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How Renewable Energy Will Destroy Fossil Fuels

By Travis Hoium - Nov 24, 2017 at 8:16AM

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Fossil fuels may be in a lot of trouble over the long term.

There's an energy revolution taking place before our eyes, but it doesn't seem to be getting a lot of attention from the media or investors. Over the past decade, energy from wind and solar has become so cheap that it's making new fossil fuel plants nearly obsolete. This isn't just happening in the U.S. but in China and India as well, where coal plants are being shut down in favor of wind and solar energy. 

Close behind renewable energy is improving battery technology that's making electric vehicles and energy storage viable options for consumers and businesses. As this combination of technologies improves and grows, it will slowly but surely replace fossil fuel use as we know it today. Let me be clear about what I'm saying: The conditions for the demise of fossil fuels are already in place and a massive disruption of the fossil fuel industry is on the horizon. 

Solar farm in a field with wind turbines in the background.

Image source: Getty Images.

Electric grid disruption has already begun

Renewable energy changes the energy paradigm for the electric grid, and there will be a lot of casualties in the old world of energy. For example, ever since Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, people have relied on electricity from their electric grid to power their homes and any electric devices they own. For the first time ever, over a million homes are now their own mini-power plants with solar panels on their roofs. 

Given another year or two, energy storage will begin to be commonplace and removing yourself from the grid altogether will be a viable option for consumers. Utilities, power generators, and companies supplying fuel will all be disrupted in the process. 

Gasoline will go the way of the horse and buggy

Rapid advances in battery technology are likely to make gasoline vehicles all but obsolete in a decade or two. Electric vehicles are already cheaper to fuel and maintain than traditional vehicles. The obstacle to a complete takeover of the auto market is the vehicle's range and the lifecycle of batteries. 

Tesla (TSLA -0.57%) has made the biggest strides in range and lifecycle, offering a 337-mile range for the 100D model. Its warranty also runs for eight years and unlimited miles for new vehicles. 

Roof with solar panels on a sunny day.

Image source: Getty Images.

As battery technology advances and scale is built out around the world, I think all current deficiencies in EVs (cost, range, charge time) will fall by the wayside. A Model S can already be fully charged in about an hour with a Supercharger and Porsche, ABB, and others are already testing 350 kW chargers, which could add about 300 miles of range in just 15 minutes. Battery costs are already creeping toward $100 per kWh, which will make it possible for EVs to be sold at or below $30,000. 

Slowly but surely, EVs are taking over the auto industry as well, which will push gasoline out. Volkswagen plans to spend $40 billion developing electric vehicles in the next five years, anticipating 80 new electric models by 2025. General Motors (GM -3.40%) was the first to launch a long-range, affordable EV in the Bolt and plans to launch 20 new EVs by 2023. Ford (F -1.25%) has said it will electrify 13 vehicles, including pickup trucks. Those are just a few of the big automakers betting their future on electric vehicles. As EVs take up a bigger percentage of the showroom floor, how do we expect gasoline vehicles or the oil they burn to fare long term? 

Renewable energy becomes fuel

Where the real energy disruption takes place is when it becomes possible to directly power our vehicles with renewable energy. Distributed energy production allows for energy produced at home to (for example) charge up an electric car, and utilities across the country are now allowing customers to buy renewable energy specifically. Combine energy storage into the mix and renewables are no longer an intermittent energy source but a cost-effective one 24/7. 

The fallout will be massive

As wind and solar energy squeeze fossil fuels off the grid and EVs push gasoline cars out of the market, the fallout will be widespread. Oil and natural gas drillers and service providers will have less demand for their products and will be trounced by lower prices. The decline of coal mining shows a road map for what could happen to oil and natural gas. 

There's also a world of midstream companies from pipelines to refiners to tanker owners that will face a reduction in demand as renewables play a bigger role in the world's energy mix. Thousands of miles of pipelines may be rendered obsolete in just a few decades, which is something I don't think the market has factored in yet. 

Utilities are also in trouble now that homeowners and businesses have the ability to produce their own energy. There's no longer a monopoly in the power generation market, which weakens their business model and will force them to innovate and compete for customers. 

No matter where you're investing in energy, it's worthwhile considering how advancements in renewable energy will affect your investments. Once-safe energy stocks may not be safe at all, and large parts of the energy industry could collapse virtually overnight. Just ask the coal industry if it saw its demise coming before it was too late. 

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