People dance in the streets of Cairo. A dictator has fallen. In recent weeks, a world dependent on oil has watched to see if a cascade of Mideast unrest would stop the flow of petroleum necessary for gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel.
Barron’s interviewed long-time oil analyst, Charles Maxwell, to gain insight into the future of petroleum. The article was titled “Whatever Happens in Egypt, Oil Will Hit $300 by 2020.” Maxwell based his forecast on long-term supply and demand forces. Oil production is peaking; demand is not. From today’s $85-plus per barrel, Maxwell forecasts $95 by 2012, $115 by 2013, $140 by 2014, $180 by 2015, and $300 by 2020.
The United States is the world’s largest consumer of oil. Over 95 percent of our transportation depends on oil. Over 80 percent of our U.S. transportation spending makes us more dependent with taxpayer money focused on widening highways and airports. Shifting more dollars to electric transit connected with electric high-speed rail would greatly reduce our oil dependency. Yet the same members of Congress that encourage subsidies to oil companies block improved transportation. If some members of the U.S. Congress get their way, they will either shutdown the EPA, or they will shutdown our government by refusing the increase the debt ceiling.
It will be the American people, not Congress, that free us from oil dependency. We survived oil prices peaking at $147 per barrel in July 2008. It is argued that the shock waves are still rippling through our economy. When consumers are stretched, the demand for oil is elastic. Vehicle miles traveled have peaked. Americans reduced their car ownership by 3.5 million vehicles. We are at record use of flexible work, car-pooling, car sharing, and transit use. More fuel-efficient cars are bought. The success of hybrid-electric cars is paving the way for electric cars.
Fortunately, as oil prices rise, lithium battery prices fall. Ford forecasts that by 2020, ten to 25 percent of its car sales will include lithium batteries and electric motors. Ten to 25 percent will be hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and electric cars. Next year, Ford may be the first car company to sell 100,000 lithium battery packs as it brings out new hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and electrics all using lithium battery packs. Or the first to sell 100,000 may be Nissan or General Motors. As demand increases, better chemistry and volume manufacturing have lowered the price of automotive lithium battery packs from $1,000 per kilowatt-hour to $500.
Prospects for electric vehicles are boosted by efficiency. A gasoline engine drive system is only about 15 percent efficient. Using natural gas a bit less. Using E85 ethanol, even less. A diesel engine drive is often about 20 percent efficient. A hybrid drive system can be 25 or 30 percent efficient. An electric drive, 80 percent efficient.
Although electric cars currently are more expensive than the average gasoline car, that may change in this decade. Many automakers project that when battery packs fall to $250 per kilowatt-hour electric cars will be less expensive than gasoline cars to own and operate. The precise tipping point depends on the price of oil. If Mr. Maxwell’s forecast is correct, EVs will be the winner in this decade.
Keep your eye on the ratio of battery pack kW price to gasoline price. The current ratio is around 500/3 = 166:1. In two years, it might be $400 kW packs and $4 gasoline at the pump for a 400/4 =100:1 ratio. $250 packs and $5 gasoline is 250/5 = 50:1 ratio. Be on the watch for a 50:1 ratio as the tipping point where electric car sales begin to dominate.
Breakthrough innovation may also accelerate the tipping point. Next generation biofuels could fuel hybrids. More efficient inductive electric motors could be free of rare earths like neodymium and dysprosium. Electric cars could have their range extended with fuel cells, solid-state batteries, ultracaps, or new battery chemistries.
As oil becomes more challenging to extract from troubled regions, deep oceans, and frozen tar sands, we see increased use of natural gas power plants, renewable energy, and efficient hybrid and electric vehicles. Welcome to our electric future.