Jan 11, 2019

Axios Generate

Happy Friday!

Situational awareness: "Oil prices climbed Friday after nine consecutive sessions of gains, amid receding concerns over global oversupply and macroeconomic risks to global growth," the Wall Street Journal reports.

Onto music: Happy birthday to the late Clarence Clemons, who's terrific at the end of today's intro tune...

1 big thing: How clean energy changes geopolitics
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Adapted from "A New World" report by Global Commission on the Geopolitics of Energy Transformation; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

A new report says China is poised to gain global leverage with its dominance in clean-energy technologies, while poorer, fossil fuel-dependent nations like Libya will likely be on the losing end in the world’s shift to cleaner energy, Axios' Amy Harder reports.

Why it matters: Fossil fuels, particularly oil, have been shaping history for the better part of the last century. Less well-known are the anticipated geopolitical impacts of the world’s slow, but clear shift to renewable energy sources, a transition set to play out unevenly around the world for decades to come.

Driving the news: The report is coordinated by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) with input from experts and governments around the world.

  • The United Arab Emirates, a major oil-exporting nation, has taken a leadership position on renewable energy by — perhaps ironically — hosting IRENA and the launch of this report.

The big picture, per the report:

The renewable energy transformation goes hand in hand with a dispersion of power. The modern nation state and the fossil fuel economy have evolved alongside one another. The decline of the fossil fuel era and the advent of decentralized power generation in an increasingly electrified world may have profound implications for the role of the nation state.


  • China is poised to benefit the most in the clean energy transition because of its leadership in renewable energy patents and its dependence on imports of fossil fuels, which would decline over time.
  • All nations heavily dependent upon fossil fuels are on the losing end, but some more than others. Less stable nations like Libya and Iraq are particularly vulnerable given they are less able to handle the transition than their richer, more stable counterparts that are similarly dependent on fossil fuels, like Saudi Arabia and Norway.
  • Renewable energy, particularly wind and solar, is inherently less vulnerable to geopolitical exploit given it’s not a tangible commodity like oil. Other concerns could arise, however, like clean tech dominance by countries like China.
  • Security choke points for oil, such as the Strait of Hormuz, could become relatively less important. Meanwhile, electricity as a potential geopolitical weapon or target for cyberattacks grows.

Go deeper: Read Amy's full story and stay tuned Monday for her Harder Line column, which will tackle a related topic.

2. GM's Cadillac is aiming for Tesla's EV market
"Cadillac is expected to become General Motors' lead electric vehicle brand as the largest U.S. automaker gears up to introduce a new model under that luxury [marque] to challenge Tesla."
Per an exclusive report by Reuters

Why it matters: The plan slated to be unveiled later this morning adds more detail to how the auto giant plans to position itself in the EV market.

  • It comes roughly 6 weeks after GM announced a big restructuring — including thousands of layoffs — that will devote more resources to battery-powered offerings

Where it stands, per Reuters: The wider GM investor update today will reveal that some kind of Cadillac model will be the first produced on the company's upcoming BEV3 platform for manufacturing electrics.

  • GM's main EV right now is the all-electric Chevy Bolt, and it's killing off its plug-in hybrid, the older Chevy Volt.
  • Overall, GM has said it plans to launch 20 new all-electric models worldwide by 2023.

Go deeper: The electric vehicle stakes of GM's restructuring

3. Following up: Renewables vs. zero-carbon

The fight over the best and most realistic resource mix for a decarbonized power system is bleeding into the new Congress.

Why it matters: It's an important tussle in climate circles, but one that's been long dormant in federal policymaking. That will change if Democrats gain more power in Washington.

Where it stands: Yesterday we wrote about groups on the green movement's left flank calling for transition to 100% renewable electricity as part of a Green New Deal.

  • From that group's letter to Congress, "[A]ny definition of renewable energy must also exclude all combustion-based power generation, nuclear, biomass energy, large scale hydro and waste-to-energy technologies."

The other side: Lots of experts say a more realistic goal for wringing carbon out of electricity in the years ahead is relying on (or at least not ruling out) on a broader group of technologies.

  • Yes, lots more renewables, but also using nuclear and fossil energy with carbon capture.
  • A prominent example of that case: this 2017 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a scientific journal.

To get up to speed fast on why the 100% renewables is controversial even among some deep decarbonization advocates, check out this Twitter thread yesterday by Jesse Jenkins, a fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

  • "If #climatechange is a crisis (and I believe it is!), serious #climate champions will throw literally everything we've got at solving it. Anything else does not constitute a commensurate response to this defining generational challenge," he writes.
4. What's next for U.S. power

Wind energy will be the largest source of new power capacity additions this year, while coal-fired power will keep fading but the losses will slow, according to an Energy Information Administration snapshot yesterday.

Why it matters: The report on expected 2019 changes in U.S. electricity capacity highlights the ongoing transformation of the U.S. power system as coal gives way to natural gas and, increasingly, renewables.

By the numbers, per EIA:

  • 24 gigawatts of new generating potential is slated to be added to the grid this year.
  • "The utility-scale capacity additions consist primarily of wind (46%), natural gas (34%), and solar photovoltaics (18%), with the remaining 2% consisting primarily of other renewables and battery storage capacity."
  • But 8.3 GW are scheduled to go offline, over half of which comes from coal, which is still less than the 13.7 GW of coal capacity that shut down in 2018.
5. Ocean heat is climbing 40% faster than thought
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Trends in ocean heat from 4 different observational datasets, compared to the CMIP5 computer model mean, from 1955 through 2017. Data: Cheng et al. Science, 2019; Chart: Lazaro Gamio/Axios.

New, independent observations from ocean buoys and other data sources show Earth's oceans are warming at a rate that's about 40% faster than indicated in the 2013 UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, Axios' Andrew Freedman reports.

Why it matters: The study, published Thursday in the journal Science, resolves a key uncertainty in climate science by reconciling analyses from a variety of different scientific teams.

The big picture: The oceans are absorbing about 93% of the extra heat going into the climate system. So far, most of that heat resides in the upper ocean, and is only slowly diffusing down into deeper waters.

Threat level: Andrew's got more detail in his piece, but I want to flag part of it that's important to energy and technology policy...

  • The oceans are a main reason why climate change will not relent even if emissions were to cease today, since they will continue to release heat, and also greenhouse gases, over time.
  • There are also implications for carbon removal technologies, which are getting more attention from scientists and investments from major oil companies.
  • Lost in much of the discussion on carbon removal, however, is the potential for the oceans to spoil the party.

Go deeper: Read Andrew's full story.

6. Jay Inslee heads to New Hampshire

Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee, who is weighing a climate-focused presidential run, is heading to New Hampshire later this month to chat with college students in the crucial early primary state.

Why it matters: It's a sign that Inslee is moving toward a White House bid — one that would ensure climate and energy, typically second-tier topics in national politics, are part of the race if he gains any traction.

What's next: Inslee will do separate events at Dartmouth College and Saint Anselm College on Jan. 22, when he will discuss why climate change "must be the first priority of the next President," the announcement states.

  • And on Jan. 21, he'll speak at a New Hampshire fundraiser for the League of Conservation voters.

And let's round things out with a couple other climate politics and policy notes...

Congress: Rep. Cathy Kastor gave USA Today a glimpse of her plans as chairwoman of the new Select Committee on the Climate Crisis that House Democrats are setting up. Here are 2 snippets from the interview...

  • She said the panel is "going to press for dramatic carbon pollution reduction."
  • "Right off the bat, we will tackle fuel economy standards, make sure the Commerce Committee and the (Transportation and Infrastructure Committee) are focused on that. The Financial Services Committee has to do a flood insurance reform bill. We will be involved in that as well," she said.

Green New Deal: We're starting to see more action around creating the policy scaffolding for what's now a pretty broad set of concepts and a popular slogan.

  • Via Politico, Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said the Green New Deal should include his years-long call for overhauling the existing patchwork of energy industry tax incentives. From his op-ed...
"The dirty relics of the past century should be replaced with just three new energy tax incentives: one for clean energy, one for clean transportation fuel and one for energy efficiency. "
"Under this new system, benefits would be received only if carbon emissions are decreased or eliminated."