Sep 16, 2020

Axios Generate

Ben Geman

Good morning. Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,180 words, 4.5 minutes.

🖥 Worthy of your time: Join Axios' Amy Harder tomorrow at 12:30pm ET for a virtual event on the growth of clean energy, featuring Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Amazon's head of worldwide sustainability Kara Hurst. Register here.

🎵 Happy birthday to the great rock drummer Kenney Jones of The Faces, who have today's rollicking intro tune...

1 big thing: The case for energy tech investment
Reproduced from Columbia's Center on Global Energy Policy; Note: The budget for FY21 is not yet finalized. Budgets for FY22-FY26 are the author's proposed funding; Chart: Axios Visuals 

A pair of new reports argue for greatly expanding American R&D into climate-friendly energy tech at a time when the political terrain for big spending increases could soon become more fertile.

Why it matters: Joe Biden is vowing a major investment push if elected and the report could influence the scope and specifics of those research, development and demonstration plans.

  • Also, congressional Republicans are generally more open to R&D funding increases than new climate standards and fossil fuel restrictions (though Biden's platform has those too).

Driving the news: A Columbia University energy think tank is out with a detailed proposal for tripling U.S. "innovation" investment over the next five years to $25 billion and restructuring federal oversight.

  • "U.S. research institutions and private firms are capable of absorbing this scale of federal support and translating it into rapid technological progress — delivering economic returns that far outstrip public investments," it states.
  • However, the U.S. has "neglected energy innovation," per the report from Columbia's Center on Global Energy Policy and the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.
  • The U.S. spends under $9 billion per year on energy innovation, far less than federal investments in advances in health and defense tech, it says.

How it works: The plan delves into specific agencies and program areas that should receive more money. (The chart above is a highly condensed summary.)

  • Overall, it groups the proposal around 10 "technology pillars," such as clean electricity, advanced transportation, industrial decarbonization, and clean agriculture.
  • It also recommends a presidential directive creating a "National Energy Innovation Mission" and setting up a new White House-led task force to coordinate the increased funding.
  • The Washington Examiner has more on the plan and the political landscape here.

Separately, the Bill Gates-led group Breakthrough Energy commissioned PricewaterhouseCoopers to look at the economic spillover effects of federal R&D investments.

  • Their new analysis examined R&D in health, defense and energy and found substantial economic benefits.
  • "In 2018, public R&D investment directly and indirectly supported more than 1.6 million U.S. jobs, $126 billion in labor income, $197 billion in added economic value, and $39 billion in federal and state tax revenue," it states in calling for higher levels.

Threat level: "Unfortunately, we are falling behind on developing the clean energy technologies we need to get to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century," it warns.

Bonus chart: Why new tech matters

Screenshot of IEA's Clean Energy Innovation report

A recent International Energy Agency study found that "major acceleration in clean energy innovation" is needed to achieve net-zero global emissions in the middle of the century.

The big picture: The chart above looks at additional emissions cuts based on levels of tech readiness in IEA's Paris-aligned "sustainable development" case, relative to nations' existing and planned policies.

Why it matters: It shows how deeply decarbonizing the global economy will require aggressively deploying existing tech, the evolution of that tech, and new breakthroughs.

Go deeper: The long road to clean energy innovation

2. Nikola reportedly facing 2 federal inquiries
Souce: Giphy

The electric and fuel cell truck startup Nikola is increasingly under the microscope following a short-seller's allegations that it made false statements about its tech and planned products.

Driving the news: The Financial Times reported Tuesday afternoon that the Justice Department is "making inquiries" following last week's claims by Hindenburg Research.

  • The Wall Street Journal confirmed the report about inquiries from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York.
  • The news follows revelations of a SEC inquiry into the Hindenburg report that called Nikola an "intricate fraud." Nikola disputes the findings.

Catch up fast: The turmoil comes on the heels of the Sept. 8 announcement that GM is taking an 11% stake in Nikola, will engineer and manufacture its Badger pickup, and supply tech for that product and its planned semitrucks.

Why it matters: The controversy comes at a time of growing investor interest in EV startups and corporate partnerships with legacy automakers.

Go deeper: Axios' Dan Primack and Joann Muller chatted about Nikola and what its troubles mean for GM on the latest "Axios Re:Cap" podcast.

3. BP's renewable plans come into focus

BP is providing more info this week about its decades-long plan to diversify away from its dominant fossil fuel business — including expectations for the first few years.

Driving the news: Via Bloomberg, BP's plan will "start with a five-year sprint to dramatically boost wind and solar power."

  • "By 2025, the company intends to have approved more than 20 gigawatts of renewable energy projects, an eightfold increase from 2019, Dev Sanyal, BP’s executive vice president of gas and low-carbon energy, said in an online presentation on Tuesday."

Why it matters: European-based global oil giants are all vowing some kind of decades-long pivot toward more climate-friendly products and deep emissions cuts.

  • So the specifics of BP's effort and their ability to make good on their splashy climate pledges will be closely watched.

How it works: Their piece and this Greentech Media story note BP sees returns of 8%–10% on renewables projects, far above the typical amount.

  • Per Greentech, BP CEO Bernard Looney sees four reasons why they can push up returns.
  • "Those factors are BP's projects and operations experience, its power trading capabilities, its ability to eke out better operational efficiency, and its financing capabilities," they report.
4. Chart of the day: The future of coal
Data: BP Energy Outlook; Chart: Danielle Alberti/Axios

Speaking of BP, the biggest takeaway from its annual long-term outlook was about peak oil demand, but there are other interesting points in the report as well— including its take on coal's future.

The big picture: The chart above is their stab at coal's future under three broad scenarios.

  • "Business as usual" represents what happens if "government policies, technologies and social preferences continue to evolve in a manner and speed seen over the recent past."
  • The other two scenarios represent an energy system consistent with meeting the temperature-limiting goals of the Paris Agreement.

Why it matters: While global consumption is already heading downward, the slope of the decline absent much stronger policies is nowhere near consistent with holding the temperature rise in check.

5. Catch up fast: lobbying, EU, politics

Beltway: "The Business Roundtable, a major trade association that claims some of the largest and most influential firms in the U.S. as members, will endorse a 'market-based mechanism' to curb greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change." (Politico)

Climate: "The European Union's top official proposed a more ambitious target Wednesday for cutting greenhouse gas emissions in Europe, setting a reduction goal of at least 55% by 2030 compared to the current target of 40%." (AP)

Election 2020: "Scientific American backed former Vice President Joe Biden for president on Tuesday — marking the first time the publication has made a presidential endorsement in its 175-year history." (Axios)

6. Quote of the day: An against-the-grain idea
"I probably have a somewhat contrarian view. In my view, in the short term the U.S. oil and gas industry might even benefit from Biden’s administration."

Who said it: Rystad Energy analyst Artem Abramov, speaking on the latest episode of the "Capitol Crude" podcast from S&P Global Platts.

The intrigue: It's heterodox because Joe Biden's plans call for new restrictions on oil development (though not a fracking ban), and accelerated steps to move transportation away from oil.

Yes, but: Abramov argues that Biden’s non-energy policies, like easing U.S.-China trade tensions and taking more effective steps to control COVID-19, would have bullish spillover effects for oil.

How it works: “All these things, they are beneficial for the global macro-environment, global economy,” he said.

  • “Ultimately we will see some positive impact on global oil consumption, which will in turn be positive for oil prices, and oil price is really the most important driver of oil activity in the U.S.”
Ben Geman