Saturday, 16 January 2016 22:28

And now comes the hangover

There have been good prices for commodities during the last decade: oil, gas, minerals, agricultural products. Now prices have plummeted. This implies a sea change as commodities are again a buyers' market, as it has been the case for most of the second half of the last century. It tips the correlation of forces in favour of the developed countries against the developing countries, which are generally heavily dependent of the export of commodities. But some developed countries are suffering too.

As oil prices have plummeted, they have overshadowed the other important reality: renewable energy prices are also falling. And contrary to oil prices, the fall will continue in the future. So renewables are becoming a viable and profitable alternative for electricity generation, helping the world to get off its dependency on fossil fuels. But what about cars? They are intimately linked to fossil fuels, or – if need be – biofuels, to make the internal combustion engine work. Worldwide, transport is actually responsible for around 27% of all energy consumption, and 63% of oil consumption. So is there any future for renewables here?

The recent fall in oil prices has obscured another tendency: renewable energy and energy storage is fast becoming cheaper. In the lack of political will to face the global warming, this fall in the price of renewable energy is now our best hope to assure that much of the coal, oil and gas will stay in the underground, as it will only be profitable to exploit the deposits that are easy to access. We are not there yet, but we may come there faster than expected. So we may be at the turning point for fossil energy.

As oil prices have plummeted, the question has naturally come up: does this mean the end for renewable energies? Can they compete with this cheap fossil energy? The short answer is: yes, it will of course now be less profitable to invest in renewable energies. However, paradoxically, the longer story is more complex. Wind energy is already competitive with fossil energy, and solar has also passed the break-even point in more sunny places. And unlike non-renewable energy sources, the long run trend is towards falling costs. So we may be at a turning point for the fossil energy.

We have heard a lot of nonsense about oil the last couple of months. First we were told that the fall in the oil price would continue to 20 dollars per barrel or even lower – from 100 dollars less than a year ago. Secondly that the fall in the oil price would not affect the US shale oil and gas miracle – US technology and prowess would outsmart the low cost producers as Saudi Arabia. Then, when the number of active oil rigs in operation in the US fell to half, we heard that there was not any connection any more between drilling and production. Of course it now turns out that it is all just that: nonsense.