The year ahead appears poised to be another wild ride for the energy sector. A recovering US economy combined with continued strength in China and India will send oil and coal prices toward highs not seen since 2008. Meanwhile, solar and wind power will become increasingly attractive investments and grow their share of the energy pie.
Oil: Gasoline Gets Expensive Again
The financial collapse of September 2008 took the wind out of oil’s bullish run from $10 per barrel in the late 1990s to over $140 in mid-2008. But as the US economy regains its footing (even the housing sector by late 2011), gasoline is shooting back up toward $4 per gallon. Prices recently climbed back above $3 per gallon – meaning that Americans are again sending over $1 billion per day for overseas imports to serve our oil addiction. It’s time for our country to embrace the bicycle and more walking – but I’ll leave more on that for another post. I see gasoline increasing toward $3.25+ on $100 oil due to an inability of non-OPEC producers to increase supply that matches higher demand, particularly from China. And most OPEC nations seem reluctant to increase output levels while prices rise.
Coal: Historic Highs on Their Way
China and India are becoming huge net importers of coal and this development will tighten the global coal market significantly. South African, Indonesian, and Australian exports will be maxed out, sending importers on the lookout for coal from the US and elsewhere. Supply increases take time so the tight global market will likely push spot market coal prices above $150/ton, potentially challenging mid-2008 levels above $175/ton.
Natural Gas: Rising from the Bottom
Natural gas prices in the US have remained relatively low even during the recent 18-month run-up in oil prices, a departure from the usual price link between oil and natural gas. This divergence in price is due to recent growth in natural gas supply based on new drilling techniques that use potent chemical mixes to extract shale gas formerly too difficult to retrieve. Unless the extraction techniques are slowed on water pollution concerns, this drilling is poised to keep a lid on natural gas prices and thus help natural gas keep market share it took from coal in 2009. I see natural gas rising from the bottom ~$4 per MMBtu lately but staying mostly restrained below $7 (still significantly below the summer 2008 high ~$10).
Solar: The Boom Continues
2010 is turning into another record year for solar. Globally, solar installations grew more than 100% to ~16 GW. This occurred in a year many analysts were fretting for solar due to accelerated cuts in German subsidies. But Germany still grew tremendously thanks to lower solar costs and the country remains almost half of the global market. German officials are considering more accelerated subsidy cuts in 2011 to slow their overheated market greater than 7 GW this year, causing some analysts to worry again. But I see next year playing out in a similar way to 2010, with another record year ahead as the global solar market passes 20 GW.
I expect German subsidy reductions will help solar consumers everywhere enjoy 10-15% price reductions for solar PV panels, bringing them below $1.50 per Watt. The strong recent profits of many solar producers such as First Solar, Trina, Suntech, Yingli Green Energy, JA Solar, and Jinko show that most producers can handle a price drop of this magnitude. Such a low price for modules and panels would send solar electricity prices below 30 cents per kWh for residential, below 20 cents per kWh for commercial, and ~15 cents per kWh for industrial. This is a price that can now compete without subsidies in islands and remote applications that don’t yet have access to a grid (a market that includes over a billion people). And sufficient subsidies in growing solar markets such as the US, China, India and Italy are poised to take up the slack from German demand stagnation until larger grid parity is achieved in 2012-15.
After record growth in 2009, 2010 has been a tough year for the wind industry. Low natural gas prices and the lack of new projects signed during the Great Recession has dramatically slowed wind power installation in the US and most of the world. Though China wind growth continues unabated due to its white-hot electricity demand growth and may have just passed the US as the global leader of wind power capacity. But the stagnant overall market this past year means that wind turbine prices are lower and getting more competitive with fossil fuel-fired electricity. Look for wind turbine prices below $1.45 per Watt and total cost including installation below $2 per Watt onshore. The offshore market has higher installation costs that are offset by more consistent winds and close proximity to demand centers (cities). Offshore wind can begin to take growing market share in 2011.
Efficient Renewables Closing the Gap with Fossil Fuels
As described above, I see solar and wind power prices further converging with fossil fuel prices in 2011. Therefore renewable subsidies can be lowered in cash-strapped countries without risking market collapse. Increasingly efficient lighting (such as CFLs and LEDs) and other appliances will open up solar and wind resources to the masses, especially when complemented by efficient active transport by bicycle along growing greenways and bike lanes. The key potential game changer for oil and other commodity prices would be a significant weakening or strengthening of the dollar, either stoking higher prices in the US or taming the increase, respectively.
The energy system is in for big change during 2011. Investment in efficiency and renewables will pay off for early adopters as cleantech moves from niche market to more mainstream source.
Onwards in the Sustainable Energy Transition-