Grant Cooke: Big Oil’s endgame: While fossil fuel costs keep rising, renewable costs fall

Repost from The Benicia Herald
[Editor: Benicia’s own Grant Cooke has written a highly significant three-part series for The Benicia Herald, outlining the impending fall of the fossil fuel industry and concluding with good advice for the City of Benicia and other cities dependent on refineries for a major portion of their local revenue stream.  This is the second of three parts.  Read part one by CLICKING HERE and part three by CLICKING HERE.  – RS]

Grant Cooke: Big Oil’s endgame: While fossil fuel costs keep rising, renewable costs fall

October 4, 2014, by Grant Cooke

Grant Cooke, Benicia, California“The Stone Age came to an end, not because we had a lack of stones, and the oil age will come to an end not because we have a lack of oil.” — Sheikh Ahmed-Zaki Yamani

THREE KEY FACTORS WILL PUT TO REST the fossil fuel industry and make the good Sheikh Yamani’s prediction come true. Two of them are discussed here.

The first is that the carbon emitters will be held accountable and made to pay for using the atmosphere as a garbage can. While still struggling to price the cost of pollution, most nations, as well as California, have come to realize that the heavy carbon emitters need to pay for the damage they have done. A cap-and-trade process is the first method to hold the emitters accountable. While imperfect and not nearly as effective as a straight carbon tax, this system is growing throughout the world. The European Union’s program, which started several years ago and was described by the fossil fuel interests as failing, is now deemed a success. It has become an established part of European culture and corporate practice. Various nations such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Korea and China have developed cap-and-trade programs as well.

California’s own program continues to grow, and our carbon offsets are tradable in parts of Canada as well. As it gains momentum, other states are watching California’s program and thinking about adopting their own. Impoverished state governments see cap-and-trade programs as a boon to their environment and a way to garner vital tax revenues. Since increases in personal income tax are so unpopular, cap-and-trade is seen as a way to bring new money into state treasuries without risking voter rebellions.

The pressure to make the major carbon emitters pay for their pollution is coming from the agreements made at the 2012 UN Conference on Climate Change in Doha, Qatar. At this conference world governments consolidated the gains of the last three years of international climate change negotiations and opened a gateway to greater ambition and action. Among the decisions was to concentrate on a universal climate agreement by 2015, which would come into effect in 2020. The 2015 conference will be held in Paris, and world governments are expecting much greater cooperation and agreement on carbon-reduction policies from the U.S. and other major emitters.

The world is slowly accepting the reality that the mitigation of climate change is a massive problem. A 2012 report by Climate Vulnerable Forum estimated that more than 100 million people will die and the international economy will lose out on more than 3 percent of GDP ($1.2 trillion) by 2030 if the world fails to tackle climate change. But because governments don’t want to use their funds for environmental cleanup and climate change mitigation, it will be the heavy emitters like the oil, coal and utility companies that will pay.

This cost for carbon cleanup, added to the increasing costs of extracting hard-to-get fossil fuel resources, will hit the oil industry hard. A 2013 Harvard University report showed that the cost externalities from coal were about 18 cents per kilowatt hour. Most U.S. end-users who rely on coal-generated electricity pay about 10 cents per kWh. If the external costs were added, those users would pay closer to 30 cents per kWh — which would severely impact those users’ lifestyles.

Grid parity

The second major factor hastening the end of today’s megalithic fossil fuel industries is “grid parity.” Grid parity is a technical term meaning that the cost to a consumer for electricity from a renewable source (without subsidies) is about equal to the cost from a traditional source — be it fossil fuel or nuclear. The Germans used grid parity to price their feed-in-tariff program, or FiT, that launched Energiewende.

Simply put, with PGE’s 2014 rate increase a Benicia resident or small commercial consumer pays about 20 (19.9) cents per kWh for electricity from traditional sources. If that same kWh came from a renewable source and cost the consumer an equal 20 cents, then the renewable source would be at “parity,” or equal to the cost of the traditional generation source.

However, the cost of traditional energy is rising, driven by higher extracting costs, increasing maintenance costs for natural gas pipelines and increases in operating cost at nuclear power plants. At the same time the costs for renewable energy — wind, solar photovoltaic and biowaste fuels — are declining.

The costs for wind generation have been and still are the lowest. However, the costs for solar are declining rapidly as its use spreads. Deutsche Bank reported in January 2014 that there were 19 regions around the world where unsubsidized PV solar power costs were competitive with other forms of generation. In fact, PV competes directly in price with oil, diesel and liquefied natural gas in much of Asia. This equality of costs with fossil fuel and natural gas is creating a worldwide solar boom in 2014-15.

In the U.S., almost 30 percent of last year’s added electricity capacity came from solar. In Vermont and Massachusetts, almost 100 percent added capacity came from solar. According to the U.S. Solar Energy Industries Association, more solar was installed in the U.S. in the past 18 months than in the last 30 years. Solar PV technology, which has been helped by the U.S. military, is improving so fast that it has achieved a virtuous circle.

As described by New York’s Sanford and Bernstein investment bank, we have entered an era of “global energy deflation.” This ratcheting down of energy costs may be slow to start, but as they argue, the fossil fuel-dominated energy market will experience a major decline in costs over the next decade. The market is entering a new order that will erode the viability of oil, gas and the fossil fuel continuum.

The report argues that the adoption of solar in developing markets will translate into less demand for kerosene and diesel oil. The adoption of solar in the Middle East means less oil demand, and the adoption of solar in China and developing Asia means less liquefied natural gas demand. Further, distributed solar in the U.S., Europe and Australia will likely reduce demand for natural gas.

They reason that while solar has a fractional share of the current market, within a decade solar PV and related battery storage may have such a large market share that it becomes a trigger for energy price deflation, with huge consequences for the massive fossil fuel industry that is dependent on continued growth.

Even the Saudis are betting on solar, investing more than $100 billion in 41 gigawatts of capacity, enough to cover 30 percent of their power needs by 2030. Most of the other Gulf states have similar plans.

Grant Cooke is a long-time Benicia resident and CEO of Sustainable Energy Associates. He is co-author, with Nobel Peace Prize winner Woodrow Clark, of “The Green Industrial Revolution: Energy, Engineering and Economics,” to be released in October by Elsevier.