central Asia), and a strategic buffer zone against land-based attacks that came from Napoleon and Hitler’s armies that still haunts the Russian psyche.

The timeline of Russia from the 1917, violence-fueled Russian Revolution that brought the Bolsheviks to power, the rise and death of Stalin in 1953, World War II in-between, the Cold War that began March 5, 1946 in Winston Churchill’s famous speech declaring “an Iron Curtain has descended across the Continent,” has been powered by energy.

This kicked off the Cold War until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. During this epoch in history the Soviets promoted global revolution using their economy and military that ran on fossil fuels and nuclear weaponry. In 1999 Vladimir Putin becomes Prime Minister after Boris Yeltsin resigns office, and the rebirth of the Soviet Union, and weaponization of energy continues until today under Putin’s regime.

What Russia now promotes foremost over all objectives: “undermining the U.S.-led liberal international order and the cohesion of the West.”Russia’s principal adversaries in this geopolitical tug-of-war over energy and influence are the U.S., the European Union (EU), and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). All of these variables are meant to bolster Russia and Putin’s “commercial, military, and energy interests.”

This geopolitical struggle doesn’t take place without abundant, reliable, affordable, scalable, and flexible oil, and natural gas. This is likely why Russia has begun a massive coal exploration and production (E&P) program that has grown exponentially since 2017 according to Russia’s Federal State Statistics Service.

The entire Russian economy is now based on rewarding Putin’s oligarchical cronies, and ensuring Russian energy giants Rosneft and Gazprom can fill the Kremlin’s coffers to annex Crimea and gain a strategic foothold in the Middle East via the Syrian invasion. This economic system is now referred to as “Putinomics.” Using energy resources to fund global chaos, and wars while rewarding his favorite oligarchs and agencies that do the Kremlin’s bidding.

Russia is now in a full-fledged battle with western powers, and its affiliated allies over the fossil fuel industry. While the rest of the world is attempting to incorporate renewable energy to electricity onto its electrical grids, and pouring government monies into building momentum for a carbon-free society, Russia is going the opposite direction.

Moscow’s energy intentions are clear, and have been for over one hundred years. Currently, there Syrian foothold has allowed them to entrench themselves back into the Middle East. This time they aren’t spreading revolutionary communism, instead it is Putin-driven oil and natural gas supplies through pipelines and E&P rights acquired in “Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria.”

Russia has a clear pathway to block U.S. liquid natural gas (LNG) into Europe, and a land bridge from the Middle East to Europe almost guarantees Russian natural gas is cheaper, more accessible, and maintains that Europe looks to Russia first for its energy needs. By cementing their role as the “primary gas supplier and expands its influence in the Middle East,” the U.S., EU, and NATO’s military dominance are overtaken by natural gas that Europe desperately needs to power their economies, and heat their homes in brutal, winter months.

To counter Russian energy influence bordering on a monopoly over European energy needs, the current U.S. administration should make exporting natural gas into LNG a top “priority.” Work with European allies in Paris, Berlin, and NATO headquarters to operationally thwart Moscow’s “Middle East energy land bridge.” Global energy security is too important by allowing Russian influence to continue spreading.

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More of a good thing – is surplus renewable electricity an opportunity for early decarbonisation?

Peter Fraser

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We are entering a world where renewables will make up an increasing share of our electricity supply –the electricity sector was the leading sector for energy investment in 2018, the third year in a row that this has occurred.

This trend is set to continue. In WEO 2018’s New Policies Scenario, 21% of global electricity production is projected to come from variable renewables by 2040, up from 7% in 2018, supported by about $5.3 trillion of investment. The EU share is even higher at around 39%. In our more ambitious Sustainable Development Scenario, which aims to get energy system emissions down to levels consistent with the Paris goals, variable renewables are projected to supply 38% of global electricity in 2040 (44% in the EU), a level that would require nearly $8.5 trillion of generation investment.

Regardless of scenario, this rapid expansion of renewables will inevitably lead to particular challenges to operating power systems. This is best highlighted by the so-called duck curve, made famous by the California ISO.

The curve was developed to show the impact of increasing distributed solar PV capacity on the demand for grid electricity.  As solar PV capacity grows, the demand for grid electricity falls during the day with the greatest decrease in the middle of the day when PV production is highest – the belly of the duck.  In the afternoon as PV production declines towards sunset, the demand for grid electricity can grow quite quickly – the neck of the duck.

The duck is growing faster than anticipated. Five years ago, the California ISO had expected California midday demand to drop over 40% on a sunny spring day by 2020 thanks to the growth of small solar PV systems. In fact, by 2018, the spring mid-day demand on the high voltage system had already decreased by two thirds. The consequent increase in supply required in the late afternoon as solar production recedes, was already close to 15 GW, significantly greater than the 2020 anticipated level of 13 GW.

The result is that some excess supply needs to be curtailed to balance the system. While the percentages of solar and wind production that have to be curtailed in California are rather small, in other jurisdictions the share is more significant.

In China, for example, the national average for wind curtailment was around 7% in 2018, with much higher levels in certain provinces. In the Canadian province of Ontario about one quarter of variable renewable generation in 2017 had to be curtailed, along with cuts in nuclear and hydropower output. This was in a jurisdiction where wholesale market prices were zero or negative almost one-third of that year.

The challenges are clear – a world with higher shares of variable renewable energy (VRE) – i.e., wind and solar PV – will face challenges with integration. This is a priority area of work for the IEA, and we are focused on providing insights on the issues and technologies that can be employed to deal with higher shares of variable renewables.

One of these insights is that renewables integration can be divided into a set of six phases dependent partly on the share of variable renewables in the system, but also on other system-dependent factors such as the share of storage hydro and interconnections.

Two countries have already reached Phase 4. Denmark, which has been a leader, has the significant advantage of strong interconnections to handle both surpluses and shortfalls. Ireland has much weaker interconnections and additional measures have been needed to ensure short-term system stability.

No country is yet in Phase 5 (where production can exceed demand) or in Phase 6, where seasonal storage solutions would be needed to match supply and demand.

Strong renewables policies are expected to continue to favour wind and solar power for the foreseeable future.  This will mean that by 2030, we expect more countries, particularly in Europe, to evolve to these higher phases.

Too much of a good thing?

As more countries move to higher shares of VRE, it appears that there could be “too much of a good thing” – excess generation that may have to be curtailed and appears as wasteful.

The tendency is to treat this primarily as a technology problem for the power system to solve. Indeed part of the solution will lie in improvements in technology. We will need some form of energy storage to convert the excess at one time of day into necessary power system supply at another. Smart grids, especially smarter distribution systems, will be better able to manage increasing shares of renewables as well – and they too will likely have more energy storage. And finally, the growth of EVs (currently driving global battery demand) represents a huge potential source of storage and demand-side flexibility as well.

But treating this only as a technical problem is missing the economic perspective. Trillions of dollars of investment in renewables is expected in the coming years, and so there is a risk that billions of dollars of renewable electricity – zero marginal cost, zero carbon – could be wasted.  

Economists have their own tools for solving these type of problems. Many would see not a problem but an opportunity – offering surplus electricity available at a zero (or low) price to customers during periods of surplus is a means to manage this surplus efficiently.

Dynamic pricing of wholesale electricity is often proposed as a mechanism to efficiently manage peak demand of electricity – to charge more when electricity is scarce.  Not surprisingly, passing on high wholesale prices as high retail prices has been met with customer resistance, and the uptake of dynamic pricing has been rather limited.

However, if low wholesale prices were passed on as low retail prices, we would expect customers to be more accepting.  While most small customers might not be expected to respond on their own, low dynamic prices create opportunities for innovators to develop technologies and processes that would make it easy and profitable for the customer to respond.  Many of these will involve using the electricity to replace, at least in part, an energy service provided by fossil fuels. In this way, it can help hasten the decarbonisation goal of the clean energy transition.

Barriers to efficient pricing

Unfortunately for now, there are a range of barriers in our current policies that prevent electricity customers from seeing these prices: the level of electricity taxes, the design of electricity tariffs and more broadly our approach to the electricity demand side. This means there is a need to change outdated policies.

Much of our electricity policy dates from a period where wasteful consumption led to an increasing number of power plants – particularly fossil and nuclear plants. Indeed, electricity was considered to be a particularly inefficient means of achieving a level of energy service.

This has affected the way and level at which electricity is taxed, the way regulated prices are designed, and perhaps most challenging of all, how we address demand side policies and particularly electricity efficiency.

But now we are entering a different era, an era where most of the incremental electricity generation will come from wind and solar power. How should it change our taxation, rate setting and electricity efficiency policies?

Economics should guide us so that:

  1. Taxes are fixed in an efficient way, in order to distort as least as possible consumers and producers decisions
  2. Consumption is efficient, both through taxes and regulated tariffs
  3. Ensuring end-use energy consumption is carbon-efficient

Electricity taxes that exist in many countries today were set as a result of either a deliberate policy to reduce electricity consumption in energy importing countries (Europe) and/or environmentally conscious jurisdictions (Europe, California). They have also provided an easily enforceable tax base for municipalities and subnational jurisdictions. These taxes can be quite substantial, amounting to over half the cost of power for households in some European countries.

Yet many of the reasons for taxing electricity heavily are no longer valid. The emissions argument in particular makes little sense in highly decarbonised power sectors such as Sweden, France, or Switzerland.

In addition to taxation, pricing systems tend to discourage consumption regardless of how clean the production is. There are countries where, paradoxically, a high level of renewable penetration discourages the consumption of renewable energy.

Germany is probably the best known example. Although prices in the wholesale market can fall to zero when wind and solar power are particularly prolific, the end user cannot buy electricity at the real time price, but even if that were possible, it would mean paying the EEG payment (which is intended to recover the cost of renewables) which is currently 6.405 euro cents per kWh.  This means that the end user incentive to use that renewable energy to substitute for fossil fuels in their own consumption is blunted.

What needs to be done instead is to encourage customer response based on the real-time price for power. Most other costs should no longer be recovered on a per kWh basis.

Getting prices right for the end consumer means also addressing regulated prices such as for networks where these are separately specified. Networks remain largely fixed cost entities in developed economies where demand has not been growing. For electricity customers, the value of the electricity network is as the provider of reliable electricity service – a value that is not directly related to the quantity of power delivered.  Increasingly, as more and more customers generate their own electricity, the value of the network is evolving to become a platform to sell some of that power or other electricity services.

Moving towards a fixed charge would recognize the value of the network service for customers. It would also alleviate concerns that customers choosing to self-generate are not contributing sufficiently to the costs of using a network they still require.

Finally, demand-side policies should be designed in a way that minimizes both costs to consumers and their carbon footprint.

As renewables continue to grow and increasingly face curtailment, the optimal policy may no longer to be to encourage electricity conservation. Instead, demand side policies that encourage carbon conservation might be more efficient.

The figure above shows how the prices charged for consuming an additional kWh of electricity in each US jurisdiction is compared to the social marginal cost of producing that electricity. Red means the social cost of production exceeds the marginal cost, suggesting that marginal prices are too low and interventions such as conservation programs could be efficient. Conversely, in the deep blue regions, electricity prices are too high, suggesting that conservation and net metering programs need to be reconsidered.

Ultimately, when marginal prices for clean electricity consumption are adjusted downwards the viability of electrification increases – which can replace other end-uses of fossil fuels.

In fact, these changing circumstances are beginning to be recognized. The California energy regulator, the California Public Utilities Commission, has recently ruled that utility energy efficiency programs can include those that encourage customers to substitute electricity for fossil fuels. 

More of a good thing

The good news is that the direction for electricity investments is positive, with the share of renewables likely to grow rapidly spurred by government policies and falling costs. Yet the resultant growth of wind and solar power will lead to new integration challenges for today’s power systems and these challenges will become greater over time. 

Yet solving those challenges will also lead to economic opportunities in the energy system – opportunities to reduce costs, waste and emissions by making electricity available in substitution of fossil fuels.

Policies are central to realising these opportunities, by reforming electricity taxation, getting regulated prices right, and emphasizing carbon conservation above electricity conservation. The right price signals will encourage the innovation needed to advance the clean energy transition. And in the end, customers will have more of a “good thing”:  greater access to cheaper, clean power.

IEA

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Is government support for EVs contributing to a low-emissions future?

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Authors: Leonardo Paoli and Simon Bennett*

The value of government incentives rose by 72%, but smart policy will be needed to avoid booms and busts, and encourage continuous reductions in average EV prices.

Encouraged by rising government support, global spending on electric vehicle (EV) purchases grew more than 70% in 2018 to USD 82 billion, with USD 52 billion of this on battery electric light-duty vehicles (BEVs) and the remainder on plug-in hybrid electric light-duty vehicles (PHEVs). While this represented little more than 2.5% of the total light duty vehicle market last year, it does mean that USD 36 billion was added to the global EV market in just one year – this carries EVs past freight ships in terms of market size for new orders, and represents more than double the investment in new biofuels production capacity worldwide.

Yet as a share of total spending, the contribution of government support for EVs remained almost unchanged. Updating analysis from the World Energy Investment  series, we are able to correlate vehicle prices, sales data and support schemes around the world to estimate the value of national government purchase incentives. And for the first time, we have included foregone government revenue from tax breaks as part of both government spending and total spending on EVs. In 2018, we estimate government spending to have reached USD 15 billion, or around 18% of total EV spending. This was roughly the same share as in 2017.

Around the world, governments support EVs in different ways, from simple lump sum grants or tax breaks to more complex formulas that vary with specific vehicle attributes or the incomes of buyers. Globally, most support comes from direct expenditures. Less support comes from tax expenditures, and this can be hard to calculate. For example, it is not straightforward to estimate the counterfactual public cost of an additional EV sale in France, Italy or Sweden. In these countries a so-called “bonus malus” system redirects fees for emissions-intensive vehicle purchases to fund payments to EV buyers.

The ability of governments to stabilise and then reduce their share of total EV spending will be a key test of the sustainability of the EV market in coming years. Unless government incentives adjust as the market increases, considerable pressure will be placed on public budgets. Between 2012 and 2017, the government share of total EV spending generally rose, and it could very well rise again in future.

Policy changes are already being made in some countries to rein in the cost of support schemes such as a growing use of standards, regulations and mandates to shift costs from the public sector to consumers and manufacturers. For example, the US federal tax credit for some manufacturers is being phased-out and will expire in 2020 unless renewed. In China, the maximum subsidy for EVs under the New Energy Vehicle incentive scheme has been halved since July 2019, reducing it to USD 3 700. These policy changes are already having an effect on the EV market: Chinese EV sales are expected not to grow as strongly in 2019 as in 2018; those for July and August 2019 are actually 10% lower than in the same months last year. US sales growth has also slowed.

There are of course additional benefits to government support. Firstly, even under today’s policies, roughly four dollars of consumer spending are generated for every dollar spent by governments. In addition, by stimulating the market, incentives are having a significant effect on innovation. Since 2015 the R&D spending of fifteen major automakers has been rising at a faster rate than in any period since the start of the century and, importantly, at a faster rate than revenue growth. Following a period when these companies reduced the share of revenue directed to research (in part in response to the financial crisis) innovation now represents a higher strategic priority. While stronger fuel economy regulations have played a role in stimulating R&D, much of this is now directed to electrification and digitalisation.

Ultimately it’s tempting to see EVs following a similar path as solar PV, for which global subsidies hit USD 15 billion in 2010 and uptake has grown rapidly. However, there are some key differences between the two markets.

Whereas PV costs fell for a standardised good, EVs are widely differentiated by size, driving range, power and other characteristics that are valued by consumers. For example, the global average selling price of a BEV per kilometre of range it can travel is falling, but consumers are getting more driving range for their money instead of buying the same range for less money. Consumers are also buying BEVs that are on average larger and heavier. Essentially, a shift to vehicles that can drive further on a single charge is keeping the average EV price relatively stable. This is despite improvements for manufacturing and components like batteries that are making EVs cheaper on a like-for-like basis.

In 2018, two factors in particular buoyed average prices: the large share of registrations of the Tesla Model 3 in North America, which reached around 140 000 in 2018, and the increasing share of large, luxury PHEVs, particularly in China. Here too, policy plays a role. In China, BEVs with driving ranges below 150 km were phased out last year, and ranges below 250 km became ineligible this year.

This means that the assumed, low-carbon future of small, shared and automated BEVs doesn’t seem to be where today’s trends are heading. Rather, current EV markets are actually tilted towards bigger cars than those for internal combustion engines (not to mention that the car market is shifting to larger vehicles in general). While plug-in versions can be more attractive for buyers of larger cars – due to higher fuel savings and lower relative cost increases – the overall costs of electrifying a fleet of bigger cars could be higher for governments and consumers alike.

These trends present a potential challenge for energy transitions, a topic that is taken up in detail in this year’s World Energy Outlook: how can efforts to maximise EV adoption in the near term complement a longer-term evolution of car sizes, ownership and driving patterns?

The EV market is growing at a whirlwind speed, with growth well above 50% per year. But because it relies on government payments that cannot rise indefinitely, this growth raises risks and uncertainty even as battery costs come down. Furthermore, continued market growth will soon need to reach customers whose willingness to pay for an EV has so far been untested.

As was the also case for solar PV, countries are reforming incentives with the aim of limiting public expenses without diminishing the attractiveness of EVs to consumers. Smart policy will be needed to avoid booms and busts, and encourage continuous reductions in average EV prices to reach new drivers, with cost-neutral bonus malus systems being just one example of policy innovation. Parallel government action will also be needed to ensure charging infrastructure, fuel economy standards and urban planning are all pulling in the same direction.

As key indicators of the transition to sustainable mobility, the IEA will continue to monitor average EV prices and the share of purchase costs that is being picked up by taxpayers. Both are currently stable, but recent policy changes signal potential decreases ahead.

*Simon Bennett, IEA Energy Technology Analyst.

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