Friday, March 02, 2007

The Mathematics of Energy: Have We Reached a Tipping Point?

The VC industry profits from secular disruptions. In IT, platform transitions – mainframe to client/server to web, etc – create massive disruptions, new companies, and fantastic returns to investors.

In a absolute sense, disruptive companies initially operate on the margin of major industries. GOOG, for example, is the leader in the online ad market, a market which represents less than 6% of the total advertising market.

It is often not the absolute levels of market share that drive market capitalization but rather the rate of relative change in new technology platform adoption. The rate of change is a function of the economics and value of the emerging technology platform.

GOOG’s market cap reflects the market consensus that the online market’s share of total advertising will grow from 6% to 10% to 20% and that GOOG will disproportionately benefit from the reallocation of spend.

Okay, online advertising is 6% of the total.

Anyone care to hazard a guess as to clean energy’s share of the US energy market?

Clean energy, a new vc darling, is 2.3% of the US electricity market.

The 2.3% breaks down the following way:
1.5% from bio-mass
0.44% from wind
0.36% for geothermal
0.01% for solar power.

The other 97.7%?
49.7% coal-fired
19.3% nuclear
19.1% natural gas
6.5% hydro
3% oil-fired

Wow. 97.7% is non-renewable, with 50% carbon spewing coal.

Now, the environmental benefits of clean energy aside, is clean energy economically competitive?

Caveat….the environmental impact/cost of traditional energy is not captured by market prices. Non-price costs are referred to as externalities and, ultimately, serve to understate the costs of traditional energy. Pricing externalities remains beyond the scope of the market – ie. What is the cost of Greenland’s melting ice sheets, who should pay for it, how should it be imputed into the market price for energy?

The DOE provides interesting answers as to price competitiveness. For a plant coming on-line in 2015, the per kilowatt hour prices, by energy source, are forecast to be:

Coal $0.0531 per kwh
Wind $0.0558 per kwh, or 1.051x coal
Natural Gas $0.0525 per kwh, or .98x coal
Nuclear $0.0593 per kwh, or 1.12x coal
Solar $0.30 per kwh, or 5.65x coal
Biomass $0.075 per kwh, or 1.41x coal
Geothermal $0.075 per kwh, or 1.41x coal

In essence, the DOE believes that, independent of subsidies, that only natural gas will be cheaper than coal. Importantly, wind, nuclear, biomass, and geo-thermal are approaching the cost of coal.

The sad fact is that in the absence of either 1) subsidies, 2) innovations in pricing models that can capture the costs of externalities, or 3) a material breakthrough in technology, that the importance of coal will be undiminished. This is reflected in TXU’s plan to build monster coal fired plants in TX – they are economic actors.

For the clean energy sector, the math does not yet work. In order for the 2.3% to become 5% then 10% then 20%, we appear to need two things

1) the analog of Black-Scholes pricing models to emerge. We need to develop a pricing model, that the market will accept, that can capture the externalities and hidden costs of non-renewable energy production.
2) A breakthrough not only in the cost of alternative energy production, but also an ability to scale. Wind today can serve 20m homes – we need massive increases in scale.

Monster companies emerge not when they own 20% of a market but when the market realizes that the economic advantages of the new platform will create massive dislocations in the market. When we see clean energy reach 5%, it will be interesting to see if a GOOG type company is leading the reallocation of capital with an economic value proposition that leaves coal, thankfully, in the dust…

See WSJ.com/reports for an excellent analysis of the topic above

5 comments:

  1. Where did you get the cost number for geothermal?

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  2. the data come from the Wall St journal report by the same title. Do you think the numbers are off?

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  3. Anonymous7:06 PM

    The numbers look to be estimating "clean coal" somewhat negatively, and look overly optimistic for the others.

    http://www.eia.doe.gov/oiaf/archive/aeo07/figure_56.html

    In other words, I think coal has more of a cost advantage than stated in the article - over both nuclear and wind (especially over wind).

    Its hard to nail the numbers down, because you have to make assumptions about amortizing the plants and replacement costs of parts that wear out. Another factor is "clean" regulations that may force the costs of coal up a few cents per kwh to make greener sources more competitive in the name of reducing CO2 emissions.

    The other very relevant factor is that the US possesses copious amounts of coal and nuclear fuel, and will run out of of domestic oil in no time.

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  4. the number for nuclear that seems slightly off. it may be some other costs added into the Kwh. the IAEA website says 1.87 cents per KwH.

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  5. are these costs inclusive of powerplant costs, transport, production, maintanence etc.?

    ReplyDelete