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Sep 11, 2018

Axios Generate

Good morning and welcome back!

Join Axios' Kim Hart this Thursday in D.C. for conversations on the future of transportation in the era of autonomous vehicles with Rep. Robert Latta (R-Ohio), Global Automakers President & CEO John Bozzella, and SAE International CEO David Schutt. RSVP here

And happy 45th birthday to Bruce Springsteen's sophomore album, "The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle," which provides today's intro tune...

1 big thing: California's climate endgame


California just made a major move on climate change. But it comes with a big asterisk or two.

Driving the news: Gov. Jerry Brown signed an executive order yesterday aimed at making the entire state "carbon neutral" by 2045 and "carbon negative" thereafter.

That's in addition to signing, as expected, major legislation that would require the state's electricity to come solely from zero-carbon sources by the same date.

Why it matters: California is the world's fifth-largest economy, and the move — just ahead of a major climate summit in the state — is the latest and biggest example of local and regional governments acting on their own.

The intrigue: Executive orders lack the power of new statutes.

“It doesn’t have much enforcement teeth, but it is an important signal — the largest carbon neutral pledge by any economy,” Energy Innovation's Chris Busch tells Axios.

What they're saying: Busch and other sources I touched base with last night pointed out that past governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Brown have previously set climate targets by executive order that subsequently became law.

  • That includes the target of cutting statewide emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 (a goal the state already met), which became embedded in AB 32, the state's 2006 global warming law, and Brown's 2030 emissions target that also became codified.
  • “There’s a track record of these things [becoming law],” Busch says.

Yes, but: Achieving the target will ultimately rest on the advancement of various so-called negative emissions technologies — such as direct air capture and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage — and other challenges.

  • It'll be an immense task for the state's agencies to figure out how to implement the aspirational goal.
  • MIT Technology Review sums up the tough road ahead:
There are still major technological hurdles to cleaning up shipping, aviation, long-haul trucking, or other industries, and negative-emissions technologies haven’t been shown to work on a large scale yet.

Go deeper: The San Francisco Chronicle looks in detail at the move here, including this note of caution:

California had previously set a target of cutting the state’s greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050 — already considered a difficult task.
2. Early VC money likes electric vehicles
Expand chart
Adapted from IEA, with data from The Cleantech Group. Note: 2018 is through August. Investments include seed, series A and series B deals. Mobility service, internet-of-things, biochemical and AI startups are excluded unless directly energy-related; Chart: Axios Visuals

Early stage venture capital is increasingly flowing into electric vehicle companies, especially China-based firms, the International Energy Agency writes in a commentary.

Key quotes (emphasis added):

  • Venture capital investment in energy technologies is flourishing, with more money flowing in 2018 than in the first two quarters of any previous year.
  • But whereas the previous highpoint in 2008 was led by renewables — notably solar — it is now transportation that is getting all the attention, mostly electric vehicles.

By the numbers: Check out the chart above, which shows $3.45 billion of early stage VC money so far this year going into transportation-related startups.

Why it matters: At a time when renewables have become a mainstream electricity source, growing capital invested in the transportation space signals EVs are on their way to eventually becoming more than a niche market too.

  • The 2018 data — which IEA collected from The Cleantech Group's tracking service i3 Market Intelligence — continues a transport-focused trend evident last year and described in IEA's broader World Energy Investment report.

Yes, but: This month's IEA commentary by analyst Simon Bennett notes that the money's distribution is limited.

  • He cites the "willingness of investors — especially in Asia — to places a small number of very large bets on electric vehicle companies, which represent the hottest part of the market today."
  • This year has brought announcements of major funding rounds from companies, including Chinese-based firms Youxia Motors and Byton. Byton had announced $500 million in funding in June.
3. How mass transit and Uber can be friends

A cable par passes a line of taxicabs in San Francisco. Photo: Justin Sullivan via Getty Images

University of Michigan's Jonathan Levine writes for Axios Expert Voices ... Conventional bus and train transit excels at moving large volumes of passengers along busy corridors, but struggles to provide cost-effective service in outlying areas, where circuitous bus routes operate with few hourly boardings.

At the same time, on-demand transportation — Lyft, Uber and any of their future self-driving iterations — converges onto those busy corridors and exacerbates congestion. This mix creates unserved “transit deserts" with high need for public transportation but little availability.

Between the lines: A more efficient system would better tailor transit technologies to their environments — with buses and trains on heavily traveled routes and on-demand transportation in low-density areas — and integrate sparse areas with mainline service to overcome transit’s perennial "last-mile problem" at the beginning and end of trips.

Go deeper: Read his full piece in the Axios stream.

Levine is a professor of urban and regional planning at Michigan.

4. Number of the day: 366

366: As in $366 million, the funding level for the Energy Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy in a wider bicameral funding deal for several agencies that lawmakers announced yesterday.

Why it matters: The fiscal year 2019 "minibus" spending bill provides the agency — which funds outside research and development into next-wave energy tech — with a $13 million boost over current levels at a time when the White House has sought to kill ARPA-E.

  • The agreement signals how there's bipartisan support for innovation funding, even as the parties remain deeply split over regulatory policy, with most Republicans approving White House moves to pare back rules and Democrats bemoaning them.

By the numbers: The bill also provides a slight boost in funding to DOE's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, again batting aside administration proposals to deeply cut funding and instead providing nearly $2.4 billion.

  • It also provides increases in funding for fossil energy programs, which would get $740 million, and nuclear energy programs, which would see a boost to reach over $1.3 billion.
5. Following up: oil's cloudy crystal ball


The Wall Street Journal has a nice wide-angle look at conflicting projections about when global oil demand will peak.

ICYMI: Yesterday we covered a new report from the firm DNV GL that takes a more aggressive view than most forecasts by envisioning a 2023 peak in crude demand.

But they're not alone in the "it's-coming-soon market" this week. WSJ looks a new report on fossil fuel use more widely:

Demand for fossil fuels will peak around 2023, as increasingly cost-competitive solar and wind are buoyed by supportive government policies to displace growth in oil, coal and natural gas, according to an analysis by London-based think tank the Carbon Tracker Initiative.

Why it matters: As the WSJ and others note, the timing of an eventual demand peak has major ramifications for industry planning (and global emissions of course). WSJ's Sarah Kent reports...

Though most forecasts of oil’s demise project a long tail, the estimates put increased pressure on big oil companies to clarify how they intend to confront a looming energy transition.

Quick take: As Generate readers know (and WSJ lays out), projections by major forecasting bodies like the IEA and some big oil companies like BP and Exxon don't see anything like the kind of near-term peak in these new reports.

  • So keep an eye on whether analyses like the DNV GL study remain outliers, or whether we're seeing the beginnings of a shift in the conventional wisdom.
6. On my screen: methane, oil exports, batteries

Policy: Via the New York Times, the Trump administration is on the cusp of two moves aimed at easing restrictions on oil-and-gas industry releases of the potent greenhouse gas methane.

  • "The Environmental Protection Agency, perhaps as soon as this week, plans to make public a proposal to weaken an Obama-era requirement that companies monitor and repair methane leaks, according to documents reviewed by The New York Times."
  • The Interior Department, meanwhile, is on the cusp of finalizing a move to scuttle Obama-era restrictions on venting and flaring of gas from oil-and-gas operations on public lands, Coral Davenport reports.

Oil markets: Via Reuters, "U.S. oil exports to Japan and South Korea will rise to record highs this month as Asian refiners take advantage of the steep discounts American sellers are offering after losing Chinese customers amid the trade dispute between Washington and Beijing."

Batteries: Quartz looks at money coming into battery startups, focusing on Solid Power, which just announced $20 million in new funding from backers including Samsung, A123 Systems, and Hyundai Cradle.

  • It's a close look at the company's quest for a breakthrough in the race to create energy-dense solid-state batteries.
  • "Experts Quartz consulted believe that Solid Power has all the right ingredients in its solid-state battery and seems to be on the right track towards building a commercial product," Akshat Rathi reports