EC The Approaching US Energy-Economic Crisis

Slide 12 shows the Federal Reserve’s graph of the share of families who own (as opposed to rent) their primary residence. There has been a drop in homeownership from 69% in 2004 to less than 64% in 2016. This is a period when wage disparity has been increasing.

Wind and solar are intermittent sources of electricity. They work adequately well in applications where intermittency is no problem, such as charging a cell phone that has a battery, or powering a desalination plant that is not expected to operate around the clock. Most analyses of the benefit of wind and solar are suitable only for these limited situations, because they omit any estimate of the cost of mitigating intermittency.

Intermittency becomes a major problem when wind and solar are added to the electric grid. Wholesale electricity prices may drop to very low levels when both wind and solar electricity are available. At times, prices may become negative. Electricity generation that is designed to be used most of the time (such as coal, nuclear, and even some types of natural gas generation) cannot survive without subsidies to offset the artificially low prices the system produces. The need for subsidies for backup electricity providers is really an indirect cost of adding intermittent types of electricity to the grid, but today’s pricing does not reflect this.

A different workaround for intermittency is to add a large amount of battery backup or other type of storage. In theory, batteries could be used to store electricity generated in the summer for use in the winter, when heating needs are greatest.

Another approach to intermittency is to greatly overbuild intermittent renewables, with the idea of using only that portion of electricity generation that is really needed at any point in time. Yet another approach is adding extra (lightly used) long distance transmission, to try to smooth out fluctuations.

Any of these approaches tends to be expensive. Academic papers estimating the benefit of wind and solar nearly always overlook the cost of mitigating intermittency. Thus, they suggest wind and solar can be solutions, when, in fact, their high cost is likely to lead to the same damaging economic effects as high oil prices. (See Slide 8.)

The dotted line on Slide 14 shows the downward trend in German wholesale electricity prices, as more and more intermittent electricity has been added to the grid. At the same time, total residential electricity prices have risen to higher and higher levels. The countries with the greatest use of wind and solar tend to have the highest retail rates, as shown in Figure 1 below (not in presentation).

As we discussed earlier, the “standard” workaround for high oil prices is low interest rates, because of the relationship shown in Slide 8. At some point, however, interest rates fall about as low as they can go.

The interest rates shown on Slide 16 are those for 10-year treasuries. These typically underlie mortgage rates. These rates have been falling since 1981, helping to prop up prices for homes, land, farmland, and other assets purchased with long-term debt. Low interest rates make monthly payments more affordable than high interest rates, so more people can afford to buy such assets. With greater demand, asset prices tend to rise.

Also, with all of the talk about the US continuing to raise interest rates, those owning bonds realize that rising interest rates will cause the selling price of bonds they hold in their portfolio to fall. Thus, pension funds and other organizations that are making a choice between buying bonds (which are certain to fall in selling price, as interest rates rise) and buying stocks, will choose to “overweight” stocks in new purchases for their portfolios. This will tend to push the price of stocks higher, regardless of the earnings potential of the underlying companies.

One thing I didn’t mention in the presentation, but is probably worthwhile pointing out here: Short-term interest rates have been rising since late 2014, even as 10-year treasuries have been holding fairly steady (Figure 2, below). These shorter-term interest rates affect payments on other types of transactions–adjustable rate mortgages and auto loans, for example.

These short-term interest rates have been creeping upward, indirectly making certain types of goods less affordable. The increase in short-term interest rates will, by itself, push the economy in the direction of recession.

Eventually, the bubble in asset prices can be expected to collapse, as it did in 2008. Perhaps this will happen when corporate profits fall too low; perhaps this will happen when the economy hits recession. The prices of many types of assets, including shares of stock, prices of homes, and prices of businesses can be expected to fall. There are likely to be many debt defaults in the governmental, business, and personal sectors of the economy. In such a situation, banks may fail.

The goods and services that are delivered each year require the use of physical resources such as oil, coal, natural gas, metals from ores, and wood. In the past, the quantity of these physical resources has grown, year after year, as illustrated in Scenario 1.

In a finite world, we cannot expect the amount of physical resources to grow, indefinitely. At some point something will go wrong, and the amount of resources extracted each year will become start becoming smaller, as in Scenario 2. In a sense, the people of the world can expect to become poorer, because the quantity of goods and services that can be made with these resources grows smaller, instead of larger, and each person’s share of the world output becomes smaller.

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James Hanshaw 1 year ago Contributor's comment

Very interesting and comprehensive article. I do not think oil prices are headed too high or too low and my reasons have just been published here