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Alternative Energy: The Paradigm is the Problem

Tom Konrad CFA

Can We Afford Alternative Energy?

Most serious critiques of alternative energy boils down to, "it costs too much."

True, detractors of wind power sometimes point to the number of birds and bats killed, and some people worry that electric vehicles (EVs) are so quiet that they pose a danger to blind pedestrians. 

While such critiques are legitimate in that they are real problems, they can also be alleviated.  Avian fatalities can be greatly reduced by more sensitive siting of wind turbines, and even painting turbines purple.  Nissan has installed an electric noisemaker in the Leaf to warn pedestrians of its approach.  More to the point, such problems do not come close to outweighing the benefits of the technologies.  Bird and pedestrian deaths from collisions with wind turbines and EVs are likely to be much lower than pollution-related illness and death that both technologies reduce by replacing pollution sources. 

Such arguments are more relevant to the question of how we should be pursuing alternative energy, rather than the much more important question of should we be pursuing alternative energy at all?

"Does Alternative energy Cost too Much?" is a much more relevant question.  If an alternative energy technology really costs "too much," then we should probably be spending our money on other methods of reducing pollution, such as research into more affordable alternatives, or ways to clean up the mess that "cheap" conventional energy leaves behind, such as Carbon Capture and Sequestration.

The problem with the cost question is that not only does the answer depend on a large number of assumptions (interest rates, where and when the power is delivered, and the changing costs of fuel, feedstock, and operating and maintenance costs.)  We also need to decide what "too much" means. 

What Do We Want Energy For?

Before we try to answer the cost question, we need to take a step back, and ask if it's really the right question.  What do we need energy for?  A modern economy runs on energy, but it's the services that energy provides that are important, not the form of energy itself. 

Take a new home as an example.  We can heat it with natural gas, wood pellets, fuel oil, electricity, solar thermal panels, or even passive solar design.  When we decide between this multitude of options, we're not interested in the cost per Btu, but rather how much it will cost us to keep our home comfortable for the year.  We may also be interested in the potential variation from year to year: an average heating cost of $1,500 per year may be desirable, but not if the cost is low most of the time, and it occasionally costs $15,000 in a single year because of volatile fuel prices or unreliable equipment.

Which fuel can keep the home warm at a dependably low cost depends as much on the design and construction of the house as it does on the fuel needed to heat it.  Generally, electric heat is the most expensive way to heat a home, but a well-designed passive solar house needs so little added heat to remain comfortable that a pellet stove may end up being a more expensive option because the heat loss through the flue even when the stove is not in use may cost much more than the little bit of electric heat that will be needed on the coldest of winter nights.

The example of a home shows that the design of a house is at least as important as the choice of heating fuel in determining the overall cost of maintaining comfortable winter temperatures. 

It Costs Too Much for What?

When we assess the true cost of alternative energy, we also need to assess system design. 

Fuel cost per mile
Consider electric vehicles.  As the chart above shows, the fuel cost for an electric vehicle (Battery EV) is much lower than the other alternatives.  Yet any serious look at the life cycle costs of electric cars shows them to be uneconomic under any reasonable assumptions of daily commutes and gasoline prices.  Each mile of range for a battery electric vehicle durable enough to last ten years will cost between $150 in the most optimistic case, and $300 to $400 under more realistic assumptions.  If the car is charged at most once per day (at night), that mile of range will be used for at most 300 miles of driving per year.  If gasoline is $5 per gallon, and electricity is 10¢ per kWh, that will produce 10¢ fuel savings per mile (over a standard hybrid), or at most $30 of annual fuel savings.  If we assume the batteries last for ten years under these very strenuous driving conditions, we can come up with a decent 20% Internal Rate of Return (IRR), but under more realistic assumptions we'll get our money back (0% IRR) over ten years, or even end up losing money.

While we can conclude that electricity is too expensive a way to power a car, electricity can make sense in other transportation systems.  The number of times the battery is charged per day (battery cycles) is crucial.  While multiple charges per day are impractical for most commuters, multiple charges may be practical for fleet vehicles with regular routes.  Electric trains and trolley buses can bypass the expense of batteries all together by drawing their power from lines along their routes.  A Battery-electric bus with this capability would be able to drive on ordinary roads for part of its route, recharging while still on its route when external power from overhead lines was available.

Electric Vehicle Paradigms

In other words, the electric car paradigm is the problem.  Electric transportation, with the right paradigm, can make a great deal of sense despite the high cost of batteries.

Wind and the Grid

The dominant paradigm for electric power holds that electric consumption, or demand cannot be influenced by the utility, so electric utilities should manage their generation assets to meet that demand.  Furthermore, electric transmission is built to bring power from generation (which can be placed nearly anywhere there is water for cooling and the neighbors are unlikely to protest.) 

Wind and Solar power do not fit well into this paradigm, because generation from solar and wind depend on the weather and cannot be controlled by the utility.  These problems are exacerbated by the lack of robust long distance transmission, which would reduce the variability of wind and solar by diversifying away local variations in weather.

Therefore wind and solar are square pegs that do not fit in the paradigm's round holes.  For those who accept the paradigm, solar and wind are "unreliable," and require massive investments in dispatchable generation that can replace their output at any time.  Some opponents even claim that wind power does not lead to any decrease in pollution, because wind forces natural gas and coal plants to cycle more often in order to compensate for the increased variability of wind.  Coal power plants are particularly bad for backing up wind because they operate best a constant power, and a coal-only system will have higher emissions when wind is added.

Such critiques of wind power's variability implicitly assume that nothing can be done to make the electric system more accommodating to wind, when in fact there is much that can be done.  One widely quoted study (paid for by the natural gas industry) showed an increase in pollution per MWh of generated electricity in Colorado.  But Colorado is currently in the process of decommissioning or converting to natural gas most of the coal plants that caused the extra pollution.  With this change to the system, the pollution reducing benefits of wind will be much more strongly felt. 

Even without replacing coal plants, the grid can change to better accommodate wind power.  A May 2010 report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the Western Wind and Solar Integration Study (WWSIS), looked at the system improvements needed to allow 35% wind and solar integration in the Western grid.  Many of these require changing the current paradigm of meeting local demand with local resources. 

While the WWSIS does call for increasing the flexibility of dispatchable reserves, most of the recommendations take the form of changing the paradigm. 
  • The areas over which power supply is aggregated to meet demand, called balancing areas, should be expanded.
  • The expansion of balancing areas should be supported by more robust transmission.
  • The use of more accurate weather forecasting will not reduce the variability of wind or solar, but it can make them seem more reliable, since they will be available when expected.
  • New and existing demand response programs should be used to accommodate demand to the increased variability.  In other words, electricity supply cannot solely change to match demand, demand must also change to accommodate supply.
With these changes to the paradigm, the integration of wind and solar are not costless, but the cost is much lower than it would appear from the perspective of someone operating only within the old paradigm.

Implications for Investors

Why should investors care? 

First, any change in the prevailing paradigms to incorporate alternative energy will reduce the future cost of alternative energy.  If most investors do not yet see beyond the current paradigm, the market is probably underestimating the potential for alternative energy.

Second, stocks involved in the transformations necessary to shift paradigms are likely to be unanticipated winners.  In the case of transport, alternative transportation stocks are likely to greatly outperform efficient vehicle stocks as our transportation paradigm shifts away from the car to other forms of transportation that can better leverage the advantages of electric drive.  In the case of the electric grid, smart grid stocks and electricity transmission stocks may also reap unanticipated windfalls as solar and wind increase their share of electric generation.


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Great point about the purple wind turbines. I too think that many are looking at the wrong reasons for why not to invest. The messaging isn't coming across that the pace that we're going to create new energy generation is slower than the rate of our consumption. That's definitely going to be a huge buzz kill for those that don't plan for it in 15-20 years. Thoughts?

Unfortunately, even though some of us are trying to plan for the future, we're not going to be able to avoid paying the costs of the world's procrastination. We're all going to suffer for lack of planning, no matter who was at fault.

On the other hand, our social misfortune is our potential fortune as investors, since the greatest investing gains are made by jumping on trends right before the rest of the worlds sees those trends. I just worry about the "right before" part... I fear that it will be a long time before this trend becomes as obvious to the mass of investors as it should be.

Tom, I don't think your cost paradigm goes far enough.

I hear every politician talking of the Cost of clean tech as if it was money that just evaporates or goes offshore. Like the idiotic California Proposition 23 that tried to kill existing climate legislation pending unemployment dropping to 5.5%. Very transparently, it was funded by Texas oil companies, and thankfully the public saw right through it. But they were raising the cost argument and convinced some 40% of voters!

What is the cost of clean tech, really, in the grand scheme of things? I argue: NOTHING!

When the country spends money on clean tech, that money doesn't evaporate. It has nowhere to go, as long as US companies are providing the goods and services. We just take it out of one pocket and put it in the other. And we get clean in the process!

The only way we could get poorer (lower standard of living) is if our economy was at full capacity and we had to shift focus so much that we wouldn't have enough manufacturing capacity to make all the TVs and SUVs we crave (which of course are much more important than a sustainable future).

But industry is nowhere near capacity, unemployment is high. We can only gain from ramping up clean tech manufacturing. In fact it's the ONLY thing that can get us out of the depression reliably. Money will need to be printed (later will be freed up from pent up private investment capital), employment will rise, aggregate demand will rise, tax revenues will rise, there will be a wave of inflation (globally), asset values will become realistic again, and the economy can chug along from there.

If anyone doesn't understand this logic, or I don't understand something, let me know.

Once the transition is complete, the proportion of the economy allocated to energy, transportation, etc. may be higher than when we started, but our standard of living is not any lower, because there was enough industrial capacity and we got to keep our TVs and SUVs. As time goes on we'll get more efficient at clean tech and its proportion in the economy will slowly approach 0, and in 100 years we're a practically carefree society with more energy than we know what to do with.

Now your efficiency argument has value. Sure, it makes more sense to focus on the effective technologies rather than the ones that are a waste of time. But even spending money on waste of time technologies is a win today, because it boosts aggregate demand. The shitty technologies like electric cars may need to be subsidized temporarily. Not any worse than subsidizing oil companies. But again, that's just money injected into the economy.

Clean tech is a win-win proposition, I really believe that. Definitely on the macroeconomic scale that politicians are concerned with. I think this is the angle we need to be pushing to politicians and the public, because the "cost" issue is nonsense.

I generally agree that some of the best stimulus spending is cleantech, but I do think that picking and choosing the technology is important.

Borrowing money to spend on stimulus creates a long term drag on the economy because that money will have to be repaid through future taxes or inflation. Hence, the returns on the projects being invested in should create economic benefit in the US in excess of the costs. To determine which type of project will generate a net domestic economic gain, it's worth looking at the (pre-subsidy) IRRs of the projects and comparing them to the cost of debt financing, and also considering how much of the benefit is domestic.

Efficiency projects usually have IRRs in excess of 10%, so they are easy to justify. Wind power does as well. But a battery electric vehicle with a negative IRR does not make the cut... many of the batteries are going to be imported, and we will spend more money on them than we would on imported oil... that is a net economic drain.

Also, the net long-term economic boost of a high IRR investment will be better than hat of a low IRR investment, since future energy savings mean that we'll have more future money to repay the debt incurred and spend on more clean energy projects.

In short, no matter how desperate the economy, it always makes sense to spend money wisely.

One thing we do agree on, however, is that money spent developing fossil fuel infrastructure is much less likely to bring long term economic benefit than clean energy, because fossil fuels will not be around for the long term, and they bring significant long term costs in terms of a degraded environment and health that are seldom accounted for in this type of analysis.

But you are still talking in microeconomic terms. I would prefer a paradigm shift towards talking of long-term macroeconomic results.

Think of the US economy as a closed bubble. Yes, we import stuff, but if we are first in the clean tech game, we can export at least as much as we import in this sector. Can we agree that this is a possible scenario? So we have a closed bubble. But really we can think of the Earth as a closed bubble in a globalized world.

Now in this bubble we decide that we want to clean up the environment, so we print some money and get started. All we do is put people to work who are sitting idle, and we're accomplishing our goal (more or less effectively). The only thing that happens is there's more money circulating inside the bubble (no pun intended), greasing the wheels of the economy. Money doesn't get built into the battery packs of cars, as people think of "cost" on a microeconomic scale - locked in. No, once that money paid for that battery, it's circulating right on around in the economy, employing more people and buying more stuff.

And again, since we have reserve manufacturing capacity, we are not lowering the standard of living by allocating manufacturing to cleantech, in fact we're raising it for those who were unemployed before.

The only price is inflation, which hurts cash savings and net lenders. It also may bring overinflated asset values like home prices in certain areas back in line, while correctly valued assets would just move with inflation. Society itself has the same overall wealth, just shifted a bit from cash savings to tangible goods (in this case cleantech).

I'm betting inflation will happen regardless (globally, in a cascade started by the US). If it happens for the wrong reasons, without a rise in employment, we're in shit.

The fed is printing money right now and pumping it in exactly the wrong hole, straight into the banks. Injecting it into the productive economy would be more... productive, correct? As far as debt, it's debt we're paying back to ourselves eventually, devalued after inflation (majority of national debt is domestically held, inside our bubble). If we don't inflate and don't get the economy moving, we won't be paying it back anyway. Of course the losers will be net lender nations (really all net lenders), but in my mind they have already lost. Given that it's not a numeric loss (same number of zeroes regardless of real value) it may have less economic repercussions than the numeric deflations we have seen already in various asset classes.

Anyways, until we can convince people and politicians that clean tech is a win-win investment, rather than "too expensive", we remain paralyzed. And I think the win-win scenario is only only visible at the macro scale. You might want to consider this angle.

Though I commend your win-win arguments at the micro scale, they're also very useful! To your investor readers it's the most useful.

But to policy makers the macro argument is more useful. If this industry doesn't find its voice, it's detrimental to everyone.

Some cleantech is a win-win, some isn't. When we invest, we invest both money (which I agree is essentially a convenient fiction) and energy. We cannot ignore energy economics and expect a net benefit.

If such energy is invested in creating the battery of an EV that we never get it back when driving the EV, we have a net loss of energy available to society. You are only considering cost in terms of dollars (which the Fed can print forever) but there is also embodied energy in every investment. For every joule or BTU we invest, we need to be assured of getting considerably more out over a reasonable span of time if we are going to have energy to continue the other activities we value.

Again, you're thinking in micro terms. My argument is that all of clean tech needs to grow up together. Almost all of industry needs to transform.

Sure, you may lose some immediate energy in manufacturing that EV (to continue the example), but you gain a lot of experience in the process. If EVs push storage technology, it can benefit a lot of other areas of cleantech in the future. It's even plausible that through development we will actually get practical EV's at some point. Battery technology today is not what it was 20 years ago, and not what it will be 20 years from now. But if we don't do the development, we'll never get there.

Once we get there, and all of clean tech grows up, the benefits to society will be tremendous, far outweighing the loss on early development. You lose some energy constructing the early EVs, but gain a tremendous amount of energy from solar, renewables, efficiency in the future, technologies which grew up alongside, far outweighting the initial losses. If we make excuses, we'll never get there.

Of course I'm not saying spend all of the earth's manufacturing capacity on negative energy initiatives (today's EVs) and never improve. How likely is that scenario?

You argument is based on net negative IRR (second last post) and/or net negative energy returns (last post) and/or no reserve capacity for energy or labor (last post). Do you believe that's a likely scenario applied to clean tech as a whole, and over the long term? If you don't, it's hard to argue against my point that "we as a society should invest in all areas of clean tech more heavily than we are currently".

What I'm saying is that we need to invest more in all aspects of clean tech in parallel to spur development, crosspollenation, and even the economy.

How come you can talk of investing money today for future gain, but think that energy tied up today in developmental technology is lost forever?

Or even that a financial portfolio where some assets are losing money, but is a net gainer, is still a sound investment? How is energy economics different?

If we had started clean tech development seriously in the 70's when the movement started, we'd have a lot more of a robust and sustainable industry today (opinion, of course). Delays and excuses are only costing humanity in the long run.

So again, the paradigm should be long term benefits. Whether you think of it in monetary terms or energy terms, the net result is a huge long term gain with clean tech, which is a huge net gain in standard of living, which is what we're after, isn't it?

So why are we still making excuses?

Don't get me wrong, and don't take this as a personal attack. The only reason I'm having this discussion is because you started shifting the narrow-minded paradigm, and I liked that, but thought it can go further. And you yourself were complaining about people's perceptions not catching up with reality fast enough, holding back cleantech development. People's perceptions won't change if all they focus on are the negatives of cleantech, all the deficiencies, not to mention all the misinformation. It's so much easier to burn fossil fuels. We need to provide them a big picture alternative.

Steve, I'm not offended at all and I value the challenge b/c it helps me clarify my thinking.

I agree with you that it would be a good thing to spend gigantic gobs of money on all cleantech, even if some of it were spent on negative IRR/negative EIRR projects.

My only point is that it will be better to target those gobs of money preferentially towards high IRR/EIRR projects. For parts of cleantech where the internal rates of return are low or negative, money should be primarily focused on research into the science, rather than building manufacturing capacity.

You asked:
How come you can talk of investing money today for future gain, but think that energy tied up today in developmental technology is lost forever?

I think that when we invest in developmental technology, it makes more sense to invest directly into the research of developing the technology than it does to invest in building more of it.

And: Or even that a financial portfolio where some assets are losing money, but is a net gainer, is still a sound investment? How is energy economics different?

If I knew beforehand that any of my stocks would be losers, I would not buy them. Energy economics is different in that we have better (if still imperfect) information about the likely returns on our projects, so we can make more accurate choices than we can when building a portfolio.

Of course I understand what you're saying in terms of investing in the technologies that make sense today. That all makes sense from a microeconomic standpoint. My argument is that from a macroeconomic standpoint it's not so important that it should guide policy and paralyze it. Put down your stock trader hat for a moment and put on your Keynes hat ;)

As far as "science" versus "production", I maintain that science can only go so far, especially when it's under-funded as it is. Again, no replacement for real world experiences, blah blah blah. Simple example: a Lexus LS - try designing that in a science lab to be as reliable, luxurious, usable, etc. It's simply impossible. Pretty much all of industry cooperates on its various parts, 100 years of automotive development is embodied in it. Most giant auto manufacturers can't even replicate it, not to mention a science lab.

As far as picking winners in technology, yes, you can maybe make more educated policy decisions about technology than gambling on stocks, but you'll miss leaps in development, and you'll forgo the benefits of synergy between various technologies growing up together. But as a society we buy into cleantech as a fund, and even if some stocks are momentarily losing, they may be the biggest gainers tomorrow (ex: I can't see a future without electric cars; some form of personal transportation will always exist). We're fine as long as the whole investment is giving us benefits.

I think part of the difference between us is that as a trader you're always interested in short to medium term gains somewhere in the back of your head. I couldn't care less about short or medium term movements, and I'm more interested in big picture philosophical implications for society as a whole.

My main points are:

1) you are still restricting the policy paradigm ("some of these technologies are worthless... but some are great!")
2) you are restricting funding to technologies with near and medium term, direct gains - discounting long-term gains, spin-offs, synergistic gains
3) you were not recognizing (maybe?) that a clean economy is "affordable" from a macroeconomic standpoint, or that it's even a huge benefit.
4) you were not recognizing the possibility of maintaining a trade balance in cleantech
5) you were not recognizing (and this is the greatest fallacy held by the population at large) that higher energy prices don't necessarily equate to lower standard of living - as long as the economy expands; plus as you remove the negative externalities of dirty energy you're also raising the standard of living
6) as long as there is excess manufacturing capacity, you don't need to sacrifice standard of living to accomplish things
7) the "cost" of a cleantech initiative, money and energy, does not necessarily vanish; it can give direct immediate returns, long term returns, and n'th order indirect returns short and long term
8) the actual rate of return of an initiative is almost impossible to calculate due to interconnectedness in the economy (just as negative externalities are almost never calculated into the cost of dirty evergy, if it were even possible)
9) all of cleantech needs to grow up together - batteries and EVs and light auto construction need to grow up together, as solar and mass storage and smart grid do, and they're all interrelated in some way
10) you're not recognizing your role as a spokesperson for the industry
11) people are too easily distracted and misled, so we need a consistent message: "cleantech is good for you". Not "cleantech is good but we can't afford it right now" or "some of this cleantech is great but the rest is too expensive" or "cleantech will be great in the future but it's not mature enough to take seriously yet" or "keep burning oil till we figure this shit out"

Not sure which of these points you actually disagree with, so we should focus on those :)

I think you've pinpointed where we are going to continue to disagree. You're right about most of your numbered points, although it's not just that I don't recognize your points, I disagree that your choices are the right way to proceed.

I think we've run into a fundamental difference in outlook. I believe my micro outlook (as you put it) should inform policy decisions, or we risk a backlash when those policies do not bear the promised fruit.

I agree that I also have a (relatively) short term outlook. This is because, as I see it, we're out of time.

Ok. As long as you realize that your wishy-washy outlook, which is much more amplified in less educated portions of the population/politics/investor community, is exactly what's putting the brakes on your dream of a clean future: "I fear that it will be a long time before this trend becomes as obvious to the mass of investors as it should be". It's not even obvious to you, what can you expect from the masses? :)

The fact that we're out of time shouldn't affect your behavior. Just cause you're late to the party doesn't mean you shouldn't do everything you can to get there. Btw, the party is 30 years from now, not 5 years from now, and yes, we are late. I think your outlook being short term is directly related to you being a trader.

Ultimately, I believe it's policy makers, politicians, who will set the trend, not investors. And we're not giving them a coherent story.

I think the difference between us is that you see a possibility of a clean policy not bearing fruit, and I don't. Or even if you don't believe a clean policy as a whole won't bear positive fruit, you fear that sectors of it not bearing direct positive fruit (IRR) will create a backlash. I don't. Dirty energy can get away with things like giant oil spills, global warming, futures gambling causing prices to skyrocket, and you're afraid there will be a backlash against electric cars and such? :)

Politics is not fair... old energy is considered "normal" and so it always gets the benefit of the doubt; new energy can't afford a misstep because influential entrenched interests are waiting to pounce on any misstep.

I do not accept that I'm what's slowing clean energy down... I feel my more conservative and nuanced approach appeals to a certain class of intelligent but fiscally conservative fence-sitter whom the "spend more money on cleantech" message is not going to reach because of their predisposition to be skeptical. If we actually had agreement that something should be done, then perhaps you would be right, but I'm afraid we don't live in that fantasy world.

I place the blame for our slow progress on the lobbying of the fossil fuel industry, people's fear of change, and the misinformation from climate deniers.

I do think your less nuanced message is valuable, but there are many,many people already saying it. If I joined the chorus, most of my audience would probably disappear, since they could learn nothing from me that they could not learn elsewhere. My strength is understanding the microstructure of clean energy, and that's why I have readers, not because of any brilliant prose or deathless turns of phrase.

In politics the guy with the biggest mouth and the biggest balls wins, no matter how little sense he makes and how much he lies. Confidence is key. It's what left-leaning people seem to lack. Not lying, but conviction and confidence.

If even people in cleantech are not confident in the longterm superiority of their technology, why should anyone else have any confidence in it?

Also, we shouldn't confuse what's politically considered feasible and what's technically and economically feasible (btw, I think you're underestimating the absorptive capacity of the economy). If we accept the political feasibility status quo, we're frustrating our own argument before we even start the debate.

Yes the proximate cause of the slow progress is the misinformation, but the lack of a confident and unequivocal voice from your side of the educated minority is not helping.

As far as useful advice, I think you can give useful analysis for any timeframe as long as you qualify it with the timeframe (as you already do in many instances, though I haven't seen your investment horizon go beyond 10 years). The longer term predictions would likely be more positive than short term ones. Some people (traders) will be interested mostly in your micro-analysis and short term advice, while longer term investors and policymakers may put more weight on your long-term analysis.

This was an article that seemed to take a longer term, more macro view. "First, any change in the prevailing paradigms to incorporate alternative energy will reduce the future cost of alternative energy. If most investors do not yet see beyond the current paradigm, the market is probably underestimating the potential for alternative energy." I'm just saying you didn't expand the paradigm far enough, you didn't include externalities in your cost analysis, macroeconomic shifts, policy shifts, etc. which means you may still be underestimating the paradigm shift. Does that mean you're giving a more valuable service to your conservative readers?

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