A Solar Singularity is Here – Expect Extreme Disruption

The Solar Future

A solar singularity is in the making and it will cause a giant explosion in the energy world.

What is a singularity? In the simplest terms it is a paradigm shift or a phase change. It completely transforms a given reality into something completely new.

A solar singularity occurs when solar power becomes cheaper than every other conventional means of generating power, thus creating solar as the default power source.

This singularity is already here in many countries. Solar power is cheaper without tax subsidies, even when compared to subsidized fossil fuels. We’re talking about direct subsidies as well as not attributing the real costs to fossil fuels of pollution, global warming  and geopolitical costs. In India, for example, solar costs, as measured by power purchase agreement (PPA) prices offered by the unsubsidized private sector in the solar business, have already become cheaper than coal (4 cents per KWH). India has cancelled all its future coal generation plans citing the fact that solar is cheaper! That is over a billion tons of coal burning  per year cancelled!

Solar power generation is, of course,  intermittent – the sun doesn’t shine all the time. Batteries are needed for a steady power supply. A true singularity in solar energy needs to include the cost of storage batteries – it will occur when solar-plus-storage stand alone systems become cheaper than alternatives. This solar-plus-storage singularity is now approaching faster than anyone had predicted because of an exponential improvement in battery storage cost and supply. Battery costs have declined 70% in the last five years from $1000/KWH to about $300/KWH at a mass scale. The true solar singularity which includes utility scale solar generation and storage is estimated to occur when the battery costs drop to $100/KWH, most certainly by 2022, but probably mush sooner.

Why would anyone build a coal/natural gas or oil burning plant or a nuclear generating station any more?

There are four  intertwined revolutions all related to the solar singularity: Solar PV’s, battery storage, electric vehicles and self-driving cars.

A GreenTech Media article by Tam Hunt states that:

Solar PV’s, battery storage, electric vehicles and self-driving cars together constitute the parallel and intertwined revolutions that are set to transform our energy system worldwide. These four technologies are developing exponentially. We can reasonably expect to see, by 2035 to 2040, a world powered predominantly with renewable electricity — not only homes and businesses, but also transportation and industrial processes.

This is way faster than predicted just a year ago. And I suspect that once the singularity is crossed the transformation might be even faster and startling to most prognosticators.

My projections for the four technologies reaching singularity:

Solar Power (generation alone): 2017
Solar generation + storage: 2020
Electric Cars: 2019
Autonomous Driving: 2022

Current solar demand projections by Greentech Media are shown below. You can see an exponential growth, but I think we will do far better than that.

Screen Shot 2017-09-13 at 10.48.40 PM

Energy planners around the world are beginning to see the arrival of these singularities. Most countries are planning for a non-fossil-fuel economy by 2040. In Norway’s recent elections one party (the Liberals, who are now in a ruling coalition with the ultra conservatives) made a move to ban the exploration of  gas and oil in the Arctic starting right now. The proposal is to leave all their Arctic oil/gas wealth in the ground!

In Germany,  last March and April, over 80% of the electricity came from renewables. In the US we were at 10%. In India we are now generating 7% of its annual electricity from wind/solar with 33% predicted by 2022. China is on the fastest track of all countries – it is the largest producer of solar power and the fastest growing!

In California there is  a push to legislate net-zero housing, i. e., community developments with net zero energy consumption. This is a law that requires all new housing to have 100% renewable energy or zero net consumption by 2020. In a recent article I read developers say that at a cost of just $8 per square foot a house can be completely energy self-sufficient, including a solar roof and batteries in a community network. This cost will come down dramatically with mandates and economies of scale.

What will all this mean? The solar singularity is an inevitability – a done deal. It is going to be more powerful than the Paris Accords and not even the current retrogressive policies pushed by the oil industry can change this fact.

Posted in Current Events, Electric Vehicles (EV), Emerging Markets, Green Energy, India, Innovation, Investing, Money, Politics, Science, Solar Power, Venture Capital | 3 Comments

Are Cars Hardware or Software?

The Exponential Organization
In their book, BOLD: How to Go Big, Create Wealth, and Impact the World, Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler talk about the concept of “Exponential Companies”. These are amazing organizations that can grow from concept to billion-dollar disrupters at breakneck speed and create emergent landscapes completely destroying their lumbering competition. Examples abound, such as Airbnb, Google, Uber, Tesla…

The authors talk about the enabling stages of such companies: the 6 D’s – which they call the six horsemen of the apocalypse. These are digitization, deception, disruption, demonetization, dematerialization and democratization. [We won’t go into all of these here but the book is worth reading for details.]

The Exponential Entrepreneur
In addition to the 6 D’s the Exponential Organization has an Exponential Entrepreneur at the helm. Exponential Entrepreneurs have a bold mindset and a grand vision, they can perform at speed and can think at scale. Jeff Bezos, Larry Page, Richard Branson and Elon Musk fall into this category. These guys are capable of syncing their mental pace with the exponential organization’s break-neck growth curve – Hacking the Flow – in the parlance of the book. According to a McKinsey study they can be over 500% more productive than the average CEO at a sustained rate for many exponential doublings of their disruptive companies.

The first and most important of the 6 D’s is digitization, where a conventional product, not necessarily associated with software, and plodding along at a pedestrian rate of growth, becomes digital. Wham! It starts riding the explosive S-Curve of digital technology.

Enter Tesla
Tesla today, under the vision of Elon Musk, is digitizing the car industry. (And also the solar and battery industries, but that is the subject of another essay).

dig car

The genius of Tesla is that it is the first company to realize that a car is ready to be digitized and therefore ride the disruptive curve of explosive growth. So the car of the future – not so distant future actually – will be like a commoditized piece of hardware, much like a desktop computer with a standard set of capabilities. This standardized hardware, needing a minimal number of parts, will be assembled very cheaply with the price continuously coming down even as new features are added. The explosive new capabilities in driving will then come from software.

Tesla’s Model 3 dramatically underscores this shift
The Tesla Model 3 was unveiled a couple of weeks ago and showed off its minimalist hardware – a new universal, automotive Turing machine, if you will, ready for the emergent, computational age in driving. The basic car, including all the hardware and sensors, but excluding the batteries, costs only $10,000 in mass production. And mass production is happening at warp speed –  by 2019 at the latest, when Elon, says, he can make 700,000 cars per year! (He upped it last week from 500,000!) Battery costs seem to be in the $15,000 – $25,000 range but coming down rapidly – they have declined 70% in the last 5 years.

Will the 2019 time frame for mass production hold? Elon has missed deadlines before. What’s his credibility? There are fundamental issues with an exponential growth “S-Curve” Here’s what Musk said at the earnings conference last week:

It’s fundamentally impossible to predict the exponential part of the manufacturing S-curve. It’s crazy hard. The S-curve is a really jagged sort of upward growth and it’ll plateau and then it’ll grow rapidly and it’ll plateau again….

But overall, we’re feeling really good – this is maybe the best I’ve ever felt about Tesla, to be frank. Last week, stressed the hell out of me, but I really think that this is probably the best I’ve ever felt about the company.

I would say that the odds are with him meeting the 2019 target. But does it really matter if he is 6 months late?

The Model 3 is a beautiful beginning and was universally hailed by the early journalists and car buffs that experienced it. Here’s a pretty informative YouTube review of features and plans.

For $35,000 you get the base version:

  • Over 210 miles of range
  • Sports Car like acceleration and handling
  • All the instrumentation for complete autonomous driving
  • Less than 3 cents per mile running costs
  • “Zero”  maintenance, software upgradable
  • Long life – over 500,000 miles – low depreciation
  • Top of the line safety features.

If you want the base version, though, you’re going to have to wait. The first roll-out is the more upscale version for $44,000. It has a stunning 310 mile range, and is faster and sportier. Tesla will also eventually do the “Ridiculous” version in the Model 3 – one with an acceleration rivaling  the fastest Ferrari! ( 0 – 60 mph in 2.8 seconds).

Although all the Model 3’s are fully instrumented, software upgrade for autonomous Level 5 driving will cost extra and is probably a couple of years away.

It may seem like a small step but Tesla and Elon have single-handedly changed the entire automotive landscape. Tesla’s strategy was to start at the top end: build a sports car with great cache and automotive gewgaws to get the rich and the trendy  to embrace the car at a fancy price. Then use that money to build an affordable car. Then use that money to build an even more affordable car. While doing the above get into the zero emissions game – build unlimited battery factories, and build integrated solar roofs. It’s remarkable how well Tesla seems poised to pull this off, although much remains to be done and there are inevitable roadblocks along the way.

How Quickly Will We Go All-Electric?
In the last months many car companies have announced plans to produce Electric Vehicles  (EV’s) within the next couple of years. Volvo will build only fully pluggable electric cars and plans more than a million in two years. Honda, Mercedes, BMW are also joining in the fast cascading new world of EV’s. And Ford’s new CEO has a background in electric vehicles and has been brought in to launch Ford into the inevitable future of petroleum-less cars. GM’s Bolt is a first 200-mile range entry from them.

The UK has announced that it will outlaw petroleum based cars – both gasoline and diesel – by 2040. France will do the same. China is already the world leader in EV adoption and is committing huge resources to green energy – solar in particular, with world leading battery technology research funding. India says they have a goal to go to all electric vehicles in a mere 13 years. One third of their electric power will be solar in 5 years (100 GW).

I wrote about the prospect of all new cars sold in the U.S. being plug-in electric in 8 years – I was quoting the prognosis by Tony Seba, the Stanford economist. Most readers of this blog felt that that was way too fast and indeed it is an ambitious projection. But it is not implausible, and indeed is even probable give the nature of exponentially growing technologies and the change in paradigm when costs, technology and world sentiment converge.

How long before almost all cars on our roads become green? Since there are more than 200 million cars in the US alone it is hard to say, but 10-15 years seems very probable. The disruptive force of the digitized car will be huge and blink-of-the-eye fast, akin to the impact of the asteroid that caused the extinction of dinosaurs 55 million years ago. To quote Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler:

Right now there’s another asteroid striking our world. It is extinguishing the large and lumbering, and clearing a giant path for the quick and the nimble. Our name for this asteroid is exponential technologies. The name may be unfamiliar but the impact is not.

Tesla is this asteroid and it has taken a giant step in extinguishing the large and lumbering dinosaurs of conventional gasoline-powered cars.

Posted in Current Events, Electric Vehicles (EV), Green Energy, India, Investing, Money, Politics, Science, Solar Power | 2 Comments

The Coming Welcome Extinction – Petroleum Cars!

I asked a dozen friends of mine when they think petrol-driven vehicles will disappear from the U. S. That’s right, when will  100% of all cars, buses, vans, trucks run on Electricity! The average answer I got was: in about 30-40 years, if then.

The reality: How about in 8 years?!

That’s the thing about exponential growth – even very plugged-in people (no pun intended) underestimate wildly the meteoric rise due to such growth that occurs when the conditions are right.

And the conditions for Electric Vehicles (EV’s) today are just right. Here’s an article by Tony Seba of Stanford that predicts an all-EV future in the US in 8 years! His previous articles, just a few months ago,  said 95% EV’s by 2030 but he was underpredicting! He is right on the money – and given his very realistic predictions the Oil, Coal and even Gas industries should realize they are dead. Some 70-80% of all the fossil fuels will be left in the ground. Worthless. Killed by the most abundant fuel on earth – Sunshine!

I just finished reading my friend, Vivek Wadhwa’s excellent book, The Driver in the Driverless Car, which brilliantly lays out the prospects for our exponentially growing future and the paradigm shifts that are ahead of us: paradigm shifts in Energy, Healthcare, Education, Finance, Jobs and Automation etc. Do read the book because this is the mindset that must be adopted by anyone who wants to benefit as an investor, planner or career seeker with an eye to the future. (Peter Diamandis and Ray Kurzweill are the earliest futurists to see this and through their Singularity University, create awareness and companies to exploit this).

It’s not evident to all, but those who see it are bailing out of Oil – Oil companies, Oil service companies, Pipelines, Drilling and ancillary support companies, Coal, Natural Gas – all are on death watch. I would sell now.

Et Tu India!

India – yes, that $5/day-per-person-GDP, highly developing country with helpless governance, horrendous illiteracy and a hopeless infrastructure – has realistic ambitions to go all Electric by 2030! Read on.

India is a petroleum poor country. It imports $80 billion of oil every year – that is more than 1/3rd of all its imports and 100% of its foreign currency trade deficit.

However, India has an abundance of another fuel it can extract and it’s virtually free. This wonderful fuel is Sunshine! With exponentially growing improvements in technology India has the potential to leapfrog directly to a solar-based, cheap, sustainable and green energy economy. But can this be done in any reasonable time frame?

 

Jhunjhunwala1Professor Jhunjhunwala at TiE/ICC Event, May 24, 2017

 

A few weeks ago, invited by my friend and entrepreneur, Vish Mishra,  I went to an amazing talk by Dr. Ashok Jhunjhunwala sponsored by TiE (the Indus Entrepreneurs) and ICC (India Community Center) and learned first hand about his sweeping, game-changing efforts to transform India to a self-sufficient, green energy country at break neck speed!

Prof. Jhunjhunwala, a graduate of IIT Kanpur, has also studied and worked extensively in the US. He is the head of TeNeT in India, which does extraordinary things in communcations, energy and innovations in numerous fields. Currently he is on the faculty of IIT Madras. He has spawned over 50 companies and has been awarded the Padmashree for his invention of the micro-grid.

Dr Jhunjhunwala has been tapped by Prime Minister Modi and Power Minister Piyush Goyal to give wings to an ambitious market-based plan to meet India’s power needs and solar/green goals, far exceeding the commitments in the Paris Accords. The objective is

. 60% of all electricity generation using solar by 2025!
. 100% Electric Vehicle adoption in India by 2030!

That’s right – in 13 years, Dr. Jhunjhunwala says, India will have no petroleum based road transportation! No diesel belching trucks and buses, no choking, smog-generating cars, and noisy, sooty, inefficient three-wheelers. He plans to convert 400 million vehicles, including cars, three-wheelers, two-wheelers, buses, trucks etc. to electric power – most of it generated by solar. It’s an amazing vision, but listening to him talk I could sense that it is eminently doable and his detailed blueprint for doing it is utterly practical and feasible.

Among Jhunjhunwala’s deep insights is to use DC on the electricity grid instead of AC, which is the default everywhere in the world today. He has invented the design of a 48-volt DC electrical micro-grid, powered by solar energy, which is much better suited and safe for India, and results in very much more efficient appliances in the home. Many years of engineering design and innovation have gone into this idea – see this YouTube talk for details. The bottom line is that a lot of power that is wasted in converting repeatedly from AC to DC and back (upto 50-60%) can be saved by staying with  DC throughout.

In addition, the home appliances themselves are way more efficient when DC power is used. For example, a  DC ceiling fan consumes 30W of power vs 72W for AC. At low speeds the savings are even more: up to 90%. For LED lighting the power consumption can be as low as 10 Watts, vs 36 W for tube lights commonly used in India. Similarly, TV’s, laptops, battery chargers and even refrigerators and air-conditioners are far more efficient when designed for DC versus AC. So the savings are multifold: 40-55% in conversion costs, and 70% in appliance efficiencies!

Dr. Jhunjhunwala says he can meet the electricity needs for a small rural or poor-to-middle class family in India (more than 650 million people!) with a 125 watt solar panel and a 500 Wh battery. The solar panel is the surface size of  a medium sized dining table and the whole  system can be made in India and sold profitably for under Rs. 20,000, (or about $300) and falling rapidly.

In transportation, Dr.Jhunjhunwala has much simpler designs for electric vehicles (EV’s), including cars, buses and three-wheelers, with only 20 (or so) different parts needed to manufacture, instead of the 2000+ parts for internal combustion engine cars. He sees many vehicles In India needing batteries for only a 50 Km range, which will cost about Rs. 15,000 ($250) for three-wheelers and Rs. 100,000 ($1500) for buses. This he couples with a STD-PCO type concept for roadside charging shops throughout urban and rural locations, small entrepreneurs who can charge your battery in under 30 minutes, or replace them in a couple of minutes with pre-charged ones. The running cost of a three-wheeler would be about 1 cent per mile., for a bus about 7 cents. His electric vehicles will have a long running life (over 250,000 km) and almost zero maintenance costs. These ideas are being implemented in New Delhi right now and he hopes to see the first EV’s on Delhi’s roads, including buses, by October 2017!

The most appealing thing about Jhunjhunwala’s plan is that it is not dependent on large subsidies by the government. It is a market based system and he has already got more than 50 start-ups producing battery packs, DC appliances, vehicles, and battery chargers etc. Crompton Greaves, the biggest maker of ceiling fans, is already making DC fans, which are cheaper and use only half the power of existing AC models.

I think this is the start of a paradigm shift for India. The country greatly exceeds its green commitments under the Paris accords, it saves hundreds of billions on oil imports and taps the Sun for virtually unlimited energy needed for fast economic growth.

It is very much in our (American) interest to support this vision.

The Indian diaspora, particularly in the Silicon Valley, should heartily embrace this process and help with collaborations, technology, and business investments. Dr. Jhunkhunwala is very open to this and is a frequent ambassador for entrepreneurship here in the Silicon Valley.

I note that China has grown rapidly in the last two decades thanks to active involvement of its 80-million strong diaspora. The Indian population in America is tiny by comparison, but rightly positioned in technology, influence and resources to plug in to transform India, and bring Dr. Ashok Jhunjhunwala’s grand vision into reality. It’s a win-win for Indian and American entrepreneurship, and a win for a cleaner world.

Posted in Current Events, Education, Electric Vehicles (EV), Emerging Markets, Green Energy, India, Innovation, Investing, Money, Philosophy, Solar Power, Uncategorized, Venture Capital | 11 Comments

Is China About to Gobble Up Pakistan?

Screen Shot 2017-05-20 at 4.17.13 PM

Chinese Troops take part in Pakistan Day Military Parade. From Dawn newspaper.

Last week China convened an historic gathering. It was barely noticed in our media.

World leaders gathered in Beijing  to hear about China’s One Belt One Road initiative. It is a new land and maritime Silk Route to connect the world, with China at its hub. Nearly 70 country heads participated, including Russia’s Putin, Turkey’s Erdogan and most of Asia and Africa. The next gathering in Beijing is slated for 2019. China is flexing its economic might and is budgeting more than a trillion US dollars towards this ambitious plan which it hopes will result in a new paradigm for the world.

Pakistan – A Major Satellite for China’s Ambitions

A key ingredient of China’s initiative  is CPEC – the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. China will inject more than $60 billion dollars into building a massive corridor connecting Kashgar, the himalayan Chinese town in the muslim majority Xinjiang province, across all of Pakistan to the Arabian Sea port of Gwadar. See map below. The highway starts out as the Karakoram Highway through Pakistani  Kashmir (blatantly ignoring India’s legal claim on this disputed land!) and hits all of Pakistan’s major cities before ending up at Gwadar, which is a “node” in the maritime Silk Route.

CPEC Map

From Dawn, a Pakistani Daily, a map showing the scope of CPEC. Published 5/17/2017

But China is not just building a giant corridor through Pakistan. It is virtually rebuilding Pakistan. Here are some of the proposed projects:

  • Complete overhaul and rebuild of Pakistan’s Electric Energy generation. This includes the largest hydroelectric power plant in Kashmir at the Neelam/Jhelum rivers, a huge wind farm in Baluchistan, 1000 MW of PV solar, several 1000 MW nuclear plants (one of which is already operating under Chinese supervision) and coal based power plants that will supply 1/4 of Pakistan’s power needs!
  • A fibre optic high speed internet backbone to provide world-class levels of broadband access and also terrestrial distribution of broadcast TV with a healthy dose of Chinese propaganda.
  • Massive industrial penetration of most sectors of Pakistan’s economy – cement, ceramics, textiles, industrial parks.
  • A virtual takeover of Pakistan’s agriculture by annexing  huge amounts of acreage and instituting new crops, agricultural methods and seed research. Much of this for food export to China.
  • The operation and complete control of the port of Gwadar which gives China direct access to the Persian Gulf and shipping lanes to Europe without having to go through the long transit through the Indian Ocean.

According to the article giving details in Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper (a must read) a couple of days ago:

A full system of monitoring and surveillance will be built in cities from Peshawar to Karachi, with 24 hour video recordings on roads and busy marketplaces for law and order. A national fibreoptic backbone will be built for the country not only for internet traffic, but also terrestrial distribution of broadcast TV, which will cooperate with Chinese media in the “dissemination of Chinese culture”.

The plan envisages a deep and broad-based penetration of most sectors of Pakistan’s economy as well as its society by Chinese enterprises and culture. Its scope has no precedent in Pakistan’s history in terms of how far it opens up the domestic economy to participation by foreign enterprises. In some areas the plan seeks to build on a market presence already established by Chinese enterprises, eg Haier in household appliances, ChinaMobile and Huawei in telecommunications and China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC) in mining and minerals.

Pakistan will become a Chinese neo-colony – another North Korea

Pakistan our new colony

Welome to Pakistan, Our Newest Colony! (From Dawn)

China is virtually taking over the governance of Pakistan. They have insisted that no visas will be required for Chines people to travel freely in Pakistan – something they will not reciprocate for Pakistanis traveling to China. Chinese personnel will oversee all projects approved under CPEC.

Chine will be responsible for Pakistani security both internal and external. The Pakistani civil authorities, like the police, town administrations etc will be directly monitored by Chinese officials who will have sweeping powers. Even the vaunted Pakistani military will take direction from the Chinese. The port of Gwadar will be protected by Chinese authority in control of all security, access, administration and economic issues.

Screen Shot 2017-05-21 at 12.11.39 PM

Nawaz Sharif, Pakistani Premier with Chinese President Xi last week.

Economically the injection of Chinese capital is expected to modernize Pakistan at a rapid clip and make its projected GDP growth in the 8% range, faster than India. Pakistanis are thrilled at the prospect and Nawaz Sharif, their Prime Minister, who was in Beijing for the One Belt, One Road launching has made giddy statements about the 30 year Sino-Pak pact. However, many thoughtful commentators are seeing this for what it is – a blatant modern-day colonization of a major (but troubled) nuclear power by China. It will create another quasi-autonomous Chinese region like Xinjiang (where the muslim Uighurs live) and the Buddhist Tibet.

The South Asian culture of Pakistan will slowly be strangled. China is not a colonial master that allows much diversity – just look at Tibet. In the Uighur regions, such as Kashgar, that I visited in 2009, I saw first hand China’s phasing out all Uighur language, literature, and customs.

Here is an “informational” video developed by the Chinese about the Pakistani initiative.

China is actually doing all this on the cheap! Much of the money that China will spend will be in soft loans, from institutions like the Asia Development Bank (ADB). Pakistan will have to pay this money back and it will put them in a position of permanent economic slavery to China. China has huge surplus manufacturing and construction capacity that is sitting idle not generating any income. By this ingenious initiative they will be able to deploy their idle construction companies in Pakistan, obtain huge strategic and geopolitic advantages, get fresh sources of precious raw materials and create a new counterweight to India in the region.

A Major Paradigm Shift

In the eyes of many observers this is the start of a major paradigm shift in the world order that has existed since European and Western dominance in the 20th century. Historians will look back thirty years from now and see the launching of One Belt, One Road (OBOR) in 2017 as the turning point of history. China has shown a keen eye to Globalization and great leadership in promoting this as a humanity-befitting world effort.

And yet, we in America, are scant noticing this. Our news coverage is obsessed with trivia. We keep promoting out-dated isolationism, protectionism and nationalism. Watching today’s headlines on American news there is nothing about OBOR. Sad!

Posted in Current Events, Emerging Markets, India, Innovation, Investing, Money, Politics, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Dear President Trump, You can grow the Economy at 4%, Create Lots of American Jobs and Reduce the Deficit at the Same Time!

I’m sending this letter to our Prez.

Dear President Trump,

It’s a no brainer really.

We need to spend like mad on our infrastructure as fast as possible. Maybe $2 trillion in the next 5 years, if we can build with the zeal of Roosevelt in the 1930’s, but surely in the next 10 years.

The returns will be dramatic. We will:

  • Turbocharge the economy and make it grow at 4 percent for the foreseeable future!
  • Provide great jobs for disrupted middle class workers, such as coal miners and steel mill hard hats – people who are your core constituency.
  • Reduce the federal deficit at the same time! I’m serious.
  • Significantly reduce the horrific income inequality in America, which is growing worse as we cut benefits for the poor and lower  taxes on the rich. You don’t want a revolution on your hands.
  • Provide a hugely needed boost to the demand-side of the economy.

And it will be a move supported by both the Democrats and the Republicans of almost all stripes. It will tax your legendary deal making prowess only modestly.

During the campaign you said you would spend $1 trillion, over 5 years, on fixing our badly disintegrating roads, bridges, airports and other facilities. Almost no one disagrees. (In fairness President Obama tried to do the same but ran into resistance from the opposition unwilling to give him any success. But he’s gone now and you will get all the credit).

How Much Infrastructure Rebuilding Should we do?

Every four years The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) assesses 16 major categories of infrastructure – from roads, bridges and dams to aviation, rails, waste water and public transit. It provides a letter grade and the dollar amount of deferred maintenance to get our infrastructure up to snuff. In the 2017 report our overall grade was a D+. It has gotten worse in every category over the years. Here’s a summary:

Screen Shot 2017-05-06 at 2.54.50 PM

The report says that we have an infrastructure deficit of $4.59 trillion dollars. To be pragmatic we could spend about 2 trillion dollars over the next ten years, to design and implement the upgrades.

The ASCE provides a state-by-state assessment of the highest priority projects that should be undertaken. These are critical and shovel-ready – meaning all they need is funding and they are ready to go. So we can get going as soon as you are ready to act. Think of the big Rose Garden ceremony we could have, with Paul Ryan kissing your ring, as you sign this bill!

Where Will the Money Come From?

We are talking about an expenditure of $200 billion/year for ten years. Mr. Trump, we should just spend it through government borrowing and not attempt to go “revenue neutral”, i. e pay for it through cuts in other spending or, heavens forbid, extra taxes. You know that will kill it faster than a drone missile attack.

Now here’s the thing to note: in reality this does not increase the budget deficit. 

Counterintuitively, we’re spending $200 billion more annually, and yet it does not increase the real deficit! The official government debt will show an increase of $200 billion, but it would be a phony rise. The reason lies in the way the government does its accounting – it runs on a Cash basis.  Non-cash liabilities are not on the books. If the federal government were a company such accounting would be illegal. We would have to show “Deferred Maintenance” as a Liability of $4.59 trillion (per the chart above). Then when we spend $200 billion we would owe that much in dollar liability but Deferred Maintenance liability would reduce by the same amount. Thus no increase in Federal Debt!!

But wait there’s more. The $200 billion spent would provide 2.5 million direct jobs to people who are the most displaced in the workplace today. The construction workers and the semi-skilled labor force. I know you love those guys! Also another 5 million indirect jobs would be created. I estimate that the government would collect $50 billion per year in new taxes from the additional jobs. More money to give a tax cut to your faves: the corporations and the rich!

The ASCE and others also estimate that our crumbling infrastructure costs us thousands of lives (Road accidents alone claim 35,000 lives per year, way more than crime and terrorism). Also according to a report from the American Society Of Civil Engineers, the U.S. economy is expected to lose just under $4 trillion in GDP between 2016 and 2025 if infrastructure investment gaps are not addressed. This gap will grow to $40 trillion by 2040!

So if we spend $200 billion for ten years ($2 trillion total) we gain at least $4 trillion in economic growth! We also create 7.5 million good American middle class jobs that cannot be exported abroad. I told you it is a no brainer. By the most conservative calculations the GDP is given a 1.5% boost per year by this spending. In the last few years the GDP has been growing at just under 2% – an anemic growth. (You inherited such a mess!) But add in another 1.5% and we are at 3.5%. Back to the high growth era following the rapid infrastructure build up by Roosevelt. (He was a Democrat, but early on so were you, no?)

This Infrastructure spending does it all and has the added bonus of reducing inequality in America. Instead of trickle-down economics which makes the rich richer, this spending injects money at the bottom, at the grass roots, where it does the most good. It boosts demand and therefore it boosts investment by companies to meet this demand. Win win! (So much winning – we’ll need a break from all this winning –  you should take a rest after getting an infrastructure bill passed – maybe, a few rounds of golf at Mar-a-Lago?).

But seriously, Mr. President, isn’t this exactly what you promised – a big boost to the economic growth of this country and well paying jobs for the working men and women of America?

MAGA!

Yours Truly, etc…

Posted in Current Events, Innovation, Investing, Money, Politics, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Is India Poised for Takeoff?

India turns 70 years of age this year, as do I.

Screen Shot 2017-04-28 at 2.16.18 PMI was born there shortly after India obtained its Independence from Britain, on August 15, 1947, in a fiery, brutal birth of the country. The British left a burning mess – a very painful split of the country with a huge humanitarian cost. There were mass forced migrations, lost property, split families and refugee camps orders magnitude bigger than the ones in Palestine. Millions were killed in sectarian violence. Territories, like Kashmir remained disputed and festering sores, and permanent rivals were created: Pakistan,  a muslim, theocratic, illiberal state (as Fareed Zakaria calls it) and a secular, liberal, messy democratic experiment called  India.

Since then India has come a long way. By any measure there have been big improvements – life expectancy has more than doubled, education levels are better and economic activity has soared. Now with two decades or more of rapid growth the expectation from India is high. Will it be the next Superpower? Is it the emerging country to invest in given slow growth in the rich countries?

I have lived in the Bay Area now for almost 50 years since I first came here to pursue a Ph. D. at Berkeley.  So as an entrepreneur and a venture investor I would like to give my personal perspective about India’s progress as an emerging country and its desirability as an investment destination.

Screen Shot 2017-04-28 at 1.10.50 PMIn the last month a couple of events have focussed my attention on India – a lecture by Ramachandra Guha, the well known Indian historian and author, at Berkeley, titled, India at 70, A Historian’s Report Card,  and a two-week trip I made to New Delhi to conduct a personal property transaction.

My Trip to India

Anecdotically, let me start with the recent two week trip, which, like most visits to India, is suffused with deep stimulation to the senses and a bewildering array of happenings. It was hot – pavement-melting hot. Every single day the temperature was above 110 deg, the hottest mid-April in New Delhi’s history. The air hung thick with the collected efflua of smoke-belching, grid-locked, noisy, honking traffic. Hot vapors rose from the ground, mixing the smell of food vendors’ spices, cow droppings and fly-littered open trash along the roadsides, even in the poshest locations of the country’s capital. Much of the city is unplanned, crammed with a mishmash of assorted houses side-by-side with hovels, homeless pavement habitation and a lot of low-productive or purposeless humanity shuffling around or squatting in the shade to avoid the heat. Despite its economic miracle of the last two decades India has only moved a paltry 3% of its population from poor to middle class – as opposed to 50% for China.

In the news while I was there: Because of a drunk driving incident the Supreme Court has banned the sale of alcohol within a half kilometer of every National and State Highway. Overnight many of the city’s bars and five-star hotels could not serve beer, wine or cocktails – a tremendous impact on their customers and their bottom line. It’s an example of arbitrary rule making that Indians just routinely endure and that keeps economic growth in India subpar. The recent demonetization of high denomination Indian currency notes was another example of  heavy-handed and ineffective rule-making at a colossal scale.

The business transactions that I was doing involved commercial property that I had invested in with my cousin many years ago. We had to fill out a stack of 50 forms; 200 pages of contract had to be individually signed or notarized, fingerprints and photos in triplicate had to be affixed. Tens of thousands of rupees worth of Stamp Paper had to be purchased, along with attorney fees. I had to spend a whole morning at the courthouse – a teeming, overcrowded, noisy building full of government clerks, called babus,  each bent on slowing you down and showing their importance. There was supposedly air-conditioning in the court building but it was not turned on. So we dripped with sweat along with the other elbowing multitudes as we awaited our turn at the window where our paperwork could get done. Nobody formed a queue that I could discern. Without an attorney who pushed his way through and greased some palms we would have gotten nowhere.
Screen Shot 2017-04-28 at 1.34.03 PMI got a haircut and a massage at the local Westin Hotel in the suburbs of Delhi. It was at  the nice, cool, soothing hotel spa with a ritualistic jasmine hot oil deep rub, with calm meditation and yoga on the side, along with a neem-steam sauna. Aaah! You need this kind of thing every now and then to retain your sanity. The guy who gave me the haircut, M. Khan, was a very young muslim guy. We got chatting. He was from Moradabad in the heart of Uttar Pradesh (U. P. ), the largest state of India.

This state has held recent assembly elections and the nationalistic, Hindu-centric party, the BJP swept the elections, gaining 80% of the seats. Screen Shot 2017-04-28 at 1.57.41 PMThe new Chief Minister is a man called Yogi Adityanath. He wears the Hindu saffron robes and has a strong agenda, rather like Trump’s, which a lot of people love. U. P. is a mess and everyone believes that a strong man is needed at the helm to make the “trains run on time”. And indeed he seems to have made a lot of high profile changes. But he also has a strong religious mind-set that says Hindu values must be imposed to sustain the cultural vitality of the country. So while I was there a ban on all consumption of beef was being contemplated. Already zealous religious mobs were raiding muslim eateries and using violent tactics.

Anyway, M. Khan, the muslim barber, told me that he was going back to Moradabad the next week to get married – a girl (his cousin) he had known since he was a child. I asked him if he was all excited about the prospect. He said he was very happy indeed and looking forward to much celebration. “But, sir” he said, “We are not even serving any chicken at the wedding”. The zealous “enforcers” make surprise checks at muslim weddings and if they even suspect that beef is being served there is hell to pay. And only they decide whether something suspiciously meaty is beef! The $4 billion dollar Indian beef export industry is in limbo.

Ramachandra Guha’s Analysis

So onward to my second recent analysis of India, viz. the lecture by Ramachandra Guha at Berkeley. Screen Shot 2017-04-28 at 1.36.10 PMGuha is a well known historian and author with many great books on modern Indian history. He currently lives in Bangalore and was visiting Berkeley at the Institute for South Asian Studies.

His Report Card on India brought up the multi-faceted aspects of India and its performance since independence. I am summarizing below my very subjective interpretation of what Guha said (he didn’t give any grades, just talked in qualitative terms):

Democracy/Freedom: 
Here India gets Guha’s highest score. India is an astonishingly effective democracy. It has more people that all of Europe, more than 27 distinct languages, many different religions and even a big diversity of races. Yet it has held together and is confoundingly stable. Churchill said at the time of de-colonization: India is no more a country than the equator is a country. It is just a region. I give it ten years at most.

And today at 70 years of age India is a shiny example of a diverse, pluralistic, secular democracy, with 1,300 million people, that remains relatively strong and united. All segments of Indians, including the much-maligned muslims, remain largely committed to India and, despite the loud complaining, are satisfied with the liberal, free, democratic arrangements. When compared to the EU which in just a few years of its creation is unzipping rapidly, India is bigger and more committed to its union and republic. Anti-democratic forces do exist, particularly in the non-secular tendencies of the current party in power, but India will never have an Erdogan or a Kim Un.

Grade: A

Education:

Here India has failed quite badly at the Primary and Secondary levels. Although literacy levels are rising steadily, more than half of the 350 million kids now aged 0-16 will remain near-illiterate. High school completion rates are abysmal. Compared to China or Vietnam India is a stunning under-achiever. In fact it trails almost all countries except sub-Saharan Africa.

At the college level there are some impressive stats. India has world class engineering, medical, science, business and law schools. In space exploration, India is a powerful player, having had a successful mission to Mars and also a major satellite launch business. In pharmaceuticals and Information Technology India is near cutting edge. Still, India does not pull its weight in creating an educated and skilled citizenry.

Grade: C minus

Economy:

There’s a lot of hype here. Certainly in the last two decades India has pulled its economy up from dismal levels. India claims to be the fastest growing major economy in the world  today at 7+ percent growth. Yet, as the Economist magazine points out, this is probably overstated. The banks are heavily laden with non-performing assets and there is little new capital formation for the corporate structure. As the Economist states: If this is 7% growth what does stagnation look like?

There are segments of the economy that do well: IT, Pharmaceuticals, Space, Nuclear Power, Solar and Wind Energy, Telecommunications are all great strengths. India remains utterly horrible at manufacturing and construction. There is no “maker’ culture and the bad infrastructure is a drag. Imagine in a country with 900 million cell phone users – a huge domestic market – there is not one Indian cell phone manufacturer!

In one Wall Street Journal survey India ranks below 150th, as a country,  in the Ease of Doing Business category. The current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi,  (that many say is the only adult in the room in Political India) has made great efforts at very innovative reforms – boosting Solar, building much needed country-wide infrastructure, implementing a federal level Goods and Services Tax, GST (a kind of VAT) to replace a myriad of individual district and state tax jurisdictions, and creating a national identity card (called Adhaar)  to streamline government-to-people interactions and transfers. Despite all this, economic progress is anemic. Corruption and red tape remain. Money-losing government firms have not been privatized. Exports remain weak and quality of manufacture is unimproved. Banks have bad debt to the tune of 10% of GDP and no one in government has a clue about how to fix this.

Grade: C

Quality of Life/Human Development:

International studies and Guha’s assessment vary here somewhat. A  recent  U. N. Report  ranks India at 122nd out of 155 countries in the Human Development index. That is low indeed. Lower than all other countries in South Asia! (Pakistan is 80th). This study includes lots of subjectivity, although measurable material consumption, health, longevity, access to facilities etc.  are included.

Ramachandra thinks India is way better than that. There are informal structures and cooperation that tend to make an intangible contribution. Still India has a long way to go.

Grade: C

Environment:

Here Guha has the harshest assessment. India has failed to even have a national debate on the ravages to the environment wrought by neglect and lack of policy. Guha says that all rivers in India are now biologically dead. Lakes, streams, nallahs are filthy, putrid unhygienic, disease producing cesspools.

Since rivers and lakes are essentially dead, much of India lives on ground water, through tube wells etc. The consumption of water is way above what can be replenished. In Gurgaon, a thriving Cyber City outside Delhi, which has world high tech offices, the water table has fallen more than 100 feet in just a few years.

There is indiscriminate de-forestation. Coal is the major source of electricity (although this at least is changing) and the cities are the worst polluted in the world.

Grade: F

Investor Perspective

So what are the prospects for investing in India for someone seeking high, emergent market returns and global diversity?

Somehow everything you read about the future prospects of India comes out hyperbolically rosy. There are surveys that show the Indian middle class growing to more than 500 million in 2025 and India overtaking the US in GDP by 2040. These are amazingly out of whack.

Even though India has the most generous definition of middle class it has less than 3% of its population in the middle. The rest are poor to very low middle. See this article.

Investment returns in India are never as good as hyped. And they are certainly not worth the inherent risks.

To take an example: After the success of Alibaba there was a lot of hype about e-tail in a rapidly emergent India. Companies like Snapdeal and Flipkart were touted as the next Alibaba and had astronomical growth rates and prospects. I was indirectly an early investor via a very savvy India Venture Fund. Now it turns out that much of this was unsustainable hype. The growth of e-retail, which was fueled by huge, investor funded discounts, was unsustainable. So after a record year in 2015, e-tail is essentially flat. Forecasts for 2020 and beyond have been drastically slashed. Snapdeal will probably merge with Flipkart at a minuscule fraction of its valuation just a couple of years ago. Further the entry of Amazon into this winner-take-all space has clouded the competitive landscape. I’d be surprised if even Amazon can make a good return any time soon on their $5 billion investment in India.

This kind of thing occurs again and again. The final results in Indian investment are not reflective of a 7+% growth economy. India will make great strides in certain areas, notable, infrastructure and solar but there is no clear road to investing. For solar the best bet in my opinion is still the US company, Tesla, which will no doubt provide lots of support in batteries and other areas.

Will there be another Google or Microsoft out of India? Maybe, although the challenges are formidable. I would not bet on it for the foreseeable future.

The stock market in India is doing reasonably well. The indices are at all time highs. Still, adjusted for currency fluctuation, high fees for investing in India, and the large risks, you are better off being in the US. The Dow index remains a powerhouse.

Further I don’t think India provides a diversification advantage. In 2008 when the US market crashed India did not act in an uncorrelated way. It fell equally badly, so no additional diversification advantage was apparent.

I hope I am wrong – I keep rooting for India to do well. I invest there, through savvy people I know, and I also contribute to charitable activities to give back to the place where I got my start. India has tremendous potential and is a great geopolitical ally of the US. It has a freedom oriented, secular mindset and always ranks high in support of Western liberal ideas. We all hope that it will make a turnaround! But as an investor you are better off elsewhere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Current Events, Emerging Markets, India, Investing, Money, Politics, Travel, Uncategorized, Venture Capital | 2 Comments

Make Mine a Shingle

Two announcements regarding Tesla have caught my attention since I wrote my earlier blog about Tesla being a 25-bagger about a month ago.

Solar Shingles – Now Ready to Order

The journey to MEGA (Make Earth Green Again) took another giant step forward a week ago as Tesla started taking orders for its aesthetic solar shingles.

Solar home

Solar Single  Home from Tesla’s Website

 

We will begin selling roof tiles that convert solar energy into electricity in April, CEO Elon Musk said.

The goal is to make solar roofs that look better than a normal roof, generate electricity, last longer, have better insulation, and have a total cost that is less than a normal roof plus the cost of generating electricity. “So why would you buy anything else?” asks Musk.

Orders are now being taken for these shingles for the first time indicating that the product has tamed the technical hurdles that has kept everyone else out of this market and, in fact, is tooling up for mass production. These hurdles have included low electric yields, high heat production, messy connections and interfaces and lack of storage for intermittent power production. Also unsightly tiles and uneconomical production and distribution. Formidable barriers that it is now claimed have been overcome.

The first general announcement for this product was made last last year when Tesla bought SolarCity for $2.6 billion – that everybody bemoaned as an outrageous price. But the grand vision of uniting the three big components of a green energy planet is now beginning to take shape and we’re stunned by its audacity. The three big components are:

  • Energy Generation
  • Energy Storage
  • Green Transportation

Watch the video at this Tesla site to see the grand vision and how technology, engineering, aesthetics and efficiency are being combined to change the paradigm.

Important details about the solar shingles are still awaited. Like the price.

Musk says the solar roof will be priced similarly to a regular roof, plus the cost of electricity, but what he means by “regular roof” hasn’t been defined.  He may have in mind expensive “regular” roofs, like ceramic or concrete tiles, which can cost ten to twenty times normal asphalt roofing.

But you never know.

Lyndon Rive, SolarCity’s former CEO, said on a Nov. 1 call: “we think we can get to that price point of 40 cents a Watt over time in large scale” for the solar cells. That would be quite impressive because today even stand-alone solar panels are not that cheap. Still lots of uncertainty there. Lyndon Rive is certainly talking only about the electricity add-on part of the cost not the full shingle cost.

According to Bloomberg:

Make no mistake: The new shingles will still be a premium product, at least when they first roll out. The terra cotta and slate roofs Tesla mimicked are among the most expensive roofing materials on the market—costing as much as 20 times more than cheap asphalt shingles.

Much of the cost savings Musk is anticipating comes from shipping the materials. Traditional roofing materials are brittle, heavy, and bulky. Shipping costs are high, as is the quantity lost to breakage. The new tempered-glass roof tiles, engineered in Tesla’s new automotive and solar glass division, weigh as little as a fifth of current products and are considerably easier to ship, Musk said.

I read somewhere that Tesla/SolarCity has set up a special glass division for research and manufacture of beautiful, strong, light  and shatter-proof roof tiles.

There are four different materials for the shingles including terra cotta and a futuristic French slate.

Each French slate tile was made using a process known as hydrographic coloring, a process that uses water to apply printed designs. It allows the customer and his architect to custom design the look, color and aesthetics of the roof adding an invaluable element to the electricity generating shingles.

It seems from all the data one can get that the initial roof tiles will be quite expensive, competitive with only the most premium roofs. However with this product Tesla has set in motion yet another exponential innovation journey which will result in dramatically dropping costs and amazing new designs and capabilities. The market is more than 4 million new homes in the US each year and twenty times that around the world. And don’t forget the big enabling product for this technology, viz the Powerwall home storage battery.

Already there is market action that makes this a potential success. An Australian builder just announced that it will include Tesla in its homes!

The announcement (See this site) says: The Tesla Powerwall will now become a standard feature for houses built by Australian home builder company Arden Homes. It’s a setup that will help cut the cost of electricity in many Australian homes.

Tencent Buys $1.8 Billion worth of Tesla stock

Last week the Chinese giant Tencent Holdings (Market Cap: $275 billion) announced that they will buy 5% of Tesla for $1.8 billion. Tencent is one of the triumvirate of Chinese superstars, Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent. This just shows the high value China is placing on battery technology and other green energy products for the future. In fact Chinese companies have been requiring electric car sales in China to be contingent upon turning over the battery technology to them. China, by many accounts, will be a dominant player in battery production.

Tencent’s acquisition of a part of Tesla reduces a lot of capital risk from Tesla’s flamboyant approach to the green energy market. To become a trillion dollar company will require a lot of capital and big bets by Tesla, which Elon has shown a lot of appetite for, but which is potentially a big gamble. Now Tencent and a large Chinese capital source is in Tesla’s ring, watching its back. This very greatly reduces the risk of a 25-bagger in ten years.

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