Jul 19, 2019

Axios Generate

By Ben Geman
Ben GemanAmy Harder

Happy Friday! Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,121 words, ~ 4 min read.

Tomorrow will mark the 1993 release date of Cypress Hill's "Black Sunday," which provides today's skunky, funky intro tune...

1 big thing: New York's mighty (offshore) wind

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

New York State officials yesterday announced that Norway-based Equinor and a joint venture that includes Denmark's Orsted had won the solicitation to build 2 large offshore wind projects totaling around 1.7 gigawatts.

Why it matters: It's the biggest offshore wind agreement in the U.S. to date and, per New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office, will provide enough electricity for over 1 million homes.

  • The projects — 1 from Equinor and another from Orsted-Eversource Energy JV — are slated for completion by 2024, per Greentech Media.

Quick take: It highlights something we wrote about in March — the marriage of aggressive policies in northeastern U.S. and deep-pocketed, experienced Europe-based players is finally jumpstarting offshore wind in the U.S.

Where it stands: Action in several states is leading some analysts to revise their projections for U.S. offshore wind.

  • BloombergNEF recently upgraded their forecast to 15.4 GW of U.S. offshore wind capacity by 2030, up from 11.4 GW in their prior analysis.
  • Max Cohen of IHS Markit says that consultancy will soon be revising its estimates too, from the current projection of 7 GW by 2030.
  • Combine the "flurry" of contracting from New York and New Jersey with the legislative mandates for offshore wind in NY, Connecticut and Maryland, and the estimate rises a lot, Cohen says via email.

The bottom line: "These are very positive sign posts for the industry, and though there are still risks and some of these projects/targets could be delayed, we are tentatively thinking more like 11 GW by 2030 is likely," Cohen says.

2. Breaking: Toyota and BYD join forces on EVs

Toyota and the China-based electric automaker BYD today announced a new development partnership in the latest sign of industry collaboration on electric vehicles.

The big picture: "The two parties will jointly develop sedans and low-floor SUVs as well as the onboard batteries for these vehicles and others with the aim to launch them in the Chinese market under the Toyota brand in the first half of the 2020s," they said in a statement.

The intrigue: Via Reuters, "Widely considered a late comer in embracing battery EVs versus rivals including Nissan, Toyota had flagged in June that it aimed to get half of its global sales from EVs, including gasoline hybrids, by 2025, five years ahead of schedule."

3. A cautious take on batteries

Speaking of EVs, the Wall Street Journal's Stephen Wilmot has a new column cautioning against the assumption that battery costs will keep dropping in a way that mirrors solar panels and consumer electronics.

Why it matters: Batteries are a large portion of the total cost of electric cars. And, as I mentioned in yesterday's Generate, the industry already is facing headwinds in the U.S. and China.

Threat level: "Betting on ongoing declines seems a risky strategy for car makers," Wilmot writes.

  • "One problem is that, whereas solar cells are made of abundant silicon, batteries contain volatile commodities. Input prices fell in 2018, but they could easily rise again as investment in extra mining and processing capacity slows."
  • Plus, Asian battery cell makers may be getting "wary" about making big but thus far unprofitable capital investments, he adds.

The other side: Axios' Steve LeVine, who wrote a book about batteries, tells me that while battery costs have dropped "steadily and astonishingly over the last 10 years," it's well known that they don't follow "Moore's law" (the principle about the doubling of computing chip power every 2 years even as costs fell).

"But over the last decade, battery costs have dropped from well over $1,000 a kw/h to between $100 and $200. This whole time $100 kw/h has been seen as the holy grail, when the electric drive train would become price-equivalent with internal combustion. To suggest that they would eventually get there felt like sorcery. Yet, here we are — almost there."
— Steve LeVine
4. Coal bankruptcies pile up...

Today Blackhawk Mining is slated to make a pre-packaged Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing that the Kentucky-based coal producer says will cut 60% of its debt and enable $150 million in new financing.

Why it matters: It's the latest in a string of coal company bankruptcies, which began before President Trump's tenure but have picked up lately. They signal the challenge he faces in making good on pledges to revive the sector.

Where it stands: Here's a tally of what the firm S&P Global Market Intelligence calls major U.S. coal company bankruptcies since the start of 2017...

  • Blackjewel, July 1, 2019
  • Cambrian Holding, June 16, 2019
  • Cloud Peak Energy, May 10, 2019
  • Trinity Coal, March 4, 2019
  • Mission Coal, Oct. 14, 2018
  • Westmoreland Coal, Oct. 9, 2018
  • Armstrong Energy, Nov. 1, 2017

But, but, but: While the industry's long-term decline in power markets is well-known, it doesn't explain all the problems in the wider industry that's facing significant debt.

  • For one thing, Blackhawk and some others who filed for bankruptcy produce metallurgical coal used in steelmaking.

What's next: Wood Mackenzie coal analyst Tony Knutson says that “we expect Blackhawk will make it through restructuring without any issues.”

  • “The market is better. It’s ok domestically and on a little bit of a downswing right now in Europe and globally, but it is definitely a lot stronger than any of the thermal markets,” he tells me.

Go deeper: Met coal producer Blackhawk Mining filing for a bankruptcy court restructuring (S&P Global)

5. ...and insurers are exiting too

Axios Expert Voices contributor Justin Guay explores the decision by the U.S. insurance company Chubb to limit coal-related underwriting and investing.

The big picture: The move expands a global trend that has seen 15 companies — underwriting a total of $313 million in premiums — announce new policy restrictions.

Why it matters: The proliferation of coal-exclusion policies at globally significant financial institutions — 113, per the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis — is leading large, diversified mining and utility companies to reduce their exposure to coal.

What's new: The policy from Chubb, the world’s largest publicly traded property and casualty insurer, will end new coverage for utilities and miners whose power generation or revenue is more than 30% derived from coal, in addition to phasing out existing relationships with such firms.

What to watch: Since rapid declines in coal power create risk for investors and insurance companies, higher costs of capital and rising premiums could become the “new normal.”

Read more

Guay directs global climate strategy at the Sunrise Project and advises the ClimateWorks Foundation.

6. Catch up fast: Aramco, coal, politics

Saudi Arabia: From the "once-bitten" files, Bloomberg reports that while Saudi Arabia is looking to revive dormant plans for the Aramco IPO, some banks are "questioning whether what could be the world’s biggest IPO is worth their time and effort."

  • "Some banks, which worked on the deal for more than two years before the oil giant put it on hold, are having internal discussions about whether to re-pitch for a role as the kingdom restarts preparations for the listing."

Oil markets: Per Reuters, "The International Energy Agency (IEA) is reducing its 2019 oil demand forecast due to a slowing global economy amid a U.S.-China trade spat, its executive director said on Thursday."

One more coal thing: Via E&E News, yet another U.S. coal-fired power plant is slated to shut down, and it's a big one.

  • "American Electric Power (AEP) agreed to shutter one of two 1,300-megawatt units at the Rockport plant in southern Indiana by 2028 under a modified consent decree approved by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio."
Ben GemanAmy Harder