Apr 29, 2020

Axios Generate

Good morning. Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,192 words, 4.5 minutes.

And on this date in 1983, Men at Work released the album "Cargo," which provides today's intro tune...

1 big thing: A canceled EV underscores new headwinds

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The economic and logistical toll of the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the rollout of several electric vehicle models, and even canceling one project.

Driving the news: Ford and the EV startup Rivian just scrapped plans to jointly develop a vehicle under the Lincoln brand that would use Rivian's "skateboard" platform.

The companies cited the "current environment" in announcing the decision Tuesday.

Why it matters: Automotive News reports that it "appears to be the first announcement of a vehicle cancellation in the U.S. attributed to the crisis."

But beyond that cancelation, other product launches and schedules are being delayed as the EVs are caught up in the turmoil that's pushing back various types of cars.

Where it stands: Here are several models affected — or potentially affected — by the crisis.

  • Rivian has pushed production of its upcoming electric pickup and SUVs into the first half of 2021 to complete retooling of an Illinois factory.
  • General Motors told the EV site Electrek that a "refreshed" version of its Chevrolet Bolt has now been pushed into 2022.
  • Via coverage in Electrek and TechCrunch, the production and delivery timeline for Chinese EV startup Byton's M-Byte SUV is now uncertain.
  • Ford said yesterday that the timing of some of this year's product launches, including the Mustang Mach-E electric crossover, could slide, depending on how long its operations are disrupted.
  • The startup Lordstown Motors said last week that production of its Endurance pickup is now slated for January of 2021 instead of late this year.

The big picture: Beyond the immediate delays, the industry's big investments in electrification could be slowed.

"[We] anticipate many auto companies will cut back on their EV efforts or delay them significantly to address near term cash needs," Morgan Stanley analysts said in a note Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the consultancy Wood Mackenzie sees near-term effects on the consumer side, forecasting a 43% drop in global EV sales this year.

But, but, but: Ford, which has invested $500 million in Rivian, said in a statement that its "strategic commitment to Lincoln, Rivian and electrification remains unchanged" and that Lincoln will eventually develop an EV.

And more broadly, forces ranging from European emissions rules to China's support for its EV industry to automakers' environmental plans mean the sector's long-term direction hasn't changed.

The Wood Mackenzie analysis found that pent-up demand is expected to help a bounce back in sales later in the year, and the future trend is slated to remain upward.

2. Tesla under the microscope today
Data: Yahoo; Chart: Axios Visuals

Tesla, which dominates U.S. EV sales and has a growing global reach, will report its first-quarter earnings after markets close today.

The big picture: Bloomberg's preview of CEO Elon Musk's quarterly call tonight points out that Tesla's share price (see above) has been resilient despite production shutdowns from the pandemic.

However, they also caution: "He’ll probably have to assure the market that his lone U.S. vehicle-assembly plant in California can resume production relatively soon and that customers who are quarantining now will be chomping at the bit to buy Model Y crossovers and Model 3 sedans once they reemerge."

But, but, but: As Business Insider points out, the biggest COVID-19 disruptions began well into Q1, so "the impact of those difficulties won't show up until the company adds up the second-quarter numbers."

"More pressing is how Tesla plans to ride out the remainder of Q2 and stay afloat through a gradual restart of the US economy in the second half of the year," they report.

3. Continuity and rupture for renewables

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The downward march of solar and onshore wind power costs mean they're now the cheapest source of new power development for at least two-thirds of the global population, the research firm BloombergNEF said in a new analysis.

Why it matters: The annual survey of all-in costs for power projects underscores why analysts see COVID-19 slowing growth but not altering the fundamental trajectory of the technologies.

What they found: The levelized cost of electricity for utility-scale solar and onshore wind projects has fallen another 4% and 9% since just the second-half of 2019.

Wind has seen the steepest decline since 2015, they note. "This is mainly due to a scale-up in turbine size, now averaging 4.1 megawatts, and priced at about $0.7 million per megawatt for recently financed projects," they said.

What they did: The analysis measures the all-in costs of creating power, which means "development, construction and equipment, financing, feedstock, operation and maintenance."

But, but, but: The growing cost-competitiveness and often outright advantage that is driving growth in the sectors doesn't mean there aren't big problems due to COVID-19.

  • Multiple analysts have cut their forecasts for 2020 additions of new generating capacity.
  • The pandemic is disrupting supply chains and some project financing, and developers fear missing out on deadlines to use incentives.
  • The Financial Times reports today that in the wind sector, supply chain woes are "putting as much as 30 gigawatts of new capacity at risk in the US, China and Europe this year alone."

The intrigue: BloombergNEF notes that competing fuels are also seeing cost declines.

"Coal and gas prices have weakened on world markets. If sustained, this could help shield fossil fuel generation for a while from the cost onslaught from renewables," chief economist Seb Henbest said.

What we're watching: Whether calls from the UN, International Energy Agency, EU officials and others for boosting clean energy via economic rescue packages come to fruition.

Bonus: The cloudy landscape on Capitol Hill

ICYMI on our website, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell panned the idea of using a coronavirus stimulus bill to fund major infrastructure investment during a call with GOP senators yesterday.

Why it matters: The renewables industry has been lobbying for relief from deadlines to take advantage of tax incentives, and the ability to quickly monetize those credits.

Those efforts have met resistance thus far, and McConnell's comments are another indication that it's a tough sell.

Go deeper: Democrats' climate-focused infrastructure pitch already running against headwinds (Politico)

4. Petro notes: Prices, production and demand

Markets: "Oil prices climbed Wednesday after data suggested the U.S. may not run out of space to store its glut of crude as quickly as previously feared." (Wall Street Journal)

Policy: "Texas energy regulators will next week vote on a controversial proposal to reduce the state’s oil output after delaying it on concerns of legal challenges." (Reuters)

The future: "The coronavirus pandemic has destroyed demand for gasoline and jet fuel as billions of people stay home, and there's no guarantee it will ever fully recover despite rock-bottom prices." (CNN)

5. The oil sector's financial jeopardy
Adapted from S&P Global; Chart: Axios Visuals

Via Axios Markets Editor Dion Rabouin...More than 30% of debt from U.S. companies is trading at distressed levels and oil companies are particularly affected, ratings agency S&P Global reports.

State of play: "The U.S. distress ratio grew considerably to 30.2% as of April 10 from 24.9% as of March 16, with the highest proportion of distressed credits held by oil and gas issuers and financial institutions," analysts said in a recent note to clients.

Threat level: Almost 70% of all debt in the oil and gas sector is trading at distressed levels and four other sectors have a distress ratio higher than 35%, including retail and restaurants (44.6%), transportation (43.2%), automotive (36.7%) and midstream and merchant power (36.5%).

Sign up here for Dion's Axios Markets daily newsletter.

6. Quote of the day
"I think it will really change people's attitudes about what's possible to get done with remote work, ditto for work travel, and all these things could have a salutary effect on climate change."

Who said it: Harriet Tregoning of the World Resources Institute, speaking to E&E News about the prospect that telework will remain popular post-pandemic.

Why it matters: The comments get to a piece of the puzzle about what COVID-19 will ultimately mean for energy use and climate policy.

As we and others have been writing about in recent weeks, there are lots of crosscurrents here, including...

  • If remote interactions remain popular, that could curtail some travel.
  • But wariness of mass transit after restrictions end could boost driving, too.