May 20, 2020

Axios Generate

Ben Geman

Welcome back! Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,271 words, < 5 minutes.

🚨 Heads up: Axios' Amy Harder is moderating a discussion today at 11am ET about how carbon capture could fit into countries' plans to recover from the pandemic. Register here for the live Zoom event.

🎵 And we're three days from the 1994 release date of the Beastie Boys album "Ill Communication," which provides today's intro tune...

1 big thing: Renewables will show "resilience" to pandemic
Reproduced from IEA; Chart: Axios Visuals

The COVID-19 pandemic is slowing growth of wind and solar electricity projects, but the renewables sector is "more resilient than other fuels" and slated to bounce back quickly, the International Energy Agency said.

Why it matters: It's on track to be the first year-over-year decline in 20 years, IEA said in a report that offers their downward revision in expected 2020–2021 capacity growth.

It's something of a glass half-full for people fearful that the crisis will hinder efforts to fight climate change.

  • IEA sees growth resuming next year (see the chart above) after an expected 13% drop in 2020, but the forecast for additions over the two years combined has taken a hit.
  • And decarbonization of energy systems needs to speed up greatly to meet emissions cuts consistent with the Paris climate deal.

Driving the news: "The decline reflects delays in construction activity due to supply chain disruption, lockdown measures and social-distancing guidelines, and emerging financing challenges," the report states.

One level deeper: Solar photovoltaics and wind are expected to provide the vast majority of global capacity additions this year, but their growth is forecast to be respectively 18% and 12% lower than last year.

  • Still, IEA anticipates that utility-scale projects will rebound because most of them in the pipeline are already financed and under construction.
  • Rooftop solar, however, will see slower recovery as households and small businesses review investments, IEA said.

Of note: IEA actually sees renewable power generation growing a bit this year despite pandemic-related declines in overall power demand.

  • Renewables are the only fuel source with a forecasted demand increase in 2020. The report notes renewables' "low operating costs and priority access to the grid in many markets."
2. Making sense of CO2 decline (and revival)
Adapted from Le Quéré et al. Nature Climate Change (2020); Global Carbon Project; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios

Pandemic-related lockdowns cut global CO2 emissions by 17% in early April compared to average 2019 levels as the crisis "drastically altered patterns of energy demand around the world," a new study concludes.

Why it matters: The paper in Nature Climate Change provides a fine-grain look at the unprecedented drop-off, which saw average peak declines of 26% in individual countries, and a broad look at the immense difficulty of achieving sustained cuts.

  • It provides both a regional and sector-specific look at where the declines happened (check out the chart above).

What's new: It's the "first-ever attempt to quantify CO2 emissions on a daily basis, for the world and for 69 individual countries, in close to real time," Carbon Brief reports.

What they found: The peer-reviewed study is roughly in line with prior estimates about the expected annual emissions decline, which the authors project will be in the 4.2%–7.5% range (although there's a much wider band of uncertainty).

  • Most changes are "likely to be temporary as they do not reflect structural changes in the economic, transport or energy systems," they add.

The big picture: The study underscores how the world is nowhere near on track to achieve the most ambitious goal of the Paris climate deal.

  • The projected annual CO2 cut is "comparable to the rates of decrease needed year-on-year over the next decades to limit climate change to a 1.5 °C warming," it notes.

Why you'll hear about this again: The analysis illustrates how major policy shifts — not lockdowns occurring for tragic and scary reasons — are needed to drive sustained future cuts.

  • It also echoes other experts who see massive government economic recovery packages as a way to create or accelerate those changes.
3. Google starts breaking up with oil

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Google says it will no longer develop new artificial intelligence tools to help oil and gas companies extract crude, Axios' Orion Rummler reports.

Why it matters: The tech giant is breaking away from Microsoft and Amazon, both of which have also developed AI in recent years to expedite oil production and make services more efficient for companies like Chevron and GE Oil & Gas.

  • Google's 2018 contract with Total was in place as of February, a Total spokesperson confirmed to Axios at the time.

What they're saying: Google Cloud "will not, for instance, build custom AI/ML algorithms to facilitate upstream extraction in the oil and gas industry," a Google spokesperson told Axios on Tuesday. OneZero first reported the move.

  • Yes, but: The company will honor its current contracts. The spokesperson declined to say if Google's work with Total would continue, noting that customer contracts are confidential. Total did not respond to a request for comment.
  • Google's 2019 revenue from oil and gas came out to roughly $65 million, which accounted for less than 1% of the company's total revenue in that period, the spokesperson said.
  • On renewable energy, Google says it is applying algorithms from its own data centers to improve efficiency in buildings.

Of note: Google's announcement dropped alongside a Greenpeace report released Tuesday that detailed cloud computing and AI contracts that Google, Microsoft and Amazon have with oil companies.

Between the lines: Microsoft and Amazon have said that working with the oil industry isn’t at odds with their climate commitments. In some cases, they're working with Big Oil on clean energy plans — like BP giving AWS renewable power.

What we're watching, via Amy: It's too soon to tell whether Google proves to be an outlier, but one thing is clear — environmentalists will boost pressure on other tech giants and companies in other sectors to cut ties with the oil industry.

4. The U.S. really is a petro-state (for now)
Data: Energy Information Administration; Chart: Axios Visuals

The history of low oil prices juicing the U.S. economy was broken during the pandemic-fueled price collapse, Dallas Fed economists argue in a new commentary.

Why it matters: "[O]n balance this oil price decline has weakened rather than strengthened the U.S. economy, making this event different from past episodes of falling oil prices," they write.

What they found: Normally, low gasoline prices stimulate help the economy because people have more money to spend on other things, while high prices act as drag on growth.

  • But these are not normal times! "Shelter-in-place policies greatly and almost instantaneously reduce the gasoline expenditure share, thereby limiting the direct effect of lower oil prices on domestic consumers," they write.

The big picture: These tragically strange circumstances followed more structural changes over the last decade as U.S. production soared and petroleum imports declined.

  • The growth of the U.S. oil industry means that when it deeply cuts investment, which is happening now, it hits the wider economy.
  • That drag on investment "can be large enough to offset any consumption stimulus" from low prices.
  • Meanwhile, in most other industries, the downward pressure on production costs from low prices is actually quite small.

The bottom line: "In the current environment, the sharp reduction in capital expenditures by oil companies explains why this oil price decline, on balance, actually hurt U.S. investment spending — and hence, economic growth — not only in oil-producing regions, but overall."

5. What's new in electric vehicles

Tesla: "California Gov. Gavin Newsom told CNBC on Tuesday that he is 'not worried' about Tesla CEO Elon Musk moving the company’s operations out of the state." (CNBC)

Technology: "General Motors Co. is 'almost there' on developing an electric vehicle battery that will last one million miles, a top executive said on Tuesday." (Reuters)

Manufacturing: "The prospect of the first gigafactory in Britain has moved closer after two battery startups signed a deal to work together, while considering an initial public offering to fund their multibillion-pound initiative." (Financial Times)

6. Quote of the day
"This is the global awakening of, 'We’ve been making it way more complicated to work than it has to be.'"

Who said it: Darren Murph, head of remote work at GitLab, the world's largest all-remote company, in an interview with Axios' Erica Pandey.

The context: He's discussing big companies' moves to allow permanent telework even after stay-at-home restrictions end.

Why it matters: The stickiness of remote work is among the many forces that will influence the post-pandemic future of oil consumption.

Check out Erica's weekly newsletter, Axios @Work, here.

Ben Geman