Nov 8, 2018

Axios Generate

Welcome back!

Today marks 30 years since R.E.M. released "Green." So let's get into today's edition with the sound of the travel and the engine...

1 big thing: A power giant's Silicon Valley push

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The huge power company National Grid unveiled a venture capital arm Thursday and announced the first wave of what's slated to be $250 million worth of investments over the next 2–3 years.

What's new: They're focused on the intersection of information tech and low-carbon energy services, including solar power, electric vehicles and storage.

Why it matters: The launch of Silicon Valley-based National Grid Partners signals how a big, traditional utility hopes to benefit from technologies that will shake up how power is provided and consumed in the future.

That's a better path than sitting back and then getting undercut in the future.

“We want to disrupt ourselves before we are disrupted.”
— National Grid Partners' Lisa Lambert

The big picture: The new branch is designed to be an in-house VC firm for the power giant. But more broadly, it's aiming to help incubate and develop companies, while bringing more innovation overall to National Grid, which provides power and gas to millions of customers in the U.K. and northeast U.S. states.

  • National Grid Partners envisions making 10–15 investments per year, ranging from seed capital to late-stage funding.
  • In addition to being investors, they plan to form what Lambert called "strategic" commercial agreements with some companies they support.
  • Lambert, who is heading the effort, is a longtime VC veteran who came to National Grid in January after gigs at Intel Capital and The Westly Group, a prominent VC firm.

Details: The company today announced its first 5 investments totaling $19 million. The recipients are...

  • AutoGrid, a company that provides software to help enable power grids with more renewable and distributed resources.
  • ClimaCell, a weather data company that National Grid Partners notes can "provide by-the-minute demand response for the smart grid for business optimization as well as asset-specific outage forecasts for storm response."
  • Leap, a company that provides distributed energy trading services which, per the announcement, "enables a more effective monetization of grid services."
  • Omnidian, a firm that provides monitoring, maintenance and "performance guarantees" for solar power projects, among other services.
  • Sitetracker, which provides software that helps industries including power companies manage their infrastructure.

Separately, speaking of National Grid, the Financial Times reports Thursday:

"Profits National Grid edged down in the first half of the year, hit by storms in the US and the country’s recent tax reforms as well as the return of funds it had been allowed to collect for a project that did not go ahead."
2. Reality-checking Trump's oil price boast

Here's something President Trump said during his lengthy press conference yesterday:

"If you look at oil prices, they've come down very substantially over the last couple of months. That's because of me."

By the numbers: Oil prices have dropped a lot since early October, when the benchmark Brent crude price was roughly $86 per barrel compared to roughly $73 now.

  • The U.S. benchmark WTI has similarly dropped from around $76 to $62.

Reality check: Trump is claiming too much credit for the trajectory of global oil prices. Instead, several forces have put downward pressure on crude lately, as CNBC notes here, including...

  • The broader market sell-off.
  • Signs of softening demand growth.
  • Related concerns about the effect of the U.S.-China trade battle.
  • Higher OPEC output.
  • The continued U.S. production boom, which Trump did not cause.

But, but, but: CNBC's Tom DiChristopher points out that Trump can take some credit for prodding Saudi Arabia, OPEC's dominant producer, to boost output:

"Output from Saudi Arabia, Russia and other crude-exporting nations is on the rise, and analysts generally believe that’s in part because the Trump administration asked the Saudis to pump more oil to offset the impact of sanctions on Iran."

In addition, U.S. officials signaled in advance that they were preparing to provide wiggle room on sanctions to some Iranian crude buyers, which indeed came to pass this week. Trump said...

"It’s a very fragile market. Very, very fragile. I know it very well. And it’s the absolute right decision."
3. Tesla's new board chair and more EV notes

Tesla has appointed Robyn Denholm as the new chairman of its board, where she's been an independent member since 2014, to replace Elon Musk, Axios' Kia Kokalitcheva reports.

  • She will leave her job as finance chief of Telstra to focus full time on Tesla.

Why it matters: This is a welcome change in corporate governance for Tesla investors who have become concerned about Musk's workload since he's also CEO of SpaceX.

* * *

Elsewhere in the electrified transportation world...

Ford: Kia broke the news yesterday that Ford Motor has agreed to buy electric scooter startup Spin.

  • The deal is worth close to $100 million, according to 2 sources, though another earlier put the price tag in the range of $40 million, which is around where Spin was valued after its Series A funding last year.
  • Why it matters: Ford had already dipped its toes into scooters with the recent roll out of its Jelly service on the campus of Purdue University, which also happens to be Spin CEO Derrick Ko's alma mater.
  • Go deeper: Read Ford's announcement this morning and The Wall Street Journal's coverage.

Mazda: Via Bloomberg this morning, "Mazda Motor Corp. is accelerating a push into electrified vehicles, planning a slew of introductions by 2021 to help avoid European Union fines for failing to cut greenhouse gas emissions."

Hyundai: Per Reuters, Hyundai is launching an EV collaboration with the Singapore-based ride-hailing firm Grab, news that comes alongside Hyundai's announcement of an additional $250 million investment in the company.

  • From their story: "Hyundai and affiliate Kia Motors Corp will launch pilot electric vehicle (EV) projects in Southeast Asia next year, starting with Singapore, where 200 EVs will be leased to Grab drivers, Hyundai said in a statement."
4. Green group: Keep nuclear plants running

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Axios' Amy Harder reports that a high-profile, science-based environmental nonprofit is calling for financially struggling nuclear power plants to remain open to help fight climate change.

Why it matters: In a new report, the Union of Concerned Scientists is joining a growing number of environmental leaders to back existing nuclear power because of climate reasons, despite continued concerns about the technology’s safety and radioactive waste.

“We’re in a place right now from a climate perspective we have to make some hard choices. We need every low-carbon source of power we can get.”
— Steve Clemmer, co-author, UCS' director of energy research and analysis

The intrigue: Environmental groups are increasingly debating to what degree they should vocally support keeping existing reactors that are operating safely but are financially struggling.

  • UCS, while never officially taking an anti-nuclear power stance, has been one of the most vocal critics of the industry about safety.
  • While Clemmer says this isn’t a shift in his group’s position, it is a change to become more vocal. It could prompt scrutiny across other environmental groups.

The big picture: Nuclear power provides 20% of America’s electricity, but roughly 60% of our carbon-free electricity.

  • A seminal United Nations report released last month said nuclear power was a key part of sufficiently addressing climate change.
  • But, cheap natural gas and subsidized renewable energy over the last decade have financially squeezed many U.S. nuclear power plants.

Details: The UCS report finds that more than one-third of America’s nuclear plants will or could be shuttered within the next decade and that they would be replaced by natural gas or coal.

Go deeper: Read Amy's full story in the Axios stream.

5. A burst of LNG news

Sempra: The U.S.-based company said yesterday that it has agreements with buyers for a planned LNG export project on Mexico's West Coast. The company announced deals with Total, Mitsui, and Tokyo Gas for gas from the Energia Costa Azul project in Baja California, Mexico.

  • What they're saying: Via FT, "Jeff Martin, Sempra’s chief executive, said being on the west coast would give its plant a competitive advantage in the Asian markets that are expected to be the source of most of the growth in demand for LNG in the coming decades."

Cheniere: S&P Global Platts reports "Poland's dominant natural gas producer and distributor PGNiG said Thursday it has signed a 24-year LNG supply deal with Cheniere Marketing International for around 40 Bcm of gas deliveries as it continues efforts to diversify away from Russian gas."

Toshiba: Per Reuters, "Japan’s Toshiba Corp will exit its U.S. liquefied natural gas (LNG) business by paying China’s ENN Ecological Holdings Co more than $800 million to take over the unit as part of a plan to shed money-losing assets."

6. How energy and science could mix in Congress

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

At least 7 new members of Congress elected Tuesday have STEM backgrounds — an unusually large number that comes in part due to a concerted effort to recruit candidates with science backgrounds, Axios' Andrew Freedman reports.

Why it matters: Typically, there are just a handful of House members who have science, technology, engineering or mathematics backgrounds. Science advocates also have encouraged more candidates with backgrounds in medicine to run for office.

  • Having a larger crop of members who understand complex scientific topics, from climate change to nuclear engineering, could result in legislation that better incorporates scientific information.
  • It could also improve oversight of science-focused agencies like NASA and the Energy Department, experts told Axios.

The big picture: Scientists were mobilized by how swiftly and broadly the Trump administration moved to roll back regulations on climate change, land use and other issues.

Read more: Midterms send STEM specialists to Congress