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More problems for Tesla: Analyst cuts sales forecast

Morgan Stanley auto analyst Adam Jonas has been bullish on Tesla Motors. But he added to the company’s woes Wednesday when he slashed its sales outlook in the face of falling oil prices.

Jonas predicts that the luxury electric-car maker will only be able to sell 300,000 vehicles by 2020.

Cheap gas prices could be partly responsible, since the narrative at the start of this month was that plunging prices had contributed to consumers returning to their SUV- and pickup-loving habits. (Electric vehicles didn’t sell badly in November either, particularly the Nissan Leaf.)

But this segment in CNN Money’s story presents an other interesting angle:

The biggest drag on Tesla sales will be the lower-priced, mass market Model 3 expected in showrooms in about three years.

Jonas’ doubts that Tesla will be able to price the Model 3 in the $35,000 range as many have been expecting. He’s now thinking the price could be closer to $60,000.

Tesla’s philosophy is that it won’t put out a vehicle that doesn’t meet its own, and founder Elon Musk’s, high expectations. See this post from November, about how the company wasn’t bothered about delaying production of the crossover-utility vehicle Model X, which is now expected in showrooms until the third quarter of 2015.

Tesla’s stock has fallen precipitously since Sept. 4, when it was $286.04. It closed at $197.81 on Tuesday.

CNG-pump

Will falling gas prices hurt alternative vehicles?

Everyone is saying that falling gas prices will ruin the market for alternative fuels and vehicles. But it isn’t time to give up on them now.
Ethanol and methanol are still two liquid fuels that will easily substitute for gasoline in our current infrastructure. Ethanol is making headway, particularly in the Midwest, where it is still cheaper than gasoline and has a lot of support in the farm economy. The big decision will come when the EPA finally sets the quota for ethanol consumption for 2015 – if the agency ever gets around to making a decision. (The decision has been postponed since last spring.) A high number should guarantee the sale of ethanol no matter what the price of gasoline.

That leaves methanol, the fuel that has the most potential to replace gasoline and would it fit right into our present infrastructure but must still run the gamut of EPA approval and would require a change in habits among motorists. Methanol is still relatively unknown among car owners and is hindered by people’s reluctance to try new things. But the six methanol plants that the Chinese are building in the Texas and Louisiana region could break the ice on methanol. The Chinese have 100,000 methanol cars on the road now and are shooting for 500,000 by 2015. Some of that methanol might end up in American engines as well.

Another alternative that is still in play is the electric car. In theory, electric cars should not be affected much by gas prices because that is an entirely different infrastructure. The appeal is not based on price so such as the idea of freeing yourself from the oil companies completely and relying on a source of energy.

The Nissan Leaf has not been badly hit by oil prices. Tesla’s cars, of course, have not gone mass market yet, but the company is relying on a new breed of consumer who does not worry too much about the price and will appreciate the car for its style and performance. Elon Musk has shown no indication of backing down on his great Gigafactory, and Tesla is still aiming to have the Model III (its third-generation vehicle, which will come at a much lower expected price point of $35,000) ready by 2017.

This leaves natural-gas-powered vehicles as the only group that might be hurt by falling gas prices, and here the news is not too good. Sales of vehicles that have compressed natural gas as their fuel declined 7.2 percent in November. As David Whiston, an analyst at Morningstar, told the Houston Chronicle’s Ryan Holeywell: “I hear all the time from dealers: As soon as gas starts to go down, people look at light trucks.”

CNG’s appeal has always been that it will be cheaper than regular gasoline, so plunging gas prices make it lose much of its appeal. It costs $5,000 to install a tank for CNG fuel, and that is not likely to attract a lot of takers with oil prices low. For a gas-electric hybrid, there is similar math. For the Toyota Corolla, the electric portion adds another $7,000 to the price. That’s why the CNG-based solutions never caught up with the light-duty vehicle. They are still attractive for high-mileage vehicles like buses and garbage trucks. “For the consumers doing the math, if gas goes below $3 per gallon, the payback period goes out a number of years,” Whiston told Holeywell. “And the break-even point makes sense for fewer people.”

The collapse in gas prices is not the end of the road for alternative fuels. In a couple of months, the price may be up again, and all those people who have rushed out to buy light trucks will be stuck with them. The changeover to alternative fuels is a slow process, fraught with false starts and misleading signals. But in the end, it will be well worth it to reduce our dependence on imported oil and achieve some kind of energy independence. Car buyers have very short memories and an inability to look very far into the future. Remember, it’s always a passing parade. Consequently, their reaction has been only short-term. But once people buy those trucks, they’re stuck with them for the next 5 to 10 years. If the price of gas goes up again, they may live to regret it.

car dealer

Report: Electric car buyers hate the dealer experience

Researchers at the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California at Davis have made a startling discovery: Consumers in the market for an electric vehicle hate dealing with the traditional car dealers that sell EVs.

Green Car Congress has a story on the UC Davis study, which found that purchasers of plug-in electrics were less satisfied with their experience with the sales departments at car dealerships than purchasers of traditional gas-powered vehicles.

And the feeling is mutual, it seems: Sales people at dealers that sell EVs alongside traditional cars often don’t like to take the extra time (for time is money) to explain the basics of how EVs work. As Green Car Reports notes, “Customers tended to be more discriminating, they said, which demanded more time and effort by the staff to answer questions and arrange test drives.”

The exception to the rule of customer dissatisfaction is Tesla, which doesn’t even use dealers: Buyers pick out the model they want in the showroom, then order online.

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicle

Japan bets big on hydrogen fuel cells

Remember when Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) used to sit atop the Japanese industrial complex, steering it like some giant Godzilla hovering over the entire world?

Those were the days when Japan’s government-industry partnership was supposed to represent the future, when Michael Crichton wrote a novel about how Japan would soon devour America, when pundits and scholars were warning that we had better do the same if we hoped to survive – before, that is, the whole thing collapsed and Japan went into a 20-year funk from which it has never really recovered.

Well those days may be returning in one small part as METI prepares to direct at least half the Japanese auto industry into the production of hydrogen-powered fuel-cell cars.

“Japanese Government Bets the Farm on Fuel Cell Vehicles” ran one headline earlier this month and indeed there’s plenty at stake for everyone. The tip-off came at the end of May when Jim Lentz, CEO of Toyota’s North American operations, told Automotive News that electric vehicles are only “short-range vehicles that take you that extra mile…But for long-range travel, we feel there are better alternatives, such as hybrids and plug-in hybrids, and, tomorrow, fuel cells.” The target here, of course, is Tesla, where Elon Musk appears to be making the first inroads against gasoline-powered vehicles with his $35,000 Model E, aimed at the average car buyer. Toyota was originally in on that deal and was scheduled to supply the batteries until it pulled out this spring, ceding the job to Panasonic.

But all that was only a preview of what was to come. In early June, METI announced it would orchestrate a government-private initiative to help Toyota and Honda market fuel-cell vehicles in Japan and then across the globe. Of course that leaves out the other half of Japan’s auto industry, Nissan and Mitsubishi, pursuing their version of the EV, but maybe the Japanese are learning to hedge their bets.

The hydrogen initiative will put the fuel-cell vehicle front-and-center in the race to transition to other forms of propulsion and reduce the world’s dependence on OPEC oil. Actually, hydrogen cars have been in the offering for more than twenty years. In the 1990s soft-energy guru Amory Lovins put forth his Hypercar, a carbon-fiber vehicle powered by hydrogen fuel cells. In 2005, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger inaugurated the “Hydrogen Highway,” a proposed network of hydrogen filling stations that was supposed to blanket the Golden State. Unfortunately, only ten have been built so far, and there are still no more than a handful of FCVs (hydrogen fuel cell vehicles) on the road. Mercedes, BMW, Audi and VW all have small lines but none are marketed very aggressively in the United States.

This time, however, there may be a serious breakthrough. After all, Toyota, Honda and METI are not just in the business of putting out press releases. Toyota will begin production of its first mass-market model in December and Honda will follow with a 5-passenger sedan next year. Prices will start in the stratosphere — close to $100,000 — but both companies are hoping to bring them down to $30,000 by the 2020s. Meanwhile, GM is making noises about a fuel-cell model in 2016 and South Korea’s Hyundai is already unloading its hydrogen-powered Tucson on the docks of California.

What will METI’s role be? The supervising government ministry promises to relax safety standards, allowing on-board storage of hydrogen at 825 atmospheres instead of the current 750. This will increase the car’s range by 20 percent and bring it into the 350-mile territory of the internal combustion engine. Like the ICE, hydrogen cars can “gas up” in minutes, giving them a huge leg up on EVs, which can take anywhere from 20 minutes with superchargers to eight hours with household plugs. METI has also promised to loosen import controls so that foreign manufacturers such as Mercedes-Benz can find their way into Japan. And, of course, it will seek reciprocal agreements so Toyota and Honda can market their models across the globe.

So will the one-two punch of government-and-industry-working-together be able to break the ice for hydrogen vehicles? California seems to be a particularly ripe market. Toyota is already the best-selling car in the state and the California Energy Commission is promising to expand the Hydrogen Highway to 70 stations by 2016. Still, there will be stiff competition from Elon Musk if and when his proposed Gigafactory starts turning out batteries by the millions. Partisans of EVs and fuel-cell vehicles are already taking sides.

In the end, however, the most likely winners will be consumers who will now have a legitimate choice between hydrogen vehicles and EVs. It may be a decade or more before either of these technologies makes a significant dent in our oil consumption, but in the end it will be foreign oil providers that will be feeling the pain.

Batteries, EV, Charging, EV Charging Sign, Plug-in

Are We Entering the Age of Batteries?

Last week in Houston, Secretary of Energy Dr. Ernest Moniz told CERA Conference attendees that storage batteries may be the next big energy breakthrough.  “It’s pretty dramatic,” he said.  “The research is moving very, very fast.”

Indeed, if you’re looking for “energy breakthroughs” on the Internet these days, most of the hits are likely to turn up something new about “flow batteries,” “ten times the storage capacity,” or some new cathode material that dramatically improves the performance of lithium-ion batteries.

So where do we stand in this energy revolution now, and what are the possibilities that any of these breakthroughs are likely to lead to real improvements in our attempts to wean ourselves off traditional energy resources like fossil fuels?

A good place to start is “Next Generation Electrical Energy Storage: Beyond Lithium Ion Batteries,” a panel put together for last February’s meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago.  Three experts – Haresh Kamath; of the Electric Power Research Institute, Mark Mathias; of General Motors, and Jeff Chamberlain; of Argonne National Laboratory – discussed the latest developments in the industry.

All three panelists agreed that battery research is progressing along two separate tracks:

1) lithium-ion batteries that power most consumer electronic devices are now being scaled up for electric vehicles; and

2) larger and more durable conventional batteries for the storage of grid-scale electricity.

Despite whatever hopes Elon Musk may have that his new “Gigafactory” will be able to address both of these markets at the same time, that does not seem likely.  “Lithium-ion just doesn’t have the durability that we’re looking for in the utility industry,” Kamath of EPRI told the audience.  He continued:

I was doing cable research one time and we had a model for a product that would last 40 years.  The utilities looked at it and said, `Could you try for 60 or 80?’  The utilities are looking for things that last a long, long time.’ said Kamath.

“There’s a lot of experimenting going on,” Kamath added, “but everything that is on the grid right now is a demonstration.  No one has yet come up with a sustainable business model.”

With electric cars, on the other hand, the challenge will be in equipping batteries with enough energy density so that their weight does not load down the vehicle to the point of being counterproductive.  “The standard measure is that you need 100 kilowatt-hours of power to drive a mid-sized vehicle 300 miles,” said Mathias, who works at GM’s electrical storage research and development project.  He explained.

If you get up in the density range of 350 Watt-hours per kilogram, you can make it.  But current batteries are operating at around 150 Wh/kg, which gives them a range of 125 miles.  The best we can project is that they can achieve 225 Watt-hours per liter, which still leaves them short. (Mathias).

“Fuel cells operating on hydrogen actually do a much better job at this point,” he added.  “They can now get us up in the 300-mile range.  We regard them as electric vehicles as well.  It’s just that you generate the electricity on board.”

Then there’s the matter of cost.  Capital costs for lithium-ion batteries quickly rise into the $20,000 range.  Fuel cells cost only $6,000 and gas-electric hybrids, $4,000.  “The good news for EVs is that fuel costs are only about one-third that of gasoline,” said Mathias. “Over a span of 100,000 miles, a gasoline engine will cost you $10,000 in fuel.  A hydrogen fuel cell vehicle will cost only $6,000 and a pure EV, $3,333.”  Still, that’s a long time to wait and a long way from complete cost recovery.

Refueling time is also a bit of a problem.  “When you pump gasoline into your car, you’re actually adding range at a rate of 150 miles per minute,” said Mathias.  He went on to say:

With hydrogen fuel, it’s 100 miles-per-minute, which is acceptable. But even with the new 120-kW superchargers, you can only add mileage to an EV at a rate of 6 miles per minute.  If you take a long- distance trip, you’re going to spend 20 percent of your time       recharging. (Mathias)

Overall, Mathias was not overly optimistic about further improvements.  “There’s not much on the horizon,” he concluded.  He was more optimistic about hydrogen cars.

Chamberlain, of Argonne National Laboratory, is part of a $120 million program funded by the Department of Energy that is aimed at developing batteries with five times the current energy density at 1/5th the cost within five years.  “That’s a very ambitious goal,” he told the audience, “but we feel that’s what’s needed to transform the transportation sector.”  A long chain of national and university laboratories are involved in the project.  Of course, government goals and mandates are just that – projections that may or may not come true.  Steve Jobs was good at inspiring his cast to pursue seemingly impossible goals but the federal government does not always have the same success.

So far, the research has involved searching the periodic table for more candidates.  “We’re not sure what we’re going to come up with,” said Chamberlain, elaborating:

We’ve decided that capacitors will never help us reach our goal.  The charge dissipates too quickly.  So we’re exploring other materials.  It may involve a metallic anode and a suspended-particle cathode.  If you move to magnesium or aluminum, you’re releasing two electrons  instead of one.  But zinc-air and lithium-air doesn’t get you there               because they simply don’t have the power.”  (Chamberlain)

Chamberlain said that a lot is already known about lithium-ion.  “We may be able to get two times what we have now.”  He had to agree with Mathias that no other significant developments are on the horizon right now.

Mathias warned against new reports that are constantly announcing progress at the material level.  “We often realize right away that they’re not going to work,” he said.  “It’s not worth the manufacturing dollars.

Overall, the takeaway from the panel was that Tesla has its work cut out for it.  Progress on electric vehicles will be tough.  The panelists agreed that natural gas vehicles make a lot of sense.  “The problem is you don’t really solve the CO2 problem,” said Mathias.  He did express confidence that battery research would eventually pay off in the end.  “All this progress will eventually be harvested at the hybrid level,” he said.  “It may not lead to pure electric level, but there is going to be a lot of improvement in hybrids.”

wcronkite2-247x300

And that’s the way it is or isn’t — stable oil and gas markets

“And that’s the way it is” was used by my favorite news anchor, Walter Cronkite, to sign off on his highly respected network news show. And that’s the way the content he generally delivered generally was — clear, factual, helpful. I have tried to apply Cronkitism to today’s media analyses and commentary on oil production and oil prices. The new assumed “way it is” regrettably sometimes seems like the way the journalist or his boss — whether print, TV or cable — wants it to be or hopes it will be. Frequently, partial sets of facts are marshaled to ostensibly determine clear cause and effect relationships but end up confusing issues and generating questions as to the author or speakers mastery of content and conclusions.

What’s a Cronkitist to do? I often look to The New York Times for the wisdom grail. Generally, it works. But, I must confess that a recent piece in the Times by outstanding journalist, Clifford Kraus, titled “Is Stability the New Normal?” Oct. 9 bothered me. I found its thesis that a new stability has arrived with respect to oil prices and by implication gas prices at the pump a bit too simple.

The author indicates that “predictions about oil and gas prices are precarious when there are so many political and security hazards. But it is likely that the world has already entered a period of relatively predictable crude prices…there are reasons to believe the inevitable tensions in oil-producing countries will be manageable over at least the next few years, because the world now has sturdier shock absorbers than at any time over at least the past decade.”

What are these absorbers? First, more oil production in the U.S., Canada, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, to balance the loss of exports from countries like Iran, Libya and, I assume, Venezuela and possibly Nigeria. Second, the continued spread of oil shale development throughout the world, including many non-Middle East or OPEC countries. Third, increased auto efficiency, conservation and lower demand for gas in the U.S. Finally, near the end of the article and not really seemingly central to the author’s stability argument natural gas becomes in part a hypothetical “if.” He notes that American demand for gasoline could drop below a half a billion barrels a day from already below peak consumption, if natural cheap gas replaces more oil as a transportation fuel. (At least he mentioned natural gas as a transportation fuel. Most media reports fail to tie natural gas to transportation) break open the champagne! Nirvana is near! Michael Lynch, a senior official at Strategic Energy & Economic Research Inc., is quoted in the article, saying, “Stable oil prices could reduce future inflation rates and particularly curb transportation costs, helping to steady prices of food and construction materials that travel long distances…Lower inflation can also help reduce interest rates. By reducing uncertainty, investor and consumer confidence should both be increased, boosting higher spending and investment and thus economic growth.”

In the words of Oscar Hammerstein II, I want to be a cockeyed optimist…but something tells me to be at least a bit wary of a too-good-to-be-true scenario, one premised on a historically new relatively high price of oil per barrel (bbl.), just under $100 (the price is now about $105) and gas prices likely only modestly lower than they are now (the U.S. average is close to $3.50 a gallon)

So why be wary and worry?

1. The Times accepts the rapid significant growth in oil shale development and production too easily. Maybe they are right! Perhaps the oil shale train has left the station. But the growth of environmental opposition, particularly opposition to fracking, will likely slow it down until regulations perceived as reasonable by the industry and environmentalists are put in the books. Further, the often very early large expectations with respect to new pools of oil in places like the Monterey Shale, featured in media releases, have not panned out after later sophisticated analyses. Finally, the price of hard to get at oil may come in so high as to limit producer enthusiasm for new drilling.

2. The Times correctly suggests that the relationship between oil prices and gasoline costs may be less than thought conventionally. Lower oil costs in the U.S. do not necessarily trigger lower gasoline costs, and higher gasoline costs are not necessarily the result of higher oil costs per barrel

The Times credits the recent visible break in the relationship primarily to an abundance of oil linked to oil shale production in the U.S. and in many other countries and to falling demand for oil throughout the world, including China, to the lack of economic growth and higher efficiency of vehicles.

It’s more complicated. For example, price setting is affected in a major way by speculation in the financial community, and by oil producers and refiners who govern production and distribution availability. Respected analysts and political leaders suggest that companies base their decisions concerning price at least in part on market and profit assumptions. Fair. But, oil’s major derivative gasoline does not function in a free market, rather, it is a market controlled by oil companies. There is little competition from alternative fuels. Unfair and inefficient.

3. The quest for oil independence and the related justification for drilling lead the media to suggest and the public to believe that there is an equivalency between increased production of oil and closing the gap between what we consume and produce as a nation. Yes, we have reduced the gap — both demands have fallen and production has increased. But it is still around 6.0 to 6.5 million barrels per day. Yet, we continue to export nearly half of what we produce every day or nearly 4 million barrels. Our good friends, China and Venezuela, get 4% and 3% respectively. Companies may sing “God Bless America” while extracting, refining, exporting and importing oil, but theologically based patriotism doesn’t govern the oil market. Sorry, but global prices and profits have precedence. Remember the adage — “the business of business is business.”

4. A recently released Fuel Freedom Foundation paper suggests that energy independence is a misnomer. Based on its review of EIA data and projections through 2035, negative energy balances exist that never drop below a $300 billion deficit. If EIA data is to be believed, energy independence, Saudi America and control of our energy future are developments that will not occur anytime soon.

I am disappointed that natural gas as an alternative fuel seems more like an afterthought coming at the end of Kraus’s long piece. I am glad the author mentioned it but it seems at least a bit forced. The commentary was limited to natural gas and not its derivatives, ethanol and methanol, or, for that matter, other alternative fuels. Put another way, it seemed to assume a still very restricted fuel market. Opening up consumer choices at the pump is a key factor in stabilizing oil and gas markets. It also is a key factor achieving reduced prices at the pump for low and moderate income families; the former spending from 14-17% of their limited income on gasoline.