Investing Through The Unfolding Energy Disruption

Although a life long mathematician and technologist, recently much of my focus has been on being a savvy investor, in many asset classes from private seed/angel investing to public markets and alternative investments. While Canadian investors have traditionally thrived on conservative, cash generating value investing and fixed income plays, the future is rendering such risk averse models obsolete, making it critical to adopt a forward lens, looking out, perhaps a decade into the future.

I have lived through many market disruptions in which “software is eating the world.” Such disruptions include the “Kodak Moment” of digital photography rendering mining of silver oxide to supply the ecosystem around film irrelevant in a digital photography age. Another exemplar is the upending the entire value chain for newspapers and other ad-funded media by the likes of Google (Adwords) EBay (classified ads).

Energy has driven world economies for time immemorial and may even have led to the fall of the Roman Empire. As modern societies have become wealthier, energy consumption has seen stratospheric growth. The simple reason is that Energy underpins the creature comforts of modern society, including food, shelter, transportation and consumer consumption. There is widespread concern that this nonstop growth model that underpins our economy is ultimately unsustainable, particularly as rich country ways spread to the rest of the soon to be 10 billion people on planet earth. The younger generation, who will ultimately see the limits of such consumption in their lifetimes, has embraced a more pessimistic view of their future and adopted a focus on lifestyle changes, including low carbon (vegan or vegetarian) diets, not owning a car, and trying to eschew rampant consumerism.

Essentially, there are two paths open to a more sustainable way of living:

  • conservation, in which individuals strive to lower their environmental (primarily carbon) footprint, and
  • a technology revolution in which traditional energy is replaced, for example by renewables, and even more radical, technologies that remove carbon from the atmosphere.

Thus, futurists have long predicted the same fate for energy driven by new technologies that include renewables, storage (battery and other), Digital Electricity, subjecting the global energy market to its own “Kodak Moment” of digital disruption. The future has arrived, and today in 2019, this energy disruption is already in full force, potentially rendering oil, gas and coal essentially obsolete over a time as short as the next decade.

What does this mean for the Canadian investor, including business, government and insurance companies who all will see their future results impacted by how this unfolds?

I have been researching a formal presentation around energy disruption for investors, but this recent CBC article spurred me to publish this post and perhaps have readers send me their thoughts and research.

The above article is instructive inasmuch as it paints a picture of a better world achieved by strategically and aggressively re-allocating resources in our economy. The suggestion is that to do so, far from being foolishly spendthrift, is our most rational and positive outcome. What it doesn’t say is that to delay doing this, by allowing others to capture leadership in the “new”, post fossil fuel, growth industries, render Canada a much poorer (aka “third world”) country in the future.

The fossil fuel (coal, oil and gas) industry is facing many headwinds, which has moved economists from a previous narrative of concern about “Peak Oil” (ie. the world is running out of oil) to the new narrative of “Peak Demand” (ie. demand will drop as energy consumption is disrupted by new technologies). Here are some of the head winds and their implications:

  • Over the last decade, coal power, one of our greatest carbon producers, has already been rendered uneconomic, with declines in coal mining and production starting from around 2010.
  • Solar and Wind electricity production costs continue to drop and since 2016 are cheaper at scale than oil, and now gas (including Gas Peaker Plants).
  • The electrification of transportation, from cars, buses, trucking and more, is continuing to grow rapidly year over year. Current estimates call for Peak Petroleum Vehicle (ie. those “ICE” or Internal Combustion Engine powered) sales to occur by 2023.
  • New technologies, particularly in the areas of energy storage, are quickly coming on stream. Year over year more than doubling in such storage capacity further indicates exponential disruption at work.
  • Carbon pricing, in whatever form whether carbon tax or cap and trade, is needed for the market economy to work and will certainly become pervasive as the climate crisis escalates. It will require the majority of people to demand government policy and action. Current government policies seem to be held hostage to the oil and gas lobby instead of the wishes of the general public, although some parties try to disguise oil and gas wishes as “for the people”.
  • Fossil fuel subsidies in Canada, including taxes and direct subsidies, are estimated to be between $30 and $50 Billion annually. I continue to work at sourcing more definitive subsidy data, but it is clear that simply better allocating these subsidies to a cleaner future must happen.
  • Because the oil industry has known about our current Climate Crisis for many years (40 or more) and actively spread misinformation and hugely lobbied governments to ignore the long term effects, litigation for the damages caused by climate change will only escalate. This is analogous to the class action suits against tobacco companies for spreading misinformation about smoking in the 1960s and 1970s that have made these industries Wall Street pariahs today. In essence, this misinformation and deflection is an attempt to delay the inevitable, at the cost of real future damage to our world and the people inhabiting it.
  • Fake News Has a Cost: various industries have spent billions of dollars bombarding us with a continuous stream misinformation in order to distract and deflect us from proper policy. While the Kohl Brothers who make money from coal are legendary, examples of other myths include:
    • apparently the power unions and nuclear industry heavily fund anti-wind energy misinformation, such as Wind Turbine Syndrome
    • the auto industry funds significant misinformation about EVs, and this isn’t just in Buzzfeed, but in fact finds itself in otherwise reputable news media like The Globe and Mail: See The Trouble with Electric Vehicles – Winter and Out in the Cold with a Hyundai Kona Electric.
    • consider both the cost to all of us when this misinformation helps form government policy and also the notion that those promulgating this misinformation may attract future liability for harm stemming from real harm their actions inflict on society.
  • For those not familiar with Exponential Innovation, it can be deceptive because humans tend to see growth as linear and get caught off guard as what look like small numbers rapidly balloon into much larger ones. The perceptual problem that people have with Exponential Technology Adoption curves is explained here: The Problem With Exponential Innovation : People

The above just skims the surface of the major disconnect between reality and lobbying and misinformation. Those who want to drill deeper into this fascinating world of energy disruption may wish to check out this video by futurist and technologist Ramez Naam from Singularity University.

Ramez Naam – Future of Energy

All of this leads to predictions that, by around 2030, both the price of oil and the public market stock prices of public oil majors crater. In the process, some economists predict that globally US$100 Trillion (yes that’s right) of fossil fuel assets will be kept in the ground, and hence written down. Such a staggering number means a huge economic dislocation for countries, companies [and investors].

Here are some closing thoughts:

  • Short Coal, Oil and Gas: and their ecosystem. Although no one can be sure about the timing, the fact that the coming energy disruption will have a hugely detrimental effect on these industries is irrefutable. Don’t get caught in the massive price (commodity and stock) swings that this market disruption will unleash. You heard it here first!
  • See Beyond Partisan Politics: because parties, and elected representatives, seem more beholden to the 100 largest global fossil fuel companies than their own voters, the time is long overdue to return politics to a grassroots level of democracy where the views of citizen voters actually count. In the US, there is a movement to pressure local representative to refuse fossil fuel industry funding. It will be interesting to watch this unfold here in Canada. No doubt our coming economic transition will be a gargantuan effort — I liken our upcoming transition to the effort to win World War II – everyone united, regardless of party line, for a common cause. It would be good to emulate the spirit of such a war effort. In spite of past failures of partisan politics, the net/net is that citizens can mobilize and collectively push our elected officials toward policies that actually help citizens and our planet.
  • Insurance: The current climate crisis may up-end the property insurance business and make insurance coverage unaffordable for many homeowners. To date, the insurance industry has led in research and advocacy around resilience and adaptation to Climate Change. The day is fast arriving when that will have to change. Increased weather volatility may make the climate so hard to model that realistic pricing of risk, which determines policy premiums, close to impossible. Lastly, as litigation starts to segment companies by liability for knowingly contributing to climate change, the insurance industry will undoubtedly be forced to respond both in their own investment portfolios and in the core insurance business.

As an investor, citizen, and voter I know that we need a significant reset in how we respond to the inevitable decarbonization of our economy. No one suggests it will be easy. Conversely, further inaction and delay will result in hugely greater pain, and suffering.

It’s your choice – where will you place your investment?