Jul 22, 2020

Axios Generate

By Ben Geman
Ben GemanAmy Harder

Welcome back. Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,271 words, < 5 minutes.

🚨 Situational awareness: "The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is set to announce on Wednesday the first proposed U.S. emissions standards for commercial aircraft, officials briefed on the matter said." (Reuters)

🎵 And on this date in 1977, Elvis Costello released his debut album "My Aim Is True," which hits the mark with today's intro tune...

1 big thing: The new focus on home energy use

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The pandemic and the presidential election are together putting a fresh spotlight onto the scope of residential energy demand and how to cut emissions from homes and buildings.

The big picture: Lockdowns and remote work are moving energy demand from offices and business to residences — and projections of working from home outlasting the pandemic suggest that some of that shift will persist.

Driving the news: A big peer-reviewed study of U.S. residential emissions, written pre-pandemic but even more relevant now, quantifies immense income-based differences in CO2.

  • "Wealthier Americans have per capita footprints ∼25% higher than those of lower-income residents, primarily due to larger homes," finds the study in the journal PNAS.
  • "In especially affluent suburbs, these emissions can be 15 times higher than nearby neighborhoods," University of Michigan researchers found in the analysis based on data from 93 million households.

Why it matters: Residential energy use accounts for roughly 20% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and deeply cutting those emissions in line with the Paris Agreement will require a multipronged approach, they conclude.

  • An 80% emissions cut from the residential sector by 2050 could not be done by decarbonizing power generation alone "due to a growing housing stock and continued use of fossil fuels (natural gas, propane, and fuel oil) in homes."
  • "Meeting this target will also require deep energy retrofits and transitioning to distributed low-carbon energy sources, as well as reducing per capita floor space and zoning denser settlement patterns," the study finds.

What we're watching: The 2020 elections could usher in new residential energy policies.

  • Joe Biden's energy plan calls for weatherizing 2 million homes over four years, as well as "direct cash rebates and low-cost financing to upgrade and electrify home appliances and install more efficient windows."
  • In addition, some of Biden's proposed infrastructure spending is aimed at spurring construction of 1.5 million "sustainable homes and housing units."

Quick take: The pandemic has driven down overall CO2 emissions this year, largely because of declines in oil-fueled travel (now bouncing back).

  • If remote work persists, stronger efforts to address residential emissions will be a way to lock in and complement some of those CO2 reductions.

Go deeper:

Bonus: The importance of appliance efficiency
Data: IEA; Chart: Sara Wise/Axios

The pandemic is driving a surge of interest in new appliances and electronics as more people work from home and and schools operate remotely, the International Energy Agency points out in a new commentary.

  • "It is vital that new appliances bought during and after the pandemic are as efficient as possible to outpace higher ownership patterns and avoid increased energy consumption levels after the crisis."
2. Big Tech's climate plans come into view

Tech giants' climate pledges are getting bigger and, more importantly, at least somewhat more specific.

Driving the news: Microsoft yesterday unveiled new info about implementing its January vow to be "carbon negative" by 2030 and help its customers and suppliers cut emissions too.

Why it matters: Ambitious, long-term climate goals are becoming the coin of the realm for major corporations, but the pathway to meeting them is often vague. So any efforts to start filling in the blanks are worth watching.

What's next: The company, which also hopes to remove more CO2 from the atmosphere than it has emitted since its 1975 founding by 2050, announced a bunch of steps including...

  • An imminent request for proposals for carbon removal projects to finance, the latest step in fledgling corporate efforts to spur deployment of negative emissions tech.
  • Launch of a new corporate coalition called Transform to Net Zero, with founding members including Nike, Mercedes-Benz and Maersk. It's designed to help provide info and resources to transform climate goals — increasingly common in the private sector — into concrete steps.
  • A $50 million investment in the clean-energy focused VC firm Energy Impact Partners, the first outlay from the $1 billion Climate Innovation Fund announced in January.
  • A partnership with Sol Systems, a renewable energy development and finance firm, to develop 500 megawatts with a focus on "communities disproportionately affected by environmental challenges."

Go deeper:

3. Europe's power inflection point

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

European Union power generation from renewables exceeded fossil fuel-based electricity for the first time in the first half of 2020, per new analysis Wednesday from the U.K.-based climate think tank Ember.

Why it matters: It appears to be an inflection point. Ember electricity analyst Dave Jones tells me that he does not expect fossil generation to regain a bigger share than renewables.

  • Only "exceptional circumstances" could temporarily change this, he says, such as a major shutdown of a French nuclear plant that leads to more fossil generation to compensate, or a very dry period that slashes hydropower.

Where it stands: Renewables accounted for 40% of EU generation in the past half-year, while coal's steep decline led to fossil fuels having a 34% share, Ember said.

  • Renewables output increased and wind and solar together reached 21% of European generation. Power from fossil fuels fell by 18%.
  • "Fossil was squeezed on two fronts: by rising renewable generation and a 7% fall in electricity demand due to COVID-19. Coal took the brunt, falling by 32%."
  • Carbon emissions from power generation fell by 23%.

The big picture: A Reuters piece explores a broader global transition underway, even though fossil fuels have by far the largest worldwide power share.

4. Catch up fast: Law enforcement moves

Ohio: "Investigators say Ohio Speaker of the House Larry Householder and others used $60 million from FirstEnergy to enrich themselves, strengthen their political power base and secure a $1.3 billion bailout for company subsidiary FirstEnergy Solutions, a cost paid by new fees soon to appear on the bills of electric customers." (Columbus Dispatch)

  • Axios' Ursula Perano has more on the FBI investigation.

Big Oil: "A prosecutor in Milan asked for eight years of jail time for Eni SpA Chief Executive Officer Claudio Descalzi over an allegedly corrupt $1.1 billion Nigerian oil deal." (Bloomberg)

5. The climate threat to polar bears

A polar bear cub and sow newly emerged from their den along the Arctic Coast of Alaska. Photo: Steven Kazlowski/Barcroft Media/Getty Images

Axios' Rebecca Falconer reports: The loss of sea ice due to climate change is predicted to threaten the survival of polar bear populations across the Arctic by the end of the century, new research shows.

Why it matters: "Polar bears have long been considered messengers of the climate change symptoms that will impact all life, including humans," says Polar Bears International chief scientist Steven Amstrup.

"The impacts could occur earlier — and in fact in Alaska, they already are occurring earlier than what we’ve projected."
— Steven Amstrup

What's new: The study, co-authored by Amstrup and published in the journal Nature Climate Change, marks the first time scientists have been able to predict when, where and how polar bears are likely to vanish.

  • Previous models didn't account for the different Arctic living conditions and levels of sea ice that polar bear subpopulations encounter.
  • University of Wyoming professor Merav Ben-David, who has studied polar bears with Amstrup for 20 years but wasn't involved in this paper, said the modeling would be an essential conservation tool.

Read more

6. One fun thing: Ford's Mustang EV on steroids

Ford's Mustang Mach-E 1400 prototype. Photo courtesy of Ford.

Ford is out with a highly produced new video showing a wildly souped-up, 1400 horsepower version of its Mustang Mach-E electric car racing around a track.

Why it matters: Beyond the spectacle of the prototype going through its paces, it's the latest sign of how EV makers are keen to show that abandoning gasoline isn't a sacrifice.

  • For instance, in April the startup Lucid Motors released video of the upcoming Lucid Air luxury EV performing in cold and snowy conditions in northern Minnesota.

What's next: The consumer version of the Mustang Mach-E is arriving late this year, while the special Mustang Mach-E 1400 racer developed with RTR Vehicles is "set to debut at a NASCAR race soon," Ford said.

Go deeper: The Ford Mustang Mach-E 1400 is an electric drift machine with seven motors (Road & Track)

7. Number of the day: 2,500 megawatts

That's the amount of additional offshore wind capacity that New York State officials are seeking via a solicitation announced Tuesday.

Why it matters: Via Greentech Media, the plan sets up the emerging U.S. offshore wind market to "add at least one more big project — and perhaps several — to its pipeline by the end of the year."

  • The effort to bolster the state's existing offshore wind pipeline is part of a wider announcement that also solicits another 1,500 megawatts of land-based renewables.
  • The combined solicitation, if realized, would provide enough electricity to power 1.5 million homes, the state said.

The big picture: "New York is pushing to get 9,000 megawatts of offshore wind power by 2035 and eliminate greenhouse gases from its grid by 2040," Bloomberg reports.

Ben GemanAmy Harder