May 17, 2020

Energy Trading: Spreadsheets vs Automated Software

4 min
Automated trading and risk management software systems are becoming more popular in the energy trading world, but are spreadsheets outdated completely?


Energy Trading & Risk Management:  Spreadsheets vs Automated Software  

written by Stuart Cook

Any energy trader who works with spreadsheets knows that it’s all too easy for errors to creep in. Most are due to negligence, but some are due to fraud. In 2002, rogue trader John Rusnak’s fraudulent manipulation of spreadsheets lost his employer, Allfirst Bank, US$691 million.

Spreadsheet disasters are not restricted to banks. In 2003, Canadian energy company TransAlta Corp suffered a US$24 million hit to its earnings after a bidding error meant it accidentally paid over the odds for more US energy transmission hedging contracts than it needed. The company’s spreadsheet contained mismatched bids for the contracts. TransAlta’s chief executive blamed the debacle on “a cut-and-paste error that we didn’t detect when we did our final sorting and ranking of bids prior to submission.”

So how much has changed? Even six years on, a 2009 CommodityPoint survey sponsored by software vendor Triple Point Technology of energy and commodity executives discovered that 70 per cent of companies were using spreadsheets or internally assembled systems to manage counterparty credit risk. At the same time, 60 per cent of the companies surveyed felt the need to upgrade their credit risk management systems to effectively manage counterparty risk in the current business environment.

Spreadsheets alone are not the answer, but they still have a part to play

In recent years, the energy trading industry has been characterised by the emergence of new markets, higher trading volumes and more stringent risk and regulatory reporting requirements, especially in the wake of recent events in financial markets. As the industry has matured, it has become clear that spreadsheets alone are neither scalable nor robust enough to cope with ever-increasing trading volumes and middle and back-office requirements.

However, spreadsheets continue to form a necessary and useful part of the energy trading landscape, and there are many perfectly legitimate reasons behind energy traders’ traditional enthusiasm for relying on spreadsheet technology to manage their trading and risk activities. Traders have built up trust in their own calculations and models, and are therefore reluctant to move to unfamiliar software, which they often perceive as complex, inflexible and unintuitive.

With budgets under closer scrutiny, spreadsheets can be an attractive low-cost option

With IT budgets being squeezed at many firms since the downturn, the low costs involved in using spreadsheets can be a decisive factor. Most traders already have spreadsheet packages on their PCs, which can sidestep the bigger upfront IT costs associated with the purchase of more scalable automated software tools.

When it comes to prototyping new pricing models and algorithms that may later be incorporated into other systems, spreadsheets can create an ideal environment. They are highly customisable and have the ability to link to algorithms and incorporate add-in functions such as option valuation models and other analytics tools.

But just as there are situations where spreadsheets, if properly managed, can be a perfectly acceptable short-term solution, there are also clear-cut situations where relying on them can be downright dangerous. Business-critical data should never be mastered in a spreadsheet, particularly if it is accessed by numerous people and departments at the same time. As soon as multiple users start to access the same spreadsheets, issues of version control and auditability can rear their ugly head, with errors representing a significant operational risk.

Simple mistakes can be replicated many times over

It can be a time-consuming task to find out where mistakes have occurred in a complex, embedded spreadsheet, and when one spreadsheet is linked to another, a small initial mistake can be replicated many times over. And for a solution that is commonly seen as low-cost, when errors start to creep into spreadsheets, the cost of unpicking mistakes without a clear audit trail can soon outweigh the initial savings.

As trading volumes increase, spreadsheet are feeling the pressure

Although spreadsheets may be a good solution for small trading volumes, they struggle to cope with the continual growth of trade volumes and types. Processing and calculation times will be increasingly slow as the amount of transactions and market data involved multiplies. This is especially true when calculating computationally intensive risk measures such as value at risk. Spreadsheets simply do not have the ability to capture and process the huge amount of data associated with large portfolios.

Taking a commonsense approach

With the credit crunch throwing the potential pitfalls of over-reliance on spreadsheets into sharper relief, a growing number of firms are focusing on aligning their business processes and systems with this new risk-conscious mentality. But companies shouldn’t let themselves be infected with the hysteria that can surround spreadsheets by eradicating them across the board. Rather than demonising spreadsheets, businesses need to be clear on when it’s right and when it’s wrong to use them.  

Stuart Cook, Senior Manager, Baringa Partners

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Oct 19, 2020

Itronics successfully tests manganese recovery process

Scott Birch
3 min
Nevada firm aims to become the primary manganese producer in the United States
Nevada firm aims to become the primary manganese producer in the United States...

Itronics - a Nevada-based emerging cleantech materials growth company that manufacturers fertilisers and produces silver - has successfully tested two proprietary processes that recover manganese, with one process recovering manganese, potassium and zinc from paste produced by processing non-rechargeable alkaline batteries. The second recovers manganese via the company’s Rock Kleen Technology.

Manganese, one of the four most important industrial metals and widely used by the steel industry, has been designated by the US Federal Government as a "critical mineral." It is a major component of non-rechargeable alkaline batteries, one of the largest battery categories sold globally.

The use of manganese in EV batteries is increasing as EV battery technology is shifting to use of more nickel and manganese in battery formulations. But according to the US Department of Interior, there is no mine production of manganese in the United States. As such, Itronics is using its Rock Kleen Technology to test metal recoverability from mine tailings obtained from a former silver mine in western Nevada that has a high manganese content. 

In a statement, Itronics says that its Rock Kleen process recovers silver, manganese, zinc, copper, lead and nickel. The company says that it has calculated – based on laboratory test results – that if a Rock Kleen tailings process is put into commercial production, the former mine site would become the only primary manganese producer in the United States.

Itronics adds that it has also tested non-rechargeable alkaline battery paste recovered by a large domestic battery recycling company to determine if it could use one of its hydrometallurgical processes to solubilize the manganese, potassium, and zinc contained in the paste. This testing was successful, and Itronics was able to produce material useable in two of its fertilisers, it says.

"We believe that the chemistry of the two recovery processes would lend itself to electrochemical recovery of the manganese, zinc, and other metals. At this time electrochemical recovery has been tested for zinc and copper,” says Dr John Whitney, Itronics president. 

“Itronics has been reviewing procedures for electrochemical recovery of manganese and plans to move this technology forward when it is appropriate to do so and has acquired electro-winning equipment needed to do that.

"Because of the two described proprietary technologies, Itronics is positioned to become a domestic manganese producer on a large scale to satisfy domestic demand. The actual manganese products have not yet been defined, except for use in the Company's GOLD'n GRO Multi-Nutrient Fertilisers. However, the Company believes that it will be able to produce chemical manganese products as well as electrochemical products," he adds.

Itronics’ research and development plant is located in Reno, about 40 miles west of the Tesla giga-factory. Its planned cleantech materials campus, which will be located approximately 40 miles south of the Tesla factory, would be the location where the manganese products would be produced.

Panasonic is operating one of the world's largest EV battery factories at the Tesla location. However, Tesla and other companies have announced that EV battery technology is shifting to use of nickel-manganese batteries. Itronics is positioned and located to become a Nevada-0based supplier of manganese products for battery manufacturing as its manganese recovery technologies are advanced, the company states.

A long-term objective for Itronics is to become a leading producer of high purity metals, including the U.S. critical metals manganese and tin, using the Company's breakthrough hydrometallurgy, pyrometallurgy, and electrochemical technologies. ‘Additionally, Itronics is strategically positioned with its portfolio of "Zero Waste Energy Saving Technologies" to help solve the recently declared emergency need for domestic production of Critical Minerals from materials located at mine sites,’ the statement continues.

The Company's growth forecast centers upon its 10-year business plan designed to integrate its Zero Waste Energy Saving Technologies and to grow annual sales from $2 million in 2019, to $113 million in 2025.

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