Until today I thought energy transition was a consequence of the fourth industrial revolution. Now I am convinced it is fundamental driver of change.
I have been an advocate of digitalization being at the heart of the fourth industrial revolution for a few years now. One of the reasons for it is that it is a “horizontal technology”. It is called this because it affects many other industries. Farming gets better, industrial processes get better and (when they get self-driving to work) others, like taxi driving, cease to exist. While I still think digitalisation is at the core, I don’t think it stands alone.
I am a gen-Xer and, 5-10 years ago, I started to notice there was a lack of interest in careers in engineering of fossil fuels from new entrants. I blamed that on all the old folks in grey suits not listening to new hip ways to be digital. While the ignorant old men rejecting digitalisation (and pooh-poohing new ways to work) was definitely correlated I’m no longer sure it was causal.
When I went to the energy sessions at London tech week, no one was talking oil and gas. No one. Not a single fossil fuel company was present. It was all renewables, smart grids, energy efficiency. Now I know why.
Energy transition – and in a broader sense decarbonisation – affects every industry. In the same way that digitalisation is not doing business the same way and just replacing paper with computers, energy transition is not about going about life in the same way and just changing the fuel used.
Today I watched this remarkable video by my friend Rob West who has been in the Bestem Network for a few years now.
It also looks like Rob might think that video is a new skill that’s going to be required to function in the commercial world soon. I do.
Not only has he provided me with a light-bulb moment around energy transition, but also he explained the dilemma of being true to your metier while trying to get people to pay you to do more of what you think is important work. In a way he also shows how digitalisation allows businesses to be more specialised and to reward those who know what they are talking about rather than just those that can harness the power of others. That’s how I intend to run Klynetic Innovation.
This is the third post in the series considering the left-field consequences of the 4th Industrial revolution (4IR). Not only are there several technology trends leading to breakthroughs in productivity but also there are drivers pushing changes in approaches to energy. This is a long post, so apologies in advance, but there’s quite a lot to say on the topic.
If you were in Surrey and was asked “does the world need any more cars or need a better standard of living”, you might be tempted to answer no. If, however, you were in the poor parts of south east Asia or Africa you might instead agree that raising living standards is good idea. To do that output per person must go up and that will require technology, know-how, organisation, and energy. As living standards rise demand for domestic energy rises too.
Development has implications for energy demand, supply, and emissions. For capitalism to continue to provide improvements to people’s lives different economic drivers will be required if we are to address environmental constraints. Some will come from technological advances, some by regulation and some by changing desires of consumers. In short, we need a transition in our approach to energy.
I’m going to address energy transition in four ways: energy substitution, energy efficiency, decarbonisation, and decommissioning.
Many members of the Bestem Network are involved in the oil and gas industry. Please don’t read this post as a prediction for oil prices, it’s not. It’s also not about the short-term outlook for the oil industry. It doesn’t deal with the decades of piped gas and LNG and the abundant shale gas available. Instead it explores inescapable (if inconvenient) long-term trends. Guided by the insights from members of the Bestem Network, I am concerned to know if I am investigating along the right track more than demonstrating “being right”.
For oil veterans “Energy Transition” is firmly on the agenda in 2021. Many people I talk to are experiencing declines in their current business. Some are starting to believe the value of resources and capabilities that drove business success in the past should now be reconsidered. For them, it’s tempting to term any new line of business as energy transition – because it is a transition away from the energy business they knew. This phrasing doesn’t aid analysis. That’s why I decided to consider this topic in four dimensions.
There’s a lot of resistance and denial about change in the Oil and Gas industry. People can’t comprehend that skills, resources and assets that seemed so valuable three years ago, may no longer be so. Oil companies are writing off reserves, there is talk of stranded assets. Of course, there are people whose interests are served by changing the public discourse and some of the “illogical” conclusions of proponents of the new order may be “wrong”. Perhaps all parties have the same priorities, but in a different order? If enough people subscribe to a new paradigm, they can sway the outcome. Watch out, history only calls this way once.
What’s the data say?
If you haven’t read the BP statistical report on energy and oil – you’ve missed out. LINK
For my oil and gas colleagues, please note the graph above is for energy usage and therefore does not include consumption of oil and gas for other purposes such as chemical feedstock. These other uses account for about 15-20% of consumption. LINK
Perhaps petrochemicals will become a relatively more important use for oil. There are important developments including the configuration of the new Yanbu refinery that hint at this. Perhaps this market will be dominated by the middle east. LINK.
By far the most important sources of energy are Oil, Gas and Coal. Our modern world is built on their consumption which has increased 10x since 1900. In many ways the history of the 20th century is the history of oil. I am currently reading Daniel Yergin’s book the New Map, it’s a great reminder of how mega-politics is tied up with energy. LINK
Figures from the USA indicate that approx. 40% of energy is consumed in the home (heating, lighting, powering equipment, etc.), 30% is used for transport (private cars, lorries, boats, planes etc.), and 30% is used in industrial settings (steel, cement, manufacturing, mining, oil production, etc.). LINK
As other parts of the world catch up with the lifestyles of the Europeans and North Americans sheer weight of numbers could mean another 100x increase in energy consumption is on the horizon unless something changes.
Unfortunately, this poses two problems: Firstly, consumable resources are finite causing scarcity and price rises which slow global development, and secondly it appears that the emitted gasses are inconveniently killing us all (albeit quite slowly). LINK
Apparently we must emit no more than 100GigaTonnes of CO2 before the end of the century. LINK. In 2018 we emitted 40MegaTonnes. LINK. Carbon concentration in the atmosphere stands at 400 parts per million (up 50% from where we stood in 1850). At the current rate, excluding growth, we hit our upper limit in about 25 years, leaving us 55 Years where we must emit nothing at all. So, we must grow and use more energy but emit less carbon.
On top of this, advances in power semi-conductors, computerisation and battery technologies are making electricity more interesting. The use of oil, coal, and gas to create electrical energy that will then be transformed into stored potential and then to kinetic energy is less efficient than directly generating electricity in the first place. This is especially true when the price of new generating equipment is benefitting from economies of learning and scale. Since 2010, utility-scale solar PV power cost has declined 82% LINK and LINK
The upshot of all of this is that:
The human population of the world cannot safely advance until its growing energy requirements are met by means other than oil, gas and coal
Not only must we not increase the rate of CO2 production, we must reduce it
Combine this with some trends:
There is a growing desire to use electrical power
Measurement, algorithms, and power-switching leads to reduces losses in electrical power systems
Cost of generating electricity from the sun and wind is reducing
It’s possible to capture CO2 as it is produced so it is not released
It’s possible to remove CO2 already present in our atmosphere
There are other fuels that don’t produce CO2 when they burn
All this points to: growth in renewable generation; a stop in demand for oil, gas, and coal for electricity generation; reduction in the tasks that need doing; ways to use less energy to perform tasks; moves to reduce the production and release of carbon dioxide; and ways to remove the darned stuff from the air if at all possible. This is neatly summed up in categories Energy Substitution, Energy Efficiency and Decarbonisation. And will inevitably lead to Decommissioning.
Perhaps this is the first true energy substitution? We’ve had fuel augmentation before – adding coal on top of wood, and oil on top of coal. Sure, there was a little displacement, but mainly it was new growth that accounted for the new fuel and we continued to consume the old stuff pretty much at the same rate as before. The method for conversion from chemical to mechanical-power did, however, change – steam, internal combustion, turbine. This time is different as we’re transitioning on three fronts simultaneously: the primary method of capturing energy; displacement of established uses; and finding new (more efficient) ways to consume.
The benefit of electro-mechanical conversion
Direct use of electric drives to replace fuel combustion is occurring in both transport and in industrial settings. There are some areas that prove harder to electrify – especially when heat is the desired end-product. These include steel making, cement manufacture, distilling, cooking, and domestic heating.
There are positive drivers pushing the direct use of electricity in mechanical drives. This method provides excellent controllability using complex sensors, computer control and high-power semiconductors. It also provides excellent scalability – very small motors up to massive monsters. Electricity is also relatively easy to distribute.
The downside to electricity has always been difficulties related to is use in temporary, new, or moving applications. This relates to portability, transport, and storage. Battery technology is an issue as is gaining a connection and maintaining grid reliability. Users tend to fall back on diesel-based generation for both portability and reliability.
In transportation (especially aviation) weight is an important factor because, unlike fuel tanks, batteries do not get lighter when they are empty.
The business drivers of electric energy adoption:
Falling cost of direct electricity generation from wind and solar
Increasing battery performance
Requirements for fine-control and monitoring driven by computer control enable new solutions
Opportunities for efficiency from system level monitoring and prediction coupled with intelligent distributed control
Cost of infrastructure for grid establishment
Time to establish connection
Difficulty in transporting stored energy
Difficulty of use in mobile applications (battery storage and weight)
The societal drivers are:
Under the current business rules, when positive drivers are strong enough and the obstacles small, users will naturally substitute. To maximise the societal drivers (or public good) regulation changes may be required to tip business decisions. These can come in the form of subsidies, penalties or license-to-operate. The decision is dynamic – what doesn’t make sense today, may do tomorrow (note the 82% fall in the price of solar over the last decade). The more that electrification occurs: the more technology is developed and the more the price falls; the more experience we gain and the less risky the outcome becomes. As demand and volumes fall for older technologies, they become more expensive and less convenient. Over time tipping points are reached and business decisions become easier to make. I explained this dynamic in relation to electric cars here LINK
There is a great piece by Tim Harford examining the shift from steam to electrical drives at the turn of the 20th Century. It provides a framework for understanding the drivers of the elongated time lines required for a transition. LINK
Renewable generation used to be a cottage industry, but scale matters and it’s starting to swing the economics decidedly in favour of renewables.
Solar power is a factory manufacturing and construction problem. Site operation is pretty much zero intervention. Factors that have driven down cost will continue to do so with manufacturing costs decreasing and per-cell-output rising. While it’s unlikely to rival Moore’s law, research into cooling, focussing and reflected energy is promising a 10x improvement in output, which will compound the learning economies we’ve already seen. Solar is already the cheapest way to make power, and result of development may mean that we see a further 10x fall in price per MW generated.
Scale in wind power matters. GE are trialling a 12MW turbine in Rotterdam LINK It won’t be the last.
Unlike oil and gas platforms each turbine is essentially the same as the last one. There is no top-side processing to be designed and no process modification during its life. Wind has already achieved the standard, reusable, modular offshore design that Oil and Gas have been talking about for so long and never managed. This will lead to reduced requirement for engineering design and economies of scale and learning for installation and operation.
Oil and gas have been very wasteful for decades by creating bespoke engineering solutions on a field-by-field basis. There are many apocryphal stories of cost escalation in oil and gas facility engineering. Including one operator specifying 20 shades of yellow for sub-sea valves, which may or may not be true. But here’s a link that makes me think maybe it is LINK
Large generation assets promise cheap, reliable power distributed by a common connection. That’s a welcome development because small-scale generation posed unexpected public-good problems. In several underdeveloped countries central generation is unreliable, and users are tempted to go off-grid. Unfortunately, this has a detrimental effect on the public grid subsidy and leads to a death spiral for national utilities resulting in even worse service for citizens.
There’s not a huge amount to say about energy efficiency other than its about stopping waste which means: for heating more insulation; for energy conversion making less heat and noise; and for moving parts less friction and less weight. Overall, it means stopping doing what’s not really needed – such as unnecessary journeys by better planning and routing, and not heating or lighting spaces no one is occupying.
This leads to energy reduction technology using predictive algorithms, sensing and fine control of systems.
Examples include google reducing energy consumption of its data centres by 30% by predicting the weather. LINK
High-power semiconductors enabling DC power transmission and reduced line-losses.
And there is tons of work going on using big data and AI to reduce logistics costs. LINK
There are activities that can not only be made more efficient but also completely replaced by new technologies. For instance, additive manufacture and additive construction may displace some of the need for energy used making materials such as cement and steel, thereby increasing construction efficiency and reducing energy requirements and carbon emissions.
I’m not a climate scientist but if enough smart people tell me there is a problem, I tend to believe them. Though, in my view, this is not about saving the planet – the Earth will be fine – it is about preserving an environment within the tight tolerances required for the human life we’ve come to expect.
For climate change, my reading of the situation is that we have a problem related to imbalances of gasses and particles in the atmosphere. Energy substitution and energy efficiency will naturally reduce carbon emissions in some areas. It may help continued growth of middle classes across Asia and Africa without a proportionate increase in carbon emission. However, this won’t be enough as there are still areas where electrification is not yet practical, and efficiency gains not enough.
This leads to two approaches to decarbonisation: chemical fuels which are not carbon based; and methods to rid the atmosphere of un-eliminated carbon emissions.
Alternative fuels maintain the thermal cycle but don’t produce CO2. The two most often noted are Hydrogen and Nuclear. I would not want either if it were not for the carbon argument (in almost every application it’s a compromise) but they may be necessary as sub-optimal answers until better ones can be found. Hydrogen wins on portability and Nuclear on reliability and capacity (and portability in applications like marine warfare and space exploration).
Its unfortunate reactions with steel aside, hydrogen is interesting as replacement fuel in domestic settings where pipes, compression and metering etc are available. Like copper phone lines, it is unlikely that any country that does not already have the legacy infrastructure would invest in it now.
Capture and storage
Talking of legacy, the oil and gas folks are pretty good at drilling holes, moving fluids, and running large pipelines. They also have some bits of kit in the North Sea (and pipes running to and from them) that it would be great to find a use for these when the oil stops. There is a lot of interest in finding ways to pump CO2 through the system and store it in underground spaces vacated by the oil that was pumped out.
I can see why you’d want to do that if you owned the infrastructure, and it’s an interesting short-term measure but it doesn’t seem like this would be a scalable solution to on-going growth and just like oil wells run dry, storage facilities will eventually get full. The idea that we have to add a complete industry with scale and complexity of oil and gas solely to deal with the emissions of other industries adds a layer of inefficiency and cost that, if allocated correctly, would make them even more open to replacement by alternatives.
The use of hydrogen in fuel cells makes little sense in the long run if battery and super-capacitor storage improves. Generating electricity, to convert to hydrogen, to transport under high pressure, to convert back to electricity seems absurd to me.
In my view, hydrogen is not part of the endgame of energy transition. It may be an interim step where direct electrification and transport/time-shift of stored electrical-energy is not yet practical. It does make sense to accelerate decarbonisation when an alternative has not been established, but it is inferior to many other forms of chemical energy except for its emission properties.
Hydrogen is more viable while legacy resources and assets exist in abundance such as low-cost infrastructure, fabrication facilities, mechanical engineering, and process engineering. It would require a lot of careful handling under pressure, temperature and, combustion. Luckily it can be consumed (less well and with modification) by legacy assets such as internal combustion, jet engines and domestic boilers.
The same arguments apply for Nuclear energy, but not so strongly and even less for fusion. Nuclear fuel is abundant and (with care) easy to transport and energy conversion is centralised. Energy is, however, still derived from the release and recapture of heat and the physical movement and containment of molecules and (and particles) under extreme conditions.
When thinking about decommissioning my mind normally turns to removing infrastructure from the North Sea at the cessation of oil and gas operations. To be fair with an almost £80Bln prize at stake in the UK alone it’s not surprising that there is interest. LINK
But there is much more. If we are going to move to a low carbon world based on electrification, then there are many more assets that need to be decommissioned or refreshed. Ranging from filling stations, pipelines, car plants, car scrappage, domestic boilers, lorries etc.
If we combine this with the other changes in technology coming from the fourth industrial revolution, we are also going to find new uses for car parks, high streets, out of town retail centres and the list goes on.
It goes without saying though, that we will have to make sure we can decommission without emitting carbon dioxide in the process.
Implications: Energy Substitution
Even now, without any change in the incentives there are many areas where renewable generation is the best commercial choice. It is only going to get more so as more breakthroughs occur in generation and grid-level and portable energy storage.
The demise of internal combustion engines will have knock-on effects for manufacturers of components including radiators, hoses, vibration dampers, seals, drive belts, spark plugs, lead-acid batteries, gearboxes, and pumps. Innovators may want to consider how to reskill and serve power engineering, distribution systems and electric control. Additionally, they may want to consider which ancillary manufacturing assets will be affected (either interrupting supplies or creating opportunities for low-cost acquisitions). Innovation is also likely to be available in any area which relies on diesel or other fuel oil to create electricity or provide non-transport related rotary motion.
Will cars and solar panels be manufactured and sold as consumer white-goods and semi-conductors? In which case they are going to come from Taiwan, Korea, and China.
As turbines become common place and large ones most economical, they will become like the Airbus A-380. There will only be a few manufacturers. They may not be operators. Unlike an oil-field that starts as a risky proposition but then provides a natural monopoly, offshore wind generation will become routine and be open to competition. Capital may be cheaper, but the returns will be lower. The bloat of the oil and gas industry cannot continue to be supported.
Implications: Energy Efficiency
Anything that can be done to increase the amount of useful energy output from the energy we consume will help. This comes in two forms – reducing the things that need to be done and improving the way they are done if they are unavoidable.
Innovation will come from increasing the utilisation of energy through sharing, careful planning, insulation, and conversion efficiency. Search out unoccupied space in containers, trucks, and aircraft. Plan who goes where when and in what sequence. Predict when power will really be needed and when it’s not. Any process that gets hot when heat is not its primary objective should be examined.
Transmission of energy is inefficient, as is standby generation. Expect to see DC supply, smart grids, community generation and local storage/recharge solutions emerge. Expect the need for AC power to diminish – semiconductors and high-frequency switching is much more efficient, light weight and controllable.
Look for opportunities to displace concrete and steel in manufacturing processes, perhaps finding a new use for solid-state carbon fibre or graphene and for additive manufacture.
In the absence of market distortions there is no business case for decarbonisation. But the world needs it to happen. This will require a combination of intervention policies (subsidies, penalties, regulation) and a willingness for consumers to pay extra for low-carbon products.
Programs to capture carbon at source and sequester it in some form add to the costs of production and only make sense if the alternative (in the form of penalties or sale of credits) tip the balance. The cost of carbon-inclusive production will provide opportunities to innovate in no-carbon alternatives at price points not currently viable, once these products start being adopted, learning and scale economies will kick in to speed adoption.
As carbon pricing becomes widely adopted across industries, innovation is likely. From understanding sources of carbon in supply chains (and engineering it out), planning for low carbon production and finding alternative ways to operate that do not produce carbon.
Fundamental research opportunities are still available for atmospheric scrubbing and short-term opportunities may be available around capture and storage of carbon from industry.
Unfortunately, no-one wants to pay for decommissioning. The activity does not create productive assets so there is no return on investment and traditional business cases don’t work. It’s only done because it’s mandated and because there is a sense of responsibility for the environment (which may have brand and license implications).
Contracts will be let to the lowest price operators; innovation will therefore be required to reduce the cost to enable profit while bidding at the lowest price. All Seas managed to do this with their vessels – low cost but, by moving first with large capital assets and capacity to dominate demand thereby deterring competition. They can charge a low price but well above their cost resulting in healthy profits. LINK
When it comes to decommissioning infrastructure such as high voltage AC power transmission lines, domestic boilers and old cars, efficiency in the operation will be important, but so will re-use of the materials. Removing old infrastructure and scrapping cars may not sound like a gold mine, but perhaps it is. Literally.
Decommissioning old power stations, nuclear or conventional, is risky business where quality will count. There are stringent standards for Nuclear and projects that will last for decades. Conventional can be a little more “cowboy”. With wide scale decommissioning perhaps new rules and regulations will be needed to avoid this sort of tragedy? LINK
Points to Ponder
As of January 2021 ExxonMobil was valued at about $175 per barrel of oil equivalent from upstream production over the past nine months. French nuclear generator EDF is valued at $280 per barrel of oil equivalent produced over the same period. Spain’s Iberdrola, with its high renewables output, trades at $1,200 per barrel of oil equivalent produced. LINK
There is some evidence that there may be a squeeze on oil supply in the short term, and there may be a last hurrah of the oil and gas industry, but the writing seems to be on the wall.
We are likely to see more policy interventions around CO2. Business cases need to be dynamic and make space for emerging scenarios. The direction of pricing is clear but magnitude and timing are yet to resolve.
I fear for my friends in Aberdeen and Stavanger who expect to be involved in renewable generation. Despite these places being repositories of skills and expertise, I doubt there will be labour shortages significant enough to drive a search for talent – and the inflated labour prices and high-cost working practices are unlikely to be appealing.
Areas such as decarbonisation are likely to be subsidised. Engineering skills bases exist in the North West ship building areas, in Teesside, the Welsh Valleys as well as the South East coast of Norway, southern Sweden, Northern Germany, industrial Belgium and Denmark. There is no obvious reason that governments will bestow subsidies on the oil-rich provincial towns, and there is no unusual depth in high-power electrical engineering skills or modular manufacture that creates a pulling force. Look to Airbus and RollsRoyce for a hint on which locations may be subsidised.
Energy production is turning into a 4th industrial age process now. Over time energy will become essentially free to western consumers (in the absence of new taxes) and will become affordable for developing countries providing the elements required to swell the educated middle classes
Tax and Trade
In the UK fuel is taxed at the point of consumption, domestic electricity is taxed at a lower rate than petrol. North Sea oil has its own tax and royalty regime (on a field-by-field basis). When electricity moves cars and oil stops pumping, these tax revenues will need to be replaced. Expect changes to the tax system.
Globally this tax issue is one of national wealth, balance of trade and currency. Many economies are supported by petro-dollars. That may cease. Even if impoverished populations can benefit from cheaper energy, it is still likely that there will be political tensions within and between many countries.
As we continue to electrify there will be increased demand for copper, nickel and rare earth metals. These extractive industries are out of keeping with 4th industrial age processes. Perhaps we will see a boom in resource rich areas such as Africa and south America until such time as we can harness graphene and ceramic based super conductors.
Business models that are based on bespoke designs, complex operations, resource scarcity and speculative exploration are likely to be replaced by ones supported by more standardisation, predictable un-manned operation, with steady, predictable returns. This will lead to reduction in man-power requirements, creativity, and variability. Cost structures and operating characteristics (and associated returns) across the energy industry are likely to evolve to resemble those of other utilities such as water.
Large oil and gas companies are currently moving to re-invent themselves as renewable energy companies. They have spotted the trend, but there is no guarantee that they will bring the right behaviours to the table to be able to operate in the way that will be required. Their strong balance sheets, engineering skills and ability to operate in harsh environments internationally may provide them with a well-financed head start.
During the 1980s RACAL was a military radio, radar and missile guidance provider. They were highly experienced in complex frequency hopping radio systems. This gave them a well-financed head start into a new industry, just like oil companies have today. Racal were well placed to develop mobile phone technology.
However, Racal was the wrong place create a consumer marketing and general-public-facing service. By 1991, as the technology became mainstream, the Racal board took the wise decision to float the division and spin it out as a standalone company that could develop its own culture. RACAL ceased to be independent when it was acquired by Thales in 2000. Vodafone, the division it spun out has done rather well. LINK
Perhaps we will see the renewables divisions of Shell, BP and Statoil spin out and compete with Iberdrola if they want to be utilities or Siemens, GE and RollsRoyce if they want to make turbines. Unlike Vodafone, their spin outs will be competing with established successful companies with long track records. It may not work out as well as it did for Racal shareholders.
Innovation is Key
In whatever way this pans out there is one thing clear – there are lots of unknowns and lots of variables. The only way to survive will be to be vigilant of the macro forces and constantly innovate to evolve offerings as events reveal themselves.
This is the second post in a little series considering the left-field consequences of the 4th Industrial revolution (4IR). There are several technology trends leading to breakthroughs in productivity across many industries, and I think these will have knock on implications. Guided by the insights from members of the Bestem Network, I am concerned to know if we are investigating along the right track more than demonstrating that we “are right”. As in the last post, I am only going to briefly touch the upside possibilities of 4IR because information on this is now widespread and easily found.
What a year 2020 was. It gave me both time to reflect on some angles of 4IR and showed samples of the types of situations and responses that might arise in the future. Rather than write a large piece covering every aspect, I am writing a small series, each post looking at aspects in isolation. This post deals with productivity, remote working, and the effect on public finances.
One common definition of productivity is the amount of output for every unit of human activity put in. Traditionally this has been calculated as GDP added per hour worked. There are lots of reasons to argue that the measure is no longer appropriate and you can read some of my previous deliberations here [LINK]
If you subscribe to the belief that we’re consuming and exploiting too much of the planet’s resources, and combine this with the productivity arguments of 4IR then it seems that we will either end up drowning in a sea of products we don’t need while killing ourselves, or there will be a lot of idle labour capacity.
The positive argument resulting from this is that it will free our species from needless drudgery, will increase artisan production and lead to a life of increased leisure. Some people advocate the requirement for universal basic incomes, of which the UK Government furlough scheme could be an example. These arguments are not new as this letter to Personal Computer Weekly in 1978 demonstrates.
Autonomous vehicles reduce the requirement for physical presence of humans in dangerous or expensive locations (think of remote inspections or inside nuclear sites), it also reduced the need for drivers (commercial and private) while increasing the utilisation potential of vehicles. This will lead to reductions in labour in direct driving roles but also indirect such as driver training, motor insurance, parking lots, and staffing of road-side café. [LINK ]
Economy moves on-line
During the pandemic activity has migrated on-line. Online shops require less people in the supply chain than high-street retail, and with the rise of robotic pickers and packers perhaps will need even less in the future. This article talks about this in the context of Ocado. [LINK]
There are many arguments concluding that much economic activity will move on-line. There is, however, an imbalance between the numbers of producers and consumers. Between sellers and buyers. Here the productivity arguments become even stronger. For example, consider a video game like “Among Us” (which is now played by over 60m people daily). It only took 185 people 3 years to write, and far fewer to keep it running. There is not much employment created by this and a concentration of money from the many to the few. [LINK]
There are 350million players who use fortnite, that game is published by Epic games. The entire company employs a mere 700 people. Epic games are backed by KKR private equity. [LINK] [LINK] [LINK]
In a more professional sphere, after a massive growth spurt, Zoom still only has 2,500 employees (which is double what it had last year). It is used by 300 million meeting participants each day. [LINK] [LINK]
In a more traditional setting, on-line education has been a lifeline for schools and universities. However, if this type of delivery becomes normal – consider a class recorded for Physics 101 by (say) Richard Feynman. It would never need to be re-recorded. Maybe Khan Academy has this right, maybe a career in teaching is not what it used to be, maybe education will not be enough to differentiate you once many more people have access and get smart? [LINK] [LINK]
What about the other issues?
While the fourth industrial revolution will see technologies such as self-driving, self-analysing, remote working, remote control, and robotic automation become more prominent. We may see a rise in purely digital products and services – such as computer gaming – where the entire value chain exists only within computers, and consumption and delivery are not dependent on co-location.
If labour requirements are permanently reduced (and not replaced with new roles – there are arguments that this time it may be that way) then we are faced with issues of wealth distribution that free markets won’t be able to solve. There are arguments that 4IR requires a more interventionist central control to organise behaviour, set societal objectives and to distribute resources. The pandemic response may have revealed how this sort of thing may operate. [LINK]
This is all very good and well. I can envisage the upside of productivity as well as the potential problems it will engender. The arguments are well rehearsed and not yet solved. But what about second order consequences?
Central taxation reductions
All governments have endured a hit to their finances during the COVID-19 pandemic. Borrowing from future to fund today’s spending only works if governments can capture the tax revenue associated with future growth.
We have recently proved that we in a world where many can work from anywhere, hold meetings without travelling and remotely operate large plants and machinery. This is not new but since COVID it has become normalised and now widespread. The physical property of the company may only be a TEAMS server in the Bahamas and workers can be located wherever they wish to be.
So how do you tax this activity? How and where can you collect payroll taxes? Where is the economic benefit created? Whose rules and laws apply? How can a government even know what is happening within its borders?
Automation in transport, manufacturing and logistics are also likely to increase pressure on labour tax revenue.
Will we see restrictions on commercial data, handling, and transmission across borders like we have seen for personal data with GDPR regulations? It’s not unheard of – in the oil industry some geological data was prevented from leaving countries for years, forcing exploration activity to establish a physical presence in country.
Commercial property taxes and rents
Until recently landlords and local government were able to extract rents and rates from physical businesses that wanted to be located where the crowds came. Recently, local governments have even borrowed large sums to buy the properties on the high streets. They are speculating in the properties for which their previous role was to sweep the street and collect rubbish.
They do this to rent them out, trying to exploit the difference between their cheap borrowing and the return from commercial rents. So that they make enough money to pay for the street sweeping and bin-emptying that they used to charge for explicitly. They have an inbuilt advantage over private landlords because buildings left empty force the landlord to pay rates, but these just recirculate inside the finance dept of a local authority. Perhaps this will end in tears for the public (and risk-free profit for financiers) when they need to refinance and interest rates are higher and vacancy has increased? Surely there must be a better way to fund public services? [LINK]
Working from home seems likely to reduce the requirement for prime office space not only leading to worsening public tax receipts but also reductions in income for pension funds and insurance companies who own the buildings – just at a time when returns on other forms of assets are also falling, and insurance playouts are increasing. [LINK]
The pandemic saw an accelerated rise in on-line purchasing and home delivery (which is often less expensive due to lower labour costs and lower property taxes). This means retailers are going bust, rents are not being paid and rates are on hold. This causes another of problem for public revenue which means spending must be reduced, borrowing increased or new methods of taxation found. [LINK]
The end of the freelancer?
In Europe at least, workers within traditional employment structures (and public sector workers most of all) have been better protected by the government. Self-employed, freelancers and small company directors have not been supported well. [LINK]
In recent years we have witnessed the fragmentation of work and a slow reduction in the number employed in professional classes. The world of private commerce seemed to be dividing into successful owners (and financiers) and jobbing workers, with a rise in zero-hour contracts and “gig” work. [LINK]
One of the attractions of freelance work for some was the flexibility it afforded in terms of working from home, this benefit seems likely to become more available to traditional office employees in the future. Policy is likely to shift towards increased taxation of small owner-managed companies and freelancers. The benefits from freelancing are being eroded. [LINK]
Will there be a rebalancing in favour of a stable employment contract and the re-rise of big employers, or will the welfare state make new arrangements with its citizens to enable flexible, part time working? What will this mean for personal finance and the unintended consequences of “prudential lending” that have forced many to rent properties they could easily have afforded to buy? [LINK]
The role of the state and its relation to private commerce
Our elected government has been willing to incur large debts and restrict personal freedoms to protect lives during this pandemic. This brings into question, perhaps, the lack of spending up until this point for other preventable causes of death such as seasonal flu and driving motor cars. Though one has to be careful not to downplay the seriousness of the current pandemic, the argument may be extended that intervention should increase in the future. [LINK]
Governments have stepped up to support rail operators, aviation, provide furlough schemes and give grants to the performing arts. The narrative of the free market and the accepted arguments for roll-back from state activity in commerce we’ve seen for the previous half century will likely be revisited. [LNIK]
I have noted many more articles about the collective response of public services, the requirement for us all to contribute (and not try to dodge taxes) if we want potholes filled in and have a medical service that works. We have even seen large corporations such as Tesco return COVID rates relief payments without obligation because it was “the right thing to do”. [LINK]
Perhaps we are moving to a phase where more collective responsibility will be shown, and individualism will be less valued. Perhaps we are moving towards basic universal income. Perhaps we are changing our relationship with tax and with state spending? Perhaps companies will revise their arrangements with workers? [LINK]
The UK government continues to make overtures about investing public money into science and technology research through an industrial strategy. [LINK]
We’ve seen government intervention in the hospitality sector on the grounds of public health. Perhaps it will not be “the right thing to do” to spend a universal income on gambling and drinking? Will it be “the right thing to do” to compromise your health at the expense of the nation’s taxpayers? Where will the new boundaries for state intervention in private life be drawn? How will the people who control business take steps to voluntarily increase their tax bill? What will all this mean for basis of competition and fiduciary duty to shareholders?
If we are to see wide-scale automation, movement of economic activity on-line and a substantial rise in remote working for those that remain employed, there will implications for tax, wealth distribution and state intervention which are likely to follow. Organisations may wish to consider how to set up systems of work that enable innovation, so they are not be left behind by these advances.
Scenario planning might consider wider societal responsibilities as well anticipating changes in rules, regulation, worker expectations, less flexible labour markets and competition from state-backed entities (possibly publicly owned). They may also anticipate changes in expectation from the public as regarding corporate citizenship and modifications to taxation systems.