Silver Linings: the COVID-19 crisis and infrastructure
The COVID-19 epidemic has transformed pretty much all aspects of life over the past three months. Our previous Infrastructure Ideas column, written in the early days of the pandemic, outlined some of the possible effects of COVID-19 on the world of infrastructure. As is the case in so many areas, the implications were depressing. It is also apparent that positive news are in great need – and not based on distorted data and magical thinking, as can be seen coming from some quarters. Today’s column looks then at some silver linings for infrastructure in the pandemic era – and there are some!
We’ll start with the two most obvious “winners” from the crisis: logistics, and emissions reductions.
1) New and expanded logistics opportunities. As can be readily seen on any highway or city street, the amount of goods being delivered to homes through (generally) online orders has skyrocketed in 2020. The world’s biggest retailer, Walmart, has reported a 74% increase in e-commerce sales for the last quarter. Volumes have grown so sharply that even logistics giants are having difficulties keeping up: FedEx has asked several of its major store clients to slow or limit home delivery sales in order for FedEx to be able to manage shipping logistics. Amazon, possibly the biggest winner of all, announced back in March that it would be hiring for as many as 100,000 new positions, mainly in warehouse handling, and reported a 26% increase in quarterly sales – an impressive feat for a company with already over $200 billion annual revenue. And providers of logistics software and supporting services are also thriving.
The jump in demand for infrastructure logistics driven by e-commerce and home delivery services is broad-based and likely to remain with us. As Coronavirus infections continue to spread into new areas, demand is growing in virtually all geographies. An example is the three-year old Colombian company Liftit, recipient of an investment from the IFC. Liftit provides a technological platform that connects truck drivers with companies that need cargo delivered (similar to a ride-hailing app), and has already expanded beyond Colombia. The matching of large customers with truck fleets is a crucial link in the supply chains, especially in regions where the majority of drivers are independents (See more on Liftit here). In Pakistan, a similar app-based service connecting people and goods via motorbikes in major cities, Bykea, is getting a far-higher profile through the delivery of food parcels for thousands of people during the crisis. Bykea uses smartphones, a call center comprised mostly of women working from home, and a network of 30,000 motorbike driver-partners. In Africa, the use of drones for logistics has gotten a major COVID-related boost from the demand for transporting test samples to labs. US startup Zipline has launched operations for its pilotless flying vehicles in Ghana and Rwanda, also using them to ship protective equipment, vaccines, drugs and other supplies. These kind of advances, combined with changes in consumer demand (buyers who discover convenience which they had not tested previously, and/or those who remain wary of crowded retail shopping situations in the future for health reasons), will continue to fuel logistics growth well into the future. And an analysis by the Brookings Institute (Could COVID-19 help logistics?) shows some of the labor-related benefits of logistics jobs indicates that these jobs often carry good training opportunities with transferrable skillsets, and potentially higher pay relative to low formal educational barriers to entry.
2) Emissions reductions. An international study of global carbon emissions found that daily emissions declined 17% between January and early April, over 1,000 metric tons compared to average levels in 2019, and could decline anywhere between 4.4% to 8% by end 2020. That would mark the largest annual decrease in carbon emissions since WW II. Carbon reductions are primarily driven by fewer people driving — surface transport activity levels dropped 50% by the end of April. This was equal to (50%) the fall in the amount of gasoline supplied in the US—a close measurement of direct consumption— over the two-week period ending April 3. With all those cars now sequestered in garages, air quality around the world has gone through the roof. As reported in Wired, researchers at Columbia University calculated that carbon monoxide emissions in New York City, mostly coming from vehicles, fell by 50% in March. Another positive side effect of this is on public health: research from the Harvard School of Public Health has shown that air pollution is associated with higher Covid-19 death rates, even small increases in long-term exposure to fine particulate matter leads to significantly higher mortality. Chances are not great that emissions will stay on this path post-crisis, but for now this piece of news is good for the climate.
3) Acceleration of the energy transition. Aside from the two obvious winners above, there are other interesting trends flowing more under the radar. One is on energy transition. While it is likely that energy use will rebound sharply after the pandemic, its carbon intensity should be lower. Of particular interest is that while the coronavirus lockdown will cause the biggest drop in energy demand in history, it looks like renewables will manage to increase output through the crisis. The International Energy Agency (IEA) says that demand is likely to fall 6% in 2020, with rich countries showing a steeper decline, the U.S. falling 9% and the European Union losing 11%. Global oil demand is poised to slump by about 9%, coal demand is falling about 8%, and natural gas about 5%. Yet the IEA expects production of wind and solar to grow in 2020. In the first week of April, it was widely reported that wind and solar had produced more electricity in the US than coal did for two months in a row, for the first time on record. A Wood Mackenzie analyst, Matthew Preston, notes that coal is now more expensive in most of the US than natural gas, wind or solar energy: “Just about everything that can go wrong, has gone wrong for the coal industry.” More banks, including HSBC in April, have announced the cessation of coal financing; HSBC’s announcement closed previous loopholes for coal plants in Bangladesh, Indonesia and Vietnam, and included a Vietnamese project for which it was the global coordinator. HSBC had reportedly financed $8 billion of new coal plants over the past three years. While oil and gas prices have fallen sharply in 2020 to date, there are signs of supply reductions and cost increases on the post-crisis horizon. Moody’s had announced already in late 2019 that 91% of all US third-quarter defaulted corporate debt was due to oil and gas companies. As wind and solar prices continue to fall (see below), coal’s lack of competitiveness will grow, while gas will also have an increasingly harder time competing on costs against renewables. Expect that projections for renewables’ share of the energy mix in future years begin to tick up.
4) Technology continues to move forward. The single brightest development in infrastructure for the past decade has been that energy has been getting cheaper around the world, driven initially by the increased supply of natural gas enabled by new imaging and drilling technology, and in more recent years by the continued technology-led plunge in wind and solar costs. While these gains have fallen out of the headlines during the COVID-19 pandemic, they have been continuing.
In late April, yet another global record-low solar price was achieved. And it was achieved for the world’s largest solar project. Abu Dhabi announced that the winning bid for its Al Dhafra project – which at 2 Gigawatts will be the largest single-site solar energy project in the world – came in at a stunning 1.35 US cents per kilowatt-hour. A consortium of EDF and JinkoSolar was the winner. This breaks the previous record of 1.6 cents/Kwh from January in Qatar, and 1.7 cents/Kwh from November 2019 in Dubai. An even larger project, on multiple sites within one solar park, Bhadla solar power park in Rajasthan, India, became fully operational in March. The park has 2.25 GW of now operating solar capacity. The solar park saw multiple record-low tariffs (down to US 3.8 cents/Kwh) during some highly competitive auctions. More and more wind and solar capacity is also being developed in “hybrid” projects including battery storage. According to the US Energy Information Administration there are already 4.6 GW of wind, gas, oil and photovoltaic power plants co-located with batteries in the U.S., with another 14.7 GW in the immediate development pipeline and 69 GW in the longer-term interconnection queues of regional power markets. In the interconnection queues, a quarter of all proposed solar projects are combined with batteries, and in bellwether California, almost two-thirds of solar projects are proposed as hybrids. Power-purchase agreement prices for hybrid power plants are continuing to plummet, with declining costs for wind, solar and batteries as these technologies mature. And on the newer-technology end, in early May Minnesota utility Great River Energy confirmed it will deploy a one MW battery with 150 hours capacity – completed unprecedented for the energy industry. The battery, an “aqueous air” battery system from Form Energy, is due online late 2023, and increases contracted battery storage records by more than 20 times. This is the first announced deal that will take the technology out of the lab and deploy it in a full-scale power plant context. In conjunction with this, Great River Energy, the second-largest power supplier in Minnesota, announced plans to phase out coal power. The arrival of long-duration storage will be another major turning point for energy systems worldwide.
5) And some miscellany. While not rising to the level of the previous four positives for infrastructure, there are a handful of other interesting developments for infrastructure investors and users to keep an eye on during the pandemic. One is around highly depressed air travel: while airlines seem to be doing a reasonably good job keeping flying as virus-free as possible, conditions at airports have potential travelers very concerned about returning to flying. This may well lead to a push for building new airport terminals of very different designs than current terminals; “Future-proofing” has become an “in” term for airport designers, with both health screening facilities and more spaces to enable social distancing than today’s terminals, which often seek to maximize density. This may entail terminals built with steel instead of concrete to increase flexibility, as well as very different uses of space. Investors may see an unexpected area to put capital into infrastructure here. A second area is expanded broadband access. As more schools across more jurisdictions try to implement distance learning, the importance of accessible internet where it is today not available has shot up the list of political priorities. Close to 200 countries have announced or implemented school closures in 2020, with the majority seeking to implement online courses, and quality of internet access has become a major issue. We can expect this area to draw on a far greater portion of public infrastructure spending – possibly as Public-Private Partnerships – as a result of the crisis. A third and related area stems from the exponential increase in online courses driven by the crisis and school closures. This, combined with improved rural broadband access, could become a major factor in expanded technical training in developing countries. Lack of trained staff is a significant bottleneck for rail, logistics, and other infrastructure services in many countries. Fourth, bicycle-sharing and e-bike programs look like they may gain from the crisis. While initially bike-sharing plunged from concerns over potential virus spread, they have strongly rebounded in many places. Bicycle ridership has soared generally, as public transit is viewed as a source of virus exposure risk and some cities close streets to cars to enable more socially-distanced walking (and biking), and sterilizing equipment has emerged as easier for shared bicycles than for shared cars. Miami is one place that has also launched expanded e-bike delivery services during the pandemic. And fifth, the virus may stimulate greater attention to urban sanitation generally, as urban areas have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Perhaps we may at long last see an uptick in public infrastructure spending in sanitation, or greater willingness to consider Public-Private-Partnerships in the area.
These are trying times for everyone, including in infrastructure. But at least there are silver linings. We all need positives some of the time. And at some stage, the crisis will be over!