Electric motors: variable star?

Variable frequency drives precisely control motors. Amazingly they could reduce global electricity demand by c10%. We expect a sharp acceleration due to sustained energy shortages, increasingly renewable-heavy grids and excellent 20-50% IRRs. Hence this 14-page note reviews the opportunity and who benefits.

There are 50bn electric motors in the world consuming half of all global electricity. They are inefficient. Because their speed is determined principally by the frequency of the AC power grid. The physics and electronics of this inefficiency are outlined on pages 2-4.

Variable frequency drives use similar power-electronics technology as the renewables revolution, to precisely control electric motors, ensuring they do not run faster than is needed. We outline how they work and case studies of their energy savings on pages 5-7.

Excellent economics are laid out on pages 8-10. We see IRRs in the range of 20-50% and payback periods in the range of 1-5 years, depending on power prices and CO2 prices.

Improved resiliency in renewable-heavy grids is a further advantage, protecting against voltage sags, lack of inertia, trips and motor degradation. These issues are explored on pages 11-12.

Leading companies are described on pages 13-14, including their market shares, proportionate concentration to the theme and product offerings.

Carbon capture: how big is the opportunity?

This 13-page note aims to quantify the upside case for CCS in the United States, using economics, top-down and bottom-up calculations. Our conclusion is that a clear, $100/ton incentive could help CCS scale by c25x, accelerating over 500MTpa of projects in the next decade, which could prevent almost 10% of the US’s current CO2 emissions. Our numbers include blue hydrogen and next-gen CCS.

Current CCS incentives are not sufficient for hard-to-abate sectors in the US, within the <$50/ton confines of the 45Q tax credit (page 2).

Although CCS technology is mature, c$100/ton incentives are needed to kick-start the industry. The economics are built-up on pages 3-7.

Top-down market-sizing is based on the oil and gas industry, which has extracted 900MTpa of hydrocarbons from sub-surface reservoirs, on average in the past 40-years. We discuss possible future CCS volumes relative to this baseline on page 8.

Bottom-up market sizing looks industry-by-industry, to break down possible capture volumes. We discuss each industry in turn – coal power, gas power, ethanol, steel, cement, et al., – on pages 9-12.

Blue hydrogen remains particularly exciting, for the decarbonization of smaller industrial facilities that may need to share infrastructure (page 13).

Insulating materials: deliver us from gas shortages?

Insulating materials can slow the loss of heat from a warm house by a factor of 30-100x. This matters as 60-90% of today’s global housing stock is 30-70% under-insulated. And the world is now grappling with gas shortages, which may encourage policymakers to re-prioritize nearer-term energy savings. We think renovation rates could treble. This 12-page note screens who might benefit.

Shortfalls in the European gas market are discussed on page 2. A 20% improvement in home insulation could free up the equivalent of all pipelines imports from Algeria.

The thermodynamics of home insulation are laid out on pages 3-4, explaining the W/m.K metric, why it matters, and scoring different materials.

The scale of the opportunity is larger than we thought, based on a dozen technical papers, reviewed and summarized on pages 5-6, in order to quantify potential energy and CO2 savings.

CO2 abatement costs will generally be below $100/ton, we calculate, especially amidst energy shortages. Economic assumptions and calculations are on pages 7-9.

Leading companies that produce insulating materials are screened on pages 10-11, in order to identify who might help supply a potential trebling of materials demand.

An interesting nuance, discussed on page 12, is how better insulation would re-shape the cost curve for decarbonizing home heat, in favor of nature-based solutions, gas and hydrogen; but potentially away from heat pumps and other electrification technologies.

Carbon capture on ships: raising a sail?

CCS is adapting to ‘go to sea’. 80% of some ships’ CO2 emissions could be captured for a cost of c$100/ton and an energy penalty of just 5%, albeit this is the best case within a broad range. This 15-page note explores the opportunity, challenges, progress and who might benefit.

Different options to decarbonize the shipping industry are compared and contrasted on pages 2-4, including the abatement costs of different blue and green fuels.

But what about CCS? The technology is mature. However, CCS on a ship would have different parameters from onshore. We discuss three key considerations on pages 5-7.

Will it actually work? The question is whether you can put an amine plant on a floating structure, store the CO2 as a liquid, and expect the entire system to function. We believe the answer is yes, based on reviewing technical papers, as summarized on 8-10.

$100/ton economics are possible. We use our models to outline what you need to believe to reach these numbers, including sensitivities, and applicability to different shipping types and routes (pages 11-12).

Which companies benefit? We explore implications for leading capital goods companies, chemicals companies and small-scale LNG on page 13.

A new infrastructure industry would also be required, to handle CO2 in ports, move it to disposal sites, or integrate with CO2-EOR. We discuss this theme on pages 14-15.

Switching gears: the most potent GHG in the world?

SF6 is an unparalleled dielectric gas, used to quench electric arcs in medium- and high-voltage switchgear. There is only one problem. It is the most potent GHG in the world. Therefore, it may be helpful to find replacements for SF6, amidst the ascent of renewables and electrification. This note discusses resultant opportunities in capital goods, plus some minor cost inflation consequences.

Electrical Arcs and Amazing Switchgear?

Our recent research is taking us down the rabbit hole of power-electronics, looking for capital goods opportunities associated with increasingly renewables-heavy grids. For example, wind and solar are more volatile than conventional generation. They do not inherently provide any inertia or reactive power. For an explanation of these effects, and an example of a possible solution, please see below.

Another crucial theme is switchgear, which you can think of as the industrial-scale equivalent of the circuit-breakers and light switches in your house. At the 120-240V voltages in a typical home, flipping these switches ‘off’ is fairly trivial.

But once voltages surpass about 10kV, and especially above 150kV, we are starting to deal with serious amounts of energy. The potential difference on either side of these electrical contacts can be large enough to literally rip the electrons off of air molecules, and form an ‘electric arc’, which is like an electrical lightning bolt, whose core can reach 20,000◦C. For some slightly mesmerizing videos of electric arcs in primary power distribution, see below.

Further downstream, you obviously do not want uncontrolled electrical lightning storms raging through the sensitive and expensive electronic equipment in an industrial facility, every time you turn it on/off, or every time there is a fault on increasingly volatile power grids. Especially if people are in the vicinity. High potential differences will chemically degrade most substances. High enough temperatures will also melt practically anything.

Enter gas-insulated switchgear (GIS). In 1957, Westinghouse began commercializing switchgear containing a compound called SF6, which rapidly gained popularity in the 1970s. At comparable pressures, this gas has 2.5x higher dielectric strength than air (and more at even higher pressures, see below), which means it takes 2.5x more voltage to rip the electrons away and permit current to flow. Moreover, SF6 is ‘self healing’: in a few micro-seconds, any dissociated SF6 molecules will re-combine, so the SF6 can quench multiple electric arcs in quick succession. It has 3.7x higher specific heat than air, absorbing excess heat without transmitting it onwards. It is non-toxic. It is non-flammable. Hence it has become a dominant solution to ‘fill’ the cavities of switchgear and quench electric arcs. There is no other substance known to man with such an incredible array of properties.

Climate Impacts of SF6?

There is only one problem with SF6. It is the most potent greenhouse gas in the world, with around 23,900x higher warming potential than CO2 (chart below). Because of its exceptional stability, it also has an atmospheric lifetime of about 3,200 years, which effectively means that any SF6 released into the atmosphere stays there ‘forever’.

It is important not to sensationalize the climate impacts of SF6. The world consumes around 8kTpa of SF6, of which 80% is used in electrical switchgear, as described above. Especially in Europe, there are stringent regulations to ensure checks and prevent leaks of SF6.

But even if 8kTpa of SF6 were released to the atmosphere — e.g., at end-of-life, when switchgear is retired — then this would be equivalent to about 200MTpa of CO2, or around 0.4% of today’s global emissions. A study in the 1990s concluded that SF6 emissions had so far contributed <0.1% of all historical manmade warming. On the other hand, the $120bn pa market for switchgear will likely grow rapidly from here, with the themes of renewables, EVs and the policy-objective to ‘electrify everything’ (below).

A read-across for gas? There are people out there who look at natural gas’s global warming potential — 80-100x CO2 on an instantaneous basis, 21-25x CO2 over 80-100 years — and argue natural gas should therefore be ‘banned’. This is not our view. We simply think gas users and consumers must mitigate methane emissions (note below). But you cannot help wonder what these ‘abolitionists’ would say about SF6. Should it not be banned as well by the same logic?

Reading through documents from the European Commission, one gets the sense that there is a desire to tighten regulations and lower SF6 usage in the electrical industry. (It has already been banned in other non-essential contexts, such as in double-glazing).

The challenge is that alternative solutions are not practical. One EU document from 2020 notes “it is a challenge to find cost effective, reliable, and safe SF6-free replacements for load break switches… because, compared to vacuum circuit breakers, load break switches are normally simpler, cheaper and maintenance free”. However, the document goes on to argue that “Where the SF6-free alternatives are more costly than switchgear containing SF6, policy intervention is likely to be needed to trigger a transition. As part of the European Green Deal, the Commission has recently launched a review of the EU rules on fluorinated gases”.

Replacements for SF6 — Capital Goods Opportunity?

What are the challenges? Larger footprints are needed for SF6-free switchgear. In other media, it simply takes more space to safely quench an electrical arc. This makes it difficult to replace switchgear at industrial sites with space constraints.

Larger switchgears also tend to use more materials, and require larger manufacturing efforts, which in turn makes their costs 20-30% higher than SF6-using switchgears (and 2x more expensive in some cases).

Finally, SF6 is so chemically inert that it does not react with metallic components or contacts, degrading switchgear over time, whereas other gases will likely require more maintenance over their operating lives.

Nevertheless, there are alternatives, using air insulation, mineral oils, fluoroketones, CO2, epoxy coverings and vacuum-mechanisms to quench electrical arcs. To re-iterate, they are simply more expensive and usually less practical than SF6.

There is a large prize for the capital goods industry, therefore, developing SF6-free alternatives. And we will note some examples below.

  • Eaton was the first manufacturer of SF-6 free switchgear, and has shipped 350,000 SF6-free switchgears by 2019, and 15M vacuum-interrupters, under its Xiria product range.
  • AirPlus is a mixture of Novec 5110 (C5-PFK) and dry air, commercialized by ABB and 3M. These have been field-tested since November-2015 and have largely behaved as expected. The product range includes a medium-voltage gas-insulated indoor RMU which can operate at 24kV and with a 630A rating.
  • g3 is a blend of Novec 471010 (a C4 PFN) and nitrogen, developed by GE and 3M and has been fully type-tested. It has similar performance to SF6 and has been proved up to 420kV. It is being tested at insulated substations by TSOs, including National Grid, with a single substation in SW Scotland saving 1.7 tons of SF6.
  • Nuventura has a product using ‘synthetic air’ as an insulator. The product is claimed to match the footprint of comparable SF6 solutions, while having 7-10% lower capex and opex. The product is currently rated up to 1,250A and 12-36kV. We currently see three patents for Nuventura in the EPO database. The company is privately owned, based in Germany and was founded in 2017.
  • Other manufacturers of SF6-free switchgear include Meiden, Hitachi, Schneider, Toshiba, Lucy et al. Screening different companies may form the basis of a future TSE research note. Please contact us if this would be interesting or helpful.

What impacts on renewables and electrification costs?

The best way to evaluate the future costs of a technology are to build up a detailed line-by-line cost model, then interrogate each line. Our main conclusion from this exercise, across 500 data-files so far, is that we many cost lines in the build out of renewables and electrification may actually re-inflate in the future. Especially where costs are linked to underlying materials.

Electrical balance of plant usually comprises $100-300/kW of the costs in our wind and solar models, out of $1,000-3,000/kW total costs (breakdowns below). A single circuit breaker might cost $5/kW (maximum capacity basis). A single transformer might cost $12/kW (note below). Generally, one might expect c10-30% reinflation in the cost of switchgear as SF6 is de-prioritized for new equipment in the future. Although we think this is unlikely to add more than 1-2% to the cost of an overall renewables project.

Examples of our research into future renewables costs are linked below. Again, we do not want to sensationalize the issue of SF6. But broadly, we think it may be dangerously incorrect to assume ‘perennial deflation’ for many renewables technologies, as there are many line items re-inflating in our models. We will continue to look for opportunities in power-electronics and materials.

Carbon neutral investing: hedge funds, forest funds?

This 11-page note considers a new model of ‘carbon neutral’ investing. Look-through emissions of a portfolio are quantified (Scope 1 & 2 basis). Then accordingly, an allocation is made to high-quality, nature-based CO2 removals. This allows portfolio managers to maximize returns, investing across any sector, while also neutralizing the environmental impacts.

Is continued capital allocation needed, for energy-intensive sectors, even amidst the energy transition? We outline the arguments on pages 2-4, finding stark differences between other sectors where ‘divestment’ has been effective.

A new model is proposed on pages 5-6. The look-through CO2 intensity of a portfolio is calculated, then all emissions are offset using high-quality nature based allocations.

Advantages of the model are described on page 7, including the commercial opportunity for fund managers, cash coverage ratios and second order consequences.

More detailed challenges are then covered on pages 8-11, looking issue by issue, for implementing this model in practice, and where we hope we can help.

Grid volatility: are batteries finally in the money?

UK power price volatility has exploded in 2021. The average daily range has risen 4x from 2019-20, to 35c/kWh in 3Q21. At this level, grid-scale batteries are strongly ‘in the money’. So will the high volatility persist? This is the question in today’s 6-page note. We attribute two-thirds of the volatility gains to gas shortages and high absolute power prices. However, wind generation is at three-year lows.

End game: options to cure energy shortages?

This 13-page note considers five options to cure emerging energy shortages in the gas and power sectors of countries working hard to decarbonize. Unfortunately, the options are mostly absurd. They point to inflation, industrial leakage and slipping global climate goals. But there may be a few glimmers of opportunity in LNG, nuclear and efficiency technologies.

How did we get here? Our latest models for gas, LNG and power shortages in Europe are laid out on pages 2-4, to illustrate the scale of looming under-supply.

The first option to cure long-term under-supply is to incentivize more gas projects. Unfortunately, energy transition has become irrational and adversarial. Hence we worry hurdle rates for these big, capital intensive projects are around 15-20% and this could make the marginal cost of LNG around $12-16/mcf (pages 5-7).

The second option is to use more coal and fuel oil to lower the need for gas, especially in the most price-sensitive emerging market geographies. But this is not good for decarbonization. “Switching economics” are laid out on pages 8-11.

The third option is to ‘leak’ industrial activity away from the West, so our energy demand decreases. We model what a long-term doubling of gas and power would do to the cost curves of ten major industries, finding inflation of c30% on average (page 12).

The fourth option is to step up efficiency gains: a very broad area. This would include cancelling nuclear scale-backs, backtracking on ridiculous green hydrogen, and an accelerated cycle of capital investments to promote more efficient energy use. This is the best option. But it only has a limited impact. And we only scratch the surface on page 13.

The fifth option is a 100% renewable powered energy system, which avoids any need for gas in the mix, by 2025-30. Unfortunately, this is a fantasy, for practical, economical and timeframe reasons. We have not re-hashed all of our prior analysis in this note, but for further details, please see here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

Power grids: tenet?

How do power grids work? How will they be re-shaped by renewables? This 20-page note outlines the underpinnings of electricity markets, from theoretical physics through to looming shortages of ‘inertia’ and ‘reactive power’. Some commentators may not have fully grasped the challenges of back-stopping renewables and opportunities thus created.

The purpose of this note is to outline how power grids actually work. Amazon.com sells two introductory electronics textbooks. But they weigh in at 544-pages and 1,056-pages, respectively. We are going to try to run through the important ideas in about twenty, for the reasons outlined on page 2.

The fundamentals of electromagnetism are covered on page 3, and important concepts are explained from first principles, as clearly as possible.

The fundamental of electrical power, including key units of measurement, are covered on pages 4-5, again introducing the key concepts from first principles.

Conventional power turbines are described on pages 6-7, including how they synchronize and supply crucial inertia and reactive power.

Solar generation is described on pages 8-9, including the physics of bandgaps, and the electronics of MPPTs and inverters.

Wind generation is described on pages 10-11, including the physics of swept areas, and the electronics of DFIGs and AC-DC-AC converters.

Power distribution and transformers are described on pages 12-14, covering the growing trend towards smaller and more fragmented power distribution.

Power consuming technologies are described on pages 15-17, explaining how induction motors, resistive heaters, lighting and electro-chemical cells regulate their power consumption.

The crucial debate is over the optimal share of renewables. Our most noteworthy data-points and conclusions are spelled out on pages 18-21.

Overall, the power grid is somewhat reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s 2020 science fiction thriller, Tenet. Nobody understands it. Tracing a causal chain of events requires looking forwards and backwards in time simultaneously. Someone is hiding in a wind turbine. And the protagonists insist they are working to avert the end of the world.

Energy transition: distorted by politics?

Political divisions may explain some recent mysteries around the energy transition, and be larger than we had previously imagined. This note explores lobbying data and concludes there is more need for objective and apolitical analysis.

To an apolitical researcher, focused mostly on data, numbers and objective analysis, there are some strange goings-on in the energy transition. Our review of the ‘top ten controversies’ is linked below. But let us zoom in on a few examples…

(1) A Republican President recently stated that climate change was a ‘hoax’ and could effectively be ignored. This is despite not having any clear expertise in Earth Science or climatology himself. Conversely, our own climate models and conclusions are below.

(2) A Democrat President recently has been seen to discourage US oil and gas production in the name of averting climate change, but then later called on OPEC to raise output. This is despite many OPEC countries – Iraq, Nigeria, Venezuela – having much higher levels of flaring, methane leaks and CO2 emissions than US producers (data below).

(3) Another of the leading US Academic institutions recently announced it would divest its endowment from oil and gas. This is despite suggestions that divestment might, again, hand market share to higher CO2 producers, while also depriving China of new LNG supplies, thereby perpetuating its reliance on 2-3x more CO2 intensive coal.

(4) 100% renewable electricity is often promoted by policymakers and even claimed by some tech companies (note here). This is despite nobody having a practical or economical solution to satisfy demand in the 30-70% of the times when wind and solar hardly generate any electricity at all, or other complications with the power grid (below).

(5) Restoring degraded natural ecosystems can absorb around 200-400 tons of incremental CO2 per acre at costs of around $15-50/ton. This should be an enormous win for the environmental movement, especially with more experience (notes below). Yet many policymakers have so far disavowed nature-based solutions in favor of other CO2 abatement options costing $300-1,000/ton and that do not restore nature.

The mysteries above are unsettling to me as a researcher. I have spent an inordinate amount of time wondering ‘what am I missing?’ and poring back over my numbers.

But these apparent paradoxes may also be explained by political divisions. Our chart below aggregates data from opensecrets.org, showing several billions of dollars spent on lobbying by fifteen major industries in the past 20-years. Conspiracy theories are not usually helpful. But there are clear conflicts of interests in these numbers.

Political polarization? Some members of the oil and gas industry appear to be consistently among the largest contributors to Republican candidates and causes, followed by some members of other energy-intensive industries. Conversely, some members of the education, entertainment and tech industries are consistently the largest contributors to Democrat candidates and causes. And to state the obvious, Democrats tend to be pro-Democrat causes and anti-Republican causes; and vice versa.

Everyone is entitled to a political opinion. However, is there not the smallest temptation for those with strong political leanings to promote the interests of others with similar political learnings; and equally, to weaken the interests of those with opposite political leanings? How do we know that politics are not ‘distorting’ energy transition policies? Five conclusions follow below…

(1) Some statements are merely political posturing? If you cannot find a good facts-based, numbers-based justification for strange goings-on in the energy transition, it is possible that they could be politically driven. In some cases, you may simply translate “I support this technology” or “I strongly object to this technology” as “I am hereby expressing my political position”. That is fine. People are entitled to political positions. But it may be helpful for decision-makers to differentiate between objective facts and political opinions. We think transparent data and numbers are the best way to do this.

(2) Politicizing the energy transition may make it harder to achieve important environmental goals. By definition, the solution space that satisfies a complex array of lobbying interests is going to be smaller than the overall solution space. It may involve selecting non-optimal solutions. There is also a risk of yo-yo policies, as each fresh administration reverses course from the last. Therefore an important goal for decision-makers, is to identify opportunities that will ‘stick’, regardless of the political climate, and differentiate them from temporary fads that are politically motivated. Our work aims to do this.

(3) If you want to make a difference, driving the energy transition, the best solution may be to steer clear of politics, and simply get on with ‘doing’ something constructive. You are not going to change other peoples’ political views. Get on with your life. As a personal example, I am currently speccing out my own reforestation project, which should offset my family’s entire lifetime CO2 emissions (note below). Per our research, there are some amazing companies ‘doing’ amazing things across the energy transition, and some amazing opportunities as a consequence…

(4) Is all research objective? What is most surprising about our lobbying chart above is the very large political skew of US Academia, especially in the last electoral cycle. How does an institution that gives $2.5 – 25M to a particular political party (data here) ensure that it is conducting apolitical research, balanced peer-reviews and considering all angles? Everyone is entitled to political opinions. But we aspire that science should be apolitical and objective. Moreover, some of the output from widely-reputed, inter-governmental organizations has also recently contained some surprising conclusions, which smell of the political cart leading the numerical horse.

(5) The best antidote, we believe, is objective, numbers-based analysis. Which is the goal in TSE’s research. It is independent and apolitical. The sole focus is to find practical and economic opportunities for decision-makers, which can help the world decarbonize. To keep a balance, each of our 170 clients pays the same subscription fee to access our research. Our conflicts of interests policy is linked here. And most importantly, all of our data and models are published transparently on our website. If you ever disagree with the number in a particular cell in a particular spreadsheet, then please write in, and we should debate it.