April 24, 2023
🥞 Good morning! Today's newsletter has a Smart Brevity count of 1,199 words, 4.5 minutes.
🎧 Ben joined the Axios Today podcast to discuss looming EPA electricity regulations. Have a listen
🎶 This week in 1979, the late Donna Summer released the classic disco album "Bad Girls," which provides today's brilliant intro tune ...
1 big thing: What to watch in EPA's power plant climate rules
The Environmental Protection Agency is said to be nearing the release of draft rules to force carbon emissions cuts at the nation's power plants, Ben writes.
Why it matters: Electricity production is the second-largest source of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, mostly from coal- and gas-fired plants.
Driving the news: The New York Times reports that under the plan, these plants could need to end nearly all their emissions by 2040.
- Bloomberg has the same rough info, though both outlets caution the rules are still under construction.
- Green and industry groups have held meetings with White House and EPA aides in recent days — a frequent sign of an impending release.
What we're watching: A few things to keep in mind when the draft rules arrive in coming days or weeks ...
🧮 The math: The power sector has already been getting cleaner. Coal provided half of U.S. power 15 years ago but just a fifth last year, and renewables are growing fast.
- But the rules are a recognition that climate law carrots — via major clean power tax subsidies — need complimentary sticks to meet national climate goals.
- The White House has pledged a 50% cut to economy-wide emissions by 2030 when compared with 2005 levels, under the Paris Agreement.
- Separately, the White House has an aspirational target of 100% carbon-free power by 2035.
🤝🏽 The synergies: The rules, per multiple reports, won't require specific tech. Nonetheless, they will be a de facto mandate to use carbon capture and, at gas plants, hydrogen.
- So a big thing to watch is how much EPA sees the climate law — and the 2021 infrastructure law — making that tech competitive enough to meet the standards.
⚖️ The courts: A 2022 Supreme Court ruling constrained the EPA's power to impose regulations that pushed system-wide movement toward renewables.
- The new requirements are expected to instead focus "inside the fenceline" on emissions rates at power plants.
- But litigation is certain once they're finalized, so it's possible the high court could decide again whether they believe EPA stayed in its lane.
⏰ The clock: Bureaucratic wheels turn slowly. So, if a Republican wins the White House in 2024, the rules could be undone before they've really become facts on the ground.
2. A lithium plan with global repercussions
Chilean President Gabriel Boric's move to bring lithium extraction under state control is a major step in efforts by nations rich in energy transition resources to strengthen their hands, Ben writes.
Why it matters: Chile is the world's second-largest lithium producer, supplying a fourth of the global supplies of the metal, which is a critical component of EV batteries.
🏃🏽♀️ Catch up fast: Late last week, the left-wing president announced a "National Lithium Strategy," calling it a "fundamental step to link the economic development of Chile with the change towards a global green economy."
- One key part: The state would reportedly have a majority stake in new contracts.
- What will happen to existing contracts of the two major producers active there — SQM and Albemarle — is less certain.
- The FT notes they would "negotiate an unspecified state participation in their existing concessions, which run to 2030 and 2043 respectively."
What they're saying: "[I]t’s a quasi-nationalization in that the playing field will now be leveled in favor of the state,” Nicolás Saldías of the Economist Intelligence Unit tells AP.
🖼️ The big picture: It's part of a wider trend of countries looking to exert more control of materials in high (and growing) demand as the world shifts to more climate-friendly tech.
- For instance, Mexico nationalized lithium mining last year, while Reuters notes that Indonesia in 2020 banned exports of nickel ore as it looks to develop the full supply chain.
The bottom line, via Axios' Jael Holzman, an expert on resource geopolitics:
"Chile’s move demonstrates how the energy transition could invert colonialist resource market power dynamics, as the demand for minerals like lithium empowers nations in the Global South."
Bonus: The market absorbs the lithium news
Share prices of lithium producers active in Chile tumbled after announcement of the quasi-nationalization plan, Ben writes.
3. "Green Nobel" winner is reclaiming Indonesian forest land
Every year, six environmental activists from each of the world's inhabited continental regions are honored with the Goldman Environmental Prize, Axios’ Ayurella Horn-Muller writes.
Driving the news: One of this year's cohort has spent decades fighting for environmental preservation and Indigenous Indonesian rights.
Context: Based in North Sumatra, Indonesia, 46-year-old prize winner Delima Silalahi has been leading a campaign to reclaim ancestral tropical forest land for Indigenous Indonesian communities since 2013.
- Last year, the Indonesian government granted territory land rights over 17,824 acres of forest land to six communities in North Sumatra, reclaiming it from a company that had partially converted the land to an industrial eucalyptus plantation.
- Indonesia is one of the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases, much of which comes from forest and peatland clearance, Reuters reports.
What they're saying: "It has a deep meaning for us. It feels extraordinary," Silalahi tells Axios.
- Much of that carbon is released back into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming, when forests are lost to drivers of deforestation like large-scale plantation expansion.
4. New cash for "micro-fusion" startup
Fusion startup Avalanche Energy has closed a $40 million Series A round led by Lowercarbon Capital, with a suite of other backers including Founders Fund and Toyota Ventures, Ben writes.
Why it matters: If fusion can ever be commercialized, it heralds a promise of almost limitless power without the dangerous waste associated with traditional fission reactors.
Driving the news: Avalanche said its seeing fresh successes in testing its small "micro-fusion" reactors, which it says enable "rapid development cycles at relatively low cost."
The big picture: Investors are increasingly interested in helping forge a pathway to viability for fusion, and there have been signs of progress in scientists' decades-long quest to realize its promise.
Avalanche is among the startups featured in this new, in-depth WSJ story on fusion and its billionaire backers.
What they're saying: "We want to build the smallest fusion reactor in the world. Then we’re talking about a project that’s maybe tens of millions of dollars, not billions, and you could actually do it with a small team," Avalanche CEO Robin Langtry tells the paper.
5. A vital race for new wildfire solutions
Xprize, a nonprofit that holds international contests to stimulate technological innovation, has launched an $11 million competition to transform how the world detects and fights wildfires, Axios' Jacob Knutson reports.
- In recent years, wildfires have injured, displaced or killed millions of people worldwide, causing billions of dollars in damages.
Driving the news: Xprize on Friday invited engineering teams from around the world to develop two different types of systems over four years.
- One should autonomously suppress fires minutes after they are discovered.
- The other — a space-based system — should quickly detect all fires across a massive area and transmit the data to authorities.
- The systems can rely on AI, drones, robotics, satellites, sensors and other technologies, per the announcement.
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🙏 Thanks to Lisa Hornung and Javier E. David for edits to today's edition.