By Jeffrey Ball | Electric Car Gold Rush | Fortune | September 2019
In a drab industrial zone of western Shanghai, amid factories that each year crank out hundreds of thousands of gasoline-powered cars, transmissions, and engines, the world’s largest automaker is racing to finish a new sort of plant, one that will produce a car unlike any it has made before. The 74-acre facility will have a newfangled assembly-line conveyor belt made of plastic instead of the typical steel or wood—a system that should be cheaper to reconfigure on the fly in order to manufacture cars whose shapes and layouts are likely to change more frequently and radically than any model the company has previously built. And the plant will be decked out with infrared cameras to monitor the safety of stockpiles of a component the company hasn’t before had to deal with in large volume: enormous batteries—each nearly as big as two coffins side by side—that have a nagging propensity to ignite.
What’s happening here in Shanghai is no incremental industrial tweak. It’s Volkswagen AG’s bet-the-corporation bid for supremacy in the electric-car age. “Volkswagen” translates as “the people’s car,” and for much of the eight decades of VW’s existence, the people were understood to be European or American and the cars to run on petroleum. But now VW’s biggest market is China, and the company, squeezed by new environmental mandates, has resolved to remake itself largely as a producer of electric vehicles, or EVs. Which makes this new Shanghai plant the forward base in the fight of VW’s life. When it starts producing electric vehicles next year, it will be VW’s “most modern factory worldwide,” says Fred Schulze, who heads production in Shanghai for VW’s joint venture in China with SAIC Motor, the Shanghai-based firm that is China’s biggest state-owned automaker. Schulze, a VW veteran, previously oversaw production of sport-utility and crossover vehicles from VW’s Audi unit—mostly gas-guzzlers such as the Q7 and Q8 but also the electric E-tron. From now on, Schulze says of VW, “our growth should be from EV cars.”
All across the global economy, titans of the fossil-fuel era are scrambling to adapt to an existential shift: the soaring economic viability of clean alternatives to dirty energy. Electricity and oil producers are struggling to ride—rather than be crushed by—a renewable-energy wave. Banks are trying to shore up their portfolios against losses induced by climate change. Automakers, though, are at a particularly scary fork in the road. The rise of electric vehicles—machines with multiple small motors instead of one big engine; with batteries instead of a fuel tank; with unprecedentedly extensive software systems instead of a transmission—is poised to redefine car making. If established automakers don’t adapt, and fast, the corporate infrastructure they have long seen as a signature asset may prove instead an insupportable stranded cost.
It’s far too soon to declare the end of the internal-combustion era. In the six months ended June 30, according to Wood Mackenzie, an energy-data firm, 97% of all new passenger cars sold globally had only an oil-burning engine under the hood. But it’s not too early to see that electric cars are coming on fast. Indeed, sales are shooting up beyond many supposed experts’ wildest projections. Globally, according to Wood Mackenzie, combined sales of passenger EVs—including full-electric vehicles, which have no combustion engine, and “plug-in hybrid-electric” vehicles, which augment their battery system with a combustion engine—jumped 47% from the first half of 2018 to the first half of 2019, to 1.1 million. The surge is being driven by a combination of factors: declining cost and improving technology, notably for batteries; increasingly convenient electric-charging infrastructure, particularly in large cities; and hefty government support.
Read more here.
By Jeffrey Ball | Build. Burn. Repeat. | Mother Jones | September/October 2019
Standing on Shingletown Ridge and gazing west toward the setting sun, Bruce Miller eyes a rainbow of colors. He sees pink: the dusky sky blanketing a postcard-perfect valley 3,000 feet below. He sees gray: distant snow-capped mountains. He sees brown: century-old pine and oak trunks towering more than 100 feet above him. And he sees green: the profit he hopes to make by turning this 274-acre patch of forest into a subdivision for buyers looking for jaw-dropping views.
“This would be your high-dollar lot here,” the hearty 68-year-old tells me, halting our hike through a tangle of manzanita and poison oak to unfurl a map and point out the boundaries of a future home site. A sheer drop at the property’s rear reveals a stunning panorama. It also invites flames. “Fire,” Miller says, “burns uphill.”
Wildfire’s lethal tendency to surge up slopes was driven home last summer, when an inferno called the Carr Fire ripped through Shasta County, a chunk of Northern California pocked by crests and canyons as gorgeous as they are combustible. Lit by a spark from the wheel rim of a flat tire scraping the ground, the fire raged for 39 days, destroying more than 1,000 homes, killing eight people, and requiring some 3,500 firefighters from around the world and more than a dozen planes dropping chemicals to finally quell it. In November came the Camp Fire, which incinerated the nearby town of Paradise, killing 85 people. Together, the fires caused at least $18 billion in damage; bankrupted California’s largest utility, Pacific Gas and Electric; and forced the liquidation of at least one insurer. For weeks, Northern Californians breathed smoky air.
The destruction ended any delusion that humans could keep Mother Nature in check. They were harbingers of a new kind of megafire being unleashed on a warming world.
Read more here.
By Jeffrey Ball | The Race to Build a Better Battery | Fortune | June 2019
At first glance, all seems serene on a spring morning at the research-and-development campus of SK Innovation, one of Korea’s biggest industrial conglomerates. The campus sits in Daejeon, a tidy, planned city an hour’s high-speed-train ride south of Seoul that the national government has built up as a technology hub. Dotting SK’s rolling acres are tastefully modern glass-and-steel buildings that wouldn’t be out of place in a glossy architecture magazine. One contains a library, its tables stocked with rolls of butcher paper and Post-it notes to spur creativity. Another houses an espresso bar where engineers queue for caffeination. A cool breeze blows. Birds chirp. Pink cherry blossoms bloom.
Then Jaeyoun Hwang, who directs business strategy for SK’s R&D operation, steers the Kia electric car in which he is driving me around the campus to a stop at the top of a hill. In front of us looms K-8, a seven-story-tall cube of a building sheathed in matte silver siding and devoid of any visible windows. Its only discernible marking is, at the top corner of one wall, a stylized orange outline of a familiar object: a battery. K-8 appears whimsical, almost a bauble, until Hwang explains that four other buildings on the campus, plus another one under construction, also are for battery research—an activity at SK that employs several hundred people and counting. When I ask to go inside K-8 for a look, Hwang says it’s out of the question. When I raise my camera to take a picture, he stops me. “In this area,” he says, “photographs of the buildings are prohibited.”
SK has a sprawling R&D campus because it has a storied technological pedigree—as Korea’s oldest oil refiner. Now the petrochemical company is hitching its future to electric cars. It has inked deals to make batteries for some of the world’s largest automakers, notably Volkswagen AG, which, following a crippling scandal in which it was found to have deliberately and repeatedly violated pollution rules in producing its diesel vehicles, has pledged a green corporate rebirth, shifting much of its lineup to cars that run on electricity rather than oil. SK has made huge deals with VW and other automakers, including Daimler AG, which says it will sell 10 pure-electric car models by 2022, and Beijing Automotive Group, or BAIC Group, China’s largest maker of pure-electric cars. SK is racing to build massive battery plants in China, Europe, and the United States, including one an hour’s drive from Atlanta. It is moving by 2025 to balloon its battery production, mulling investing some $10 billion in the effort over that span. That’s a serious number even for a behemoth that in its various corporate incarnations, has spent more than a half-century processing black gold sucked from the ground. “These days,” Hwang says of SK’s battery business, “the order volume is huge.”
For years, the race to build a better battery was contained to consumer electronics. It was a growing business, but it wasn’t going to reorder capitalism. Now, amid an onslaught of electric cars on the road and renewable electricity on the power grid, the race is gearing up into a corporate and geopolitical death match. It suddenly has the dead-serious attention of many of the planet’s biggest multinationals, particularly auto giants, oil majors, and power producers. Having historically dismissed affordable energy storage as a pipe dream, they now view it as an existential threat—one that, if they don’t harness it, could disintermediate them. It also divides the world’s major economic powers, which see dominance of energy storage in the 21st century as akin to control of coal in the 19th century and of oil in the 20th. One clear sign: Battery-technology competition is deeply woven into the ongoing trade tensions between the U.S. and China.
Read more here.
By Jeffrey Ball | Sun Blocked | Mother Jones | July/August 2018
The headquarters of Huawei Technologies, the world’s largest maker of telecommunications equipment, sprawls across two square miles in the global manufacturing megalopolis of Shenzhen, China. At the center of its campus, surrounded by hulking office buildings of red brick and gray stone, sits a meticulously landscaped artificial pond. On the day I visited, two black swans glided across the water—fitting omens for the trajectory of Chinese technological power.
Most Americans have never heard of Huawei (pronounced HWA-way), but the company operates in 170 countries, employs 180,000 people, and in 2017 had revenue of $92 billion. These days it’s leveraging its telecom experience to corner what it sees as the next big thing: solar energy. The company’s main solar product is a suitcase-sized device called an inverter, which changes the direct current, or DC, that a solar panel produces into the type that can be fed into a power grid: alternating current, or AC.
Huawei is boosting its solar-inverter business not just by undercutting Western companies on price, but by beating them on innovation. Though inverters have been around for more than a century, many of the features Huawei offers are new, designed to improve the reliability of remote solar farms. A passive cooling system dissipates heat more reliably than fans, which are prone to breakage. And communications technology allows technicians to diagnose problems remotely, so they don’t have to venture into the field. Huawei is the top supplier of solar inverters globally, commanding 20 percent of the world market. With 800 solar-inverter engineers in research-and-development centers spanning China, Europe, and the United States, Huawei, which translates from Mandarin as “Chinese achievement,” presents a glimpse at the clean-energy juggernaut that is today’s China. In 2017, Huawei spent $13.8 billion on R&D. That amounted to 15 percent of its revenue—a higher portion than at Apple, Samsung, or Microsoft.
“Even though Western countries have some misunderstanding that we don’t innovate, we are confident,” Zhang Feng, the company’s head of solar-inverter R&D, told me. Yang Longjuan, the spokeswoman dispatched to shepherd me during my Shenzhen visit, put it more bluntly. “It’s like the Qing dynasty. You have to be careful,” she said, comparing the West today to the Chinese empire that lost power in 1912, a downfall historians ascribe in part to hubris. Any lingering Western belief that China doesn’t innovate “is the old impression of China,” Yang added, sitting in the back seat of a black Audi and thumbing between two smartphones as a Huawei driver sped us past the company’s Shenzhen offices and factories. “China is changing very fast.”
“Made in China” has long been seen as shorthand for shoddy. Whether it was fast fashion or toys, the rap on Chinese manufacturing used to be that it was all about leveraging cut-rate labor to knock off products designed in the West. Cheaper, certainly. Better, hardly. But that is changing fast—especially in the booming clean-energy sector. From solar to batteries to electric vehicles, China is rapidly gaining on the West in the most important arena of all: innovation.
Read more here.
By Jeffrey Ball | Why Carbon Pricing Isn't Working | Foreign Affairs | July/August 2018
For decades, as the reality of climate change has set in, policymakers have pushed for an elegant solution: carbon pricing, a system that forces polluters to pay when they emit carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Among the places that have imposed or scheduled it are Canada, China, South Korea, the EU, and about a dozen U.S. states. Much as a town charges people for every pound of trash tossed into its dump, these jurisdictions are charging polluters for every ton of carbon coughed into the global atmosphere, thus encouraging the dirty to go clean.
In theory, a price on carbon makes sense. It incentivizes a shift to low-carbon technologies and lets the market decide which ones will generate the biggest environmental bang for the buck. Because the system harnesses the market to help the planet, it has garnered endorsements across the political spectrum. Its adherents include Greenpeace and ExxonMobil, leftist Democrats and conservative Republicans, rich nations and poor nations, Silicon Valley and the Rust Belt. Essentially every major multilateral institution endorses carbon pricing: the International Monetary Fund, the UN, and the World Bank, to name a few. Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the IMF, spoke for many in 2017 when she recommended a simple approach to dealing with carbon dioxide: “Price it right, tax it smart, do it now.”
In practice, however, there’s a problem with the idea of slashing carbon emissions by putting a price on them: it isn’t doing much about climate change. More governments than ever are imposing prices on carbon, even as U.S. President Donald Trump backpedals on efforts to combat global warming, yet more carbon than ever is wafting up into the air. Last year, the world’s energy-related greenhouse gas output, which had been flat for three years, rose to an all-time high. Absent effective new policies, the International Energy Agency has projected, energy-related greenhouse gas emissions will continue rising through at least 2040.
If governments proved willing to impose carbon prices that were sufficiently high and affected a broad enough swath of the economy, those prices could make a real environmental difference. But political concerns have kept governments from doing so, resulting in carbon prices that are too low and too narrowly applied to meaningfully curb emissions. The existing carbon-pricing schemes tend to squeeze only certain sectors of the economy, leaving others essentially free to pollute. And even in those sectors in which carbon pricing might have a significant effect, policymakers have lacked the spine to impose a high enough price. The result is that a policy prescription widely billed as a panacea is acting as a narcotic. It’s giving politicians and the public the warm feeling that they’re fighting climate change even as the problem continues to grow.
Read more here.
By Jeffrey Ball | Lone Star Rising | Fortune | June 2018
Smack in the middle of Grier Brunson’s family’s ranch, a patch of West Texas dirt that sprawls across 45 square miles, sits a lush, green dip in the land that the family calls “the draw.”
Thousands of years ago, Pueblos built rocky settlements here. Hundreds of years ago, Comanches thundered on horseback across this plain. Today, the natural bounty in and around the draw is producing a rather more modern stampede.
On the rim of the draw, amid the mesquite trees and the sagebrush, oil rigs loom like rockets at launch, and a team fracking a well shoots untold thousands of gallons of water and hundreds of truckloads of sand down into the earth, using huge hydraulic pumps that emit a dull, constant roar. For the Brunson family, these are the sights and sounds of money: Two miles underground, oil—thousands of barrels of it every day, worth millions of dollars—is being cracked loose from the rock and pulled up through carefully engineered holes.
Under the terms of the mineral leases they’ve signed with oil companies, Brunson and his extended family receive one-quarter of the revenue from every barrel the drilling companies pull up. The Brunsons have about 50 wells on the ranch, of various sizes and ages. With oil trading around $70 per barrel, among the most prolific of those wells could generate as much as $3.8 million per year in royalties before taxes for the Brunsons. And that’s just for the oil. The Brunsons earn additional royalties from the sale of the natural gas and other hydrocarbons that come up with the oil. And they earn fees from the drilling companies for permission to install infrastructure such as pipelines.
The size of this unexpected windfall is a bit bizarre and more than a little embarrassing to Brunson, who drives a GMC pickup, idolizes a grandfather who rustled cattle here nearly 100 years back, and curses like a cowboy—“goddamn it!”—when he drives across his ranch and sees what he regards as messy operations by the oil companies leasing his land. The money “is more than we need. We don’t know what to do with it. But it keeps coming,” says Brunson, a lanky, bespectacled 73-year-old, who evokes Colonel Sanders with his silver goatee and Will Rogers with his silver tongue.
“We have no inclination to be rich beyond our wildest dreams,” he adds. “Apparently, it’s going to happen anyway.”
Indeed, it’s hard not to rack up wealth when fate puts your ranch at the epicenter of one of the biggest oil booms in history. Brunson’s land sits in the bull’s-eye of the Permian Basin, a petroleum-rich swath of western Texas and southeastern New Mexico—bigger than North Dakota—that is experiencing a gusher of production growth epic even by the outsize standards of the Lone Star State. The boom is remaking every aspect of life in this parched part of the country, for good and for ill. And it is reverberating across the globe.
Read more here.
By Jeffrey Ball | The New Age of Renewable Energy | The Cairo Review of Global Affairs | Winter 2018
Near the town of Sweihan, in southern Abu Dhabi, construction is underway on what is slated to be the world’s largest solar project, an expanse of metal and glass expected to cover three square miles. At Sakaka, in northern Saudi Arabia, plans are proceeding for a massive solar installation whose electricity appears likely to sell for less than 3 cents per kilowatt hour, one of the lowest prices in the world. Morocco, which has opened at the foot of the High Atlas mountains a solar project composed of hundreds of curved mirrors, each the size of a bus, says that within a decade the country will produce half its electricity from renewable sources.
Renewable energy is undergoing a revolution. It is surging in scale and plummeting in price, and in the process it is deepening geopolitical rifts, upending corporate business models, and reshaping global energy markets. No place illustrates renewable energy’s unexpected rise and unpredictable ripples better than the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), a region in which several countries that for a century have produced epic power with energy from the ground are now finding compelling economic reasons to exploit energy from the sky. It is a shift that would have been unthinkable just a decade ago.
Geologists, investors, and policy makers have known for generations that this sandy patch of the planet brimming with buried fossil fuel also is blessed with vast supplies of wind and sunlight. What is changing is that they now see compelling financial reasons to care. A confluence of economic forces that they either didn’t sense coming or hoped would sputter has power brokers in the MENA region gunning to exploit the money-making potential of a suite of energy sources previously dubbed alternative but now entering the mainstream.
The renewable-energy transformation, still in its early days, begs two questions.
One is economic: who—which countries, industries, and individual companies—will win and lose in the diversification from energy that’s finite to energy that’s not? Another is environmental: will the renewable-energy ramp-up prove big enough to meaningfully help a planet that as a result of human activity has been heating up?
The answers will depend largely on finance and policy—which thus far have been economically inefficient and will have to become vastly more productive if renewable energy is to reach its economic and environmental promise.
The dirty truth about renewable energy is that it isn’t yet making much of an environmental difference. Whether it ends up protecting the planet—whether, that is, it significantly curbs carbon emissions—will depend on whether its costs decline far more radically than they have thus far. As such, a ruthless focus on wringing out excess cost should be the goal of policymakers who want to optimize renewable-energy sources and meaningfully increase their role in the greater economy.
Read more here.
By Jeffrey Ball | Shell Faces "Lower Forever" | Fortune | February 2018
Last March, Royal Dutch Shell said it was selling most of its stake in Canada’s oil sands, a vast project that has extracted millions of barrels of sticky, gooey hydrocarbons from the ground in a process that resembles mining more than drilling. The oil and gas giant announced that it was unloading its oil-sands assets, for $7.25 billion, so that it could double down on businesses “where we have global scale and a competitive advantage.”
Left unsaid was a deeper reason for the divestiture. Months of deliberations behind closed doors at Shell headquarters in The Hague, Netherlands, had led the top brass at the world’s largest non-state-owned oil company by sales to conclude that the energy industry was changing fundamentally—in a way that could turn the profitable oil-sands operation into a liability.
Internal studies by a group of analysts within Shell known as the “scenarios” team had concluded that global demand for oil might peak in as little as a decade—essentially tomorrow in an industry that plans in quarter-century increments. Hastening the peak was an onslaught of increasingly competitive fossil-fuel alternatives, from solar and wind power to electric cars, whose prices were dropping far faster than Shell executives had expected. When the oil-demand peak came, Shell believed, petroleum prices might begin a slow slide, dipping too low to cover the costs of oil-sands production.
This wouldn’t be just another oil-price cycle, a familiar roller coaster in which every down is followed by an up. It would be the start of a decades-long decline of the Oil Age itself—an uncharted world in which, in a phrase gaining currency at Shell, oil prices might be “lower forever.”
If that scenario materialized, and you were stuck holding the oil sands, Jeremy Bentham, the head of Shell’s scenarios team, tells me, reprising in his British lilt the gist of a memo he wrote to his boss not long before the company decided on the sale, “you were—gosh, forgive me—fucked.”
Shell—a cash machine that racked up $9 billion in profit in the first nine months of 2017; a colossus that employs 90,000 people in more than 70 countries; a corporation that, were it a nation, would have the world’s seventh-largest carbon footprint, behind Germany; and the No. 7 company on Fortune’s Global 500 list last year, with $240 billion in sales—is in an existential squeeze. It has concluded that oil demand is likely to peak sometime between the late 2020s and the late 2040s because of an epic shift underway in the energy industry: a transition from petroleum to electricity.
Read more here.
By Jeffrey Ball | Germany's High-Priced Energy Revolution | Fortune | March 2017
By Jeffrey Ball
As many generations of Dieter Dürrmeier’s family as he can track have grown vegetables and tended livestock here in Opfingen, a hilly corner of southern Germany near the French and Swiss borders. Over the decades the Dürrmeiers have adapted, ever on the lookout for new ways to make money. In 1963, Dürrmeier’s father exploited cheap government loans to move his 136-acre farm from the crowded village to the outskirts of town. In 1986 the Dürrmeiers stopped raising cows and shifted to the less cyclical business of boarding wealthy city dwellers’ horses. But the family’s current shift has been its most lucrative yet. Though they still grow asparagus and grapes and tend to the equines, the Dürrmeiers today harvest their fattest earnings from sunshine. Thanks to generous checks from the German people, that crop from the sky spins off cash more reliably—and at higher margins—than anything the Dürrmeiers have ever grown in the ground.
On a recent frigid winter night, wearing a red-and-green flannel shirt and mud-caked boots, Dürrmeier takes a break from feeding the horses and chats under the eave of a barn, one of four work buildings on whose roofs he has installed subsidized solar panels. The glass-and-metal sheets, whose production he monitors in real time on a computer in his office, fetch him a steady profit of about 40,000 euros (about $42,000) annually. That equates to about 40% of the earnings from his entire farming operation. As he describes his solar windfall, the balding, barrel-chested 62-year-old is both proud and embarrassed.
“For us it’s a very good business, but for the German people it’s very bad,” Dürrmeier says of the government policy that has turned intermittent sunshine into an all but sure thing for his wallet. Germany’s solar-subsidy scheme pays him a set price for every kilowatt-hour of electricity he produces with his solar panels and sells into the grid. It guarantees him that price, which when he started was several times the prevailing electricity rate, for 20 years.
When he learned of the subsidy more than a decade ago, he says, “I was at first skeptical because it was a bit too good, and I personally objected because I thought that subsidies were generally bad for the economy as a whole. But if it was offered, I had to take it. It was against my beliefs, but as an entrepreneur it was the right thing to do.”
Germany has launched a renewable-energy revolution, and it’s paying a fortune to achieve it. In the past decade its green-minded politicians, backed by green-minded voters, have undertaken an extraordinary energy transition known in German as the Energiewende. At the center of the transformation has been a slate of renewable-energy subsidies that have dramatically scaled up once-niche solar and wind technologies and in the process have slashed their cost, making them competitive in some cases with fossil fuels.
Thanks to Germany’s lavish first-mover spending, a raft of second-mover countries, from the U.S. to China to India, are now installing solar and wind power on a huge scale. If renewable energy ends up significantly helping curb climate change, then history may judge the Energiewende as a remarkable example of global leadership.
The raw ambition of the Energiewende is both mind-boggling and quintessentially German. It reflects the engineering prowess of a country that built the Autobahn, pioneered modernist architecture, and cranks out sleek BMWs and Mercedes. It evokes the environmental ideals of a society that idolizes the Black Forest, led the way in organic farming, and still celebrates Goethe’s nature-loving poems. It bespeaks the moral confidence, both wrong and right, of a culture that created Romanticism in the late 18th century, Nazism in the 1930s, and one of the world’s most generous campaigns to welcome refugees today.
But all that ambition is bleeding Germany. The mounting costs are testing its resolve. Leading politicians, even those with strong environmental credibility, are racing to rein in spending. If they can’t achieve that, then Germany’s near miracle may be remembered as the environmental equivalent of, say, heart-transplant surgery: a worthy endeavor, undoubtedly, but one that remains unattainable for all but the very wealthiest.
Read the full piece here.
By Jeffrey Ball | Silicon Valley's New Power Player: China | Fortune | December 2015
By Jeffrey Ball
One of Sonny Wu’s favorite restaurants in the city where he lives is a venerable wood-paneled haunt in central Hong Kong where the waiters wear black bow ties and the menu melds comfort food from the East and West. On a recent Sunday evening, dressed in jeans, an untucked red-and-white checked shirt, and a gold Patek Philippe watch, Wu, a 47-year-old venture capitalist, is attacking dinner in much the same way he attacks whole industries these days: He sits quietly in a corner, snaps up a range of options, and gorges himself.
As he demolishes a platter of barbecued chicken wings and washes it down with hot tea, Wu explains why he’s racing to corner two sectors he believes are primed for explosive growth: LED lights and electric cars. In March, Wu scored his biggest win yet. He beat out such suitors as KKR and Bain & Co. for a $3.3 billion purchase of 80% of Philips’ Lumileds unit, one of the world’s leading LED-light makers. Now he’s preparing to move the California-based arm of the Dutch multinational to China, where he is building factories to scale up the business.
A similar strategy led him in 2011 to buy control of Boston Power, a Massachusetts battery maker that boasted advanced technology but couldn’t commercialize it. He moved the company to China, and then, in 2014, he bought a stake in a little-known Chinese electric-car maker, Xindayang, which today is cranking out bulbous, brightly colored electric cars with Boston Power batteries under the hood. The company has sold about 32,000 electric cars this year—each for about $10,000.
Xindayang’s growth trajectory, Wu claims, puts it on track to soon sell many more cars than Tesla Motors, the California-based maker of luxury electric vehicles that, along with its CEO, Elon Musk, is a global sensation. “Elon Musk is sexy, but Elon Musk is not changing the world,” Wu declares, his fingers glistening with barbecue sauce. “Let’s be frank. The guy who’s making the $100,000 car is not changing the world. The guy who is making the $10,000 electric vehicle is changing the world.”
He pauses, then grins. “You cannot have caviar every day. You have to eat chicken wings.”
Wu—part Chinese, part North American, all audacity—is the model of a new breed of global high-tech financier. He grew up in China and Canada, dropped out of graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley, and speaks unaccented Mandarin, Cantonese, and English. He has luxury homes and offices in Beijing, Hong Kong, and Silicon Valley, and he acts like a local on both sides of the Pacific—a body of water he treats essentially as a puddle, hopping across and back, first-class, more than a dozen times in a typical year. A chauffeur in Beijing ferries him around in a Porsche Cayenne, the desk manager of Shanghai’s five-star Jing An Shangri-La Hotel knows him by name, and Wall Street’s biggest banks now recognize him as a serious player.
The brash investor is quickly amassing an empire that, bankrolled in part by his friends in the Chinese government and among China’s billionaire set, is snarfing up technology companies from across the U.S. and around the world. His strategy is simple, unsentimental, and a sign of the times: Buy Western companies that have good technologies but poor domestic growth prospects and bring them to China, where Wu and his contacts serve up the money and the market to help the firms grow very big, very fast.
China, the world’s biggest polluter, is racing to clean itself up. The skies above its cities have become so poisonously smoggy that what started as a public-health danger has become, for China’s ruling regime, a political threat. That’s why Beijing is cracking down on pollution. The country’s leaders are mandating improved efficiency for coal-fired power plants, rolling out fat incentives for renewable energy and electric cars, and advising government-affiliated banks to help finance this power shift. At the same time, the country sees clean-energy technologies as a huge new market. Just as China cornered the manufacture of T‑shirts and televisions a generation ago, so it is moving to dominate the production of electric cars and solar panels in the near future.
In the U.S., China’s clean-energy push elicits both praise and terror. Environmentalists laud it, arguing that only if China, the world’s biggest greenhouse-gas emitter, goes green will the world have any chance of solving climate change. Nationalists decry it, fearing that China is snagging American clean-energy technologies that could, in the fullness of time, look like lost crown jewels. As for the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs developing these technologies, they’re simply seeking capital to fund their ventures—and finding that increasingly it comes from China.
Read the full piece here.
By Jeffrey Ball | Who Will Pay for Climate Change? | New Republic | December 2015
By Jeffrey Ball
The Munich Reinsurance Company has been in the sober business of managed risk since 1880. Munich Re, as it is now known, helped pay for the devastation caused by the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, Hurricane Hugo in 1989, and the assault on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The company, which in 2014 paid out approximately $45 billion in claims and netted $4 billion in profit, employs some 43,000 people—underwriters, economists, accountants, lawyers, and scientists—all working to predict and plan for the future, and with a shared mission: to make sure Munich Re is never surprised. Risk properly calculated makes money for Munich Re; risk unanticipated could bankrupt it.
These days, the greatest unpredictable risk Munich Re faces is climate change. Like other major insurers, Munich Re follows a standard procedure to ensure its premiums are set high enough to cover natural-catastrophe claims. Much of this work relies on what the company calls “event sets”— databases of past claims for a given type of loss in a given area. The company plots information from the event sets on a graph to form “loss-return curves,” which are used to make informed projections for the future. Assuming the curves are accurate—that future losses occur at a rate and intensity broadly consistent with past losses—all is well. Revenue
from the premiums outpaces the costs of claims, corporate income rises, and investors bid up the stock. This is as it has ever been: Floods are few; insurance policies are many.
But insurance companies are starting to worry that climate change will upend the curves. Munich Re began studying global warming in 1974, when, in response to a global surge in natural catastrophes, it founded what it called the Joint Office for Natural Hazards. Known today as the Corporate Climate Center (CCI), the operation involves in-house geologists, geographers, hydrologists, and other scientists who research climate change and then model the ways it might affect the frequency and force of the natural disasters for which Munich Re sells surety.
Peter Hoeppe, a meteorologist, heads the CCI, and his group has concluded that, for the next few decades, climate change will remain fairly easy to predict and thus to insure. Beyond 2050, though, absent massive cuts in global greenhouse-gas emissions, “We may run into a situation where we have abrupt changes, and things become uninsurable,” Hoeppe told me. Abrupt changes is scientific euphemism for major disasters that Munich Re can’t foresee. That translates into premiums set too low to cover unexpected claims—and, more specifically, losses that could wipe out an alarming chunk of the company’s profits.
Large corporations always have been seen as the villains
of the environmental movement—and with good reason. It was corporations whose cars coughed out smog, whose chemicals produced Superfund sites, and whose coal mining despoiled mountains. But today, in the fight against climate change, big business is emerging, if not quite as a hero, then as one of the world’s most important reformers. Politicians have so far failed to act with anything approaching the seriousness the scale of the problem requires. As governments dither, however, some of the world’s most potent multinationals have concluded that rising temperatures threaten their business. Thus they have begun to respond to global warming in the way they’d respond to any material financial threat: They’re looking to minimize it.
Many of the executives shouting about the perils of climate change from their corporate jets are little more than Madison Avenue marketers, ladling on cheap greenwash to obscure a financial structure that continues to profit mostly by polluting. That’s unsurprising and unlikely to change. What’s significant is that a widening web of corporate powerhouses—most notably in the finance industry, led by big insurers and banks— have begun to demand serious, sophisticated, and specific steps to counter global warming. Big businesses want nothing so much as predictability, and many of them have concluded that climate change is a wild card, one that they must control and ought to exploit.
Auto, oil, coal, agriculture, and other energy-intensive companies have been participating in the climate fight for years. But their intent has rarely extended beyond regulatory capture: The big burners have sought to be seen as reasonable on the issue because perceived reasonableness affords them a seat at the political table at which carbon-emission restrictions are written—with the cleanup burden, hopefully, shifted to someone else.
What’s happening now is different. Firms with comparatively small greenhouse-gas footprints, notably in the financial sector on which the global economy depends, have concluded their profitability is imperiled by climate change itself. It isn’t in their financial interest to minimize climate curbs; it’s to maximize them. Instead of regulatory capture, they want regulatory crackdown.
Read the full piece here.
By Jeffrey Ball | Why the Saudis Are Going Solar | The Atlantic | July/August 2015
By Jeffrey Ball
Prince Turki bin Saud bin Mohammad Al Saud belongs to the family that rules Saudi Arabia. He wears a white thawb and ghutra, the traditional robe and headdress of Arab men, and he has a cavernous office hung with portraits of three Saudi royals. When I visited him in Riyadh this spring, a waiter poured tea and subordinates took notes as Turki spoke. Everything about the man seemed to suggest Western notions of a complacent functionary in a complacent, oil-rich kingdom.
But Turki doesn’t fit the stereotype, and neither does his country. Quietly, the prince is helping Saudi Arabia—the quintessential petrostate—prepare to make what could be one of the world’s biggest investments in solar power.
Near Riyadh, the government is preparing to build a commercial-scale solar-panel factory. On the Persian Gulf coast, another factory is about to begin producing large quantities of polysilicon, a material used to make solar cells. And next year, the two state-owned companies that control the energy sector—Saudi Aramco, the world’s biggest oil company, and the Saudi Electricity Company, the kingdom’s main power producer—plan to jointly break ground on about 10 solar projects around the country.
Turki heads two Saudi entities that are pushing solar hard: the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology, a national research-and-development agency based in Riyadh, and Taqnia, a state-owned company that has made several investments in renewable energy and is looking to make more. “We have a clear interest in solar energy,” Turki told me. “And it will soon be expanding exponentially in the kingdom.”
Such talk sounds revolutionary in Saudi Arabia, for decades a poster child for fossil-fuel waste. The government sells gasoline to consumers for about 50 cents a gallon and electricity for as little as 1 cent a kilowatt-hour, a fraction of the lowest prices in the United States. As a result, the highways buzz with Cadillacs, Lincolns, and monster SUVs; few buildings have insulation; and people keep their home air conditioners running—often at temperatures that require sweaters—even when they go on vacation.
Saudi Arabia produces much of its electricity by burning oil, a practice that most countries abandoned long ago, reasoning that they could use coal and natural gas instead and save oil for transportation, an application for which there is no mainstream alternative. Most of Saudi Arabia’s power plants are colossally inefficient, as are its air conditioners, which consumed 70 percent of the kingdom’s electricity in 2013. Although the kingdom has just 30 million people, it is the world’s sixth-largest consumer of oil.
Now, Saudi rulers say, things must change. Their motivation isn’t concern about global warming; the last thing they want is an end to the fossil-fuel era. Quite the contrary: they see investing in solar energy as a way to remain a global oil power.
Read the full story here.
By Jeffrey Ball | The Drama of Mexico's (Black) Gold | Fortune | September 2014
By Jeffrey Ball
Mother Nature long coddled Mexico’s national oil company, blessing it with fountains of homegrown black gold. But in recent years she has gotten ornery, frustrating Petróleos Mexicanos with juicy but recalcitrant fields of oil. One day this spring she played a nasty joke. She unleashed a 6.4-magnitude earthquake on Mexico that caused the 50-story headquarters of the company known as Pemex to sway woozily, like an aging prizefighter struggling not to fall. Inside the iconic but timeworn building, the second-tallest in Mexico City, doors rocked on their hinges, metal blinds banged against windows, and frightened workers braced themselves inside door frames, hoping to ride out a threat they all knew was beyond their control.
Scant hours later, Pemex’s 39-year-old chief executive, Emilio Lozoya, sits at the head of the massive conference table in his cloud-level office. The Pemex tower has stopped shaking, but the Pemex corporation faces a foundational challenge. In a move that has both shocked and thrilled the global oil industry, Mexico’s government is performing an about-face.
For the first time in three-quarters of a century, it intends to invite international oil firms into the country to sink their drills into its petroleum-rich earth. That decision has infuriated many Mexicans, and it fundamentally threatens Pemex, which has always been a monopoly. As the oil giants prepare to pounce, Lozoya, a Harvard-educated investment executive and an oil industry newcomer, has the task of whipping the bloated behemoth into competitive shape.
“It is, by all means, the most important transformation Pemex has suffered in our entire 76 years,” says the fresh-faced CEO, who speaks excellent English and chooses his words—including his verbs—deliberately. As he talks, he jots talking points onto a small white notepad that has been placed in front of his high-backed chair. By his right hand sits a red phone, a direct line to the office of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, the oil reform’s architect and Lozoya’s friend and boss. Everything about Mexico’s energy opening is being carefully choreographed. But in Mexico’s rough-and-tumble energy business, even the most meticulous plans have a way of getting blown up.
Ever since 1938, when Mexico expropriated its gushing oilfields from foreign companies in a burst of revolutionary nationalism, that bounty has been off-limits to outside producers. The oil has been the exclusive purview of Pemex. Favored by geology as well as by law, the company has had the luxury of getting most of its oil from a couple of huge, easy-to-tap underground formations—known in the industry as “elephants.” Indeed, Pemex has become legendary in the oil world for its factory-like approach to pulling oil from a particularly Mexican type of elephant: fields in shallow water, just off the country’s Gulf coast. But along the way, Pemex has become notoriously inefficient. The company ranked No. 36 among the Fortune Global 500 last year, with revenue of $126 billion. But Pemex also posted a $13 billion net loss. The company is laden with bureaucracy, teeming with superfluous workers, and, by its own executives’ admission, thwarted by corruption. The result is both stunning and not very surprising: In a country that ranks ninth or 10th in global oil production, depending on who’s counting, and that some geologists say contains the largest unexplored petroleum area beyond the Arctic Circle, Pemex has presided over a steep decline in Mexico’s oil output.
That decline—Mexico’s oil production has tanked 25% over the past decade, to 2 million barrels per day—threatens the country’s ability to pay its bills. Pemex’s oil revenue is the single biggest contributor to the Mexican treasury, supplying roughly one third of the national budget. It’s doubly embarrassing for this proud country because it comes as an oil boom is exploding next door in the U.S. That’s why Mexico now is rolling out the red carpet for the international oil firms it once threw out.
If it works, foreign players ranging from super-majors to wildcatters will pour into Mexico and pull up the crude and natural gas that Pemex has failed to tap from Mexico’s increasingly technically challenging fields. Pemex will be guaranteed favored-son status, granted an initial slate of fields in a much-anticipated government decision known as Round Zero that was to be unveiled as this issue went to press. But unless Pemex can prove itself competitive, it will be largely relegated to the relatively simple fields it has learned to exploit well, while foreign companies will dominate the vaster troves of Mexico’s harder-to-get hydrocarbons, from the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico to shale plays near the U.S. border. The government hopes this race will boost the amount of Mexican oil that flows onto the market—raising the take for the state, which will get a cut of every barrel. Equally important, it hopes the surge in Mexican oil and gas production will have a raft of spillover benefits for the country, slashing electricity prices, attracting industry, and bankrolling services for the people.
But whether Mexico rocks the energy world will depend on whether it can execute its pledge to reform Pemex, a sprawling bureaucracy that for generations has had its hands in every aspect of the country’s oil sector. A few months in, the attempt is hitting major roadblocks. The difficulty is partly that Pemex is a poster child for corporate dysfunction. It’s also that Pemex, however dysfunctional, is seen by much of the Mexican public as the guardian of the nation’s patrimony.
Read the full story here.