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In 2009, the world produced some 13.2 billion metric tons of hydrocarbons, or about 4,200 pounds for every man, woman and child on the planet. Burning those hydrocarbons poured roughly 31.3 billion metric tons of CO2 into our atmosphere. The basic premise of alternative energy is that widespread deployments of wind turbines, solar panels, and electric vehicles will slash hydrocarbon consumption, reduce CO2 emissions, and give us a cleaner, greener, and healthier planet. That premise, however, is fatally flawed, because our planet cannot produce enough non-ferrous industrial metals to make a meaningful difference, and the prices of those metals are even more volatile than the prices of the hydrocarbons that alternative energy hopes to supplant.
The ugly but undeniable reality is that aggregate global production of non-ferrous industrial metals, including aluminum, chromium, copper, zinc, manganese, nickel, lead, and a host of lesser metals is about 35 pounds for every man, woman, and child on the planet. All of those metals are already being used to provide the basic necessities and minor luxuries of modern life. There are no significant unused supplies of industrial metals that can be used for large-scale energy substitution. Even if there were, industrial metal prices are more volatile and climbing faster than hydrocarbon prices, which means that most alternative-energy schemes are like jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.
For all their alleged virtues and perceived benefits, most alternative-energy technologies are prodigious consumers of industrial metals. The suggestion that humanity can find enough slop in 35 pounds of per-capita industrial metals production to make a meaningful dent in 4,200 pounds of per-capita hydrocarbon production is absurd beyond reckoning. It just can't happen at a relevant scale.
I'm a relentless critic of vehicle electrification schemes like the one from Tesla Motors (Nasdaq: TSLA ) because they're the most egregious offenders and doomed to fail when the EV hype goes careening off the industrial-metals cliff at 120 mph. Let's get real here. Tesla carries a market capitalization of $2.8 billion and has a net worth of less than $400 million, so its stock price is 86% air -- a bubble in search of a pin. Tesla plans to become a global leader in the development of new electric-drive technologies that will use immense amounts of industrial metals to conserve irrelevant amounts of hydrocarbons. Even if Tesla achieves its lofty technological goals, it must fail as a business. Investors who chase the EV dream without considering the natural-resource realities are doomed to suffer immense losses. Tesla can't possibly succeed. Its fair market value is zero. The stock is a perfect short.
I won't even get into the sophistry of wind turbines and solar panels.
Next on my list of investment catastrophes in the making are the lithium-ion battery developers such as A123 Systems (Nasdaq: AONE ) , Ener1 (Nasdaq: HEV ) , Valence Technologies (Nasdaq: VLNC ) , and Altair Nanotechnologies (Nasdaq: ALTI ) that plan to use prodigious quantities of industrial metals as fuel-tank substitutes or, worse yet, for grid-connected systems that will smooth the power output from inherently variable wind and solar power facilities that also use prodigious quantities of industrial metals as hydrocarbon substitutes. Talk about compounding the foolishness.
I can only identify one emerging battery technology that has a significant potential to reduce hydrocarbon consumption and industrial metal consumption at the same time while offering better performance. That technology is the PbC Battery from Axion Power International (OTC BB: AXPW.OB), a third-generation lead-acid-carbon battery that uses 30% less industrial metal to deliver all of the performance and five to 10 times the cycle life. There may be other examples, but I'll have to rely on my readers to identify them.
Humanity cannot reduce its consumption of hydrocarbons by increasing its consumption of industrial metals. The only way to reduce hydrocarbon consumption is to use less and waste less. There is a world of sensible and economic fuel efficiency technologies that can help us achieve the frequently conflicting long-term goals of reduced hydrocarbon consumption and increased industrial metals sustainability. They include but are not limited to:
- Better buiding design and insulation.
- Smarter power management systems.
- Denser cities with shorter commutes.
- Smart transportation management to reduce congestion.
- Buses and carpooling.
- Bicycles and e-bikes.
- Shifting freight to rail from trucks.
- Smaller vehicles that use lightweight composites to replace industrial metals.
- Deploying solar and wind with battery backup for remote power and in developing countries.
- Shipping efficiency technologies, such as better hull coatings, slow steaming, and so on.
- Recycling, recycling, and recycling.
My colleague Tom Konrad wrote a 28-part series on "The Best Peak Oil Investments." While I'm skeptical about the future of biofuels after suffering major losses in the biodiesel business, Tom's work provides an exhaustive overview of the energy-efficiency space and a wide variety of investment ideas that have the potential to make a real difference. Since we can't simply take a couple of giant leaps into the future, we'll just have to get out of our current mess the same way we got into it -- one step at a time.
We live in a cruel world. There is no fairy godmother who can miraculously accommodate the substitution of scarce industrial metals for hydrocarbons that are a hundred times more plentiful. We can and we must do better, but we can't solve humanity's problems until we accept the harsh realities of global resource constraints without the filters of political ideology and wishful thinking.
Disclosure:Author is a former director of Axion Power International and owns a substantial long position in its common stock.
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