Paolo von Schirach
November 30, 2016
The still unresolved issue that will determine if and when there will be real mass demand for Electric Vehicles, EVs, is how to design and manufacture cheaper, lighter batteries for EVs with a higher energy reservoir, and therefore capable of traveling longer distances with one electric charge.
The optimists tell us that we are getting there. They cite significant technological innovations and dramatic cost reductions already achieved in the past few years. All true. Batteries are cheaper. EVs now can travel farther. And the optimists also tell us that new collaborative efforts now underway may help expedite additional progress in battery design and effectiveness.
Cheaper batteries, coming soon
Here is a good example. “Cheaper, more powerful electric car batteries are on the horizon.” This headline appeared on ScienceDaily, 9 August 2016. The story is about a new joint effort linking the U.S. Department of Energy, several U.S. academic institutions and the private sector, under the leadership of a Binghamton University expert.
“The White House —Science Daily wrote— recently announced the creation of the Battery500 Consortium, a multidisciplinary group led by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) working to reduce the cost of vehicle battery technologies. The Battery500 Consortium will receive an award of up to $10 million per year for five years to drive progress on DOE’s goal of reducing the cost of vehicle battery technologies.”
“[Assuming success, this effort] will result in a significantly smaller, lighter weight, less expensive battery pack (below $100/kWh) and more affordable electric vehicles.
M. Stanley Whittingham, distinguished professor of chemistry at Binghamton University, will lead his Energy Storage team in the charge.”
“We hope to extract as much energy as possible while, at the same time, producing a battery that is smaller and cheaper to produce,” said Whittingham. “This consortium includes some of the brightest minds in the field, and I look forward to working with them to create lithium batteries that will power future electric vehicles more affordably.”
According to the Science Daily story, other Battery500 Consortium members include:
• Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
• Brookhaven National Laboratory
• Idaho National Laboratory
• SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory
• Stanford University
• University of California, San Diego
• University of Texas at Austin
• University of Washington
• IBM (advisory board member)
• Tesla Motors, Inc. (advisory board member)
Well, is this an indication that we are on the verge of a major breakthrough when it comes to the most critical component of future generation EVs? Who knows, really.
Still, if I were the CEO of a major oil company, I would feel very nervous.
Never mind OPEC and its mixed signals regarding its willingness and ability to freeze/cut production in order to stabilize global oil prices. Never mind the ongoing tensions between political rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran and their potential impact on oil markets.
Oil will become obsolete
The real scary thought is that oil may soon become obsolete. Yes, you got it right: “Oil may soon become obsolete”.
Of course this will not happen suddenly. And of course there will still be a significant need for many oil derived products other than gasoline for automobiles. (Think jet fuel, oil for plastics and other petrochemical products, and a lot more).
Still, the fact is that on a global scale crude is used mostly to produce the gigantic rivers of oil-derived gasoline that end up in the tanks of hundreds of millions of cars powered by internal combustion engines. Tanks that need to be refilled very often with more and more gasoline.
End of the conventional car
If and when cheaper EVs powered by cost-effective new generation batteries hit the road, there will be a fairly rapid revolution. This will be the end of the conventional car powered by an internal combustion engine.
Indeed, an electric charge is much cheaper than filling your tank with gasoline. Much cheaper batteries, assuming some companies will manage to manufacture them relatively soon, will lower the price of future electric vehicles, while increasing the distance EVs can cover with one charge.
As soon as this happens, there will be a consumers-led revolution. Millions of drivers across the world will quickly switch to EVs because they will be finally affordable, dependable, and much cheaper to operate, not to mention far cleaner than their gasoline powered counterparts. (By the way: not entirely clean. EVs run on electricity, a zero emission fuel. However, a significant percentage of electricity in the U.S. and elsewhere is produced by burning coal and natural gas. Which is to say that if you consider the source of their fuel, although emissions free, EVs are still not entirely “clean”).
That said, the big, open question for any oil executive is: “How much time do we have left before the whole oil sector will collapse, due to lack of demand”?
It is very clear that this revolutionary transformation brought about by mass-produced EVs will happen. But nobody knows when: 5 years? 10 Years? 15 Years?
And here is the big problem for the oil industry. In order to properly run their businesses, oil executives must plan ahead. And these plans entail major capital investments needed now in order to reap significant gains to be realized several years down the road in terms of new oil production coming on line.
Indeed, for oil companies to stay profitable, mature wells close to exhaustion need to be replaced by fresh production. And this means investing now, sometimes on a massive scale, in order to secure continuity of future oil production. This is how the industry works. Except that now this traditional approach is no longer a sure bet.
Given developments in EV battery technologies, today oil executives know that this cycle of investments-exploitation-new investments-future exploitation will no longer work indefinitely.
The end of oil companies as giant players
If and when EVs will become dominant because of technological and cost breakthroughs in batteries technology, this will signal the beginning of the end for major oil companies.
In the not so distant future, many of them will run the risk of being caught with new expensive projects half completed that all of a sudden are no longer economically viable on account of collapsing demand for their product –oil– once coveted, and now out of fashion.
Beyond these contingencies, because of EVs almost all companies will have to cut production, concentrating on the cheapest oil, in order to survive in a new energy era characterized by drastically diminished demand for oil and oil products. The weakest players will not be able to make it. They will go under or they will be bought by bigger companies.
Oil will still be needed
Having said all this, will EVs amount to a catastrophe for the oil sector? Not entirely. Let’s keep all this in perspective. Even assuming state of the art, cost-effective EVs quickly replacing an enormous global fleet of gasoline powered vehicles, there will still be demand for oil.
Heavy trucks and ships will continue to run on oil derived diesel fuel for many, many years. Likewise, thousands upon thousands of civilian and military airplanes will still rely on jet fuel made from crude oil. Petrochemical and plastics industries across the globe will continue to need oil derived products.
All this is true. However, assuming a fairly rapid switch to EVs, the global demand for oil, now driven largely by demand for oil derived gasoline, will collapse. All of a sudden, the global oil industry will face gigantic over capacity: too much oil and too little demand. Only the ultra lean, low-cost operators with a solid financial base will survive.
Good bye Exxon?
Hard to think of a world in which Exxon Mobil will be a mid-sized company confined to producing oil for jet fuel and diesel trucks only, since millions of cars will run on electricity, and no longer on gasoline. But we are getting there. And this may happen sooner than we think. Call it the next “oil shock”.
Paolo von Schirach is President of the Global Policy Institute and an Adjunct Professor at BAU International University. A different version of this article first appeared in the Schirach Report www.schirachreport.com
The views and opinions expressed in this issue brief are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of GPI.