Aug 13, 2018

Axios Generate

By Ben Geman
Ben GemanAmy Harder

Good morning, did you miss us? 

With my latest Harder Line column, I wanted to find a new angle about coal that wasn't the tired "Trump can't revive coal" storyline. I found a lot, including support for new coal technologies within the Energy Department. I'll share that, and then Ben Geman will you get you up to speed on the rest of the news. 

1 big thing: Coal seeks new high-tech life
Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Randy Atkins is trying to make coal great again, but not how President Trump has promised.

The intrigue: Atkins’ company, Ramaco Carbon, is working to open what would be Wyoming’s first coal mine devoted not to electricity, but to high-tech products like carbon fiber or 3D printing material. Atkins represents the leading edge of what could be a new, high-value market for coal after decades of being America’s cheapest power source.

Driving the news: A high-tech carbon industry could support an average of 2,600 jobs annually through 2035 in Wyoming, which is about a quarter of the state’s current manufacturing workforce. That's according to a report released today by American Jobs Project, a nonpartisan California-based think tank that looks at how advanced energy tech can drive local economies.

  • Atkins’ company is set to begin construction within weeks on a research center in Wyoming for high-tech coal products. Longer term, he plans to build an industrial park in the mold of Silicon Valley — but for coal.

The environmental and climate change impact of high-tech coal is less compelling than its economic potential.

  • Coal is still being mined.
  • From a climate perspective, turning coal into products gets at just half the problem: avoiding emissions from burning it for electricity. Using captured carbon dioxide emissions and turning that into products would be most optimal from a climate perspective, experts say. But on a cost basis, coal is cheaper than captured CO2.
  • “You cannot make that economic argument in the absence of a climate context,” said Volker Sick, a University of Michigan professor working to turn captured CO2 emissions into similar products Atkins is aiming to create with coal.

What’s next: The National Coal Council, a federal advisory committee to Energy Secretary Rick Perry, is preparing to write a report examining how coal can expand beyond electricity into products. It has asked Atkins to chair the effort, according to a draft letter viewed by Axios.

  • The council expects to receive an official directive from Perry to conduct the report next month. An Energy Department spokesperson declined to comment.

Read more in the Axios stream.

2. Big this week: Tesla's plan, shale, Congress
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Tesla's board plans to meet this week to lay out a path for reviewing CEO Elon Musk's plan to take the company private at $420-per-share, according to reports in CNBC and elsewhere.

Why it matters: Tesla is a pivotal player in electric vehicle markets, but there are big questions and immediate controversies surrounding Musk's plan. Some big ones include...

A couple other things on my radar...

Shale: The latest Energy Information Administration monthly snapshot of shale oil-and-gas production, called the Drilling Productivity Report, lands later today.

  • I'll be watching for any signs of a slowdown in Permian Basin growth as companies deal with pipeline capacity constraints.

Congress: The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee gathers Thursday to hear from White House nominees for two big Energy Department jobs — general counsel and head of DOE's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy.

  • Why it matters: William Cooper could have his hands full if confirmed as general counsel, thanks to brewing and controversial plans to aid economically struggling coal and nuclear plants.
3. Quote of the day
"The wildcard here is vehicle miles traveled...Whether or not that is bent up or down by ride-sharing and AVs is going to determine whether or not we are ever going to meet a climate target."
— Costa Samaras, assistant professor of engineering, Carnegie Mellon University

The context: That's Samaras responding to a question about whether the rise of ride-hailing companies and autonomous vehicles will spur growth or reductions in carbon emissions.

  • The comment is part of a wide-ranging chat about transportation and electric cars on The Energy Transition Show with Chris Nelder.

Why it matters: Transportation is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions — in fact it's now the largest source in the U.S. A big question is how seismic changes in mobility enabled by companies like Uber and Lyft — and eventually the adoption of advanced driverless tech — will affect the climate.

(Note: Nelder offers a roughly 20-minute excerpt of each podcast episode for free, but I recommend buying a subscription to get the entire interviews.)

Go deeper: How Uber is making traffic even worse; Uber and Lyft urge carbon cuts.

4. Axios Expert Voices: climate, EVs, microgrids

Cobalt miners sorting minerals on the road between Kolwezi and Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, on February 15. Photo: Samir Tounsi/AFP via Getty Images

A few recent pieces in our Expert Voices section are worth your time...

Microgrids: Andy Huan of Schneider Electric unpacks the role microgrids can play in the overhaul of the nation's rusty power network, noting they offer a promising way to provide stable, green and cost-efficient energy.

Natural gas: David Livingston of The Atlantic Council looks at the role of natural gas in the transition to decarbonized power.

  • In the U.S., he notes there are "early signs of price-competitive solar-plus-storage or wind-plus-storage projects, such as in a recent Colorado auction, that would turn gas into renewables’ competitor, rather than complement, to play the role of base-load power."

Coal: Anna Mikulska of the Baker Institute's Center for Energy Studies sizes up the implications of strong coal demand in developing countries and explains why it remains such an attractive fuel.

  • "As the world experiences one of the hottest summers on record, and despite increasing recognition of the negative effects that greenhouse gases have on earth’s climate, the projected consumption of coal — the most CO2-intensive fossil fuel — is staying surprisingly strong," she writes.

Batteries: Maggie Teliska of Caldwell Intellectual Property looks at the role of cobalt — a vital material with a supply chain linked to human rights abuses — in electric vehicle batteries.

  • "Battery manufactures will continue reducing cobalt in their battery chemistries, but replacing cobalt completely will likely take several years. In the meantime, Global Energy Metals predicts that global annual cobalt demand will exceed 120,000 tons by 2020, with roughly 60% going toward battery production," she writes.
5. On my screen: FERC, cybersecurity, shale

Power: Politico reported last week that the White House plans to tap Bernard McNamee, a top DOE policy aide, for the vacant spot on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

  • The intrigue: Via S&P Global Platts, "McNamee's backing of DOE initiatives to keep coal and nuclear power plants afloat could stoke gas industry fears of erosion to their edge in wholesale power markets."

Shale: Per WSJ, "American oil companies — primed to reap the benefits of rising prices after years of wringing more from wells for less — are seeing profits erode in the face of rising costs."

Deepwater: The Financial Times reports that Royal Dutch Shell is eyeing a "cash bonanza from traditional deepwater projects despite a growing focus on new US shale investments."

Cybersecurity: A new FiveThirtyEight feature notes that cyber threats against U.S. power networks are very real, but explains why fears of a catastrophic attack are probably overblown.

  • "Our electric infrastructure is chock-full of both redundancies and regional variations — two things that impede widespread sabotage," the story notes.
6. Zooming out on LNG, climate lawsuits, EVs

Here are a few pieces that put today's headlines into context...

LNG: Over at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Nikos Tsafos has a helpful and lucid primer about the prospect for expanded U.S. LNG shipments to Europe.

  • Why it matters: Trump has repeatedly touted the prospect of expanding what's now fairly limited exports to the continent.
  • Yes, but: There's reason to be skeptical that Europe will ever buy large volumes of U.S. gas, despite concerns about over-reliance on Russia, because there are cheaper and closer options.

Electric vehicles: A McKinsey & Co. analysis published last week has a two-part conclusion about what EV growth will (and won't) mean for power demand.

  • They don't see EV growth causing large increases in demand through at least 2030.
  • But EV charging could strain local infrastructure in regions with higher EV penetration by adding to peak demand when people plug in after work.
  • The bottom line: Without good grid management, that could push local transformers beyond their limits and require costly upgrades.
  • What's next: Policies including time-of-use power pricing provide EV owners with incentives to charge after midnight instead of in the evening.

Climate change: Over at The Federalist Society, a series of arguments and counter-arguments explores local government lawsuits that seek to use public nuisance laws to force oil companies to pay for climate-related damages, such as sea-level rise.

  • The latest: David Bookbinder of the libertarian Niskanen Center, which is working with plaintiffs in Colorado, makes the case that using the courts is a fundamentally conservative idea.
  • He also seeks to rebut the idea, articulated in recent judge's rulings against two of these suits, that the courts are not the appropriate venue for climate policy.
  • "They are not comprehensive attempts to address the long-term problem of climate change. They are simply attempts by local governments to have the people responsible for creating the problem help pay to fix it, rather than foisting these increasing costs on to their taxpayers," Bookbinder writes.
Ben GemanAmy Harder