The Battery Series
Part 2: Our Energy Problem: Putting the Battery in Context
The Battery Series is a five-part infographic series that explores what investors need to know about modern battery technology, including raw material supply, demand, and future applications.
Our Energy Problem: Putting the Battery in Context
In Part 1, we examined the evolution of battery technology. In this part, we examine what batteries can and cannot do, and the energy problem that humans hope that batteries can help solve.
Batteries enable many important aspects of modern life.
They are portable, quiet, compact, and can start-up with the flick of a switch. Importantly, batteries can also store energy from the sun and wind for future use.
However, batteries also have many limitations that prevent them from taking on an even bigger role in society. They must be recharged, and they hold a limited amount of energy. A single battery cycle is only so long, and after many of them they begin to lose potency.
Therefore, to understand the market for batteries and how it may look in the future, it is essential to understand what a battery can and cannot do.
The biggest difference between batteries and other fuel types is in energy density.
Even the best lithium-ion batteries have a specific energy of about 250 Wh/kg. That is just 2% of the energy density of gasoline, and less than 1% of hydrogen.
While it may be enough to power a car, it’s also magnificent engineering that helps makes this possible. Airplanes, ships, trains, and other large power drains will not be using batteries in powertrains anytime soon.
A Renewable Future?
Renewable energy sources like solar and wind face a similar problem – today’s battery technology cannot store big enough payloads of energy. To balance the load, excess energy must be stored somehow to be used when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.
Currently, industrial-strength battery systems are not yet fully developed to handle this storage problem on a widespread commercial basis, though progress is being made in many areas. New technologies such as vanadium flow batteries could play an important role in energy storage in the future. But for now, large-scale energy storage batteries are experimental.
Other energy storage technologies may also solve this problem:
- Chemical storage: Using excess electricity to create hydrogen fuel, which can be stored.
- Pumped hydro: Using electricity to pump water up to a reservoir, which can be later used to generate hydroelectric power.
- Compressed air: Using electricity to compress air in deep caverns, which can be released to generate power.
Solving this energy storage problem will pave the way for more use of renewables in the future on a grander scale.
The Sweet Spot
Therefore, the sweet spot for battery use today comes when batteries can take advantage of their best properties. Batteries can be small, portable, charged on the go, and provide energy at the flick of a switch.
It’s why so many rechargeable batteries are used in: electronics, laptops, smartphones, electric cars, power tools, startup motors, and other portable items that can benefit from these traits.
To assess the suitability of a particular type for any specific use, there are 10 major properties worth looking at:
- High Specific Energy: Specific energy is the total amount of energy stored by a battery. The more energy a battery can store, the longer it can run.
- High Specific Power: Specific power is the amount of load current drawn from the battery. Without high specific power, a battery cannot be used for the high-drain activities we need
- Affordable Cost: If the price isn’t right for a particular battery type, it may be worth using an alternative fuel source or battery configuration for economic reasons
- Long Life: The chemical makeup of batteries isn’t perfect. As a result, they only last for a number of charge/discharge cycles – if that number is low, that means a battery’s use may be limited.
- High Safety: Batteries are used in consumer goods or for important industrial or government applications – none of these parties want batteries to cause safety issues.
- Wide Operating Range: Some chemical reactions don’t work well in the cold or heat – that’s why it’s important to have batteries that work in a range of temperatures where it can be useful.
- No Toxicity: Nickel cadmium batteries are no longer used because of their toxic environmental implications. New batteries to be commercialized must meet stringent standards in these regards.
- Fast Charging: What good would a smartphone be if it took two full days to recharge? Charge time matters.
- Low Self-Discharge: All batteries discharge small amounts when left alone over time – the question is how much, and does it make an impact on the usability of the battery?
- Long Shelf Life: The shelf life of batteries affects the whole supply chain, so it is important that batteries can be usable many years after being manufactured.
There are many pros and cons to consider in choosing a battery type. The more pros that a given battery technology can check off the above list, the more likely it is to be commercially viable.
Now that you know what batteries can and cannot do, we will now look at the rechargeable battery market in Part 3 of the Battery Series.
Mapped: The World’s Largest State-Owned Oil Companies
State-owned oil companies control roughly three-quarters of global oil supply. See how these companies compare in this infographic.
Mapped: The World’s Largest State-Owned Oil Companies
View the high-resolution of the infographic by clicking here.
Oil is one of the world’s most important natural resources, playing a critical role in everything from transportation fuels to cosmetics.
For this reason, many governments choose to nationalize their supply of oil. This gives them a greater degree of control over their oil reserves as well as access to additional revenue streams. In practice, nationalization often involves the creation of a national oil company to oversee the country’s energy operations.
What are the world’s largest and most influential state-owned oil companies?
Editor’s Note: This post and infographic are intended to provide a broad summary of the state-owned oil industry. Due to variations in reporting and available information, the companies named do not represent a comprehensive index.
State-Owned Oil Companies by Revenue
National oil companies are a major force in the global energy sector, controlling approximately three-quarters of the Earth’s oil reserves.
As a result, many have found their place on the Fortune Global 500 list, a ranking of the world’s 500 largest companies by revenue.
|Country||Name||Fortune Global 500 Rank||2019 Revenues|
|🇨🇳 China||Sinopec Group||2||$443B|
|🇨🇳 China||China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC)||4||$379B|
|🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia||Saudi Aramco||6||$330B|
|🇮🇳 India||Indian Oil Corporation (IOCL)||151||$69B|
|🇮🇷 Iran||National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC)||Not listed||$19B*|
|🇻🇪 Venezuela||Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA)||Not listed||$23B (2018)|
*Value of Iranian petroleum exports in 2019. Source: Fortune, Statista, OPEC
China is home to the two largest companies from this list, Sinopec Group and China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC). Both are involved in upstream and downstream oil operations, where upstream refers to exploration and extraction, and downstream refers to refining and distribution.
It’s worth noting that many of these companies are listed on public stock markets—Sinopec, for example, trades on exchanges located in Shanghai, Hong Kong, New York, and London. Going public can be an effective strategy for these companies as it allows them to raise capital for new projects, while also ensuring their governments maintain control. In the case of Sinopec, 68% of shares are held by the Chinese government.
Saudi Aramco was the latest national oil company to follow this strategy, putting up 1.5% of its business in a 2019 initial public offering (IPO). At roughly $8.53 per share, Aramco’s IPO raised $25.6 billion, making it one of the world’s largest IPOs in history.
Because state-owned oil companies are directly tied to their governments, they can sometimes get caught in the crosshairs of geopolitical conflicts.
The disputed presidency of Nicolás Maduro, for example, has resulted in the U.S. imposing sanctions against Venezuela’s government, central bank, and national oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA). The pressure of these sanctions is proving to be particularly damaging, with PDVSA’s daily production in decline since 2016.
In a country for which oil comprises 95% of exports, Venezuela’s economic outlook is becoming increasingly dire. The final straw was drawn in August 2020 when the country’s last remaining oil rig suspended its operations.
Other national oil companies at the receiving end of American sanctions include Russia’s Rosneft and Iran’s National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC). Rosneft was sanctioned by the U.S. in 2020 for facilitating Venezuelan oil exports, while NIOC was targeted for providing financial support to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, an entity designated as a foreign terrorist organization.
Like the rest of the fossil fuel industry, state-owned oil companies are highly exposed to the effects of climate change. This suggests that as time passes, many governments will need to find a balance between economic growth and environmental protection.
Brazil has already found itself in this dilemma as the country’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, has drawn criticism for his dismissive stance on climate change. In June 2020, a group of European investment firms representing $2 trillion in assets threatened to divest from Brazil if it did not do more to protect the Amazon rainforest.
These types of ultimatums may be an effective solution for driving climate action forward. In December 2020, Brazil’s national oil company, Petrobras, pledged a 25% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030. When asked about commitments further into the future, however, the company’s CEO appeared to be less enthusiastic.
That’s like a fad, to make promises for 2050. It’s like a magical year. On this side of the Atlantic we have a different view of climate change.
— Roberto Castello Branco, CEO, Petrobras
With its 2030 pledge, Petrobras joins a growing collection of state-owned oil companies that have made public climate commitments. Another example is Malaysia’s Petronas, which in November 2020, announced its intention to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Petronas is wholly owned by the Malaysian government and is the country’s only entry on the Fortune Global 500.
Challenges Lie Ahead
Between geopolitical conflicts, environmental concerns, and price fluctuations, state-owned oil companies are likely to face a much tougher environment in the decades to come.
For Petronas, achieving its 2050 climate commitments will require significant investment in cleaner forms of energy. The company has been involved in numerous solar energy projects across Asia and has stated its interests in hydrogen fuels.
Elsewhere, China’s national oil companies are dealing with a more near-term threat. In compliance with an executive order issued by the Trump Administration in November 2020, the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) announced it would delist three of China’s state-run telecom companies. Analysts believe oil companies such as Sinopec could be delisted next, due to their ties with the Chinese military.
The Periodic Table of Commodity Returns (2021 Edition)
Which commodity had the best returns in 2020? From gold to oil, we show how commodity price performance stacks up over the last decade.
The Periodic Table of Commodity Returns (2011-2020)
Being a commodity investor can feel like riding a roller coaster.
Take silver. Typically known for sharp, idiosyncratic price movements, it faced double-digit declines in the first half of the decade, falling over 35% in just 2013 alone. By contrast, it jumped over 47% in 2020. Similarly, oil, corn, and others witnessed either steep declines or rapid gains.
The above graphic from U.S. Global Investors traces 10 years of commodity price performance, highlighting 14 different commodities and their annual ranking over the years.
Commodity Price Performance, From Best to Worst
Which commodities were the top performers in 2020?
The aforementioned silver tripled its returns year-over-year, climbing 47.9% in 2020. In July, the metal actually experienced its strongest month since 1979.
Along with silver, at least seven other commodities had stronger returns than the S&P 500 in 2020, which closed off the year with 16.3% gains. This included copper (26.0%), palladium (25.9%), gold (25.1%) and corn (24.8%).
Interestingly, copper prices moved in an unconventional pattern compared to gold in 2020. Often, investors rush to gold in uncertain economic climates, while sectors such as construction and manufacturing—which both rely heavily on copper—tend to decline. Instead, both copper and gold saw their prices rise in conjunction.
Nowadays, copper is also a vital material in electric vehicles (EVs), with recent demand for EVs also influencing the price of copper.
As investors flocked to safety, silver’s price reached heights not seen since 2010.
The massive scale of monetary and fiscal stimulus led to inflationary fears, also boosting the price of silver. How does this compare to its returns over the last decade?
In 2013, silver crashed over 35% as confidence grew in global markets. By contrast, in 2016, the Brexit referendum stirred uncertainty in global markets. Investors allocated money in silver, and prices shifted upwards.
As Gold as the Hills
Like silver, market uncertainty has historically boosted the price of gold.
What else contributed to gold’s rise?
- U.S. debt continues to climb, pushing down confidence in the U.S. dollar
- A weaker U.S. dollar makes gold cheaper for other countries to buy
- Low interest rates kept the returns of other safe haven assets low, making gold more attractive by comparison
Here’s how the price of gold has changed in recent years.
Gold faced its steepest recent declines in 2013, when the Federal Reserve bank discussed tapering down its quantitative easing program in light of economic recovery.
Hitting the Brakes On Oil
Oil suffered the worst commodity price performance in 2020, with -20.5% returns.
For the first time in history, oil prices went negative as demand plummeted. To limit its oversupply, oil producers shrunk investment, closed wells, and turned off valves. Unfortunately, many companies still faced bankruptcies. By November, 45 oil producers had proceeded with bankruptcy filings year-to-date.
This stood in stark contrast to 2019, when prices soared 34.5%.
As is custom for oil, prices see-sawed over the decade. In 2016 and 2019, it witnessed gains of over 30%. However, like 2020, in 2014 it saw huge losses due to an oversupply of global petroleum.
In 2020, total production cuts hit 7.2 million barrels a day in December, equal to 7% of global demand, in response to COVID-19.
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