Energy economics: an overview?

This data-file provides an overview of energy economics, across 175 different economic models constructed by Thunder Said Energy, in order to put numbers in context. This helps to compare marginal costs, capex costs, energy intensity, interest rate sensitivity, and other key parameters that matter in the energy transition. Our top five facts follow below.

This data-file model provides summary economic ratios from our different economic models across conventional fuels, conventional power, renewables, lower-carbon fuels, manufacturing processes, infrastructure, transportation and nature-based solutions.

For example, EBIT margins range from 3-70%, cash margins range from 4-80% and net margins range from 2-50%, hence you can use the data-file to ballpark what constitutes a “good” margin, sub-sector by sub-sector; and to screen different industries, according to the capital intensity, opex costs and resultant profitability (chart below).

Capital intensity ranges from $300-9,000kWe, $5-7,500/Tpa and $4-125M/kboed. So if you are trying to ballpark a cost estimate you can compare it with the estimated costs of other processes. The median average industry has a capex cost of $750/Tpa (chart below).

Capital intensity of different energy sources also varies by an order of magnitude (chart below). Each $1 dollar that is disinvested from new hydrocarbon capex ideally needs to be replaced by $25 invested in wind and solar, in order to add the same amount of primary energy to the global energy system (chart below, note here).

Economies of scale are visible in the data-file, across our models of Air Separation, Cables, Comminution, Compressors, Electric Motors, Electrowinning, Fans, Flotation, Gas Dehydration, Harmonic Filters, Heat Exchangers, Inverters, Motor Drivers, Pumps, Rankine Engines, Tanks and Turbines. Generally, making these units 10x larger reduces their unit costs by around 45%.

Cost reduction from scale for different energy technologies.

Interest rate sensitivity is visible in our overview of energy economics. Each 1% increase in capital costs re-inflates new energies 10-20%, infrastructure 2-20%, materials 2-6%, and conventional energy 2-5% (chart below, note here).

Marginal cost inflation per 1% WACC increase for different energy technologies, materials, and infrastructure projects.

The energy intensity of materials is visible across our models of Acetylene, Aluminium, Ammonia, Carbon Fiber, Cement, Copper, Cyanides, Desalination, Glass, H2O2, Hydrogen, Industrial Gases, Lithium Batteries, Methanol, NaOH/Cl2, Nitric Acid, Paper, Plastics, Silicon, Silver, Steel, Wood Products. As a rule of thumb, energy is 50% of the cash cost of typical materials.

Renewables stand out. Despite high capital intensity (35% of revenues, 2x the average), once constructed, they also have the highest cash margins (75%, also 2x the average). The rise of wind, solar and electrification make capex costs and capital costs increasingly important.

The full data are available in the data-file below. However, please be aware that this is simply a compilation of headline figures across our library of 175 economic models. Access to all of the underlying models is covered by a Thunder Said Energy subscription.

Commodity prices: metals, materials and chemicals?

Annual commodity prices are tabulated in this database for 70 material commodities, as a useful reference file; covering steel prices, other metal prices, chemicals prices, polymer prices, with data going back to 2012, all compared in $/ton. 2022 was a record year for commodities. We have updated the data-file for 2023 data in March-2024.

Material commodity prices flow into the costs of producing substantively everything consumed by human civilization, and increasingly consumed as part of the energy transition. Hence this database of annual commodity prices is intended as a useful reference file. Note it only covers metals, materials and chemicals. Energy commodities and agricultural commodities are covered in other TSE data-files.

Source and methodology. The underlying source for this commodity price database is the UN’s Comtrade. This useful resource covers trade between all UN member countries, across thousands of categories, in both value terms ($) and mass terms (kg). Dividing values (in $) by masses (in kg) yields an effective price (in $/kg or $/ton). We have then aggregated, cleaned and averaged the data for 70 materials commodities.

The median commodity in the data-file costs $2,500/ton on an unweighted basis. Although this ranges from $20/ton for aggregates to $75M per ton for palladium metal.

2022 was a record year for material commodity prices. The average material commodity priced 25% above its 10-year average and 40 of the 70 commodities in the database made 10-year highs.

Steel prices reached ten-year highs in 2022, averaging $2,000/ton across the different steel grades that are assessed in the data-file. This matters as 2GTpa of steel form one of the most important underpinnings in all global construction. Our steel research is aggregated here.

Commodity prices
Steel Price by year by steel grade in $ per ton

Base metal prices averaged 40% above their ten-year averages in 2022, as internationally traded prices rose sharply for nickel, rose modestly for aluminium and zinc, and remained high for copper (chart below).

Commodity prices
Base metal prices by year and over time for zinc, aluminium, copper, and nickel in $ per ton

Battery metals and materials prices rose most explosively in 2022, due to bottlenecks in lithium, cobalt, nickel and graphite. This is motivating a shift in battery chemistries, both for vehicles and for energy storage. It also means that the average battery material in our data-file was higher priced than the average Rare Earth metal in the data-file (which is unusual, but not the first time).

Commodity prices
Battery material prices over time $ per ton for lithium, cobalt, manganese, nickel, LiPF6 and lithium carbonate in $ per ton

Commodity chemicals all rose in 2022 across every category tracked in our chart below. These chemicals matter as intermediates. On average, sodium hydroxide prices reached $665/ton in 2022, sulphuric acid prices reached $140/ton and nitric acid prices reached $440/ton.

Commodity prices
Industrial Acids and Caustic Soda Prices over time. NaH, H2O2, HCl, H2SO4 Sulfuric Acid, HNO3 Nitric Acid, H3PO4 Phosphoric Acid, HCN and HF in $ per ton

500MTpa of global plastics and polymers demand is covered in our plastics demand database. Both finished polymer prices (first chart) and underlying olefins and aromatics (as produced by naphtha crackers, second chart) prices rose sharply in 2022. Our recent research has wondered whether terms of trade are likely to become particularly constructive for polyurethanes.

Commodity prices
Polymer prices by year LDPE HDPE PET EVA Polyurethanes Paints and Adhesives in $ per ton
Commodity prices
Olefins and Aromatics Prices over time

Silicon prices matter as they feed in to the costs of solar, and traded silicon prices also reached ten year highs in 2022, before correcting sharply in 2023. Silica prices surpassed $70/ton, silicon metal prices reached $4,000/ton and polysilicon prices surpassed $30/kg (charts below).

Commodity prices
Silica price, silicon price and polysilicon price in $ per ton

The full database captures 70 globally traded materials commodities and their annual prices over time in $/ton, year by year, from 2012-2022. These are: Acrylonitrile prices, Adhesives prices, Aggregates prices, Aluminium prices, Ammonia prices, Battery Graphite prices, Benzene prices, Butadiene prices, Carbon Fiber prices, Cement prices, Cobalt prices, Cobalt Oxide prices, Cold Rolled Steel prices, Concrete prices, Copper prices, Copper Wire prices, Cumene prices, Electric Motor and Generator prices, Electrical Transformer prices, Epoxide prices, Ethanol prices, Ethylene prices, Ethylene Oxide prices, EVA prices, Formaldehyde prices, Glass Fiber prices, Gold prices, Graphite Anode prices, Graphite paste prices, HCl prices, HDPE prices, HF prices, Hot Rolled Steel prices, Hydrogen Peroxide prices, Integrated Circuit prices, LDPE prices, LiPF6 prices, Lithium Carbonate prices, Lithium Metal prices, Manganese prices, Manganese Oxide prices, Methanol prices, NaCN prices, Nickel prices, Nitric Acid prices, Paint prices, Palladium prices, PET prices, Phosphoric Acid prices, Platinum prices, Polyethylene prices, Polysilicon prices, Polyurethane prices, Propylene prices, Propylene Oxide prices, PTFE prices, Rare Earth Magnet prices, Scandium & Yttrium prices, Silica prices, Silicon Metal prices, Silver prices, Sodium Hydroxide prices, Stainless Steel prices, Steel Alloy prices, Sulfuric Acid prices, Toluene prices, Tubular Steel prices, Urea prices, Vehicle prices, Xylene prices, Zinc prices.

Oscar Wilde noted that the cynic is the man who knows the price of everything, but the value of nothing. To avoid falling into this trap, we also have economic models for most of the commodities in this commodity price database.

We will continue adding to this commodity price database amidst our ongoing research. You may find our template useful for running Comtrade queries of your own. Or alternatively, if you are a TSE subscription client and we can help you to use this useful resource, then please do email us any time.

Bill of materials: electronic devices and data-centers?

Electronic devices are changing the world, from portable electronics to AI data centers. Hence what materials are used in electronic devices, as percentage of mass, and in kg/kW terms? This data-file tabulates the bill of materials, for different devices, across different studies.

This data-file captures the bill of materials for electronic devices, such as cell phones, tablets, laptops, hard discs, solid state-drives, printed circuit boards, servers in data-centers, power supply units, adapters, copper cables and fiber optic cables.

Five materials make up c85% of the mass of typical electronic devices: advanced polymers (c20%), steel (c20%), glass (18%), aluminium (12%) and copper (12%). However, the exact numbers vary by product, as shown in the chart above.

Steel is the joint largest material exposure for electronic devices, although this is unsurprising, as steel is the most-used structural material on the planet, and in digital devices as well, it is used for the chassis/enclosure of data-center racks and other components, in switchgears, fans, heat sinks, etc.

Advanced polymers are the single most important material, both by mass and by specialization. HDPE and PVC are often used for electrical insulation in wires, cables and power supply units. PCBs are c35% epoxy resin. Polycarbonates are used in hard drives and optical disc drives. Solid state drives use specialty polymers, such as liquid crystal polymers.

Copper use from the rise of AI is more debatable. For example, several older studies suggest copper use in AI data-centers can range from 30-60 tons/MW. But on the other hand, these older studies may not fully reflect the scale-up of computing density per rack, which could reduce copper use to 10 tons/MW, albeit this would still tighten global copper balances by around 1% per year through 2030.

The ability to thrift out bulk material intensity factors by raising computing performance density, using advanced materials and manufacturing techniques is highly reminiscent of the same trend in new energies (raising solar efficiency, raising battery voltages). This creates opportunities in vapor deposition equipment, advanced polymers, and ultra-high purity materials including tantalum, silver, gold, tin, et al.

Finally, the vast range of advanced materials used in electronic devices and data-center components is shown by the vast number of materials in the data-file: ABS, Al2O3, Aluminium, Barium, Barium Titanate, Benzoic acid polymer, Brass, Calcium Oxide, Carbon, Cardboard, Chromium, Copper, Cromium, Dioxygen, Epoxy Resin, Ethylene Vinyl Acetate, Fan, Ferrous, Fibrous Glass Wool, Glass, Glass Fiber, Gold, HDPE, HVA-2, Iron, Iron Oxide, LCP Polymer, Lead, Li-ion batteries, Magnesium silicate, Magnesium, Magnets, Manganese, Neodymium, Nickel, Palladium, Paper, PCB, Pegoterate, Phenol polymer, Pigment Black 28, Polybutyl Terephthalate, Polycarbonate, Polycarbonate Acrylonitrile, Polycarbonates, Polyimides, Polymers, Polyurethanes, Proprietary, PVC, Silica, Silicon, Silver, Sodium Oxide, Solder, Steel, Styrofoam, Synthetic Rubber, Tantalum, Tin, Titanium, Vinyl Silicone Oil, Zinc.

Peak commodities: everything, everywhere, all at once?

Commodities needed for energy transition

This 15-page note evaluates 10 commodity disruptions since the Stone Age. Peak demand for commodities is just possible, in total tonnage terms, as part of the energy transition. But it is historically unprecedented. And our plateau in tonnage terms is a doubling in value terms, a kingmaker for gas and materials. 30 major commodities are reviewed.

Global polysilicon production capacity?

Global polysilicon production

Polysilicon is a highly pure, crystalline silicon material, used predominantly for photovoltaic solar, and also for ‘chips’ in the electronics industry. Global polysilicon capacity is estimated to reach 1.65MTpa in 2023, and global polysilicon production surpasses 1MTpa in 2023. China now dominates the industry, approaching 90% of all global capacity.

Polysilicon is a highly pure form of silicon material (over 99.999%), often formed via the Siemens process, converting 98-99% pure metallurgical grade silicon into silane gases, then vapor depositing pure silicon crystals out of the silane gas, at 10-20nm per minute, at 600-1,100◦C temperatures, for 80-110 hours. Polysilicon is then further purified and crystallized into mono-crystalline polysilicon via the Czochralski method, for use in photovoltaic solar and other semiconductor chips (over here, model here).

Global polysilicon production capacity likely reaches 1.65MTpa in 2023 and global polysilicon production reaches 1MTpa. For context, production of the key input material, silicon metal, is around 8.5MTpa (per the USGS), and production of the key raw material, silica, is around 350 MTpa (per our silica screen).

This data-file aggregates polysilicon production by facility, by company, by region, by country and over time. China now controls almost 90% of the world’s polysilicon production capacity, with six large Chinese companies comprising over 80% of capacity.

Global polysilicon production
China has ramped up and now controls almost 90 percent of all global polysilicon production

Aggregating polysilicon production data is opaque. Some large Chinese producers publish surprisingly little data. Others have mysteriously deconsolidated production facilities, especially in Xinjiang, after international groups criticized their use of Uyghur labor. Another issue is that some facilities have appeared to operate well above nameplate capacity, raising questions about what their ‘capacity’ really is.

Global polysilicon production by company is estimated in one tab of this data-file, simply taking the best public data-points we can find, triangulating between different sources, and settling on the most sensible estimates that we can find.

Global polysilicon production
Global polysilicon production capacity by company x

Although gross solar additions have risen by 65x in the past 15-years, growing at a CAGR over 30% per annum, surpassing +200GW YoY in 2022, this has not been entirely propitious for polysilicon incumbents. The materials balance of a solar module has seen thinner wafers reducing polysilicon intensity by two-thirds since 2005 (chart below-left), while rapid capacity expansion in China has seen utilization fall from around 85% on average around 2010 to 60% in 2022-23 (chart below-right). This may be an important lesson for other value chains with large growth ahead in the energy transition.

Global polysilicon production
Global polysilicon capcaity utilization has been falling due to lower polysilicon intensity and intense Chinese capacity expansion

New energies: the age of materials?

new energies costs

Over the past decade, costs have deflated by 85% for lithium ion batteries, 75% for solar and 25% for onshore wind. Now new energies are entering a new era. Future costs are mainly determined by materials. Bottlenecks matter. Deflation is slower. Even higher-grade materials are needed to raise efficiency. This 14-page note explores the new age of materials, how much new energies deflation is left, and who benefits?

Hydrogen peroxide: production costs?

Hydrogen peroxide production costs

Hydrogen peroxide production costs run at $1,000/Tpa, to generate a 10% IRR at a greenfield production facility, with c$2,000/Tpa capex costs. Today’s market is 5MTpa, worth c$5bn pa. CO2 intensity runs to 3 kg of CO2 per kg of H2O2. But lower-carbon hydrogen could be transformational for clean chemicals?

Hydrogen peroxide is a 5MTpa and $5bn pa commodity chemical market. It is an oxidizing agent, used in producing paper, detergents and in water treatment. And increasingly in producing materials that matter for the energy transition, such as propylene oxide for polyurethane insulation/EVs and for etching semiconductors.

Hydrogen peroxide production costs? This data-file estimates the economic costs of producing hydrogen peroxide, at $1,000/ton per ton of 100%-pure H2O2. An important definitional point is that H2O2 is often transported at 30-70% concentration, then later diluted for end use at 3-8% concentration. Clearly, the more you dilute the product, the more you dilute the price. But our numbers are per (hypothetical) ton of pure H2O2.

Capex costs of hydrogen peroxide plants also vary by technology, product concentration and product purity. Please see the data-file for further details. But our base case is around $2,000/Tpa of capex costs for a new, greenfield hydrogen peroxide plant. High purity hydrogen peroxide for the semiconductor industry costs more.

Hydrogen peroxide production costs
Capex costs of hydrogen peroxide production facilities

How is hydrogen peroxide produced? The dominant method is anthraquinone auto-oxidation. The key input is hydrogen, which reduces anthraquinone. The reduced anthraquinone can later be oxidized, in the presence of air, forming both H2O2 and H2O, and regenerating the anthraquinone. The process uses a palladium catalyst. It is exothermic, so heating inputs are low.

How much hydrogen is used up in making hydrogen peroxide? The key challenge is minimizing over-consumption of hydrogen (or in other words, maximizing hydrogen conversion and selectivity). Our estimates into hydrogen consumption of hydrogen peroxide production are tabulated in the data-file.

The CO2 intensity of hydrogen peroxide production is 3 tons/ton, as our base case estimate, for today’s production process. The largest contributor is the embedded CO2 of hydrogen, which also comprises one-third of total hydrogen peroxide production costs.

Could clean hydrogen be a game-changer? What if IRA incentives allow hydrogen peroxide plants to source cheaper hydrogen? Each $0.1/kg reduction in the input hydrogen price raises cash flow by 8% and IRRs/ROCEs by a full percentage point (1pp). Our best single note on booming blue hydrogen value chains is linked here.

Low carbon hydrogen can realistically reduce the CO2 intensity of hydrogen peroxide from 3 kg/kg, to below 0.5 kg/kg. Further downstream, this can reduce the total CO2 intensity of propylene oxide production from 2-3 kg/kg to 1 kg/kg. Further downstream, propylene oxide can react with CO2 in a molar ratio of 1:1 (forming polyether polycarbonates) or 2:1 (forming polycarbonate polyols), and switching in low-carbon hydrogen can make these overall value chains close to carbon neutral for the polyether polycarbons, and substantially lower carbon for downstream polyurethanes.

Leading hydrogen peroxide producers, such as Solvay, Evonik and Arkema, may thus benefit from low carbon hydrogen? Some recent notes on each company are in the data-file. Evonik purchased PeroxyChem for $640M in 2020, consolidating the global hydrogen peroxide market. In June-2023, Solvay said it would develop Europe’s first hub for the production of “green hydrogen peroxide” by mid-2026, with a 9.5MW dedicated PV installation, yielding 756Tpa of green hydrogen, to reduce Solvay’s total CO2 footprint at its Rosignano plant by 15%.

MIRALON: turquoise hydrogen breakthrough?

MIRALON technology

MIRALON is an advanced material, being commercialized by Huntsman, purifying carbon nanotubes from the pyrolysis of methane and also yielding turquoise hydrogen. The material has multiple uses in energy transition. This data-file reviews the MIRALON technology, patents, and a strong moat. Our base case model sees 15% IRRs if Huntsman reaches a medium-term target of bringing MIRALON costs down to $10/kg.

“When we succeed at the kiloton scale, MIRALON will be a name that everyone knows”. This comment was made on a recent Huntsman podcast, describing a novel technology for pyrolysing methane, producing a carbon nanotube-based material (MIRALON) and a byproduct stream of turquoise hydrogen.

This data-file is our MIRALON technology review, based on assessing c45 patent families going back to 2004 and continuing through 2023. In our view, there are clear process innovations behind MIRALON, including methods for controlling the methane pyrolysis reaction, purifying the carbon nanotube product and regenerating the catalyst.

MIRALON fibers are 1mm long, 3-15nm wide, 25x stronger than steel, with similar performance characteristics to carbon fiber (similar strength, higher flexibility, but conductive and dissipating static charges) and other advanced materials.

Commercialization. A 1Tpa micro-plant has been running in Merrimack, New Hampshire in 2021. A 30Tpa pilot plant is being constructed in Texas in 2023. And a multi-kTpa scale reactor will follow. MIRALON was already used in the Juno space mission, while future applications are seen in battery binders, composites, electric vehicles, steel and cement.

Clean hydrogen? Huntsman and ARPA-E have said that CO2 intensity of the resultant hydrogen from the MIRALON process will be 90% below SMR hydrogen (i.e., below 1 ton/ton), which should open up access to $1/kg of 45V incentives under the IRA. Future formulations derived from gas that would otherwise have been flared, landfill gas or biogas could be deemed carbon negative.

Economics. We have updated our turquoise hydrogen models with a tab estimating the costs of the MIRALON process (chart below). Our base case sees 15% IRRs if Huntsman reaches its targets of deflating costs to $10/kg including $1/kg hydrogen and $1/kg IRA incentives. You can stress test inputs, outputs and pricing in our turquoise hydrogen model.

MIRALON technology
Economic costs of producing MIRALON

Huntsman is a chemicals company, headquartered in Texas, which IPO’ed in 2005, operates 70 production facilities in 30 countries, generated $8.4bn of revenues in 2022 and $1.2bn pa of adjusted EBITDA. The company has featured in our research into polyurethanes, carbon fiber, resins and niche mining chemistries.

Our conclusions on the MIRALON technology, the moat around the patents, the key process innovations and the remaining challenges are in this data-file linked below.

Indium producers: companies and market outlook?

Indium producers

35 indium producers are screened in this data-file, as our energy transition outlook sees primary demand quadrupling from 900 tons in 2022 to over 3.5ktons in 2050, for uses in HJT solar cells and digital devices. 60% of global supply is produced by 20 Chinese companies. But five listed materials companies in Europe, Canada, Japan and Korea also stand out.

Indium is a metal of interest in the energy transition as its main use is in indium tin oxide (ITO), a transparent, conductive material (TCO), increasingly used in solar (especially HJTs), but also in the flat screens within televisions, computers and portable electronic devices, all associated with the rise of the internet and AI.

Indium producers
ITO thickness in thin film layers for solar cells especially HJTs averages around 70-100 nm

Rising demand for solar and digital technologies will easily quadruple global demand for indium from around 900 tons per year to 3.5ktons per year, on a primary production basis. Supply breakdowns and demand forecasts are in the data-file.

Indium producers
Indium production by country and over time

This all requires indium prices to recover back up above $500/kg, we think, and indium prices are also tabulated in the data-file.

How is indium produced? In the data-file, we look facility by facility, aggregating and adding to excellent data from the USGS. We think 80% of the world’s indium is currently produced as a by-product of non-ferrous metals refining, especially zinc refining.

There are 35 indium production facilities in the world. But indium is rarely more than 2% of the total revenues of non-ferrous metals companies and gets produced on the order of magnitude of 100 grams of indium per ton of zinc.

Who are the leading indium producers? 60% of the indium market is controlled by a constellation of 20 relatively opaque Chinese companies, of which two are listed leaders.

Elsewhere, five public companies producing indium are listed in Korea, Japan, Canada and Europe and may be interesting for decision makers to explore. Many are also exposed to metal value chains such as silver and battery recycling, which matter in the energy transition.

For each indium producing company in the screen, we have assessed the type of company, when it was founded, how many employees it has, recent revenues (in $M), co-production of zinc, refinery details (e.g., production capacity in tons) and 3-10 lines of notes that stood out to us from reviewing published company materials.

Smooth operators: who benefits from volatile power grids?

Some industries can absorb low-cost electricity when renewables are over-generating and avoid high-cost electricity when they are under-generating. The net result can lower electricity costs by 2-3c/kWh and uplift ROCEs by 5-15% in increasingly renewables-heavy grids. This 14-page note ranges over 10,000 demand shifting opportunities, to identify who can benefit most.

Copyright: Thunder Said Energy, 2019-2024.