Energy transition: five reflections after 3.5 years?

This video covers our top five reflections after 3.5 years, running a research firm focused on energy transition, and since Thunder Said Energy was founded in early 2019.

(1) Inter-connectedness. Value chains are so inter-connected that ultimately costs will determine the winning transition technologies.

(2) Humility. The complexity is so high that the more we have learned, the stupider we feel.

(3) Value in nuances. As a result, there is value in the nuances, which are increasingly interesting to draw out.

(4) ‘Will not should’. Bottlenecks need to be de-bottlenecked as some policy-makers have inadvertently adopted the “worst negotiating strategy in the world”.

(5) Bottom-up opportunities. And finally, we think energy transition and value will be driven by looking for bottom-up opportunities in a consistent framework.

Levelized cost: ten things I hate about you?

Challenges for levelized cost analysis

‘Levelized cost’ can be a useful concept. But it can also be mis-used, as though one ‘energy source to rule them all’ was on the cusp of pushing out all the other energy sources. Cost depends on context. Every power source usually ranges from 5-15c/kWh. A resilient, low-carbon grid is diversified. And there is hidden value in materials, power quality and electronics. Our 15-page note explores nuances and challenges for levelized cost analysis.

Finding value in the nuance is increasingly important to us, after 3.5 years focused on the energy transition. This note looks back through our various electricity market models, and wonders whether ‘levelized cost’ analysis might be overlooking some nuances? (page 2).

Vast variations are visible in our databases of capex, prevailing conditions (windiness, sunniness, wetness, geothermal gradients, fuel prices) and hurdle rates (pages 3-5).

The asset base. No doubt, a Volkswagen Golf costs about 75% less than a Tesla Model S. This does not mean that money has been ‘saved’ if you dismantle the Tesla Model S in your drive-way, and then go out and purchase a Golf. Nor is money saved if you decide you need to own a Tesla Model S and a Golf, rather than just one of the two. Building new and excess capacity can cost 2x more than simply running existing capacity (pages 6-7).

In one of the best jokes in quantum mechanics, an angry scientist protests “that’s not fair, you changed the outcome by measuring it”. It is not dissimilar with a new technology that appears to be at the bottom of the cost curve. Scale it up too quickly, too extensively, and you can change the costs of deployment by deploying it, including through materials shortages, and ever higher transmission costs (page 8).

Apples-to-apples. A good comparison should compare apples to apples, which in electricity markets, includes reliability, flexibility, inertia, reactive power, and other power quality components. Our view is that these values, or the costs of backstopping them, should be considered in an apples-to-apples calculation of levelized cost (page 9-13).

Value in nuance. The purpose of this report is not to troll other commentators, by raising challenges for levelized cost analysis. It is that there is value in the overlooked nuance (often, precisely because it is overlooked). We think this creates excess return opportunities in neglected energy sources, materials, transmission infrastructure and power electronics.

TOPCon: maverick?

TOPCon solar cells efficiency gains

A new solar cell is vying to re-shape the PV industry, with 2-5% efficiency gains and c25-35% lower silicon use than today’s PERC cells. This 12-page note reviews TOPCon solar cells, which will take some sting out of solar re-inflation, tighten silver bottlenecks and may further entrench China’s solar giants.

This report starts with our best attempt to condense everything you need to know about the science of solar cells, PV-junctions, and solar efficiency losses into a ‘single page’ on page 2.

PERCs are the incumbents, comprising 80-90% of all solar produced in 2020-21. PERC stands for Passivated Emitter Rear Contact. Page 3 explains what this means and where the remaining bottlenecks are on this design.

TOPCon cells are now taking off, yielding new ‘world records’ on solar cell efficiencies, seemingly every month, in 2022. We have aggregated some of these announcements, commercial deployments and scale-up announcements, from companies such as Longi, Trina, Jinko, Jolywood on page 4. We explain TOPCons on page 5, including the innovations that enable these world-record efficiency levels.

What does it mean for future solar efficiency and why does this matter for ultimate solar costs? Our views on solar cost inflation, materials usage and ultimate price trajectories is spelled out on pages 6-9.

What bottlenecks? TOPCons will most likely use at least 50% more silver per solar cell than PERCs. Thus the bottleneck in PV silicon will be softened, but the bottleneck in silver may be heightened. Who benefits? (page 10).

China’s dominance of the PV solar industry is also likely to be entrenched in the short-term by the rise of TOPCon cells. Although we see a door opening for re-shoring in the longer term. Our overview of energy transition re-shoring is linked here.

Which companies? We think greater deployment of TOPCon cells will be an industry-wide trend, possibly even a stampede. However, leaders so far are profiled on pages 11-12, including a Western private pure-play that may help to accelerate future efficiency gains.

FACTS of life: upside for STATCOMs & SVCs?

Upside for STATCOMs

Wind and solar have so far leaned upon conventional power grids. But larger deployments will increasingly need to produce their own reactive power; controllably, dynamically. Demand for STATCOMs & SVCs may thus rise 30x, to over $25-50bn pa. This 20-page note outlines upside for STATCOMs and who benefits?

This 20-page research note is about controlling reactive power in increasingly renewable-heavy grids. We believe this theme is going to become increasingly important, but it has been overlooked, for two reasons, laid out on pages 2-3.

What is reactive power? After reviewing hundreds of technical papers and patents, our ‘best explanation’ is set out on pages 4-7, to explain concepts such as real power, reactive power, power factor, power triangles, phase angle and VARs.

Lean on me. Wind and solar assets inherently produce no reactive power and may even have consumed it. This was fine in the early days, as renewables assets could rely on the large and controllable output of reactive power from spinning generators. But regulations are tightening. And if renewables are to dominate future grids, replacing spinning generators, then they will increasingly need to produce their own reactive power (page 8).

FACTS = Flexible AC Transmission Systems. We review different options for renewables to control reactive power on pages 9-14. The discussion covers switched capacitor banks, synchronous condensers, upsized inverters, Static VAR Compensators (SVCs) and Static Synchronous Compensators (STATCOMs). In each case, we review the costs ($/kVAR), advantages and challenges for each technology. We think STATCOMs are taking the lead to back up large wind projects.

Market sizing for STATCOMs and SVCs market suggests that a 30x ramp-up is not mathematically inconceivable. If wind capacity additions ramp from 100 GW pa to 300-500 GW pa, and we install 0.5 MVAR/MW of STATCOMs/SVCs at an average of $160/kVAR, then this would become a $25-50bn pa market. Huge numbers. Worked examples and quotes from technical papers are also given (page 15-16).

Who benefits? Leading companies in STATCOMs and SVCs are profiled on pages 17-20, after reviewing 2,500 patents. The market is incredibly concentrated, with two leading large-caps, and a handful of smaller and interesting semi-pure plays. Our screen is linked here.

To read more about the upside for STATCOMs & SVCs, please see our article here.

Capacitor banks: raising power factors?

Wind and solar power factor corrections

Wind and solar power factor corrections could save 0.5% of global electricity, with $20/ton CO2 abatement costs at typical facilities in normal times, and 30% pure IRRs during energy shortages. They will also be needed to integrate more new energies into power grids. This 17-page note outlines the opportunity in capacitor banks, their economics and leading companies.

Reactive power is needed to create magnetic fields within ‘inductive loads’ like motors, electric heat, IT hardware and LEDs. But it is wasteful. 0.8-0.9 x power factors mean that 10-20% of the flowing current is not doing any useful work; it is simply amplifying I2R resistive losses; and if it is not compensated, then voltage drops can de-stabilize the grid.

All of these statements might seem a little bit confusing. Hence, after reading hundreds of pages into this topic, our ‘best explanation’ of the physics, the problem and the solution are set out on pages 2-6 of the report. We would also recommend the excellent online videos from the Engineering Mindset.

Power factor correction technologies are seen accelerating for three reasons. Saving electricity is increasingly economic amidst energy shortages (pages 7-8).

Second, they will enable greater electrification for around 30% less capex (pages 9-11).

Third, the rise of renewables will see large rotating turbines (especially coal) replaced with distributed generators that inherently offer no reactive power (wind and solar). This is not a “problem”. It simply requires conscious power factor correction (pages 12-14).

What challenges? Capacitor banks are likely to be the lowest cost solution for power factor correction, but they are also competing with other technologies, as reviewed on page 15. For ultra-high quality grid-scale wind and solar power-factor corrections, we think there is greater upside in STATCOMs (note here).

What opportunities? Leading companies are profiled on pages 16-17, based on reviewing patents, and include the usual suspects in power-electronic capital goods.

Biofuels: the best of times, the worst of times?

Outlook for biofuels in energy transition

Our outlook for biofuels in energy transition will investigates how food and energy shortages will re-shape liquid biofuels? This 11-page note explores four questions. Could the US re-consider its ethanol blending to help world food security? Could rising cash costs of bio-diesel inflate global diesel prices to $6-8/gal? Will renewable diesel expansion ambitions be dialed back? What outlook for each liquid biofuel in the energy transition?

In principle, price spikes for conventional energy should be ‘the best of times’ for diversified energy sources, such as liquid biofuels. But in practice, there is also a possibility of food shortages in 2022. Biofuels are made from agricultural products that are usually in some way fungible with food supplies. And thus could this turn into ‘the worst of times’ for corn ethanol, bio-diesel and renewable diesel? The outcome depends on the numbers, which are explored in this report.

Our outlook for US corn ethanol is laid out on pages 4-5, including typical costs, CO2 intensity, feedstock inflation and possible impacts on the gasoline market. We wonder whether world events, especially 2022-3 food shortages, might motivate the US to re-visit diverting 40% of its corn crop into producing a biofuel, in the name of humanitarian aid?

Out outlook for bio-diesel is laid out on pages 6-7, including typical costs, CO2 intensity, feedstock inflation, and possible impacts on the diesel market. We wonder whether 0.8Mbpd of bio-diesel is now effectively the ‘marginal supply source’ for diesel markets, and if in turn, vegetable oil shortages could push world diesel prices up to $6-8/gallon?

Our outlook for renewable diesel is laid out on pages 8-9, including typical costs, CO2 intensity and the importance of used cooking oil as a feedstock. We wonder whether it is realistic for the US to scale its renewable diesel capacity by 7x, without relying on vast imports of agricultural oils, even palm oil, and whether the expansion will be softened?

Conclusions and some speculations are given on pages 10-11. We think biofuels may have a role in the energy transition, but the best pathway is bio-diesel from used cooking oil, while abatement costs of other options are on the higher side.

To read more about our outlook for biofuels in energy transition, please see our reports here, here and here. We are most excited about opportunity in landfill gas.

All the coal in China: our top ten charts?

China's coal industry

Chinese coal provides 15% of the world’s energy, equivalent to 4 Saudi Arabia’s worth of oil. Global energy markets may become 10% under-supplied if this output plateaus per our ‘net zero’ scenario. Alternatively, might China ramp its coal to cure energy shortages, especially as Europe bids harder for renewables and LNG post-Russia? Today’s note presents our ‘top ten’ charts on China’s opaque coal industry.

China’s coal industry provides 15% of the world’s energy and c22% of its CO2 emissions. These numbers are placed in context on page 2.

China’s coal production policies will sway global energy balances. Key numbers, and their impacts on global energy supply-demand, are laid out on page 3.

China’s coal mines are constellation of c4,000 assets. Some useful rules of thumb are given on the breakdown on page 4.

China’s coal demand is bridged on page 5, including the share of demands for power, industrial heat, residential/commercial heat and coking.

Coal prices are contextualized on page 6-7, comparing Chinese coal with gas, renewables, hydro and nuclear in c/kWh terms.

Coal costs are calculated on page 6-8. We model what price is needed for China to maintain flat-slightly growing output, while earning double-digit returns on investment.

Accelerating Chinese coal depends on policies, however, especially around a tail of smaller and higher cost mines. The skew and implications are explored on page 7-8.

China’s decarbonization is clearly linked to its coal output. We see decarbonization ambitions being thwarted in the 2020s, per page 8.

Methane leaks from China’s coal industry may actually be higher than methane leaks from the West’s gas industry (page 9).

Chinese coal companies are profiled, and compared with Western companies, on pages 10-11.

For an outlook on global coal production, please see our article here.

East to West: re-shoring the energy transition?

re-shoring the energy transition

China is 18% of the world’s people and GDP. But it makes c50% of the world’s metals, 60% of its wind turbines, 70% of its solar panels and 80% of its lithium ion batteries. Re-shoring the energy transition will likely be a growing motivation after events of 2022. This 14-page note explores resultant opportunities.

World events in 2022 have created a new appetite for self-reliance; avoiding excessive dependence upon particular suppliers, in case that relationship should sour in the future. China’s exports are 5x Russia’s. And it dominates supply chains that matter for the energy transition. The trends and market shares are quantified on pages 2-4.

There are five challenges that must be overcome, in order to re-shore value chains from China to the West: input materials, energy costs, 2-3 re-inflation risks, dumping and general Western NIMBY-ism. We outline each challenge on pages 5-6.

Re-shoring the energy transition and its best opportunities are summarized, looking across all of our research, for metals and materials (page 7), wind (page 8), solar (page 9) and batteries (pages 10-11). In each case, where would be the most logical to site the infrastructure, and which companies are involved?

An unexpected implication of re-shoring these value chains is that their underlying energy demand would be re-shored too. Our current base case is that Western energy demand per capita has peaked and Western oil demand is in absolute decline. These markets may be re-shaped, with resultant opportunities for infrastructure investors (pages 12-14).

For an outlook on China’s coal industry and how we compare Chinese coal companies to Western companies, please see our article here.

Power transmission: raising electrical potential?

HVDCs in energy transition

Electricity transmission matters in the energy transition, integrating dispersed renewables over long distances to reach growing demand centers. This 15-page note argues future transmission needs will favor large HVDCs in energy transition, costing 2-3c/kWh per 1,000km, which are materially lower-cost and more efficient than other alternatives. What opportunities follow?

Long distance power transmission is likely to grow more important in the energy transition. There are six reasons for this claim, especially linked to wind and solar, which are laid out on pages 2-4.

The simple physics of power transmission are laid out on pages 5-7, with worked examples showing how the existing grid transmits relatively small power quantities over relatively low distances, but resistive power losses ‘blow up’ if we try to expand AC power lines.

Overcoming these challenges via higher voltages and thicker power cables is not really feasible, especially as reactive power consumption becomes the limiting factor on AC lines. Again, the techno-economic theory behind these claims is laid out on pages 8-11.

HVDC lines melt away many of the problems noted above. We outline the reasons on page 12, along with real-world data from world-leading HVDC projects that have been constructed in China since 2010.

Economics. We think HVDCs can deliver multi-GW power, over distances around 3,000km, for total transmission spreads of 5-10c/kWh. Underlying assumptions, and comparisons with other technologies — batteries, hydrogen — are given on page 13.

Who benefits? Some of the leading companies in HVDC, and interesting new project proposals are discussed on page 14.

To read more on HVDCs in energy transition and its leading companies, please see our article here.

Battle of the batteries: EVs vs grid storage?

Who will ‘win’ the intensifying competition for finite lithium ion batteries, in a world that is hindered by shortages of lithium, graphite, nickel and cobalt in 2022-25?

Today’s note argues EVs should outcompete grid storage, as the 65kWh battery in a typical EV saves 2-4x more energy and 25-150% more CO2 each year than a comparably sized grid battery.

Competitor #1: Electrification of Transport?

The energy credentials of electric vehicles are laid out in the data-files below. A key finding is their higher efficiency, at 70-80% wagon-to-wheel, where an ICE might only achieve 15-20%. Therefore, energy is saved when an ICE is replaced by an EV. And CO2 is saved by extension, although the precise amount depends on the ‘power source’ for the EV.

When we interrogate our models, the single best use we can find for a 65kWh lithium ion battery is to electrify a taxi that drives 20,000-70,000 miles per year. This is a direct linear pass-through of these vehicles’ high annual mileage, with taxis in New York apparently reaching the upper end of this range. Thus the higher efficiency of EVs (vs ICEs) saves 20-75MWH of energy and 7-25 tons of CO2 pa.

More broadly, there are 1.2bn cars to ‘electrify’ in the world, where the energy and CO2 savings are also a linear function of miles driven, but because ordinary people have their cars parked around 97% of the time, the savings will usually be 10-20MWH per vehicle pa.

(Relatedly, an interesting debate is whether buying a ‘second car’ that is electric is unintentionally hindering energy transition, if that car actually ends up under-utilized while consuming scarce LIBs, which could be put to better use elsewhere. As always, context matters).

Competitor #2: Grid-Scale Batteries?

The other main use case for lithium ion batteries is grid-scale storage, where the energy-saving prize is preventing the curtailment of intermittent wind and solar resources. As an example, curtailment rates ran at c5% in California in 2021 (data below).

The curtailment point is crucial. There might be economic or geopolitical reasons for storing renewables at midday and re-releasing the energy at 7pm in the evening, as explored in the note below. But if routing X renewable MWH into batteries at midday (and thus away from the grid) simply results in X MWH more fossil energy generation at midday instead of X MWH of fossil energy generation at 7pm, then no fossil energy reductions have actually been achieved. In order for batteries reduce fossil energy generation, they must result in more overall renewable dispatch, or in other words, they must prevent curtailment.

There are all kinds of complexities in modelling the ‘energy savings’ here. How often does a battery charge-discharge? What percent of these charge-discharge cycles genuinely prevent curtailment? What proportion of curtailment can actually be avoided in practice with batteries? What round-trip efficiency on the battery?

To spell this out, imagine a perfect, Utopian energy system, where every day, the sun shone evenly, and grid demand was exactly the same. Every day from 10am to 2pm, the grid is over-saturated with solar energy, and it is necessary to curtail the exact same amount of renewables. In this perfect Utopian world, you could install a battery, to store the excess solar instead of curtailing it. Then you could re-release the energy from the battery just after sunset. All good. But the real world is not like this. There is enormous second-by-second, minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour, day-by-day volatility (data below).

Thus look back at the curtailment chart below. If you built a battery that could absorb 0.3% of the grid’s entire installed renewable generation capacity throughout the day, then yes, you would get to charge and discharge it every day to prevent curtailment. But you would only be avoiding about 10% of the total curtailment in the system.

Conversely, if you built a battery that could absorb 30% of the installed renewable generation capacity throughout the day, you could prevent about 99% of the curtailment, but you would only get to use this battery fully to prevent curtailment on about 5 days per year. This latter scenario would absorb a lot of LIBs, without unleashing materially more energy or displacing very much fossil fuel at all.

This is all explored in more detail in our detailed modelling work (data file here, notes below). But we think an “energy optimized” middle ground might be to built 1MW of battery storage for every 100MW of renewables capacity. For the remainder, we would prefer other solutions such as demand-shifting and long-distance transmission networks.

Thus, as a base case, we think a 16kW battery (about the same size as in an EV) at a 1.6MW solar project might save 5MWH of energy that would otherwise have been curtailed, abating 2T of CO2e. So generally, we think a typical EV is going save about 2-4x more energy per than a similarly-sized grid-battery.

Another nice case study on solar-battery integration is given here, for anyone who wants to go into the numbers. In this example, the battery is quite heavily over-sized.

Other considerations: substitution and economics?

Substitution potential? Another consideration is that an EV battery with the right power electronics can double as a grid-scale storage device (note below), absorbing excess renewables to prevent curtailment. But batteries affixed to a wall or on a concrete pad cannot usually double as a battery for a mobile vehicle, for obvious reasons.

Economic potential? We think OEMs producing c$70-100k electric vehicles will resist shutting entire production lines if their lithium input costs rise from $600 to $3k per vehicle. They will simply pass it on to the consumer. We are already seeing vehicle costs inflating for this reason, while consumers of ‘luxury products’ may not be overly price sensitive. By contrast, utility-scale customers are more likely to push back grid scale storage projects, as this is less mission critical, and likely to be more price-sensitive.

Overall, we think the competition for scarce materials is set to intensify as the world is going to be ‘short’ of lithium, graphite, nickel in 2022-25 (notes below). This is going to create an explosive competition for scarce resources. The entire contracting strategies of resource-consuming companies could change as a consequence…

Copyright: Thunder Said Energy, 2022.