Mar 19, 2020

Axios Generate

By Ben Geman
Ben GemanAmy Harder

Good morning and best wishes in these tough times. Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,365 words, 5 minutes.

And at this moment in 1999, TLC were atop the Billboard album charts with "FanMail," which provides today's beautiful intro tune...

1 big thing: The push for a greener coronavirus response

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Renewable energy industries and some Democrats have begun efforts to ensure the economic response to COVID-19 helps the sector that's suddenly facing strong headwinds.

Driving the news: Lawmakers and the White House are working on a $1 trillion rescue package, which is bringing new interest in how it will affect specific industries.

  • Renewables companies are among the sectors getting hit by the economic slowdown, and the industry has already had discussions with lawmakers' offices, as Morning Consult reported earlier this week.

Where it stands: Industry officials are taking pains to emphasize that COVID-19 is a public health crisis and back providing fast support to families and small businesses.

But they also say broader legislation under discussion to address the economic fallout should consider how the crisis is hitting the sector.

  • "Customer demand for solar has plummeted and companies are seeing significant construction slowdowns, project cancellations, labor shortages, and a host of logistical problems tied to equipment and delivery delays," said Abigail Ross Hopper, head of the Solar Energy Industries Association.

What's next: One set of goals is providing companies more flexibility around deadlines for using existing tax incentives, and changes to their structure to adapt to the economic shock, an industry official said.

  •  "Widespread supply chain disruptions and a rapid deterioration of the tax equity market are putting renewable energy projects significantly at risk," Bill Parsons, chief operating officer for the American Council on Renewable Energy, tells Axios.
  • He said Congress should provide "emergency relief" from so-called commence construction and placed-in-service deadlines that developers face to use credits, as well as "refundability to monetize time-sensitive renewable energy credits."
  • And a broader economic stimulus bill should include the new and extended clean energy tax incentives left on the cutting room floor in the late 2019 congressional spending deal, he said.
  • Per Morning Consult, the longstanding ad-hoc House group called the Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition has taken up the mantle of pushing for the tax provisions in the rescue package.

Flashback: There's precedent for using an economic rescue package to support climate-friendly sectors.

  • The $800 billion 2009 stimulus contained roughly $90 billion for a suite of low-carbon energy, efficiency and transit programs.
  • It included a program to provide grants in lieu of tax credits for renewables projects because the tax equity market had collapsed alongside the financial sector.
Bonus: Dems want climate constraints in airline bailout

Eight Senate Democrats say economic aid to the airline industry should come with environmental strings attached.

What they're saying: "Given the large carbon footprint of commercial aviation, requiring reductions in carbon emissions would represent a major step in curbing our nation’s greenhouse gas emissions," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and others in a new letter to Capitol Hill leaders.

Why it matters: Aviation accounts for roughly 2.5% of global carbon dioxide emissions, and the letter cites estimates that aviation emissions are forecast to triple by 2050.

Where it stands: The Trump administration is proposing $50 billion in aid for the airline sector as part of a wider, $1 trillion economic relief package.

Go deeper:

2. Where it stands: Oil and coronavirus

Oil prices are heading back upward a little this morning after the U.S. benchmark WTI fell by roughly 25% yesterday, but it's not clear if the small bounce is at all sustainable as COVID-19 craters demand.

The big picture: Per Reuters, the latest market moves stem from investors seeking to "assess how effective massive stimulus by central banks will be in shoring up the global economy as the shock from the coronavirus pandemic deepens."

Driving the news: WTI has clawed back a little to trade in the $22-per-barrel range this morning after falling to roughly $20 yesterday, the latest decline from the double-whammy of coronavirus and the collapse of OPEC-Russia's output-limiting deal.

But, but, but: The overall outlook is pretty bad. Per the Wall Street Journal, demand loss and the new supplies heading to the market mean that oil storage facilities could run out of space within months.

They cite analysts who say that could drive prices into the single-digits.

The Financial Times reports on how some oil companies are scrambling to stay afloat amid the price collapse, which has seen WTI fall from the $63 range early this year. The global benchmark Brent crude has had a similarly steep fall.

  • The FT reports that independent U.S. producers are "restructuring billions of dollars of debt or discussing new ways to stay afloat as collapsing oil prices and soaring bond yields threaten bankruptcies across the beleaguered shale sector."

While the shale sector is beginning severe cutbacks, Saudi Arabia, which is reducing prices and planning to boost supplies to the market, is feeling the pinch too. AP reports...

  • "Saudi Arabia said the government will cut spending by 5%, or about $13.3 billion, to offset the impact of plunging oil prices and the effects of the new coronavirus on its economic outlook and deficit."
3. Asian banks' climate gap
Data: Study of 18 central banks and monetary authorities from the Asia-Pacific region conducted in Q2 2019; Chart: Axios Visuals

Most Asian central banks and other monetary facilities say finance into low-carbon areas is important — but most have also not issued any policies on the matter, Axios' Amy Harder reports.

Why it matters: Asia is where the biggest growth and most future carbon emissions are coming from, so what monetary organizations there are doing — and not doing — will have an outsized impact on both climate change itself and the transition to cleaner energy sources.

How it works: The South East Asian Central Banks (SEACEN), a group based in Malaysia, sent a survey to its 35 members, associate members and observers, with 18 responding.

What they’re saying:

“The current coronavirus crisis will hopefully reinforce the point that the financial sector faces non-traditional risks that need to be mitigated, and that central banks need to develop their prudential frameworks to this effect. We have already missed the opportunity to implement sustainable crisis responses during the 2008-09 crisis. We should not waste another crisis.” — Ulrich Volz, co-author and expert on sustainable finance at SOAS University of London

What I'm watching: To what degree Asian countries, especially China, prioritize fossil fuels and/or cleaner energy technologies in any economic stimulus packages they consider.

4. Oil majors strike renewables deals

This morning the oil-and-gas giant Total said it's acquiring an 80% stake in a planned floating wind project off the coast of Wales.

Why it matters: Total said the deal with the developer Simply Blue Energy will make it one of the "first movers in this technology in the UK, the world’s largest offshore wind market."

The France-based multinational giant said it sees lots of potential in floating, as opposed to fixed-bottom, projects because they enable access to sites further offshore with strong winds.

Terms of the deal around the planned 96-megawatt Erebus project were not disclosed.

Meanwhile, the solar company Lightsource BP — which BP half-owns — this morning said it has completed a $250 million financing package for a 260-megawatt project 120 miles northeast of Dallas, Texas.

Why it matters: BP said the deal's structure shows solar's competitiveness and will leverage the company's other capabilities.

  • The power from the Lightsource BP project will be traded through a long-term agreement with BP.
  • "By ensuring a long-term price for the power BP ensures the project can be financed upfront," a project representative tells Axios.

The big picture: BP's incoming executive VP for low-carbon energy, Dev Sanyal, said in a statement that "power offtake structures widely and historically used for conventional generation are now gaining traction for solar energy projects."

HSBC Bank USA, National Westminster Bank PLC and Bank of America were all involved in the financing.

5. Catch up fast: COVID-19's energy sector toll

Shell and coronavirus: "Shell Chemical Appalachia announced Wednesday that it will suspend construction on its sprawling petrochemical project in Potter, Beaver County, which has come under fire in recent days for not shutting down with as many as 8,000 workers at the site." (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Tesla and coronavirus: "Tesla told Alameda County authorities Wednesday it has scaled back the workforce at its Fremont auto plant. But it was not clear what that means for the company’s production of electric vehicles." (Los Angeles Times)

And Reuters reports that Chinese electric automaker Nio "said on Wednesday there was substantial doubt in its ability to continue as a going concern."

The piece notes the company has been hurt by lower Chinese government support for EVs, but "coronavirus outbreak has exacerbated the company’s woes."

Ben GemanAmy Harder