Saviors and Saboteurs in Alternative Energy
Last week Societe Generale published a thematic research report titled "A new world order, when demand overtakes supply" which examines the macro-economic and demographic trends that will transform the global economy over the next 20 years. It mirrored the theme of Jeremy Grantham's April 2011 quarterly letter titled "Time to Wake Up: Days of Abundant Resources and Falling Prices Are Over Forever" and did a great job of summarizing an issue I touched on in "How PHEVs and EVs Will Sabotage America's Drive For Energy Independence."
In the words of Societe Generale:
"So, while up until now less than one billion people have accounted for three-quarters of global consumption, over the course of the next two decades, the new Chinese, Indian, Indonesian, Latin American and African middle classes will bring an additional two billion consumers with similar needs and aspirations as today's North American, European and Japanese consumers." (Page 12)
"Beyond growth in demand for finished products, the most spectacular effect likely to be brought about by the stronger development of the emerging economies will be the enormous rise in demand for raw materials." (Page 14)
"A structural increase in raw materials prices is in fact an inevitable consequence of chronic resource insufficiencies, whether we're talking about industrial, energy or agricultural resources." (Page 19)
The following table from Mr. Grantham's quarterly letter summarizes China's current consumption of key energy, industrial and agricultural commodities as a percentage of total global consumption and drives the point home with the subtle clarity of a sledge-hammer.
If we've seen this kind of demand dislocation as a result of a few decades of growth in China, what's going to happen when the surging middle class populations of India, Indonesia, Latin America and Africa decide to show up for the dinner party? The answer, of course, is that we'll be thoroughly screwed unless we stop wasting time, money and materials on pipe dreams, toys and panacea solutions, and focus instead on finding relevant scale solutions to persistent global shortages of water, energy, food and every commodity you can imagine. We all face a clear, present and persistent danger that can’t even be addressed until we accept the entire ugly reality with all its vulgar implications!
One of the most disturbing conclusions in the Societe Generale report is that while per capita energy demand in advanced economies will remain stable at 5,463 kg of oil equivalent, or maybe even decline to 5,000 kg per person by 2030, global average demand will increase from current levels of 1,818 kg per person to 3,312 kg per person in the low case and 4,228 kg per person in the high case. All of the increased demand will come from emerging and developing economies.
Our fundamental problem is that per capita global production of energy resources is 100 to 200 times greater than per capita global production of the technology metals that underlie all alternative energy schemes. To make things worse, all of those metal resources have critical competing uses that cannot be set aside or ignored in the name of advocacy. At a recent grid-based energy storage conference in Brussels I used the following table to emphasize the point. The orange highlight quantifies available energy resources while the green highlight quantifies technology metal resources.
The mathematically challenged optimists in our midst earnestly believe we can solve our energy problems with cool toys like wind turbines, solar panels, electric cars and other materials intensive energy schemes that fire the imagination but can never be sustainable. These aren’t solutions! They’re the energy and transportation equivalent of graphic novels and just a half-step removed from warp drive. In the final analysis, the dreamers who want to waste metals and other natural resources in the name of conserving coal, oil and natural gas are not saviors. They're unwitting saboteurs who can only make the problems worse!
Whether we like it or not, the only technology that has a prayer of generating enough new energy to satisfy even a small fraction of anticipated global demand is nuclear, a point that was forcibly driven home by Bill Gates in a recent interview at the WIRED Business Conference 2011. The naive idea that we can cut hydrocarbon consumption for the laudable goal of saving the planet is sophistry. Given a choice between freezing in the dark and burning hydrocarbons human beings will always choose the later because immediate personal need will always trump long term societal goals, especially fuzzy green goals.
I'm an unrelenting critic of obscene raw materials users like Tesla Motors (TSLA), A123 Systems (AONE), Ener1 (HEV) and Valence Technologies (VLNC) that want to build a future out of making toys for our emerging eco-royalty because I've read about the French Revolution and remember how 'Madame Le Guillotine' put a uniquely sharp edge on popular discontent over conspicuous consumption. These business models are doomed to fail because they're diametrically opposed the needs of society.
The only alternative energy investments that stand a chance of survival, much less profitability, are basic efficiency technologies that slash waste and deliver real savings for every ounce of natural resource inputs. Nuclear power, idle elimination, fuel efficiency, demand response, building efficiency, ebikes, recycling and a host of other technologies that do more with less are the only possible future. Wind turbines, solar panels, electric cars and all of the other feel-good graphic novel schemes are merely pleasant distractions, a bit like Nero's fiddle.
Disclosure: Author is a former director of Axion Power International (AXPW.OB) and holds a substantial long position in its common stock because Axion's disruptive third generation lead-acid-carbon battery technology uses 30% less lead to deliver impressive gains in power, cycle-life, charge acceptance and overall real world utility.