It’s time to make the call – fossil fuels are finished. The rest is detail.
The detail is interesting and important, as I expand on below. But unless we recognise the central proposition: that the fossil fuel age is coming to an end, and within 15 to 30 years – not 50 to 100 – we risk making serious and damaging mistakes in climate and economic policy, in investment strategy and in geopolitics and defence.
I’ve written previously about 2015 being the year the “Dam of Denial” breaks, referring to the end of denial that climate change requires urgent, transformational economic change. While related, this is different. It is now becoming clear we’ve reached a tipping point where fossil fuels will enter terminal decline, independently of climate policy action.
Given climate policy action is also now accelerating, fossil fuels are double dead. To paraphrase Douglas Adams, “So long and thanks for all the energy”.
I understand this is a very big call, especially in regards to timing. There are many drivers that lead me to this conclusion but it’s their integrated impact that makes me so confident.
Thinking of energy like you think about an iPhone
The first and most important one is the argument I first made early in 2014 in a paper with Giles Parkinson from RenewEconomy.com.au. For over a hundred years, energy markets have been defined by physical resources, supplied in large volumes by large, slow moving companies developing long life assets in the context of slow moving shifts in markets.
The new emerging energy system of renewables and storage is a “technology” business, more akin to information and communications technology, where prices keep falling, quality keeps rising, change is rapid and market disruption is normal and constant. There is a familiar process that unfolds in markets with technology driven disruptions. I expand on that here in a 2012 piece I wrote in a contribution to Jorgen Randers book “2052 – A Global Forecast” (arguing the inevitability of the point we have now arrived at).
This shift to a “technology” has many implications for energy but the most profound one is very simple. As a technology, more demand for renewables means lower prices and higher quality constantly evolving for a long time to come. The resources they compete with – coal, oil and gas – follow a different pattern. If demand kept increasing, prices would go up because the newer reserves cost more to develop, such as deep sea oil. They may get cheaper through market shifts, as they have recently, but they can’t keep getting cheaper and they can never get any better.
In that context, consider this. Renewables are today on the verge of being price competitive with fossil fuels – and already are in many situations. So in 10 years, maybe just 5, it is a no-brainer that renewables will be significantly cheaper than fossil fuels in most places and will then just keep getting cheaper. And better.
Then we add in electric cars, which are now on the same path – converting a staid, slow moving industry (traditional auto companies like GM) into a disruptive technology driven one (innovators like Tesla). Electric cars will accelerate the end of fossil fuels by joining with renewables to create a system shift, both directly by using clean power to charge them and indirectly by driving battery costs down to create storage for distributed renewables.
This all then unleashes competition across sectors bringing new players to old industries. For example utilities facing the much discussed death spiral triggered by solar, will find the motor vehicle fuels market very appealing. This would then unleash a huge political and commercial driver for growth in electric cars with the utility sector providing infrastructure to use their product, locking in customers with long term supply deals backed by renewable power and lobbying for electric cars (to also protect the grid).
Within a decade, electric cars will be more reliable, cheaper to own and more fun to drive than oil driven cars. Then it will just be a matter of turning over the fleet. Oil companies will then have their Kodak moment. Coal will already be largely gone, replaced by renewables.
The incumbents won’t respond in time. They are steeped in their analysis that they are the underpinning foundation of the economy – which of course they have been. This is so deeply ingrained in their worldview they can’t see their error. Energy is the essential foundation of the economy but we now have a better, cheaper way of producing energy.
Fast beats slow
One of key competitive advantages the fossil fuel industry has had is the huge capital, complexity risk and high level engineering skills required to develop them. This has two impacts. Firstly it created huge barriers to entry in the market – a disruptive entrepreneur can’t build a coal power station, drill in the deep ocean, buy an oil tanker or develop a coalmine. They can play on the edges, like shale gas, oil trading or mineral exploration, but they can’t play the main game. Secondly the industry has had huge incumbency power – it’s very expensive and politically hard to consciously and deliberately close down such a powerful industry and replace it. Thus action on climate change has stalled for decades.
Both of these benefits are gone when you combine “energy as a technology” with most growth in energy demand being in developing economies. With renewables already competitive today without subsidy in some markets and the above trends playing out, it is inevitable that before long – maybe a decade – virtually all new electricity generation will be from renewables. Add in the need to be clean – not just for climate change reasons but for local air quality – and the choice developing countries will face will be between large, old, dirty, hard to finance infrastructure that requires heavy government support or small scale, easy to finance, more convenient, popular and clean energy and transport that will get even cheaper over time. Tough choice?
So the very thing that the fossil fuel industry had relied on for its growth – the rapidly expanding need for energy in the developing world – is the very thing that will drive the competition to wipe them out.