Axios Generate

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December 15, 2021

🐪 It's Wednesday! Today's Smart Brevity count is 1,285 words, 5 minutes.

🚨Happening today: Join Axios reporters and guests at 12:30pm ET for a virtual event on climate resilience in the health care system. Register here.

🛸 And on this date in 1975 Parliament released the funk classic "Mothership Connection," which provides today's intro tune...

1 big thing: Democrats try to flip the script on energy prices

Illustration of a close up of hands pinching a very tiny bill.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The Biden administration and allied climate activists are hoping to transform today's relatively high energy costs from a political risk into an asset as they push for passage of sweeping climate legislation, Ben, Andrew and Sophia Cai write.

Driving the news: We've got the first look at a new ad buy premiering in the D.C. media market today from the group Evergreen Action.

"Want lower energy bills? Congress must pass the Build Back Better Act, a bill which invests in affordable, American-made clean energy," the ad states.

  • It claims, citing the think tank RMI, that the measures, which include billions in tax and other incentives for renewables, would save power companies and consumers billions of dollars annually by 2030.
  • It's part of a six-figure buy that will include video, display and search ads targeted at policymakers.

Catch up fast: It's the latest attempt by Democrats to win huge new investments for renewable power, electric vehicles and other clean energy on a party-line vote.

  • On Dec. 11, Heather Boushey, a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, noted on Twitter that the latest Consumer Price Index showed energy prices account for one-third of higher costs facing working-class families.
  • She pointed to the legislation's energy efficiency measures and policies that would result in aggressive deployment of renewable sources, in particular, as ways to "help ease energy price increases in the future."
  • Cabinet members, including Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, have also noted that spending money on renewable resources, such as offshore wind, will yield cheaper electricity for consumers.

Yes, but: Republican lawmakers and energy industry groups argue that provisions in the House-passed version of the bill would raise energy costs by making it more expensive to produce and use fossil fuels.

  • In addition, the recent energy supply crunch that has hit Europe especially hard demonstrates that the transition to clean energy sources may be turbulent and could result in higher costs to consumers at times.

Threat level: Democrats also say that by cutting emissions, the bill would reduce the toll from extreme weather events.

  • Collin O'Mara, president of the National Wildlife Federation, told reporters yesterday that the cost of inaction "isn't getting enough attention," pointing to extreme weather costs in lives and economic damages.

Context: The ad buy and Democratic pushback on the energy price effects of Build Back Better come after the White House has been on the defensive for months over energy prices, particularly gasoline.

  • The Biden administration is undertaking the largest-ever release of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in order to try to bolster global supplies and reduce prices.
  • In a Tuesday blog post, the White House touted falling prices at the pump, a trend helped by global market conditions and COVID-related developments.

2. Carbon capture firm nabs $30M in VC funds

Illustration of a dollar bill clogging a smokestack.
Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

A carbon capture and storage (CCS) startup billing itself as the industry's first "vertically integrated super developer" has raised $30 million in Series A funding, Ben writes.

Driving the news: Carbon America this morning announced the funding from investors including Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, ArcTern Ventures, Energy Impact Partners and others.

Why it matters: CO2 capture theoretically could become an important tool against global warming, but commercial deployment has proceeded far more slowly than advocates have hoped.

How it works: The Colorado-based company, founded in 2019, bills itself as a "one-stop solution," providing engineering and tech, development, financing, permitting, navigation of incentives, sequestration site management and more.

What we don't know: Specifics. The company declined to name projects or clients it is working with but told Axios its "target customers" are in the ethanol, steel, cement and power industries.

The first projects will be in the ethanol sector, with the first expected to be in operation in 2023, the company said.

What they're saying: Energy Impact Partners founder Hans Kobler, in a statement, said that while CCS has been around a long time, "what’s been missing is the ability to finance, build and operate carbon capture projects, at scale, in an efficient, cost effective way."

3. Developing markets see climate finance drop

Data: BloombergNEF; Chart: Thomas Oide/Axios
Data: BloombergNEF; Chart: Thomas Oide/Axios

Global clean energy investment hit record levels in 2020 despite the pandemic, but the overall rise masked a decline in developing countries, new data shows, Ben writes.

Driving the news: The research firm BloombergNEF, in a summary, said investors "retreated hastily from less developed markets to refocus on wealthier countries as the Covid-19 pandemic spread."

How it works: The BloombergNEF analysis tracks asset finance for renewable power, vehicle electrification and electrification of heating.

Why it matters: Pathways to lower carbon emissions show a need for greatly expanded investment in both longstanding industrial economies and developing markets.

For instance, an International Energy Agency report this month said despite surging global renewable power growth, its scenario for net-zero emissions by 2050 requires a doubling of projected capacity additions over the next half-decade.

4. Power outage threat for large parts of Lower 48

Weather forecast map showing maximum winds on December 15, 2021.
Forecast winds from the National Weather Service on Dec. 15, 2021, showing winds greater than 60 mph in orange and stronger gusts in red. (Weatherbell.com)

An extreme weather event today will feature an unusually expansive area of damaging, potentially historically intense winds from New Mexico all the way to Wisconsin, Andrew writes.

Why it matters: By the end of the day, hundreds of thousands may be without power across at least a dozen states, as the storm moves into the Upper Midwest and rapidly intensifies.

Threat level: High winds are the main hazard, and the Denver metro area is ground zero for the most powerful gusts of up to 100 mph.

  • Ahead of the storm, record warmth will surge north, with temperatures reaching the 70s in Iowa, threatening monthly temperature records.
  • The warmth will fuel an outbreak of severe thunderstorms, including the threat of tornadoes, across parts of Iowa, southeastern Minnesota and southwestern Wisconsin.
  • Travel delays will ripple across major airline hubs in Denver, Chicago and Minneapolis.
  • Wildfire danger will be extreme across the Plains, as strong, dry winds howl.
  • In some of the states hit by severe weather last weekend, high winds and thunderstorms could complicate cleanup efforts.

5. New in SPACs: plastic alternatives and small nukes

Illustration of a line of plastic bottles
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Footprint, a Gilbert, Arizona-based material sciences company focused on eliminating single-use plastics, agreed to go public at an implied $1.6 billion valuation via Gores Holdings VIII, a SPAC led by private equity billionaire Alec Gores, Axios' Dan Primack reports.

Why it matters: Single-use plastics are an environmental calamity, with more than 130 metric tons estimated to have been thrown away in 2019.

A lot of that ends up floating in the world's oceans, slowly breaking down into microplastics that can't be found or easily filtered, while most of the rest is dumped into landfills or burned.

Details: The deal includes $460 million of PIPE financing from backers like Koch Strategic Platforms, including $150 million in Series C preferred stock to be funded immediately.

Among Footprint's private backers have been Olympus Partners, Cleveland Avenue, JBS, Sweetgreen and Conagra. Bloomberg has more.

* * *

NuScale Power, a firm looking to deploy small modular nuclear reactors, said Tuesday it's going public via a SPAC deal at a $1.9 billion valuation.

The transaction will provide $413 million in proceeds, per the Oregon-based company that's majority-owned by engineering giant Fluor. The Oregonian has details.

6. Big Oil transition notes: hydrogen and solar

Oil majors Shell and Chevron took the latest steps this week in the sector's diversification, Ben writes.

Driving the news, part 1: Shell said yesterday it's acquiring the U.S. solar and storage developer Savion LLC for an undisclosed sum.

Savion "has a pipeline of more than 18 gigawatts of solar and energy storage projects with over 100 projects under development in 26 states," Shell said. S&P Global Platts has more

Driving the news, part 2: Axios' Nathan Bomey reports that Caterpillar, BNSF Railway and Chevron yesterday announced a plan to develop a hydrogen-powered locomotive system. Go deeper

Why it matters: The agreements signal how oil giants are increasingly moving into cleaner energy sources.

But oil and gas remain their dominant business lines and the lion's share of their investments.