The capex-opex fallacy, electric cars, and biofuels

January 25, 2013 |

Volt“Electric power is cheap”, and “cellulosic biofuel costs less than $1.00 per gallon”.

So why isn’t everyone buying a Chevy Volt? And why can you get lower interest rates on your Visa Card than next-gen biofuel developers face?

It’s the old capex-opex fallacy.

Earlier this week, a new study from researchers at UC Santa Barbara determined photovoltaics to be much more efficient than biomass at turning sunlight into energy to fuel a car.

“Even the most land-use efficient biomass-based pathway,” the researchers wrote, “(i.e., switchgrass bioelectricity in U.S. counties with hypothetical crop yields of over 24 tonnes/ha) requires 29 times more land than the PV-based alternative in the same locations.”

Which raises two fundamental questions. First, why don’t all biofuels developers close shop and go home? Second, why for all that efficiency are the sales of battery-electric vehicles so low?

Time for a fresh look at the data.

Turns out that rational consumers — i.e. you — make choices not based on land use but on price and preference.

To cite an example, it takes more land to support a US football football team than an MLS soccer team, so why does anyone watch the Super Bowl? It takes far more land to produce a pound of hamburger than a pound of grass, so why doesn’t McDonalds sell grass? Yada yada yada.

But there’s something else in this analysis that is more important to look at.

The comparison — between biofuels-ICU engines and the solar-electric engine driving option — is actually a variation on the business model for selling razors and blades, or printers and inks.

You know how it goes, you buy a cheap printer for under $100, then spend a fortune on the ink.It’s the old capex-opex fallacy.

What is that? “Low operating expense doesn’t always lead to the best choice” — because the capex might be unaffordable, unfinancable, or so high that no operating efficiency will ever make up the difference.

Comparing the all-electric Chevrolet Volt to the comparably-sized Chevrolet Eco Cruze, the New York Times reported that (based on a workup from TrueCar), the payback period on a Volt was 26.6 years. After the article appeared, rebuttals surfaced placing the true break-even period at 8.7 years.

8.7 years!? 26 years?! Cars go vintage at 25.

The 8.7 year payback required the Volt owner to never drive more more than 38 miles in a single excursion, was based on a gasoline price of $3.85 per gallon (vs the current average price of $3.31), 15K miles driving per year (vs. the real-world average of 13.4K) and based on a $7,500 subsidy given to the Volt buyer.

And — oops — this all-electric subsidy, by law, will sunset if Chevrolet’s all-electric sales ever climb above 200,000 cars in a single year. In short, if it helps the economics so much that you actually want to buy an all-electric, it goes away.

That’s like Mom saying “If you get a job this summer, you can can give us all the money you earn for extra rent.”

Yes, Mom. Looking at the want ads right now, Mom.

We might add, the costs are based on a car without many of the trimmings – the MRSP of a fully-loaded Volt is $46,265 — and, surprise, you need to install a $490 charging system in your garage — if you have one — and it takes four hours to power up.

Cost, recharge time and range anxiety — that’s why the general public has not embraced the electric car.

Perhaps one day soon the economics will change. Sigh.

Turning to advanced biofuels

When it comes to biofuels as a system, too — beware of the capex-opex fallacy — that any system is a feasible system as long as the operating costs are low.

Or vice-versa. Just in case I can interest you — step right this way, sir and madam — in a FREE phone! …er, pay no attention to the man with the five year mobiel contract with those debilitating prices.

One of the highly-touted advantages of all next-generation biofuels platforms is that it provides a work-around for a dependency on a single feedstock such as corn, sugarcane or soybeans — and prices for all those feedstocks have soared over the years, regardless of whether you think biofuels or other sector demands or input costs are to blame.

It was Coskata that first tipped a potential, roughly four years ago, for a fuel with an operating cost of $1.00 per gallon. The company picked up a tremendous amount of attention with that line of argument. So why has the company been unable to construct its first commercial plant, even more than a year after being “open for business” after the highly-successful conclusion of its pilot project?

In fact, the company has pivoted away from biomass and towards natural gas as a feedstock for its first commercial plant. Why is that, if it can produce fuel at $1.00 per gallon?

Ah, it’s the capex-opex problem, again.

Cellulosic fuels, for sure, have access to transformatively low-cost biomass. For example, a bushel of corn yields around 50,000 BTUs per dollar of corn, depending on how you value the co-products. By contrast, a dollar of $55 per ton biomass brings you 140,000 BTUs or so – if you use the Coskata yields of 100 gallons per ton.

So why is there so much corn ethanol and so little cellulosic ethanol?

The answer lies in the capex — because it costs less than $2 per gallon of installed corn ethanol capacity, vs somewhere between $6 and $12 per gallon for cellulosic ethanol capacity, depending on which technology you choose.

Given the cost of capital for high technology in these nefarious times we live in, that’s why there aren’t cellulosic ethanol plants cropping up everywhere, every day. And that’s why, if you ask advanced biofuels developers what they are working hardest on, it is knocking down the capital costs.

When the Congress passed the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act, it probably seemed incomprehensible to lawmakers that credible technologists — backed by credible investors, with significant offtake contracts and low-cost inputs — could get lower financing costs for a shopping spree charged to a Visa Card than for their emission-busting, energy security-promoting and job-creating technologies.

Perhaps one day soon the financing economics will change. Sigh.

Here’s a thought. Maybe one of these days, someone is going to produce a car with a fuel nozzle that only accommodates, say, renewable diesel — and they are going to offer you “FREE FUEL FOREVER!” and simply load the projected lifetime cost of the renewable fuel into the cost of the car.

At an average of $3.30 per gallon, 30 mpg, and 13,000 miles per year for five years, it would add about $7,150 to the price of the car. Even if drivers doubled up on fuel consumption because of the all-inclusive effect, the difference would still be less than the premium paid, at this time, to drive an all-electric.

Hoo-boy, I wonder what people will write then. They probably will point out the capex-opex fallacy — and would be right in doing so. But I see an awful lot of low-cost printers flying off the shelves at my local Best Buy – don’t you?

Between now and then — beware of the free printers, phones, the cheap razors, $1 per gallon cellulosic ethanol, and buying an electric car in order to save money. Buy an electric car in order to do something positive and personal for the environment, or because you like the zippy acceleration or the low-noise. If you do, rock on with your Tesla and peace on you, my friend.

But leave off with the smug glance for your hard-pressed neighbor, just trying to pay the bills, who chooses the lower-cost route of embracing a biofuels-powered vehicle — and who ought to be getting your “awesome!” or your fist-bump, not your gentle shove under the bus.

And, we might add: beware of research papers that put some lipstick, for those who haven’t seen it before, on the old capex-opex fallacy.

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