Oct 18, 2021

Axios Generate

Good morning! Today's Smart Brevity count is 1,363 words, 5.5 minutes.

📊 Data point of the day: 20%, the estimated extra CO2 emissions from ride-hailing vehicles compared to personal vehicles, per a new study. Go deeper

🚗 Situational awareness: "Toyota Motor Corp. and Jeep parent Stellantis said separately Monday they would build battery factories in the U.S., the latest in a string of big-ticket investments by auto makers looking to sell more electric cars." (WSJ)

🎧 Ben joined the Axios Today podcast to chat about hurdles facing climate legislation in Congress. Have a listen.

🎶 And happy birthday (it was Sunday) to Wyclef Jean, who has this week's first intro tune...

1 big thing: Democrats' clean power outlook is very muddy

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Here are two big questions as a key Democratic proposal to slash emissions from power generation flounders: how much its demise would sap climate protections, and what might replace it, Ben writes.

Catch up fast: New financial carrots and sticks for utilities to deploy zero-carbon power — the Clean Electricity Performance Program (CEPP) — look unlikely to stay in Democrats' big social spending and climate bill.

Backers have been unable to get buy-in from Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), the chairman of the Senate's energy committee and whose state is a big coal and natural gas producer.

Why it matters: The CEPP is an important part of the White House plan to achieve 100% zero-carbon power by 2035.

Climate-friendly power is needed for Biden's wider pledge under the Paris Agreement to cut economy-wide emissions by 50% by 2030.

More broadly, if the wider social and clean energy bill is stalled or gutted, it makes it harder for the U.S. to push other nations for aggressive steps at the upcoming UN climate summit.

What we're watching: A Democratic aide tells Axios that lawmakers’ offices are seeking other ways to help make up emissions cuts the CEPP would have provided.

  • The Washington Post reports of talks over a voluntary emissions trading program among metals, concrete and chemical industries that would provide federal funding for emissions cuts.
  • In recent weeks Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has discussed a carbon tax that would return revenues to the public. But carbon taxes face gigantic political hurdles.

The intrigue: One important thing is how much other parts of the Democrats' plan and bipartisan infrastructure legislation would speed the ongoing shift toward zero-carbon sources like wind and solar. Check out the next item for more.

2. The climate toll of killing the CEPP

Several analysts have tried to game out the CEPP's impact. The upshot? It's really big! But so are the tax provisions in the Democrats' plans, and estimates of their relative effects vary, Ben writes.

By the numbers: Resources for the Future, a nonpartisan think tank, estimates that with no policy changes, power sector emissions in 2030 are 43% lower than 2005 levels.

  • The tax incentives in the Democrats' plan bump that to 72% while adding the CEPP increases the total to 81%. So the tax credits do more in their study, but there's some nuance here.
  • They didn't analyze the CEPP in isolation, but rather as policy layered onto tax incentives that drive lots of deployment. "We can’t really directly compare the two policies," RFF analyst Nicholas Roy said via email, noting it also depends on how the CEPP is implemented.

Meanwhile, the Rhodium Group recently published initial modeling of a few big-ticket items in the Democrats' legislation and the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

  • Their "mid" technology costs analysis shows the CEPP and tax provisions providing the vast bulk of the 715 million tons of power-sector CO2-equivalent emissions cuts in 2030 compared to current policy.
  • That's about twice the emissions cuts expected with the tax credits alone, Rhodium's John Larsen tells me.
  • Overall, the power sector CO2 cuts from those programs do the heaviest lifting in their wider analysis that we explored here.
  • It shows the various provisions modeled — which also include EV incentives and a fee on methane emissions — taking a huge bite out of emissions cuts needed to reach the White House pledge under Paris.

Energy Innovation, a clean energy research firm, is also out with modeling of the bills in Congress and shows the tax credits and CEPP combined providing the most emissions cuts, calling both vital.

3. Climate solutions media company launches

Illustration: Rae Cook/Axios

Pique Action, a new media company launching today, is betting that short-form "micro-documentaries" that tell stories about people working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will help to counteract our doom-scrolling tendencies, Andrew writes.

Why it matters: The media company, launched by Kip Pastor (whose credits include "In Organic We Trust" and "Sickhouse," shot and distributed on Snapchat) and social media strategist Tyler Steinhardt, will distribute positive stories about climate solutions through social media platforms like YouTube, TikTok, Snapchat and Twitter.

Details: Pastor, the co-founder and CEO, told Axios he has been funding the nascent organization on his own as it gets up and running, but the company is in the middle of a fundraising round.

  • Videos on its site range from stories shot in Bangalore to Berkeley, including one on a company called CarbonCure that's working to store carbon dioxide in cement.

What they're saying: "We want to change this culture of doom," Pastor told Axios.

  • "And the way we're going to do that is with short-form viral content on social media."

Yes, but: Getting videos to go viral is tough, particularly for complex topics like climate change. Pastor said they are working with popular TikTok creators to get their first batch of stories out starting in the next few days.

  • The company also plans to do creative services and branded content work as well.

The bottom line: If Pique can break through climate change pessimism and disaster porn with positive stories about change-makers, it could prove useful.

  • If not, well, at least they tried?
4. Visualizing oil's economic footprint in Texas
Data: Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas; Note: A very small amount of the totals reflect mining activity; Chart: Thomas Oide/Axios

Oil and gas production is a key part of the Texas economy, but the state is poised to perform well even if tackling global warming sends the sector into decline, a Dallas Fed analysis argues, Ben writes.

The big picture: Energy price swings have long affected Texas' financial fortunes, with sharp declines "depressing broader activity." But the relationship has its limits.

  • From the early 1980s until the early 2000s, production declined yet Texas' economy kept outperforming the nation, the analysis notes.

Why it matters: "This experience suggests that the relative strength of the Texas economy could persist in coming decades even if the upstream oil and gas sector experiences a long-term decline due to the energy transition," write economists Christopher Slijk and Keith R. Phillips.

How it works: The state's economy has been diversifying for decades. Oil-and-gas production's share of the economy remained below its early 1980s peak even after the fracking boom began in the 2000s.

  • Some diversification has been into sectors linked to oil and gas, like petrochemicals.
  • But there's also tech, renewable power, computer IT services and more.

The bottom line: "Over the next several decades, the enduring factors that have drawn people and businesses to Texas are likely to continue to play an outsized role in determining the state’s growth premium relative to the U.S."

5. Meet GE's flexible power transformer

The GE Research and Prolec GE flexible transformer. Photo courtesy of Cooperative Energy

A Mississippi utility is installing what's being billed as "the world's first large flexible transformer" — an Energy Department-backed project aimed at boosting grid resilience and smoothing integration of renewables, Ben writes.

Driving the news: GE Research and Prolec GE, working with the Mississippi power company Cooperative Energy, this morning are announcing the launch of a six-month field demonstration at a big substation in Columbia, Mississippi.

Why it matters: The "flexible" transformer has advantages over traditional models customized to specific voltage levels and other conditions, the companies and DOE said.

The big picture: The companies, which released this video promo, said it can better withstand extreme weather and is also an easier and faster replacement when extreme weather has damaged a traditional transformer.

  • "As opposed to a one-to-one replacement, the flexible transformer could serve as a universal spare or replacement for multiple transformers spanning a wide range of voltage and impedance levels," they said in a statement to Axios.
  • They also say the ability to handle this wider range will help enable companies to adapt as more wind and solar are added to power grids to address climate change.
6. Catch up fast on COP26: India and Australia

India, a major carbon emitter, is preparing to offer stronger 2030 emissions targets, per reports in the Economic Times and Bloomberg.

The updated target under the Paris Agreement could include a pledge to cut emissions intensity — that is, per unit of economic output — by at least 46%-48% below 2005 levels, the Economic Times reports.

Yes, but: The Sydney Morning Herald reports that Australia, a huge coal and gas exporter, will not strengthen its existing 2030 emissions-cutting target.

  • The decision will "disappoint key allies" hoping for new steps ahead of the UN climate summit, it reports.
  • Australia’s prime minister is, however, pushing for a 2050 net-zero emissions target.