Axios Generate

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June 20, 2018

Good morning! At this moment in 2000, Eminem was atop the Billboard album charts with "The Marshall Mathers LP."

So let's get into the news with this turn of the century track...

1 big thing: A new carbon tax push takes shape

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Axios' Amy Harder reports ... A bipartisan pair of former congressional leaders, backed by corporate money, are launching a seven-figure advocacy and lobbying group in support of a carbon tax.

Why it matters: It’s a pivotal step bolstering an initiative, first launched last year by conservative leaders from earlier GOP administrations, pushing a carbon tax in which its revenue is returned back to most Americans in the form of dividend checks.

  • Flashback: Tuesday’s announcement comes one year after four global oil companies announced support for the plan.

Reality check: Carbon taxes are politically toxic in Washington, and any such policy is unlikely to pass Congress anytime soon, fueled by deep conservative opposition on Capitol Hill and among influential advocacy groups like Americans for Tax Reform.

The players:

  • Leading the effort are former Sens. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and John Breaux (D-La.). Both men held leadership positions on Capitol Hill.
  • The group’s funders so far include Exelon, First Solar and the American Wind Energy Association, according to sources close to the effort. Exelon, which is America's largest nuclear power operator, has contributed $1 million, according to top company executive Kathleen Barron.
  • Called Americans for Carbon Dividends, the new group is a nonprofit with a c(4) tax status, which means, among other things, that its donors can be anonymous. Other corporate donors exist, but are opting not to disclose, according to a person involved.

The intrigue: No oil and gas companies are funding the effort yet, but they’re likely to in the coming months, according to a source familiar with the effort.

  • BP, ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, and Total are among the founding corporate members of the related initiative, the Climate Leadership Council. But that group explicitly doesn’t accept corporate funding, according to one of its organizers.

Go deeper: Read Amy's full story.

2. Latest from the OPEC showdown

OPEC, part 1: Reuters has the latest from Vienna ahead of Friday's meeting.

  • "Saudi Arabia is struggling to convince fellow OPEC members including Gulf allies on the need to raise oil output, sources familiar with the talks said on Wednesday, adding to complications ahead of an OPEC meeting this week," they report.

OPEC, part 2: As the cartel gathers for its pivotal Vienna meeting, the Wall Street Journal explores the swirl of forces "making the calculations over how much OPEC should boost output particularly tricky."

  • The complex stew includes how sanctions will affect Iran, the impact of Venezuela's collapse, and how logistical problems will affect shale growth.
  • "The supply uncertainty is heightened by the unusual structure of this week’s meetings in Vienna — and the different views of key players coming into them. OPEC meets Friday to discuss the cartel’s own production levels. Then, OPEC sits down with Russia and non-OPEC members on Saturday to finalize details about how to lift a production ceiling instated by the 2016 pact," per WSJ.

The big picture: Over at the Council on Foreign Relations, Amy Myers Jaffe looks at OPEC's challenges heading into the Vienna meeting, and plunges into long-term structural problems facing the cartel, including problems at state-owned oil companies.

  • "Many of these national firms are facing structural budgetary, corruption, or other internal political challenges, including attacks on facilities by local rebel groups, criminal gangs, terrorists, cyber hackers, and/or armed combatants in ongoing military conflicts," she writes.

3. New oil supply gap warnings

Chart showing oil industry spending on new supply projects
Screenshot from Dallas Fed President Robert Kaplan's essay "A Perspective on Oil." Note: chart is based on data from Goldman Sachs Investment Research

Don't call it a comeback: Two new items caught my eye which show that despite the oil price revival, some experts believe investment in big, expensive, long-term oil producing projects — stuff like deepwater — may be too low to prevent a supply crunch in the future.

  • This wide-ranging new essay by Dallas Fed President Robert Kaplan calls it one of the big challenges facing the market, noting it leaves global markets more reliant on short-cycle shale growth.
  • "The challenge will be producing enough oil to meet demand growth over the next three to five years," he writes.

More warnings: This Financial Times piece hits a similar theme, showing how investment on megaprojects has been lower in recent years thanks to a combination of low-prices, investor pressure, and now the prospect of peak demand. From FT:

  • "[P]ersistent cost-cutting and mounting climate concerns have left many in the sector worried that the industry is making a miscalculation."
  • "They fear it is turning its back on many big oil and gas projects before efficiency gains, renewables, electric cars and efforts to conserve fossil fuels are able to cap consumption."
  • "The result could be supply shortfalls and price rises, storing up a problem for the global economy."

Yes, but: As I noted a few months ago, experts are split over whether the so-called supply gap problem is really a thing at all.

4. Where the cyber risks really lie

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The federal focus on aiding coal and nuclear plants on the grounds of security "takes attention away from more relevant concerns, such as insufficient distribution grid cybersecurity protections," according to a new post by Christina Simeone, at UPenn's Kleinman Center for Energy Policy. She writes:

"The distribution grid is becoming more digital and dynamic, as smart grid devices enable two-way communications, and customers are increasingly using on-site generation, software-based energy management tools, and a plethora of internet-of-things appliances. This innovation is positive, yet exposes the grid to additional vulnerabilities."

Why this matters now: The Trump administration is weighing plans to prop up economically struggling coal and nuclear plants.

  • Part of their controversial rationale is that these "fuel secure" plants need to stick around in light of cyber and physical security risks elsewhere in the generation system, such as pipelines that feed natural gas-fired plants.

Yes, but: Simeone argues that the distribution grid "may present the easiest 'target' for attackers, given the lack of cyber protection requirements."

  • She says there's a need for better oversight and new investments in bolstering security.

The bottom line: "Lower power prices make today the opportune time to embark on these investments, rather than haphazardly devoting precious financial resources to less meaningful distractions (i.e. subsidies for at-risk generation)," she writes.

5. New backing for cobalt-free battery tech firm

Announced today: New York-based battery materials startup Conamix has attracted investment from Volta Energy Technologies, a firm working with Argonne National Laboratory to develop and validate promising advances in energy storage.

  • The company has raised at least $2.8 million of a target $9 million, according to a May SEC filing, but did not disclose how much of it came from Volta.

Why it matters: Conamix says its technology enables production of high-energy batteries with electrodes that don't rely on cobalt — a material with a fraught and expensive supply chain that's also associated with human rights abuses.

  • "Conamix’s technology has the potential to dramatically decrease the cost of lithium-based batteries for use in many applications, including electric vehicles, grid storage, and even electric flight," the companies said in a joint announcement.

One level deeper: It's the second firm to win backing from Volta, a company launched in late 2017 that's led by Jeff Chamberlain, former head of storage programs at Argonne, a federal lab outside Chicago.

  • Volta, in turn, is funded by utility giant Exelon and Albemarle Corp., a chemical company that's a major supplier of lithium, which is a key battery component.
  • The company in February announced that it's among the backers of Massachusetts-based Ionic Materials, which is seeking to commercialize plastic solid-state battery technology. Ionic says its battery also would use little or no cobalt.

The intrigue: Conamix has previously touted a process for high-volume and cost-effective production of silicon nanowires used in battery anodes, a promising but technically challenging way to create higher energy batteries that retain their stability.

  • But their CEO, Charles Hamilton, would not say whether that's still in play. “It was part of the founding of the company, but we are not discussing what we are currently working on,” he told Axios.

6. Latest in EVs: state moves and Uber's plan

Breaking Wednesday: The Wall Street Journal has the goods on a plan by California and other states designed to boost electric vehicle sales even as the White House moves to pare back national mileage and carbon emissions rules for cars. From WSJ...

  • "The plan among the nine states, covering 2018-2021 and expected to be unveiled Wednesday, outlines 80 steps that auto makers, dealers, utilities, government officials and charging and fueling companies should take to boost adoption of so-called zero-emission vehicles, predominantly battery-powered automobiles, according to a copy of the plan The Wall Street Journal reviewed."
  • The context: The move illustrates the thrust-and-parry between the White House and largely blue states over environmental and energy policy, and how Democratic state officials are seeking new ways to counter decisions they oppose.

Speaking of EVs: Uber has a new plan to bolster use of EVs in its network, and the LA Times has a helpful story, including this summary:

  • "On Tuesday, the ride-hailing giant announced a yearlong pilot program in which it will provide monetary subsidies to some drivers who use electric vehicles, or EVs; build features into its app that are specific to drivers who operate those vehicles; and partner with nonprofits and UC Davis researchers to identify ways Uber and policymakers can encourage and reward adoption of EVs."

7. Expert Voices: North Korea, solar, utilities

There are several new energy-related items in the Axios Expert Voices section. Worth your time...

North Korea: Eurasia Group CEO Robert Johnston discusses how energy could play a key role in talks with North Korea over denuclearization. In his piece, he writes...

[B]ehind the scenes, particularly in South Korea, there is great interest in using energy as a key incentive to nudge Pyongyang toward further concessions.

Utilities: Steve McBee, the former CEO of NRG Home, argues that big utilities facing stagnant demand and new competitors are failing to position themselves correctly for the long term. From his post...

In the face of fresh competition and shifting market requirements, utilities are largely retreating, not repositioning. Despite large cash volumes, utilities have not invested in the technology, systems and talent to seize emerging opportunities. That’s partly a failure of leadership, but it's also a failure of capital structures that value dividend returns over long-term planning.

Solar's resilience: Stephen Comello, director of the Sustainable Energy Initiative at Stanford's Graduate School of Business, says that the U.S. solar sector faces medium-term problems — such as tariffs and tax policy — but looks bright in the long run. He writes:

In some parts of the country, solar farms have already become the lowest-cost electricity source. Given cost-competitiveness, state-level renewable-energy mandates and complementary technology advances, solar power is likely to become even more commonplace.

8. Falling battery costs aid renewables boom

Axios intern Henrietta Reily reports ... Fueled by cheap battery costs, wind and solar power are poised to produce nearly 50% of the world's electricity by 2050, according to a Bloomberg New Energy Finance report released Tuesday.

Why it matters: Renewable energy is getting cheaper as its technologies reach greater economies of scale. Notable this year are the falling prices for batteries that store energy generated by the wind and sun, which have become cheaper and easier to implement than previously forecast.

Other big takeaways:

  • The average cost of a solar plant is due to fall by 71% by 2050.
  • Coal, which provides 38% of the energy supply worldwide today, will fall dramatically to 11% in 2050, even while holding strong in some countries.
  • Natural gas consumption for the power sector remains flat out to 2050.

Read more.