There’s a very real David vs Goliath conflict now underway in the global energy markets. On one side is a loose coalition made up of renewable energy producers and advocates, individuals who are increasingly concerned about global warming, environmentalists, technophiles, people promoting a democratization of the energy markets, and energy efficiency advocates. On the other side is a vast and powerful global fossil fuel industry backed by wealthy billionaires like the Koch Brothers and various national and nationally supported corporations around the world.
Up to 3.4 Trillion Dollars in Bad Fossil Fuel Investments
By the end of the next 1-3 decades, one set of these two forces will have won out — which will, in turn, decide whether the world continues along the path of climate devastation that is business as usual fossil fuel burning, or sees a rapid reduction in burning-related emissions to near zero which will help to mitigate climate harms while effectively crashing the 3.4 trillion dollar global fossil fuel market.
At issue is the fact that wind, solar, and electric vehicles together have the potential to rapidly take over energy markets that were traditionally monopolized by the fossil fuel industry. Earlier this year, a report out from Bloomberg vividly illustrated the stakes of this currently-raging conflict as it relates to oil and a burgeoning electric vehicles industry.
(Electrical vehicles provide hopes for keeping massive volumes of fossil fuels in the ground and similarly huge volumes of carbon out of the atmosphere. This is achieved by greatly reducing oil demand which could crash the oil markets by as soon as the 2020s. Image source: Bloomberg.)
According to Bloomberg, present rates of electrical vehicle (EV) growth in the range of 60 percent per year would be enough to, on their own, produce an oil glut in the range of 2 million barrels of oil per day by the early to middle 2020s. Continued rapid electric vehicle adoption rates would then swiftly shrink the oil market, resulting in a very large pool of stranded assets held by oil producers, investors and associated industries. Bloomberg noted that even if EV growth rates lagged, continued expansion would eventually result in an oil market crash:
“One thing is certain: Whenever the oil crash comes, it will be only the beginning. Every year that follows will bring more electric cars to the road, and less demand for oil. Someone will be left holding the barrel.”
Bloomberg also noted that LED light bulbs are increasing market penetration by 140 percent each year all while the global solar market is growing at a rate of 50 percent per year. And when technologies like LEDs, solar, wind, and increasingly low cost batteries combine, they generate a market synergy that has the capacity to displace all fossil fuels — coal, oil, and gas.
Coal Already Seeing Severe Declines — Oil and Gas are Next
During 2010 to 2016, we’ve already seen a severe disruption of the coal markets globally and this was due in part to strong wind and solar adoption rates. Coal capacity factors are falling, coal demand is anemic and the coal industry has suffered the worst series of bankruptcies in its history. “The coal industry fundamentals remain very bleak in my opinion,” noted Matthew Miller, a coal industry analyst with S&P Global Market Intelligence in a recent report by the Sierra Club. “If there is a light at the end of the tunnel, we can’t see it yet.”
But as bad as things are for the coal industry now, in the timeframe of 2017 through the early to middle 2020s we have a reasonable expectation that renewable energy and efficiencies will produce even stronger market impacts through competition with fossil fuels. Though not as bad off as coal, natural gas has now entered an unenviable market position where rising fuel costs would cause a ramping rate of renewable energy encroachment. A feature that has tended to check natural gas price increases. Meanwhile, presently rising oil prices will only serve to incentivize the current wave of electrical vehicle adoption.
(Rapidly falling battery prices along with falling solar and wind energy prices will eventually make fossil fuels non-competitive on the basis of cost. Meanwhile, ramping climate harms produce strong incentives for switching energy sources now. Image source: Bloomberg.)
During this time, first cheap renewables and then cheap batteries will increasingly flood the energy markets. Applications that directly replace fossil fuels in core markets will expand. Meanwhile polices like the Clean Power Plan in the US and COP 21 on the global level will continue to erode policy supports for traditionally dominant but dirty fuels.
Coal, Oil and Gas — Noncompetitive Bad Energy Actors
The choices for fossil fuel industry will tend to be winnowed down. Competition will be less and less of an option. Meanwhile, direct attempts to dominate markets through regulatory capture by placing aligned politicians in positions of power in order to strong-arm energy policy will tend to take place more and more often. But such attempts require the expense of political capital and can quickly turn sour — resulting in public backlash. As we have seen in Nevada, Hawaii, Australia and the UK, such actions have only served to slow renewable energy advances in markets — not to halt them entirely. Furthermore, reprisals against agencies promoting fossil fuels have gained a good deal of sting — as we saw in Nevada this year when a major casino and big utility customer decided to pull the plug on its fossil fueled electricity and switch to off-grid solar in the wake of increasing net metering costs.
All that said, we should be very clear that the outcome of this fight over market dominance and for effective climate change mitigation isn’t certain. The fossil fuel industry is one of the most powerful political and economic forces in the world. And even though they are now bad actors on the issue of climate change — which threatens both human civilization and many of the species now living on Earth with collapse and mass extinction — they still, in 2016, retain a great deal of economic and political clout. And this clout endows these industries with an ability to enforce monopolies that effectively capture various markets and delay or halt renewable energy development in certain regions.
Trends Still Favor Renewables
Nonetheless, the trends for renewable energy currently remain pretty strong, despite widespread fossil fuel industry attempts to freeze out development of these alternative sources. And collapsing economic power through expanding competition by renewables would ultimately result in a loss of political power as well. In such cases, we wouldn’t expect a crash in economic power and political influence by fossil fuel interests to occur in a linear fashion — but instead to reach tipping points after which radical change occurs. And over the next 10 years there’s a high likelihood that a number of these energy market tipping points will be reached.