Oct 31, 2019

Axios Generate

By Ben Geman
Ben GemanAmy Harder

Hello readers! Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,176 words, < 5 minutes.

And this year marks a quarter-century since a A Tribe Called Quest released a brilliant track that will bring us into the news...

1 big thing: How climate change makes fighting it harder
Expand chart
Reproduced from IEA; Chart: Axios Visuals

Two things caught my eye that underscore a sobering fact: The effects of climate change can create new hurdles to ... the fight against climate change.

Driving the news, part 1: New International Energy Agency reports on southeast Asia have eye-popping numbers on the rise of air conditioning use. (See chart above, which reflects IEA’s “stated policies” scenario that assumes existing policies and plans, as well as evolution of “known technologies.”)

  • It's largely due to higher incomes and economic growth as more people, thankfully, have access to cooling that's taken for granted in rich countries.
  • However, IEA notes that "rising temperatures will also play a part in these growth rates" and more heat and humidity also mean more frequent use.
  • Why it matters: It adds to soaring energy demand in the region. And while renewables are growing, IEA sees growth in use of all fossil fuels — including coal — through 2040 too.
  • What's next: The IEA reports offer recommendations for boosting the efficiency of cooling and more broadly speeding up renewables deployment.

Driving the news, part 2: Climate change, and the hotter and drier conditions it brings, is among the slew of forces that are increasing the risks of devastating fires in California and elsewhere.

  • Why it matters: A deeply reported L.A. Times piece this week explores how those fires could frustrate emissions-cutting efforts in California, the world's fifth largest economy.
  • The Times' Sammy Roth writes: "[California's] plans for slashing climate emissions depend on a stable electric grid delivering clean electricity to the cars, homes and businesses of the world’s fifth-largest economy."
  • "The jarring new reality of preemptive blackouts could frustrate those plans by throwing the grid’s reliability into doubt."

Quick take: Those are just two instances of a wider challenge.

  • For instance, consider how global warming's various effects, such as its contribution to migration, can create problems that compete for attention with emissions-cutting efforts.
  • Limited budgets could mean tradeoffs between building resilience and reducing emissions to reduce future harm.
  • I'm sure others can think of further examples. Eeek.
2. Bloom Energy's questionable numbers

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Fuel cell maker Bloom Energy went public in July 2018, six years after a scandal in which its bankers were found to have misled prospective investors. But Bloom itself has a history of playing fast and loose with its numbers, Axios' Dan Primack reports.

Why it matters: Bloom was among Silicon Valley's earliest unicorns, with a high-powered board of directors that includes Colin Powell and John Doerr.

  • It's a cautionary tale of what can happen when narrative overtakes results. The company's stock is trading at a small fraction of its initial price.

The big picture: While still privately held, Bloom disseminated unreliable data and rose-colored projections, documents show.

  • For example, some prospective investors in 2009 were shown a "Google customer testimonial" that claimed Google had experienced only a single equipment failure that was quickly fixed.
  • Confidential board documents from 2011 show that Bloom replaced two dozen pieces of equipment for Google in 2008, due to "early life failures."
  • Bloom declined to explain the discrepancy when asked by Axios.

Catch up fast: Key parts of Dan's story explore claims that Bloom made in 2009 in the presence of its bankers. For instance, some were about the chambers, called "hot boxes," that house its fuel cells.

  • During a March 2009 board meeting, Bloom showed hot boxes cost $1,960 per kilowatt as of December 2008.
  • Subsequent board documents show hot boxes cost $5,000 at the beginning of 2008 and $3,500 at the end of 2008.

That's important because this meeting was attended by Dwight Badger and Keith Daubenspeck, co-founders of Advanced Equities, the now-defunct investment bank that Bloom had hired to raise money.

  • Three years later the SEC charged the bank with misleading investors. The bank settled and shut down soon after.

Worthy of your time

3. Shell reports profit dip but beats forecasts

Royal Dutch Shell reported a net third-quarter profit of $4.77 billion on Thursday, a 15% slide from the same period last year that nonetheless exceeded analysts' expectations.

Why it matters: It's the latest — and expected — sign of how lower oil prices are weighing on the industry as profit reports roll in. U.S.-based global giants ExxonMobil and Chevron report tomorrow.

Where it stands: Shell cited lower oil, natural gas and LNG prices, as well as weaker margins in refining and trading, as reasons for the drop.

  • However, it noted that the losses were partly offset by strong results from its oil products and LNG trading arm

The intrigue: The results offer another sign of the weakening global economy.

  • Shell said it's still committed to its $25 billion share buyback program, but noted that "prevailing weak macroeconomic conditions and challenging outlook inevitably create uncertainty" about earlier plans to complete it in 2020.

Go deeper: Shell beats profit estimates, warns of slower share buyback (Bloomberg)

4. Catch up fast: Nord Stream 2, Exxon, UN

Exxon trial: Per AP, "As Exxon faced the prospect of new climate regulations, the energy giant set out to understand — not understate — how they would affect the bottom line, former CEO and ex-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told a court Wednesday."

  • Why it matters: It's rare for Big Oil CEOs (or, in this case, a former boss) to face extended and oppositional questioning about their approach to climate change.
  • Context: The case is about whether the largest U.S.-based multinational oil company misled shareholders and the public about how potential climate regulations will affect its business.

Pipeline: "Denmark gave permission on Wednesday for a natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany to pass through waters in its exclusive economic zone, meaning that the project, Nord Stream 2, can be completed despite sharp criticism from the United States, Ukraine and Poland," the New York Times reports.

  • What's next: Goldman Sachs analysts said in a note that Denmark's move could allow the project to begin operations as soon as January.

Climate talks: Chilean President Sebastián Piñera said Wednesday that his county will not host the next round of UN climate talks in December as planned due to civil unrest in the country.

  • What's next: It's not clear when or where the summit will he held. "We are currently exploring alternative hosting options," Patricia Espinosa, the top UN climate official, said in a statement.
  • There's speculation that Bonn, Germany — where the UN's climate operations are based — could be a fallback location. E&E News has more.
5. Good listen: The House and climate

Rep. Kathy Castor, chairwoman of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, spoke on a recent episode of the Columbia Energy Exchange podcast.

Why it matters: The panel is tasked with coming up with policy recommendations by the end of March 2020 to guide House legislation.

A few takeaways...

1. They're far from decided on some very big things. The overall goal is bringing U.S. emissions to net-zero by 2050. But from there, details remain scarce.

  • For instance, when host Bill Loveless asked about CO2 pricing, Castor signaled an openness to a tax, cap-and-trade, a clean energy standard (which isn't technically a price, I know), and more.
  • She also said the committee will soon have a hearing on pricing.

2. But she's mindful that time will be of the essence when it's actually time for the House to legislate.

  • Castor added that as the committee continues to solicit proposals, she's looking for ideas that "come with coalitions behind them."
  • She cited one example of stakeholders rallying behind electric school buses.

3. Castor didn't sound optimistic about a sea change among Republicans. “What’s interesting here is while the dialogue has changed a little among my GOP colleagues, most now will admit that the climate is changing, they are still not voting that way,” she said.

Ben GemanAmy Harder