Jan 7, 2020

Axios Generate

Welcome back! Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,224 words, ~ 4.5 minutes.

Situational awareness:

  • "Oil prices on Tuesday surrendered some gains made over the previous days as investors reconsidered the likelihood of immediate supply disruptions in the Middle East after the United States killed a top Iranian military commander," Reuters reports.
  • A Rhodium Group analysis shows U.S. greenhouse gas emissions may have dropped by around 2% in 2019. This was led by an estimated 10% drop in the power sector, but counterbalanced by increased emissions from buildings, industry and other sectors, per Greentech Media.

🎤 Sunday marked the 1973 release date of Bruce Springsteen's debut album, "Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.," so let's get into the news with a jukebox graduate for first mate...

1 big thing: Democrats' climate homework assignment

There's no chance of big climate legislation moving these days, but 2020 is nonetheless a crucial year for Democrats hoping those odds change post-election.

Driving the news: House Energy and Commerce Committee Democrats will unveil sweeping draft legislation this month. And by the end of March, the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis is slated to unveil its own policy recommendations.

Why it matters: Democrats and their allies need to be ready if there's an opening for climate legislation after the election.

  • There might be a window if Democrats win the White House and somehow eke out a small Senate majority.
  • That means 2020 is an important year for getting their ducks in a row and hashing out internal disputes in order to be ready.
  • Another thing to watch this year will be proposals emerging from outside groups aimed at laying the groundwork for post-2020 legislation and administrative efforts.

Quick take: While the election will, of course, reset things, the party's chances of success will be lower if they repeat what happened with Republicans who entered the Trump era with no specific plans to repeal and replace Obamacare.

But, but, but: Despite ambitious legislative plans coming from 2020 White House hopefuls too, any sweeping bill will face a steep uphill climb under almost any post-election scenario. So negotiations this year could also be a test bed for what smaller measures could gain traction.

What they're saying: One environmental movement insider tells me that Energy and Commerce leaders will "throw everything into the bill and see what kind of coalitions emerge for different policies."

Where it stands: Democrats could move a bill or bills through the House this year. But even if Democrats put something on the floor this year, it's DOA in the GOP-led Senate and would not have White House support.

  • As for the upcoming Energy and Commerce draft, E&E News reports: "The committee is expected to lay out ideas in broad strokes, with no specific reference to carbon pricing, but will aim to meet its goal of achieving economywide net-zero emissions by 2050."

The big picture: The emergence of draft bills and concepts will force lawmakers — and factions of the environmental movement — to see how much common ground there is to be found.

  • Climate is perhaps the top priority for the progressive faction led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that's pushing the most aggressive version of the Green New Deal concept.
2. One thing that (probably) won't cook the planet
Expand chart
Data: Reproduced from an International Energy Agency report; Chart: Axios Visuals

There's lots of sobering news on carbon emissions of late, but at least Netflix and Twitter probably won't tip things into an apocalypse.

Driving the news: A new(ish) International Energy Agency analysis pushes back against concerns that data centers are a ticking carbon bomb as use of web-connected devices expands.

Where it stands: Power use by data centers consumes about 1% of global power (which isn't trivial in a world of still-rising emissions) and has changed little since 2015, they report.

The big picture: Check out the chart above. "Electricity demand from data centres globally is expected to remain flat to 2021, despite a projected 50% increase in data centre workloads," the analysts note.

How it works: The report notes there's a movement toward more "hyperscale" data centers that use proportionally less energy for cooling, as well more efficient servers and other hardware.

  • And aside from the levels of power use, the source of that power for data centers is getting cleaner as tech giants like Google, Amazon, Apple and others ramp up their renewables procurement.

But, but, but: It's a glass half-full set of findings. For one thing, it's still a big source of power demand at a time when global emissions are still rising.

  • And the report also notes that these "hyperscale" data centers can have "major impacts on local power grids" and drive up local rates.
3. Sony unveils electric car prototype

Photo of Sony's Vision-S electric vehicle prototype. Courtesy of Sony

Sony made waves at the big tech show, CES, in Las Vegas by unveiling an electric vehicle prototype under what the tech giant calls its "Vision-S" initiative.

Why it matters: This adds another player — and a deep-pocketed one — into the competitive EV design and tech field.

  • “I believe the next megatrend will be mobility, as vehicles become more connected, autonomous, shared and electric in the coming years,” CEO Kenichiro Yoshida said onstage at CES last night.

But, but, but: It's not yet clear, as The Verge points out, whether the car is ever meant to go into production, or whether it's instead a way to package concepts and tech that could be used by others.

The big picture: Either way, Sony clearly is looking to position itself in the future of transportation.

  • “To deepen our understanding of cars in terms of their design and technologies, we gave a shape to our vision,” Yoshida said.

Where it stands: Sony said it's the result of work with partners including the giant auto supplier Magna, Bosch, BlackBerry, Qualcomm and others.

  • But the CES presentation and a new website lack information on commercial plans for the ideas around in-car entertainment, sensing, and more that Sony is touting.
  • Yoshida also said the newly designed platform for the vehicle can be applied to other vehicle types like SUVs.

What's next: Engadget's Mariella Moon notes there are "lots of questions for Sony to answer."

  • "We need more details on its pretty elaborate in-car entertainment features, and what is the company planning to do after this concept?" she writes.

* * *

Speaking of EVs, CNBC reports: "Tesla CEO Elon Musk said the company will design a future car in China for the global market."

4. Amazon deepens energy ties

Another EV-related CES announcement is that Amazon's Alexa will be integrated into the EVs that Rivian is launching as well as the electric delivery vans that Amazon is ordering from them.

Why it matters: TechCrunch points out that it's the latest sign of Amazon's "continued push into the automotive world." Alexa is already available in vehicles from automakers including Ford and Toyota.

Axios' Ina Fried reports from CES that Amazon's Fire TV Edition for Auto will offer a roadmap for carmakers that want to put Amazon's TV software into backseat entertainment systems.

  • BMW and Fiat Chrysler Automotive will be among the first to offer such systems, Amazon said.

Where it stands: The company also announced an "Alexa, pay for gas" feature aimed at making it easier for customers to pay for fuel at thousands of Exxon stations.

Quick take: The twin announcements of deepening connections with Rivian (a company Amazon has invested in) and Exxon signal the yin yang of the tech world's relationship with the energy sector.

  • Tech giants are going deeper into renewables and EVs, but also have business lines — and now, in Amazon's case, a new retail product — tailored to oil companies.

Go deeper:

5. Catch up fast: JetBlue, Total, BP

Airlines: "JetBlue Airways Corp. said it will become the first large U.S. airline to offset emissions from all of its domestic flights, aiming to become carbon neutral by July as pressure grows on the industry from climate change activists," Bloomberg reports.

Carbon capture: Per The Houston Chronicle, "Occidental Petroleum and the French energy major Total said they are partnering on a major carbon-capture project at an industrial cement plant in the United States."

  • It's aimed at capturing 725,000 metric tons of CO2 per year from a LafargeHolcim plant in Colorado, and Occidental would buy the CO2 for use in enhanced oil recovery at wells in the state and perhaps Texas, they report.
  • But, but, but: Their piece and the press release note it's just a study for now.

Offshore oil-and-gas: Via the FT, "Premier Oil has agreed a $625m deal to buy two major UK North Sea assets from BP as fields in the mature region continue to change hands from the oil and gas majors to smaller independent companies."