Green

An FT article last week lauded the intent of General Electric and Chesapeake Energy to form an alliance to promote the use of natural gas as a fuel for cars and trucks.

The intent is to develop gas re-fueling infrastructure with a target to add 250 compressing and recharging units principally at gasoline filling stations. Currently there are about 1,000 natural gas fillings stations in the US, according to an article in the South Bend Tribune; but only half of those are available to the public, with the rest operated by local governments or private companies to refuel buses and other fleet vehicles.

Compare that to regular gasoline fuelling stations of which there are said to be some 159,000 outlets in the US.

Indeed, there is only one car produced in the US to run on natural gas, the Indiana-built Civic Natural Gas Honda. Around 13,000 have been sold since the car first went on sale in 1998, mostly to fleets. With such low production runs, currently about 4,000 per year, Honda can’t be making any money out of the model even at the high premium over the gasoline versions — some $10,000 on the base model — but should be applauded for sticking to their script. They clearly realize natural gas cars are going to be, like electric vehicles (EVs), a long-haul technology.

But why would Honda, General Electric, Chesapeake and the big three automakers (GM and Chrysler are to follow Ford with natural gas pickups) be supporting what must be the least well-known among the alternative fuel sources?

Cost

Putting initial vehicle costs to one side for a moment, for an equivalent energy content, crude oil is roughly seven times the current price of natural gas in the US.

GE and Chesaspeake are quoted as saying that at today’s prices, a vehicle driving 25,700 miles a year would save $1,500 a year from using natural gas rather than gasoline, while a Channel 13 News report interviewed a canny individual who had plumbed natural gas supply to a compressor in his own home for about $3,000, so he could fill up his car’s natural gas tank at home for an estimated $7 compared to over $50 for gasoline.

The environmental lobby is torn. Diehards prefer EVs for their zero emissions, conveniently ignoring the fact that they require power stations to generate the electricity by saying that if the power comes from a wind turbine or solar farm, it is almost zero emissions. In reality, of course, that is rarely the case; but the attraction of natural gas is that (although not pollution-free) it is much less polluting than gasoline.

According to the State of California, quoted in Earthlinktech: “Typical CNG vehicles can reduce smog-forming emissions of carbon monoxide by 70%, non-methane organic gas by 87% and oxides of nitrogen by 87%. Also, CNG vehicles typically have 20% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline powered cars.”

To be continued in Part Two.

Continued from Part One.

In another twist to the tale, a report in the FT says GM seems to be at an advanced stage of discussions with France’s Peugeot, also a struggling carmaker with excess capacity, to jointly develop engines, transmission systems and entire vehicles that would be sold under their respective brands. While this could have design and production cost savings, it would really only make sense if between them they closed excess production capacity.

While no shares will change hands in the proposed cooperation between GM and Peugeot, it has similarities to Chrysler’s cooperation with and later 53.5-percent takeover by Italy’s Fiat, the loss-making carmaker that owns the Lancia and Alfa Romeo brands in addition to Fiat. That merger could be said to be timely for Fiat, as the combined company reported a small net profit for 2011 and projected $1.5 to 2 billion net profit for 2012, largely on the back of a resurgent North American market for Chrysler brands.

On the other side of the coin, Tata’s Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) has been investing something like $1 billion per year for the last few years and is set to double this next year as it expands production in the UK and overseas, and takes on more staff to meet record demand. Tata Motors bought Jaguar Land Rover from Ford in 2008, for £1.5 billion, in a move some derided as a mistake. Last year, JLR made a profit of £1.1 billion and this year’s profits are expected to be even higher still.

GM probably missed the boat in selling its European operations back in 2009.

Who would buy them in today’s market is unclear. GM could still make the operations profitable; they have great research and design resources and some plants that are highly efficient. Arguably, in a world where smaller cars are likely to be a long-term trend, a European design and production base is a strategic asset that could be of considerable benefit to the global GM corporate.

However, GM as a group will not be willing to carry the cost of a loss-making European division for long, and unpopular as it will be among European governments and unions, plants are going to have to close.

Continued from Part One.

The Costliness of Catalysts

To date, the use of PGM catalysts have made the up-front cost of fuel cells and the refurbishment of the devices over their life far too expensive to be widely adopted, but Acal Energy in the UK has developed a low-cost liquid catalyst that can be continuously regenerated, dramatically reducing the up-front and life-cycle costs.

Meanwhile, ITM Power has developed a hydrogen-fuel-generating unit that is entirely safe contained except for a supply of electricity and water. Ben Graziano, technology commercialization manager at the Carbon Trust, said between them the two technologies could help the industry be worth up to $1 billion in the UK and $26 billion globally by 2020, and up to $19 billion in the UK and $180 billion globally by 2050.

Grandstanding? Yes, probably, but the prize of affordable, low-emissions power is so valuable, maybe we can forgive the hyperbole. Fuel-cell automobiles and power generators for homes and businesses have far greater credibility than electric cars and windmills — if they can be brought to market at comparable cost.

I, for one, would sooner see my hard-earned tax receipts spent subsidizing (if they have to be spent in such a way) fuel cells that will allow me to travel longer distances, quietly, without emitting more than heat and water vapor, and with the prospect of 5-minute-stop refueling stations at the same location as current filling stations, rather than subsidizing electric cars that can’t do more than about 80 miles between re-charges and precious few charging points being available — even within cities, never mind in the countryside.

The numbers have yet to support the hype, but although we’re metals nerds, we say that if replacing PGMs by non-metallic compounds is the step that finally brings fuel cells to commercial reality, then we’ll see that as a welcome outcome.

Fuel cells are one of those technologies we have covered before, usually citing some manufacturer who is fan-faring a new technology purported to be game-changing for the cost structure of the hydrogen fuel cell market. So far, fuel cells are used predominantly in specialist applications such as submarines and space vehicles, or in remote areas where power requirements are low yet refueling is expensive or difficult — or both.

The breakthrough application would be an economically viable application in automobiles, but according to the FT, carmakers have sunk large amounts of money into hydrogen research programs with little to show for it so far, in terms of cars on the road. General Motors says it has invested $2 billion in the technology to date. But although it says it has a test fleet of 100 fuel-cell vehicles on the road in Europe and the US, which will be ready for market introduction by 2016, there is not a viable business model for providing a refueling infrastructure or firm details of what models will be powered by fuel cells.

The reality is as attractive as zero-carbon-emission vehicles are: if the vehicles are prohibitively expensive in the first place and there is not a robust, widespread refueling infrastructure in place, the public will not buy. Just witness sales of all electric vehicles — barely 1,000 plug-in vehicles were registered in Britain last year out of a market for some 2 million cars.

So the British government’s launch of two initiatives (backed, it must be said, by hard cash) sounds like something of a leap of faith if it wasn’t for the parties involved and some interesting technological developments. The first is a bringing-together of industry firms, including Air Liquide, Johnson Matthey, Daimler, GM, Shell, Total and others in a program called H2 Mobility, as part of a US and European-wide drive to map out the steps necessary to make the technology commercially viable by 2015.

In itself this could be yet another taxpayer-funded talking shop, but one hopes the presence of the oil companies may ensure that any resulting road map has sufficient critical thinking into the refueling infrastructure, which is seen as a make-or-break issue in widespread adoption. Oil firms cannot be said to have embraced the re-charging requirements of electric cars to date, probably because the technology still requires lengthy re-charging times incompatible with current gasoline forecourt layouts or power supply options.

The second initiative follows on neatly from this issue: the UK government is backing two firms in a joint effort to develop self-contained hydrogen refueling stations that could be introduced to just about any contemporary gas station, along with a liquid catalyst fuel cell that would bring down the up-front cost of the fuel cell, so that jointly, the power cost would drop to $37 per kW generated, making it competitive with conventional engines, say backers of the project, the Carbon Trust.

What about the costliness of catalysts? Read on in Part Two later today…

Looks like ZincOx will drop the mining yoke and start pulling the recycling plow.

The FT reported that the UK-based company, originally invested in zinc mining, will be shifting over to zinc recycling to become profitable again. ZincOx built a plant in South Korea, and after it finally begins producing and selling finished zinc, looks to expand to Turkey, China, and the US.

The zinc market, as the FT points out, has had its share of volatility. LME inventories have risen since the start of 2012 in an already oversupplied market, as the graph below shows, and the zinc price is more than $2,000 per ton. (This, after falling from about $4,500 a ton in 2006 to just over $1,000 a ton in late 2008, according to the paper.)

Source: John Gross/Copper Journal

ZincOx will be adding to net global zinc production soon — perhaps as soon as five weeks from now, following final tests.

How the Technology Works

Electric arc furnace dust (EAFD) is a toxic byproduct of the EAF steelmaking process, containing cadmium, lead and zinc (18-24% grade). ZincOx has been honing a process for six years, by which they can extract the zinc portion from EAFD (at a purer grade than mining it from the ground, no less) and produce zinc concentrate.

For context, about 1.5 million tons of zinc are lost to dust during the EAF steelmaking process per year, while zinc production is about 12 million tons per year, according to a presentation last September by Andrew Woollett, ZincOx’s executive chairman.

In the presentation, Woollett outlined how the technology works by showing this slide:

Source: ZincOx Resources-Andrew Woollett

They take the dust and mix it with pulverized coal and put it into a briquette. Then they dry, cure and screen it to insert clean briquettes into a rotating hearth furnace (RHF), Woollett said. That yields 58% grade zinc concentrate, which goes to a zinc smelter, while the iron-based remainder can go back to EAF mills. Ultimately, it’s a sustainable, closed-loop process. (More detail on that here.)

How Steelmakers Win

EAFD has been a thorn in steelmakers’ sides for years, according to Joanne Hart in this article. “Many treat it as toxic waste, placing it in special bags and sending it to landfill sites, a process that is wasteful, environmentally questionable and costly.”

According to the FT, that can cost $40-50 per ton. Hart writes that operators of special kilns that recycle the waste “charge at least £50 [$78] a ton to remove the dust from steel furnaces and the zinc produced is relatively low grade.”

However, ZincOx offers to take the EAFD off steelmakers’ hands for free. (The new Korean plant will be able to process 200,000 tons of dust per year.)

“‘It’s very important to get the dust supply,” Woollett told the FT, ‘adding that he was forging strong ties with the steelmakers by offering deals where the waste suppliers would be compensated for rises in the zinc price. “‘We cut them in on the upside.’”

How the Zinc (Supply) Market Wins

  • Total zinc production potential next year: 92,000 tons. (Every 100 tons of dust can yield 22 tons of zinc.)
  • Companies such as Korea Zinc (with which ZincOx has already inked a deal) agree to buy the finished zinc; essentially a market is already in place.
  • Environmentally friendly recycling could make a dent in cleaning up China’s dirty zinc smelting industry.
  • According to the USGS, about 53% (134,000 tons) of the slab zinc produced in the US in 2011 was recovered from secondary materials—mainly electric arc furnace dust; this figure could definitely increase if ZincOx successfully brings its technology here.

The US’ pending trade dispute with China over solar cells and modules, covered on MetalMiner on Nov. 10, looks like it will be successful in encouraging China to review its sales strategy towards finished solar panels; this comes following advice received by trade lawyers hired by Chinese firms to advise them on the Commerce Department case, the NY Times reports.

Chinese solar panel manufacturers have apparently been advised they will stand little chance of success in the case, presumably because they are engaging in dumping and benefiting from subsidies, as US panel-makers claimed. Interestingly, like Japanese carmakers in the 1980s, Chinese solar panel manufacturers are said to be considering moving final assembly to the US so their panels become US-made.

However, because the case covers both cells and modules, China would have to give up cell manufacturing as well. The manufacture of solar panels is  essentially a four-step process. According to the NY Times, molten polysilicon is used to grow crystals or cast blocks of polycrystalline silicon as the first step. The second step is cutting and polishing the material into thin, smooth wafers. The third involves chemically treating the wafer and adding electrical contacts — this essentially makes it a solar cell. The fourth requires connecting 60 to 72 cells together, covering them in glass, a frame and adding an electrical junction box to make the finished module. It is this last stage the Chinese are considering moving to the US.

Good news, you may think, US assembly jobs and taxes! No, this final step in the process is said to be worth only some 15 percent of the cost of a panel and is either largely automated or uses low skilled labor. The value is in stages 1 and 2, which China is looking to keep at home, while shipping the finished wafers to South Korea or Taiwan for stage 3, thereby hoping to circumvent potential duties on Chinese origin components. However, because most of the intellectual property and capital investment is in the cell stage, U.S. manufacturers say they are confident they can compete with cells and modules made in other countries where the product is not dumped or subsidized, even if the wafers come from China. So the case is unlikely to be amended to meet the Chinese attempts to get around origin issues.

Continued in Part Two.

–Stuart Burns

The game has changed for the nuclear industry post-Fukushima, at least in the Western world, if not globally. After previous nuclear incidents, there usually was a pause while national bodies reviewed the reasons for the event and upgraded safety standards, but the Fukushima incident seems to be impacting Europe much like Three Mile Island did the US.

Germany, one of Europe’s biggest operators of nuclear power, used to run 17 reactors until Berlin closed four of them in July and committed to closing the rest by 2022. Belgium is looking to accelerate the closure of its seven plants and Switzerland is going the way of Germany. Even in France, where nuclear power generates more than 75 percent of electricity, the new socialist contenders for next year’s elections campaign on a platform that includes a drastic drop in nuclear-generating capacity to below 50%.

Who Benefits and Who Suffers?

As a result, not just generators are feeling the winds of change. Siemens pulled out of a technology joint venture with Russia’s Rosatom to develop new nuclear technologies. Recognizing that any new plants are likely to be in emerging markets, firms like France’s Aerva have started work on the Atmea, a smaller, cheaper reactor, in partnership with Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries rather than relying solely on the firms’ technologically advanced but high-cost EPR reactor design, best suited to highly regulated markets within Europe.

Likewise, Rosatom, which since Fukushima has continued securing new orders from China, Vietnam, Belarus and Bangladesh, is seeking new technology partners that can help it develop safer, more robust systems without pricing itself out of a market which will soon be competing with Chinese as well as existing South Korean manufacturers. Although Rosatom has a monopoly over Russia’s 11 civilian nuclear power plants and accounts for one-fifth of new reactors under construction worldwide, Sergei Kirienko, Rosatom’s president, admitted last week that there is a risk of world demand for nuclear reactors collapsing after Fukushima, saying competition has been much tougher.

For now, Britain is holding to its ambitious program for 12 new reactors by 2025, needed (the conservative part says) as part of a wholesale restructuring of Britain’s electricity market aimed at helping the country meet tough carbon reduction targets, as well as keep the lights on. However, start dates keep slipping back and although some operators have committed to land purchases for the new sites, no one believes the first plant will be operational by the previously stated date of 2018. Nor are the conservative coalition partners the Liberal Democrats on board with the plans for nuclear power, much preferring to push for wind or renewable power plants in spite of growing evidence they cannot meet base-load requirements.

Not surprisingly, the share price of both nuclear power-generating companies and manufacturers of nuclear power plants has underperformed in an already falling market. The future is unlikely to be quite as dire as some currently fear, but clearly growth is not going to be coming from established nuclear-producing countries such as the US, Europe or Japan. It will come from emerging markets desperate to reduce reliance on coal-fired power generation — and for whom the level of technological sophistication won’t be required to be as high as it is for Europe.

–Stuart Burns

After looking at Mexico and Argentina in the first post of this series, let’s look across to Europe.

Poland and France: Give Gas a Chance

Two countries have significant reserves: Poland, at an EIA-estimated 187 trillion cubic feet; and France, at 180 trillion cubic feet; both have enough to make them gas independent for decades, if not longer. But as environmental concerns have halted development of French fields, the fear is Poland could go the same way. That would be a shame from an environmental as much as an economic point of view.

Much of Poland’s power is generated from home-mined coal; a switch to gas, even shale gas with its associated methane leakage, would be a cleaner option. In addition, Poland is reliant on Russia for two-thirds of its natural gas, a relationship Poland is desperate to reduce. Major Western oil companies have bid for and secured some 90 leases this year, so the true extent (and commitment of the authorities) will become clear within the next year or two.

All Shale China

Lastly, China. The EIU tells us China may eventually produce more shale gas than any other country. By some estimates it has the world’s biggest reserves: EIA reckons there are 1,275 trillion cubic feet of shale gas in China, nearly 50 percent more than the second-ranked US. If this is correct, China’s shale gas reserves are a dozen times greater than its conventional gas resources and a potentially huge boon to a country heavily reliant on GHG-polluting coal for power generation.

Bringing in foreign technology and know-how will be critical. The new Five-Year Plan gives high priority to developing shale gas, and the major state energy companies Sinopec, PetroChina and China National Offshore Oil Corporation will be tasked with meeting those targets. In 2009, China and the US signed an agreement designed to help China measure its shale gas reserves, encourage “technical co-operation, and promote Sino-US investment in shale gas in China. State-of-the-art drilling technology allows US companies to complete shale gas wells in a matter of weeks, whereas CNPC took 11 months to complete China’s first well.

The fear, rightly, among Western firms is the lack of intellectual property rights. Whatever assurances are given, it’s almost guaranteed that Western firms’ techniques will be rapidly copied elsewhere and the West’s involvement in domestic Chinese shale gas development will be relatively short-lived. Even though the EIA’s estimates have not been backed up with extensive surveys on the ground, the probability is China’s shale gas will be vigorously developed in the first half of this decade as the country seeks to reduce its dependency on imported energy sources. The extent of reserves and impact on the Chinese energy scene are, however, as yet uncertain.

When you look at the extensive potential for shale gas — and the above examples are by no means the only ones — the casual observer cannot but be impressed by the speed, ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit shown by small US firms that, in the space of a few years, transformed the US energy scene. It seems unlikely that even with the technology now established, any of these other sources will be developed with equal dynamism.

–Stuart Burns

You would think the discovery of large — and I mean huge — gas reserves would be a major boon for any country. Just look at the transformational impact the US shale gas discoveries have had on the US energy landscape, not only allowing the generation of cheap and relatively low GHG electricity, but also allowing the US to double exports of higher value Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) to Asian markets. The US is not alone in having shale gas and oil reserves, yet in some other markets the challenges almost appear to outweigh the possibilities.

Mexico’s Got Potential – And Some Roadblocks

Mexico’s national oil and gas firm, Pemex, began producing shale gas from its Emergente 1 well, in the township of Hidalgo, Coahuila, this year. Although the well is exploratory, and produces only 2.9 million cubic feet per day of gas, it is potentially the first of many aimed at realizing the development of Mexico’s vast reserves. The country has only 12 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves, but according to an Economist Intelligence Unit report, the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates Mexico has the world’s fourth-largest deposits of shale gas, after China, the US and Argentina.

With around 681 trillion cubic feet of shale gas waiting to be released in a number of locations (particularly in eastern Mexico), what exactly is the problem, you may say; surely, this is a godsend! Well, yes, except for a few major challenges.

First, the cost and complexity of development. It is estimated the cost could be up to $80 billion and will require the drilling of thousands of wells, in remote areas with little or no infrastructure to transport the gas to users. Mexico has a low rate of natural gas consumption with large areas of the west completely without any kind of grid distribution. It is currently more economical to import low-priced gas from across the US border.

The development of liquefaction facilities to divert the gas for LNG exports has some potential, but at huge investment costs in a global market which will increasingly be awash with US and Canadian producers looking to export their shale gas LNG. Cash-strapped Mexico will have to partner with the private sector in order to realize the potential of these reserves and come up with some imaginative solutions to use the resources wisely.

Don’t Cry For LNG, Argentina

A little farther south in Argentina, the potential seems even larger (at least on paper.) A recent report by the US EIA shows that the country has 774 trillion cubic feet of shale gas reserves, the third-largest in the world behind China and the US. The challenges for Argentina are twofold.

First, oil and gas prices in Argentina are regulated, with the authorities keeping them so artificially low that in spite of significant reserves, the country imports gas from Bolivia. Oil prices, too, are kept artificially low. The basket price for Neuquén crude averaged around US $58/barrel in the first three months of 2011, about half the international level, discouraging investment in developing new sources. Shale gas and oil wells cost about three times as much as conventional oil and gas wells.

The second problem is atrocious labor relations that have resulted in repeated strikes among oil workers. But with unions holding significant political clout and the government more interested in short-term political gain than long term economic development, Argentina’s shale oil and gas reserves face strong headwinds to be developed comprehensively anytime soon.

Check for Part Two of this post tomorrow, covering Europe and China’s shale oil and gas markets.

–Stuart Burns

Few sunny days ahead for US solar manufacturing industry. Source: solarenergyfact.org

You may believe it was inevitable. Sooner or later, production of what is essentially a commodity item like photovoltaic solar panels would prove uncompetitive in Western markets as low-cost emerging markets reached critical mass and, in something of a downturn, flooded the market at prices Western producers could not match. Just about everyone commenting on the sector has been predicting the industry will only take off when panel prices drop to a level where electricity generation is economically viable without subsidy.

I should say we are not there yet; solar panels still require subsidy. In parts of Europe, they benefit from feed-in tariffs twice the current cost of power from the grid, guaranteed for 25 years as a government incentive. But panel prices in the US are reported in a NY Times article to have fallen dramatically in recent years. Wholesale prices are currently $1.00-1.20 per watt of capacity today, down from $1.80 in January and $3.30 in 2008.

Most were hoping falls in price would come from technological development and mass production, but in truth much of the fall has come about due to the market becoming awash with Chinese solar panels. From nothing in the middle of the last decade, Beijing has engineered phenomenal growth, both in domestic installed capacity and in exports. Chinese companies now export some 95 percent of the country’s solar panel production and are said to have three-fifths of global production capacity. Good news for consumers looking to take advantage of solar power, good news for the environmental lobby keen to see the uptake of renewable energy, and good news for installers for whom lower panel costs have helped fuel an industry that is growing generating capacity at 70 percent per year.

So is everyone happy? No; spare a thought for the domestic US solar panel manufacturing industry. Massive investments were made in production facilities to meet the projected demand. Controversial cases like that of Solyndra, the failed beneficiary of $528 million of government largesse (notwithstanding the impact of Chinese imports) have been dramatic.

Two other major US solar manufacturers that together are said to have represented one-sixth of US production capacity went bankrupt in August, and four others are laying off workers and cutting output. Seven producers led by Solar World, the US subsidiary of a German producer (the six other firms have kept their identities secret for fear of reprisals in accessing China’s market although how they expect to compete in China if they can’t compete in their home market is unclear) have called for anti-dumping and anti-subsidy cases against a wide range of Chinese solar panel makers.

The producers are calling for tariffs of more than 100 percent in retaliation for what they say are unfair government subsidies allowing Chinese makers to sell panels in the US, which would normally be 50 to 250 percent higher in their home market. In a Financial Times article, Timothy Brightbill, a partner with Wiley Rein, the law firm representing SolarWorld, said “China has a system of pervasive and illegal subsidy payments, including government cash grants and subsidized loans to the industry and subsidized raw material inputs. (Watch MetalMiner’s recent video interview with Brightbill here, where we discussed export restrictions and state-owned enterprises in regards to Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations.)

Law requires the Commerce Department to issue a preliminary decision on the anti-dumping claim possibly in mid-January, but no later than late March, and on the anti-subsidy claim, no later than mid-May. Many trade experts expect that the decision would include steep tariffs on imports, but the ruling may be too late to save large sections of the US industry.

The issue is a politically charged one in Washington; President Obama made green technology and US jobs an objective by which his presidency would be judged, yet at the same time the US needs another trade dispute with China like it needs a hole in the head. The outcome is likely to be the worst possible for both issues.

–Stuart Burns