By Kasper Walet, Founder and Partner AI Energizer and Maycroft
I recently read a very interesting article in the Financial Times about how commodity trading firms are still lagging behind other trading sectors in using Artificial Intelligence solutions. but that the industry is trying hard to catch up. These findings are in line with my practical experiences in our advisory services business: AI Energizer.
Particularly in today’s market situation where margins are squeezed, commodity traders are looking for tools that could help them to increase profitability. Intelligent technologies such as robotic process automation and machine learning, offer new opportunities to improve process performance and realize significant cost savings. These technologies can be implemented in short sprints, focused on a specific problem, with manageable costs.
If you click here, you can read our white paper about successful AI projects we executed for two of the leading energy commodity trading firms in Europe.
Compared to other financial and industrial sectors, commodity traders are coming from way behind. Currency, equities and interest-rates investors have already used algorithms, machine learning and artificial intelligence to turn data into successful trades for years. Now, commodity traders are seeking ways of exploiting their information to help them profit from price swings as well. It really is a combination of knowing what to look for and using the right mathematical tools for it.
Traders are looking to gather data on a large scale and run machine-learning algorithms to find patterns linking fundamentals with price movements, thus improve decision-making in trading and, as a result, the profitability. With a properly trained algorithm and a sufficiently sized historical data set, a company using machine learning to identify patterns in the trading data - even when the data has inconsistencies – will reduce redundant trades and streamline the entire process. To accommodate all this commodity trading firms are investing in people, processes and systems to centralize their data.
Despite this new enthusiasm, the road to electronification may not come easily. One issue is that some of the larger commodities traders face internal resistance in centralizing information on one platform. With each desk in a trading house in charge of its profit-and-loss account, data are closely guarded even from colleagues. The move to ‘share all our data with each other’ is a very, very big cultural shift.
Another problem is that in some trading houses, staff operate on multiple technology platforms, with different units using separate systems. Rather than focusing on analytics, some data scientists and engineers are having to focus on harmonizing the platforms before bringing on the data from different parts of the company. Even where the digital infrastructure is in place, it may take some time before AI becomes a large part of commodities trading.
Company leaders should start with the following three steps:
Step 1: Focus on value
As AI can solve targeted problems, it's up to company leaders to identify applications that offer the most potential value. Demonstrating strong returns in a short time will convert the cynics. AI projects typically happen in a series of sprints and can be completed in around 3-4 months.
Step 2: Change Management
Automation alone does not save money or improve performance: People and processes will also have to change. This is an area where there is understandable anxiety; automation stokes fears that machines will take people's jobs. But practice suggests that many of the tasks being automated are activities people tend not to want to undertake, such as spending half the day pulling and loading data. Or they are tasks for which small automation can actually improve people's performance - for instance, by introducing predictive algorithms that help them make better decisions and free up their time for more rewarding, interesting, and higher value-add activities.
This is an entirely new way of working, and company leaders will need to ensure that both they and their people have the right knowledge and skills, such as programming and data science knowledge and process improvement skills - to be successful. And they'll need to ensure that everyone's mind-set and behaviors also shift accordingly.
Step 3: Strategy is King
The backbone of this new way of working is strategy. Companies need to know their own strengths. There will be "keep the lights on" activities that can become touchless, as well as differentiating activities that should become increasingly intelligent. Moreover, companies need to take a fresh look at their organizational structure to ensure that it gives teams the freedom to develop creative solutions and experiment.
Concluding we can say that digitization is increasingly driving trading, and needs to be embraced, as many commodities executives believe. “It’s another tool that traders have to understand.”
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In 2021, the makeup of renewables has also changed drastically. Technologies such as solar and wind are no longer novel, as is the idea of blending vegetable oils into road fuels or switching to electric-based vehicles. Such ideas are now entrenched and are not considered enough to shift the world into a carbon neutral future. The new wave of renewables focus on converting by-products from other carbon-intensive industries into usable fuels. Research into such technologies has been pioneered in universities and start-ups over the past two decades, but the impetus of global climate goals is now seeing an incredible amount of money being poured into them as oil & gas giants seek to rebalance their portfolios away from pure hydrocarbons with a goal of balancing their total carbon emissions in aggregate to zero.
Traditionally, the European players have led this drive. Which is unsurprising, since the EU has been the most driven in this acceleration. But even the US giants are following suit. In the past year, Chevron has poured an incredible amount of cash and effort in pioneering renewables. Its motives might be less than altruistic, shareholders across America have been particularly vocal about driving this transformation but the net results will be positive for all.
Chevron’s recent efforts have focused on biomethane, through a partnership with global waste solutions company Brightmark. The joint venture Brightmark RNG Holdings operations focused on convert cow manure to renewable natural gas, which are then converted into fuel for long-haul trucks, the very kind that criss-cross the vast highways of the US delivering goods from coast to coast. Launched in October 2020, the joint venture was extended and expanded in August, now encompassing 38 biomethane plants in seven US states, with first production set to begin later in 2021. The targeting of livestock waste is particularly crucial: methane emissions from farms is the second-largest contributor to climate change emissions globally. The technology to capture methane from manure (as well as landfills and other waste sites) has existed for years, but has only recently been commercialised to convert methane emissions from decomposition to useful products.
This is an arena that another supermajor – BP – has also made a recent significant investment in. BP signed a 15-year agreement with CleanBay Renewables to purchase the latter’s renewable natural gas (RNG) to be mixed and sold into select US state markets. Beginning with California, which has one of the strictest fuel standards in the US and provides incentives under the Low Carbon Fuel Standard to reduce carbon intensity – CleanBay’s RNG is derived not from cows, but from poultry. Chicken manure, feathers and bedding are all converted into RNG using anaerobic digesters, providing a carbon intensity that is said to be 95% less than the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of pure fossil fuels and non-conversion of poultry waste matter. BP also has an agreement with Gevo Inc in Iowa to purchase RNG produced from cow manure, also for sale in California.
But road fuels aren’t the only avenue for large-scale embracing of renewables. It could take to the air, literally. After all, the global commercial airline fleet currently stands at over 25,000 aircraft and is expected to grow to over 35,000 by 2030. All those planes will burn a lot of fuel. With the airline industry embracing the idea of AAF (or Alternative Aviation Fuels), developments into renewable jet fuels have been striking, from traditional bio-sources such as palm or soybean oil to advanced organic matter conversion from agricultural waste and manure. Chevron, again, has signed a landmark deal to advance the commercialisation. Together with Delta Airlines and Google, Chevron will be producing a batch of sustainable aviation fuel at its El Segundo refinery in California. Delta will then use the fuel, with Google providing a cloud-based framework to analyse the data. That data will then allow for a transparent analysis into carbon emissions from the use of sustainable aviation fuel, as benchmark for others to follow. The analysis should be able to confirm whether or not the International Air Transport Association (IATA)’s estimates that renewable jet fuel can reduce lifecycle carbon intensity by up to 80%. And to strengthen the measure, Delta has pledged to replace 10% of its jet fuel with sustainable aviation fuel by 2030.
In a parallel, but no less pioneering lane, France’s TotalEnergies has announced that it is developing a 100% renewable fuel for use in motorsports, using bioethanol sourced from residues produced by the French wine industry (among others) at its Feyzin refinery in Lyon. This, it believes, will reduce the racing sports’ carbon emissions by an immediate 65%. The fuel, named Excellium Racing 100, is set to debut at the next season of the FIA World Endurance Championship, which includes the iconic 24 Hours of Le Mans 2022 race.
But Chevron isn’t done yet. It is also falling back on the long-standing use of vegetable oils blended into US transport fuels by signing a wide-ranging agreement with commodity giant Bunge. Called a ‘farmer-to-fuelling station’ solution, Bunge’s soybean processing facilities in Louisiana and Illinois will be the source of meal and oil that will be converted by Chevron into diesel and jet fuel. With an investment of US$600 million, Chevron will assist Bunge in doubling the combined capacity of both plants by 2024, in line with anticipated increases in the US biofuels blending mandates.
Even ExxonMobil, one of the most reticent of the supermajors to embrace renewables wholesale, is getting in on the action. Its Imperial Oil subsidiary in Canada has announced plans to commercialise renewable diesel at a new facility near Edmonton using plant-based feedstock and hydrogen. The venture does only target the Canadian market – where political will to drive renewable adoption is far higher than in the US – but similar moves have already been adopted by other refiners for the US market, including major investments by Phillips 66 and Valero.
Ultimately, these recent moves are driven out of necessity. This is the way the industry is moving and anyone stubborn enough to ignore it will be left behind. Combined with other major investments driven by European supermajors over the past five years, this wider and wider adoption of renewable can only be better for the planet and, eventually, individual bottom lines. The renewables ball is rolling fast and is only gaining momentum.
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