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First steps in a reshaping of the energy industry landscape

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Authors: Alessandro Blasi and Alberto Toril

Recent data shows that there is a growing disconnection between current energy trends and climate goals. With global emissions on the rise, persistent concerns over air pollution and unfinished business in achieving universal electricity access, the world is drifting even further away from a sustainable pathway. Yet faced with the pressures of much-needed changes, today’s energy sector is characterised by uncertainties in markets, policies and technologies. This is making the life of investors particularly difficult.

The IEA’s World Energy Investment 2019 tries to shed light on the strategies that energy companies and investors are pursuing in order to take advantage of new opportunities, insulate themselves against growing long-term uncertainties and to better manage capital at risk.

By analysing recent investment patterns, we have shown that the energy industry has experienced a broad shift in favour of projects with shorter construction times that limit capital at risk. More specifically, for upstream oil and gas and power generation we have seen that the energy industry is bringing capacity to the market more than 20% faster on average than at the beginning of the decade. 75% of upstream oil and gas spending and almost 70% of generation additions are now in assets that were built in fewer than 3 years. If we look back at 2010, those shares were less than 60% and 50%, respectively.

There are many reasons for this, including intense industry competition, but it mainly comes down to better project management and improved economics for shorter cycle technologies – particularly for shale and conventional industry as well as solar PV and wind. However, these trends have not necessarily emerged across all sectors and technologies; some traditional ones are showing less progress in improving project development timelines.

Oil and gas sector shifting towards shorter cycle development

While oil and gas demand has grown robustly over the last few years, companies have had to navigate through increasing uncertainty, given rising pressure facing investors about the environmental sustainability of their operations and potential climate-related policy changes which might affect future demand.

The downturn cycle and the shale revolution have also impacted the strategies of oil and gas companies. While operators immediately reacted by cutting costs and squeezing efficiencies, companies also rationalised their portfolios and explored new synergies and opportunities across the entirety of upstream supply. At the same time, varied market prospects have led companies to engage in different strategies between the oil and gas sectors.

In the oil sector, increasing uncertainties on future demand pathways have encouraged companies to prioritise projects that are able to generate cash flow faster. This has translated into multiple trends: shale assets have attracted an increasing share of companies’ annual capital investment, while in the conventional area they favoured investing in brownfield developments in order to minimise upfront capital expenditure. Finally, companies standardised and re-designed new greenfield projects in multiple phases.

In the natural gas sector, however, companies have showed much more confidence on the long-term role of natural gas in the global energy mix, encouraged by very strong demand and policies in key emerging countries favouring a move away from coal. This renewed attention towards gas is supported by three major indicators:

  1. Investment in new LNG liquefaction plants (which are by nature long-term) have skyrocketed in 2019, with a new record for the amount of new LNG capacity sanctioned in just one year. To date, almost 90 bcm of liquefaction capacity reached final investment decision (FID), a full quarter more than the previous record set in 2005.
  2. Most of the new LNG projects that reached FID in the last three years had at least one of the majors involved. In other terms, almost 80% of new LNG capacity that has been sanctioned includes at least one big oil and gas corporation.
  3. Moreover, the financing model of such projects is evolving, with a growing share of projects being financed through companies own balance sheets, a signal of improved industry confidence on medium-long term economics of new investment (more on this in the IEA’s forthcoming Global Gas Security Report)

With electricity demand growing at twice the pace of energy demand and rising pressures on the use of fossil fuels, oil and gas companies have started to also look at emerging possibilities in the power sector. Measured in terms of share of their annual capital investment, activities outside their core business remain limited and on the order of a single percentage point. However, there is significant growing attention on new business opportunities opening up in the sector. How current trends are preparing markets for a rapid shift of investment allocations and what technologies would mostly benefit from such a scenario remains an open (and crucial) question. 

The power sector is shifting with new players joining

The power sector has experienced several shifts in terms of overall power generation investment, especially in the case of traditional utilities whose business models were typically based on rising demand for thermal power generation.

The share of renewables in global power generation investment increased from about 45% in 2000, to nearly 65% in 2018, underpinned not only by dramatic reductions in capital costs but also by a global shift towards revenue models based on competitive bidding. Renewables technologies with shorter construction times, such as wind and solar PV, benefitted mostly from those trends.

In parallel and over the same period, fossil fuel based generation investment halved, falling from 50% of global power generation investment to around a quarter in 2018. Moreover, while there were high expectations for increasing electricity consumption, since 2010 electricity demand in 18 out of 30 IEA countries has actually declined thanks largely to energy efficiency.

Companies that have not quickly adapted to this changing context have paid a significant price in terms of asset write-downs, returns on capital employed and competitiveness. But on the other side, this new context has also opened up new strategic opportunities that companies are trying to capitalise on. We identify three:  

Overall, there has been a fundamental shift away from thermal power and fossil fuels to business models for renewables based on contracted remunerations. We see this also in FID trends of key thermal power technologies – with FIDs for coal and gas fired plants significantly declining. Over last three years, annual FIDs for coal-fired generation have been at around 30 GW annually, falling from the first three years of the 2010s, when they averaged almost 90 GW per year. For gas-fired generation plants, the decline has been less pronounced than for coal but still, the FIDs for gas power have declined about one-third since the early part of the decade.

The plunge of investment in thermal power has been the main driver behind a painful restructuring of traditional thermal power manufacturers. General Electric was severely hit by lower than expected activities in coal and gas. More recently, Siemens announced the spinning off of its power and gas division due to a weak gas turbine market, while Toshiba’s significant reorganisation was linked to difficulties in nuclear projects facing Westinghouse, and a reduction of its coal-fired power business.

Some power companies are integrating their supply business with greater focus on network assets, retail, flexibility provision, energy efficiency and demand side services (e.g. electric mobility). There are several examples in this area such as Enel’s acquisition of EnerNOC (a leading US-based provider of smart energy management services), but also eMotorWerks (provider of e-mobility solutions) and Demand Energy (developer and operator of energy storage and software). Another type of business strategy is illustrated by Engie’s acquisition of Mobisol, a pay-as-you-go solar home system pioneer and the takeover of Fenix International in 2017, enabling them to provide access and electricity-based services in several key markets in East Africa.

There are a range of open questions for the energy sector right now, including fundamentally how to successfully reallocate capital investments in order to be aligned with sustainability goals and with the ongoing energy transition (see our recent commentary on capital allocation). But one thing is certain: the energy company of the 21st century is rapidly transforming and will almost certainly end up being very different than what it is today.

*Alberto Toril, Energy Investment Analyst.

IEA

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Oil and the new world order: China, Iran and Eurasia

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The world oil market will undergo a fundamental change in the future. Choosing petrodollars or oil wars is no longer a question that can be answered. With the Strategic Agreement on the Comprehensive Economic and Security Partnership between China and Iran officially signed by the Foreign Ministers of both countries in Tehran on March 27, 2021, the petrodollar theorem is broken and the empire built by the US dollar is cracked.

This is because the petrodollar has not brought substantial economic development to the oil-producing countries in the Middle East during over half a century of linkage to the US dollar.

The Middle East countries generally have not their own industrial systems. The national economies are heavily dependent on oil exports and imports of cereals and industrial products. The national finances are driven by the US dollar and the financial system that follows it.

If the Middle East countries wanted to escape the control of the dollar, they should face the threat of war from the United States and its allies – things we have seen over and over again. Just think of Saddam Hussein being supported when he was fighting Iran and later being Public Enemy No. 1 when he started trading oil in euros.

The West has always wanted the Middle East to be an oil ‘sacred cow’ and has not enabled it to develop its own modern industrial system: the lack of progress in the Middle East was intended as long-term blackmail.

In the Western system of civilisation based on exchange of views and competition, the West is concerned that Iran and the entire Middle East may once again restore the former glory and hegemony of the Persian, Arab and Ottoman empires.

China is facing the exploitation of the global oil market and the threat of its supply disruption. Relying on industrial, financial, and military strength, Europe and the United States control the oil production capital, trade markets, dollar settlements, and global waterways that make up the entire petrodollar world order, differentiating China and the Middle East and dividing the world on the basis of the well-known considerations. You either choose the dollar or you choose war – and the dollar has long been suffering.

Just as in ancient times nomadic tribes blocked the Silk Road and monopolised trade between East and West, Europe and the United States are holding back and halting cooperation and development of the whole of Asia and the rest of the planet. Centuries ago, it was a prairie cavalry, bows, arrows and scimitars: today it is a navy ship and a financial system denominated in dollars.

Therefore, China and Iran, as well as the entire Middle East, are currently looking for ways to avoid middlemen and intermediaries and make the difference. If there is another strong power that can provide military security and at the same time offer sufficient funds and industrial products, the whole Middle East oil can be freed from the dominance of the dollar and can trade directly to meet demand, and even introduce new modern industrial systems.

Keeping oil away from the US dollar and wars and using oil for cooperation, mutual assistance and common development is the inner voice of the entire Middle East and developing countries: a power that together cannot be ignored in the world.

The former Soviet Union had hoped to use that power and strength to improve its system. However, it overemphasised its own geostrategic and paracolonial interests – turning itself into a social-imperialist superpower competing with the White House. Moreover, the USSR lacked a cooperative and shared mechanism to strengthen its alliances, and eventually its own cronies began to rebel as early as the 1960s.

More importantly – although the Soviet Union at the time could provide military security guarantees for allied countries – it was difficult for it to provide economic guarantees and markets, although the Soviet Union itself was a major oil exporter. The natural competitive relationship between the Soviet Union and the Middle East, as well as the Soviet Union’s weak industrial capacity, eventually led to the disintegration of the whole system, starting with the defection of Sadat’s Egypt in 1972. Hence the world reverted to the unipolarised dollar governance once the Soviet katekon collapsed nineteen years later.

With the development and rise of its economy, however, now China has also begun to enter the world scene and needs to establish its own new world order, after being treated as a trading post by Britain in the 19th century, later divided into zones of influence by the West and Japan, and then quarantined by the United States after the Second World War.

Unlike the US and Soviet world order, China’s proposal is not a paracolonial project based on its own national interests, nor is it an old-fashioned “African globalisation” plan based on multinationals, and it is certainly not an ideological export.

For years, there has been talk of Socialism with Chinese characteristics and certainly not of attempts to impose China’s Marxism on the rest of the world, as was the case with Russia. China, instead, wishes to have a new international economic order characterised by cooperation, mutual assistance and common development.

Unlike the Western civilisation based on rivalry and competition, the Eastern civilisation, which pays more attention to harmony without differences and to coordinated development, is trying to establish a new world economic order with a completely different model from those that wrote history in blood.

Reverting to the previous treaty, between the US dollar and the war, China has offered Iran and even the world a third choice. China seems increasingly willing to exist as a service provider. This seems to be more useful for China, first of all to solve its own problems and not to get involved in endless international disputes.

It can thus be more accepted by all countries around the world and unite more States to break the joint encirclement of the “democratic” and liberal imperialism of Europe and the United States.

Consequently, China and Iran – whose origins date back almost to the same period – met at a critical moment in history. According to the Strategic Agreement on Comprehensive Economic and Security Partnership between China and Iran, China will invest up to 400 billion dollars in dozens of oil fields in Iran over the next 25 years, as well as in banking, telecommunications, ports, railways, healthcare, 5G networks, GPS, etc.

China will help Iran build the entire modern industrial system. At the same time, it will receive a heavily discounted and long-term stable supply of Iranian oil. The Sino-Iranian partnership will lay the foundations for a proposed new world order, with great respect for Eastern values, not based on some failed, decadent and increasingly radicalising principles.

Faced with the value restraint and the pressure of sanctions from the United States and Europe, China is seeking to unite the European third Rome, Indo-European Iran, the second Rome and the five Central Asian countries to create a powerful geoeconomic counterpart in the hinterland of Eurasia.

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The stages and choices of energy production from hydrogen

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There are three main ways to use hydrogen energy:

1) internal combustion;

2) conversion to electricity using a fuel cell;

3) nuclear fusion.

The basic principle of a hydrogen internal combustion engine is the same as that of a gasoline or diesel internal combustion engine. The hydrogen internal combustion engine is a slightly modified version of the traditional gasoline internal combustion engine. Hydrogen internal combustion burns hydrogen directly without using other fuels or producing exhaust water vapour.

Hydrogen internal combustion engines do not require any expensive special environment or catalysts to fully do the job – hence there are no problems of excessive costs. Many successfully developed hydrogen internal combustion engines are hybrid, meaning they can use liquid hydrogen or gasoline as fuel.

The hydrogen internal combustion engine thus becomes a good transition product. For example, if you cannot reach your destination after refuelling, but you find a hydrogen refuelling station, you can use hydrogen as fuel. Or you can use liquid hydrogen first and then a regular refuelling station. Therefore, people will not be afraid of using hydrogen-powered vehicles when hydrogen refuelling stations are not yet widespread.

The hydrogen internal combustion engine has a small ignition energy; it is easy to achieve combustion – hence better fuel saving can be achieved under wider working conditions.

The application of hydrogen energy is mainly achieved through fuel cells. The safest and most efficient way to use it is to convert hydrogen energy into electricity through such cells.

The basic principle of hydrogen fuel cell power generation is the reverse reaction of electrolysis of water, hydrogen and oxygen supplied to the cathode and anode, respectively. The hydrogen spreading – after the electrolyte reaction – makes the emitted electrons reach the anode through the cathode by means of an external load.

The main difference between the hydrogen fuel cell and the ordinary battery is that the latter is an energy storage device that stores electrical energy and releases it when needed, while the hydrogen fuel cell is strictly a power generation device, like a power plant.

The same as an electrochemical power generation device that directly converts chemical energy into electrical energy. The use of hydrogen fuel cell to generate electricity, directly converts the combustion chemical energy into electrical energy without combustion.

The energy conversion rate can reach 60% to 80% and has a low pollution rate. The device can be large or small, and it is very flexible. Basically, hydrogen combustion batteries work differently from internal combustion engines: hydrogen combustion batteries generate electricity through chemical reactions to propel cars, while internal combustion engines use heat to drive cars.

Because the fuel cell vehicle does not entail combustion in the process, there is no mechanical loss or corrosion. The electricity generated by the hydrogen combustion battery can be used directly to drive the four wheels of the vehicle, thus leaving out the mechanical transmission device.

The countries that are developing research are aware that the hydrogen combustion engine battery will put an end to pollution. Technology research and development have already successfully produced hydrogen cell vehicles: the cutting-edge car-prucing industries include GM, Ford, Toyota, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and other major international companies.

In the case of nuclear fusion, the combination of hydrogen nuclei (deuterium and tritium) into heavier nuclei (helium) releases huge amounts of energy.

Thermonuclear reactions, or radical changes in atomic nuclei, are currently very promising new energy sources. The hydrogen nuclei involved in the nuclear reaction, such as hydrogen, deuterium, fluorine, lithium, iridium (obtained particularly from meteorites fallen on our planet), etc., obtain the necessary kinetic energy from thermal motion and cause the fusion reaction.

The thermonuclear reaction itself behind the hydrogen bomb explosion, which can produce a large amount of heat in an instant, cannot yet be used for peaceful purposes. Under specific conditions, however, the thermonuclear reaction can achieve a controlled thermonuclear reaction. This is an important aspect for experimental research. The controlled thermonuclear reaction is based on the fusion reactor. Once a fusion reactor is successful, it can provide mankind with the cleanest and most inexhaustible source of energy.

The feasibility of a larger controlled nuclear fusion reactor is tokamak. Tokamak is a toroidal-shaped device that uses a powerful magnetic field to confine plasma. Tokamak is one of several types of magnetic confinement devices developed to produce controlled thermonuclear fusion energy. As of 2021, it is the leading candidate for a fusion reactor.

The name tokamak comes from Russian (toroidal’naja kamera s magnitnymi katuškami: toroidal chamber with magnetic coils). Its magnetic configuration is the result of research conducted in 1950 by Soviet scientists Andrei Dmitrievič Sakharov (1921-1989) and Igor’ Evgen’evič Tamm (1895-1971), although the name dates back more precisely to 1957.

At the centre of tokamak there is a ring-shaped vacuum chamber with coils wound outside. When energized, a huge spiral magnetic field is generated inside the tokamak, which heats the plasma inside to a very high temperature, which achieves the purpose of nuclear fusion.

Energy, resources and environmental problems urgently need hydrogen energy to solve the environmental crisis, but the preparation of hydrogen energy is not yet mature, and most of the research on hydrogen storage materials is still in the exploratory laboratory stage. Hydrogen energy production should also focus on the “biological” production of hydrogen.

Other methods of hydrogen production are unsustainable and do not meet scientific development requirements. Within biological production, microbial production requires an organic combination of genetic engineering and chemical engineering so that existing technology can be fully used to develop hydrogen-producing organisms that meet requirements as soon as possible. Hydrogen production from biomass requires continuous improvement and a vigorous promotion of technology. It is a difficult process.

Hydrogen storage focused on the discovery of new aspects of materials or their preparation is not yet at large-scale industrial level. Considering different hydrogen storage mechanisms, and the material to be used, also needs further study.

Furthermore, each hydrogen storage material has its own advantages and disadvantages, and most storage material properties have the characteristics that relate to adductivity and properties of a single, more commonly known material.

It is therefore believed that efforts should be focused on the development of a composite hydrogen storage material, which integrates the storage advantages of multiple individual materials, along the lines of greater future efforts.

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The advantages of hydrogen and Israel’s warnings

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Hydrogen is the most common element in nature. It is estimated to make up 75% of the mass of the universe. Except for that contained in air, it is primarily stored in water in the form of a compound, and water is the most widely distributed substance on earth.

Hydrogen has the best thermal conductivity of all gases – i.e. ten times higher than most of them – and it is therefore an excellent heat transfer carrier in the energy industry.

Hydrogen has good combustion performance, rapid ignition, and has a wide fuel range when mixed with air. It has a high ignition point and rapid combustion rate.

Except for nuclear fuels, the calorific value of hydrogen is the highest among all fossil and chemical fuels, as well as biofuels, reaching 142.35 kJ/kg. The calorie per kilogram of hydrogen burned is about three times that of gasoline and 3.9 times that of alcohol, as well as 4.5 times that of coke.

Hydrogen has the lightest weight of all elements. It can appear as gas, liquid, or solid metal hydride, which can adapt to different storage and transport needs and to various application environments.

Burning hydrogen is cleaner than other fuels –  besides generating small amounts of water – and does not produce hydrogen azide as carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide (harmful to the environment), hydrocarbons, lead compounds and dust particles, etc. A small amount of hydrogen nitride will not pollute the environment after proper treatment, and the water produced by combustion can continue to produce hydrogen and be reused repeatedly.

Extensive use practices show that hydrogen has a record of safe use. There were 145 hydrogen-related accidents in the United States between 1967 and 1977, all of which occurred in petroleum refining, the chlor-alkali industry, or nuclear power plants, and did not really involve energy applications.

Experience in the use of hydrogen shows that common hydrogen accidents can be summarized as follows: undetected leaks; safety valve failure; emptying system failure; broken pipes, tubes or containers; property damage; poor replacement; air or oxygen and other impurities left in the system; too high hydrogen discharge rate; possible damage of pipe and tube joints or bellows; accidents or tipping possibly occurring during the hydrogen transmission process.

These accidents require two additional conditions to cause a fire: one is the source of the fire and the other is the fact that the mixture of hydrogen and air or oxygen must be within the limits of the possibility of fires or violent earthquakes in the local area.

Under these two conditions, an accident cannot be caused if proper safety measures are established. In fact, with rigorous management and careful implementation of operating procedures, most accidents do not theoretically occur.

The development of hydrogen energy is triggering a profound energy revolution and could become the main source of energy in the 21st century.

The United States, Europe, Japan, and other developed countries have formulated long-term hydrogen energy development strategies from the perspective of national sustainable development and security strategies.

Israel, however, makes warning and calls for caution.

While the use of hydrogen allows for the widespread penetration of renewable energy, particularly solar and wind energy – which, due to storage difficulties, are less available than demand – Israeli experts say that, despite its many advantages, there are also disadvantages and barriers to integrating green hydrogen into industry, including high production costs and high upfront investment in infrastructure.

According to the Samuel Neaman Institute’s Energy Forum report (April 11, 2021; authors Professors Gershon Grossman and Naama Shapira), Israel is 7-10 years behind the world in producing energy from clean hydrogen.

Prof. Gideon Friedman, actingchief scientist and Director of Research and Development at the Ministry of Energy, explains why: “Israel has a small industry that is responsible for only 10% of greenhouse gas emissions – unlike the world where they are usually 20% – and therefore the problems of emissions in industry are a little less acute in the country.”

At a forum held prior to the report’s presentation, senior officials and energy experts highlighted the problematic nature of integrating clean hydrogen into industry in Israel.

Dr. Yossi Shavit, Head of the cyber unit in industry at the Ministry of Environmental Protection, outlined the risks inherent in hydrogen production, maintenance and transportation, including the fact that it is a colourless and odourless gas that makes it difficult to detect a leak. According to Dr. Shavit, hydrogen is a hazardous substance that has even been defined as such in a new regulation on cyber issues published in 2020.

Dr. Shlomo Wald, former chief scientist at the Ministry of Infrastructure, argued that in the future hydrogen would be used mainly for transportation, along with electricity.

Prof. Lior Elbaz of Bar-Ilan University said that one of the most important things is the lack of laws: “There is no specific regulation for hydrogen in Israel, but it is considered a dangerous substance. In order for hydrogen to be used for storage and transportation, there needs to be a serious set of laws that constitute a bottleneck in our learning curve.” “Israel has something to offer in innovation in the field, but government support will still be needed in this regard – as done in all countries – and approximately a trillion dollars in the field of hydrogen is expected to be invested in the next decade.”

Although the discussion was mainly about Israel’s delay in integrating clean hydrogen into the industry, it has emerged that Sonol (Israel’s fuel supplier ranking third in the country’s gas station chain) is leading a project, together with the Ministry of Transport, to establish Israel’s first hydrogen refuelling station. “We believe there will be hydrogen transportation in Israel for trucks and buses,” said Dr. Amichai Baram, Vice President of operations at Sonol. “Hydrogen-powered vehicles for the country – albeit not really cheap in the initial phase – and regulations promoted in the field, both for gas stations and vehicles.”

Renewables account for only 6% of Israel’s energy sources and, according to the latest plans published by the Ministry of Energy and adopted by the government, the target for 2030 is 30%.

This is an ambitious goal compared to reality, and also far from the goal of the rest of the countries in the world that aim at energy reset by 2050.

The authors of the aforementioned report emphasize that fully using the clean hydrogen potential is key to achieving a higher growth target for Israel.

According to recommendations, the State should critically examine the issue in accordance with Israel’s unique conditions and formulate a strategy for the optimal integration of hydrogen into the energy economy.

Furthermore, it must support implementation, both through appropriate regulations and through the promotion of cooperation with other countries and global companies, as well as through investment in infrastructure, and in research and development, industry and in collaboration with the academic world.

There are countries in Europe or the Middle East that have already started green energy production projects, and finally it was recommended to work to develop Israeli innovations in the field, in collaboration with the Innovation Authority and the Ministry of Energy.

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