Jun 11, 2018

Axios Generate

By Ben Geman
Ben GemanAmy Harder

Good morning from Montreal, where I'll be moderating two panels Tuesday on energy at the International Economic Forum of the Americas

Elsewhere in the news universe, I'll be joining NPR's 1A program today at 10am ET to talk about the latest news at the EPA.

My column looks at how President Trump is seeking to wrap national security into his coal and nuclear power efforts, a move he's also doing with his protectionist trade agenda. I'll share that and then Ben Geman will get you up to speed on the rest of the news. 

1 big thing: Trump wants energy security to be about electricity
Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

For decades, America’s national security has been tied to oil. Trump is now linking it to electricity as he tries to bolster economically struggling coal and nuclear power plants.

Why it matters: America’s presidents have often been able to do largely what they want on policy if they cite national security concerns (Trump is trying to do that with his protectionist trade agenda too). Even if these electricity claims are tenuous — and many experts say they areTrump might well succeed.

The Energy Department is considering invoking three laws to force operators of America’s electricity grid to compensate economically struggling coal and nuclear power plants.

On the record: In an interview over the weekend, Dan Brouillette, deputy secretary at the Energy Department, disputed the notion that Trump is trying to find a way to bolster coal and nuclear. He said the administration has received classified intelligence that indicates a need for redundant electricity supplies on the grid if it's under stress.

“Based on the threats and intelligence that we see, it’s pretty clear that we have some concerns around natural gas pipelines as well as some parts around the electric grid. We’re focused on redundancy. That’s what nuclear facilities in particular, and coal to some degree, provide.”
— Dan Brouillette

Yes, but: Outside experts agree the electric grid is considered a top target, but they also say that addressing those concerns by stockpiling coal and nuclear isn’t the best solution.

The risks to the energy sector are real, but “it’s disingenuous in that they’re trying to further a non-cyber policy priority, which is related to energy production,” said Dave Weinstein, a vice president at Claroty, a cybersecurity software company.

Read the rest in the Axios stream here.

2. New in EVs: Byton raises $500 million

Breaking Monday: China-based electric vehicle startup Byton announced that it has closed a $500 million fundraising round and that investors include the major Chinese battery maker Contemporary Amperex Technology (CATL).

What's happening: Byton introduced an electric SUV concept early this year and plans to begin mass production in 2019. The company is also planning other vehicles.

One reason it matters: Per Bloomberg, CATL also does business with automotive heavyweights including Nissan and BMW, and last year became the world's largest EV battery supplier.

Go deeper: Reuters has more here, including news on CATL's soaring share price on its first day of trading on China's Shenzhen exchange.

* * *

Speaking of EV batteries: Via The Wall Street Journal on Monday, "The speculative fever for electric-car metals is pushing to nearly four-year highs prices for nickel — a key ingredient in stainless steel."

3. Big this week: markets, summit impact, FERC

Items on my radar this week...

Oil markets, part 1: On Wednesday, the International Energy Agency will release its closely watched monthly oil market report.

  • Why it matters: It will be their last take on the lay of the land before the June 22 OPEC meeting, where oil ministers will discuss the fate of the production-limiting agreement.

Oil markets, part 2: The U.S.-North Korea summit in Singapore is likely to move markets. We'll be watching to see how traders respond to the outcome and any signs it offers on geopolitical risks.

Electricity: On Tuesday, all five members of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will appear before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

  • Look for questions on topics including commissioners' assessment of White House efforts to intervene in markets in order to aid struggling coal-fired and nuclear plants.
4. Timely warning from an oil major

Part of Equinor's long-term global energy analysis, released late last week, looks eerily prescient after Trump's tumultuous weekend exit from the G7 summit.

What they said: The oil-and-gas giant warned that their "rivalry" scenario — where geopolitical and trade conflict, weakened multilateral institutions and other forces erode efforts on climate — is looking more likely.

“Unfortunately, we currently see too many signs of the Rivalry-scenario. If continuing, they will negatively impact necessary global collaborative efforts and economic growth which are keys to drive the world in a sustainable direction,” Eirik Wærness, the company's chief economist, in statement alongside the release.

"Rivalry" — one of their three long-term forecasts — is a recipe for temperature increases that blow well past 2 degrees celsius. Global coal and oil demand are higher in 2050, while energy-related carbon emissions keep rising through 2040 and then plateau.

The big picture: Trump's G7 exit and tweets attacking Canada and European allies are a reminder of the shaken foundation of longstanding alliances.

  • On climate, even before abandoning the whole G7 summit communique, the U.S. of course didn't join the affirmation of the Paris agreement — or a subsequent section that more broadly promotes multilateral climate work.

Why this matters: The worldwide climate picture was already sobering without the latest strife. One key data point: global carbon emissions rose in 2017 after a three-year pause.

  • While major countries have re-affirmed their Paris commitment, the shift in the U.S. posture creates hurdles to the increasing worldwide climate ambition that analysts call needed to prevent highly dangerous warming.
  • Which brings us back to Equinor — even under their less ominous "reform" scenario, the global emissions pathway is badly inconsistent with the steep carbon cuts needed in decades ahead to stay within 2°C.

More: We looked at Equinor's forecasts for EVs here and on peak oil demand here.

5. Data centers and ocean renewables

Marine energy expert David Hume writes in our Expert Voices section...

Microsoft recently announced a redeployment of their underwater data center, Project Natick, off the coast of the Orkney Islands in Scotland. 

The details: To power the device, Microsoft has partnered with the European Marine Energy Center (EMEC), a marine energy testing site that hosts wave, tidal and ocean current devices at their grid-connected offshore berths.

Why it matters: This project marks the first time a commercial data center has been powered, at least in part, by marine renewable energy. It won't be the last.

Background: Many data centers rely on energy-intensive cooling systems to keep their servers at ideal operating temperatures, but this adds to the already expensive energy bill for these large, power-hungry facilities. By placing a data center underwater, Microsoft is hoping to limit these energy costs and take advantage of the shorter deployment time to the dense populations of coastal cities.

  • For marine energy developers, offshore data centers could present an opportunity to demonstrate their technologies.

Go deeper: Click here for more in the Axios stream.

6. More on the White House and coal

To supplement Amy's column, here are a couple more pieces on the brewing White House plan to aid coal and nuclear plants...

Odd pairing: Over in our Expert Voices section, Joshua Rhodes, a research associate in the Webber Energy Group and the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin, offers perspective on efforts to aid high-carbon (coal) and climate-friendly (nuclear) sources.

  • "There are reasonable measures the government can take to support struggling energy industries — and in the case of nuclear power, removing pollution subsidies could be an arguably justified intervention. However, only abject market manipulation and more subsides can stem the economic forces that are killing coal," Rhodes writes.

Listen deeper: The new podcast from Harvard Law School's Energy and Environmental Law program explores some legal angles of the leaked memo that cites several statutes — the Defense Production Act, the Federal Power Act, and the FAST Act — to justify market intervention.

  • Harvard's Ari Peskoe argues that by citing the three laws, the administration "implicitly concedes" that no single statute gives them authority for what's under consideration.
  • “DOE’s argument is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts here, and that if you add up these provisions of law it allows them to do what they want to do. They don’t really explain that legal argument, they just sort of provide background on each law itself, but never explain how when you add these things up, it allows for what is contemplated here," he said.
7. The Pope and the oil executives

ICYMI: Eric J. Lyman had a dispatch from Rome in the Axios stream, writing:

"Pope Francis on Saturday told oil executives and other key energy sector figures at the Vatican that the world’s transformation to clean energy was an 'epochal' challenge, and that companies' continued search for new sources of fossil fuels was 'even more worrying' than the already high levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere."

What's next: He also reports that another round of climate-related talks may be held at the Vatican later in the year, adding:

  • It's clear that Pope Francis plans to play a protagonist role as the problems of development, climate, and energy converge even as he addresses other key issues for the church including terrorism, relations with other faiths, and clerical abuse scandals.

Another key part: The pontiff acknowledges the challenge of expanding energy access while stemming emissions, noting estimates that over one billion people still lack electricity.

"Clearly, we are challenged to find ways of ensuring the immense supply of energy required to meet the needs of all, while at the same time developing means of using natural resources that avoid creating environmental imbalances resulting in deterioration and pollution gravely harmful to our human family, both now and in the future,"
— Pope Francis, per remarks released by Vatican

Go deeper: The Pope's full address.

Ben GemanAmy Harder