Jan 7, 2019

Axios Generate

Good morning! We're launching two newsletters today you should follow, because surely you care about other things in addition to energy! Sign up here: Axios Markets and Axios Sports.

A glimpse of my second annual outlook is the top story below, and then I'll hand the reins back to Ben Geman for the rest of the news. 

1 big thing: What I’m watching in 2019

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

From Washington to Down Under, energy and climate are hotter topics this year than they have been in some time. Here's a glimpse of what I'm watching this year, and click here to go deeper with the whole column.

1. Climate politics. After taking a backseat on Washington’s priority list for the past decade, expect climate and energy policy to be in the limelight with the start of the 116th Congress and the 2020 presidential campaign.

  • The combo of President Trump denouncing climate change and the urgency of it increasing has made it more politically relevant.

2. Regulatory lawsuits. We’ll see many of regulatory rollback proposals go final — and a mountain of lawsuits swiftly filed by blue states, particularly California and New York, and other parties.

3. Ailing coal and nuclear plants. Trump’s promise to keep open economically struggling coal and nuclear plants hasn't translated into action after more than a year.

4. Protectionist spillover. Trump’s trade war with China hit full force last year, and now we’re seeing the disparate impacts. I’ll be watching to see if this escalates, dissipates or plateaus.

  • This matters a lot to energy because of its impact on fossil fuel exports and emerging technologies.

5. Carbon taxes. I’m watching developments both in D.C. and in Canada.

6. Oil-demand levers. I’m watching two in particular, one high-profile and one less so: electric vehicles and plastics.

7. Oil prices’ wild ride. After 2018’s volatile ups and downs — accentuated by sporadic Trump tweets — oil is likely set for another tumultuous year.

8. Growing climate disconnect. At a high-profile UN summit in September, nations will be expected to say what they have done or plan to do to ramp up their commitments to the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement — despite little progress on current goals.

  • That urgency is a stark contrast with the Trump administration promising to withdraw from the accord.

9. Australia and Brazil election consequences. I’m watching the climate moves of Brazil’s new president and Australia’s elections this spring, given the similarity between the energy and climate debates there compared to here.

What are you watching this year? Email me at amy@axios.com.

2. Why next-wave nuclear needs a carbon price
Expand chart
Adapted from an EPIC analysis of data from IEA/NEA, EIA, and DOE; Chart: Axios Visuals

Six U.S. nuclear plants have closed in the past 5 years and nearly 35% of the remaining fleet are now at risk of early closure or slated to retire, writes Axios Expert Voices contributor Michael Greenstone of the University of Chicago.

The big picture: Many tout carbon-free nuclear energy as a climate solution, but today’s nuclear plants are having a difficult time competing with cheap natural gas and renewables in today’s wholesale electricity markets.

  • New advanced nuclear technologies may reduce costs, but even in the most optimistic scenarios they will not be competitive without a price on carbon.

Advanced technologies could prove cheaper and safer than current reactors, although they remain largely untested.

  • Small modular reactors (SMRs) are compact and require less on-site construction.
  • Generation IV reactors don’t require elaborate external cooling systems like the ones that failed at Fukushima.
  • Liquid-sodium cooled reactors can use spent uranium and plutonium, allowing them to produce power for extended periods without costly refueling.

Yes, but: Thanks to the fracking boom, nuclear technologies will face stiff competition from natural gas combined cycle (NGCC) power plants for decades, as well as from renewables due to their decreasing costs.

  • Unless fossil fuel plants pay a price for climate-damaging carbon emissions, carbon-free technologies like nuclear energy will likely continue to lose market share or require subsidies.

What to watch: The above chart compares the expected range of costs for producing a megawatt hour of electricity from advanced nuclear technologies in 2040 to the projected cost of NGCC plants — both with and without a carbon price of roughly $50 per ton of emissions, as used by the Obama administration.

  • Without a carbon price, there is no advanced nuclear technology that is projected to be competitive with a NGCC plant.
  • However, with a modest carbon price in place, cost projections for all 3 advanced nuclear technologies suggest they could be competitive with NGCC plants, with SMRs and high-temperature Generation IV plants particularly close.

The bottom line: The capital investments that increase the odds of innovation depend on market signals. To plan on a nuclear renaissance without a price on carbon is to treat hope as a strategy.

Greenstone is an economics professor and director of the university's Energy Policy Institute.

3. Tesla breaks ground for factory in China

Groundbreaking ceremony of Tesla Shanghai Gigafactory on Jan. 7. Photo: VCG/VCG via Getty Images

Tesla began official construction today on its factory in Shanghai, China. CEO Elon Musk said via Twitter that the company aims to launch Model 3 production there by year's end and reach "high volume" in 2020.

Why it matters: It's a step toward gaining a larger beachhead in the world's largest auto market, where officials are pushing expansion of EV deployment but have significant restrictions on foreign players.

The big picture: Per CNBC, "Producing vehicles in China would reduce costs from tariffs and ocean transport for Tesla. In an Oct. 2 report, the American company said it is operating at a 55 percent to 60 percent cost disadvantage for those reasons and because it cannot access the same cash incentives as local Chinese manufacturers."

Where it stands: "Gigafactory 3 will allow Tesla to localize production of Model 3 and future models sold in China, with plans to eventually produce approximately 3,000 Model 3 vehicles per week in the initial phase and to ramp up to 500,000 vehicles per year when fully operational (subject to local factors including regulatory approval and supply chain constraints)," Tesla said in a statement Monday.

4. Crude oil's turnaround in 2019

Oil prices are climbing again Monday as the market still absorbs some positive economic signals. Brent crude is above $58 and WTI, the U.S. benchmark, has risen above $49 this morning.

What they're saying:

  • Via the Wall Street Journal, "The crude price jump starting the week follows the positive sentiment last week, when oil closed up Friday on the back of a strong U.S. jobs report and hopes for a resolution to the U.S.-China trade dispute, said Bjarne Schieldrop, chief commodities analyst at SEB Markets."
  • “Momentum is coming back into the market from very depressed price levels,” analyst Olivier Jakob of Petromatrix tells Reuters. “We’ve had five consecutive days of price gains already, so what you have today is a continuation of that.”

But, but, but: Goldman Sachs, in a note this morning, takes stock of forces that will constrain the price rise this year. Their analysts cut their average 2019 forecast for Brent spot prices to $62.50, down from $70 in their prior forecast.

  • Here's S&P Global Platts' summary of their report: "Low-cost production capacity is growing both within OPEC and the US, where new pipelines are set to boost supplies of Permian shale oil into the global oil market this year, Goldman said in a note Monday. The year is also starting with higher global oil stocks while weaker than previously expected demand growth expectations remain a constraint on prices, it said."
5. State of the Green New Deal

Two noteworthy things in climate politics happened since our last edition...

1. Beto O’Rourke told HuffPost through an aide that he's "supportive of the concept" of the Green New Deal and "is looking forward to engaging more on the issue."

  • Why it matters: He's the latest high-profile potential White House contender to weigh in on the sweeping climate, energy and economic proposal championed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and progressive activists.
  • Yes, but: Like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who backs the "idea" of the Green New Deal, the comment is a less than full-throated endorsement.
  • Still, that makes sense in these early days. The Green New Deal is just a set of broad concepts and linkages between climate and economic policy, not a fully fleshed out platform.

Go deeper:

2. Speaking of Ocasio-Cortez, she told CBS' "60 Minutes" that returning the country to top marginal income tax rates into the 70% range could be needed to help fund the massive decarbonization envisioned in the Green New Deal.

The intrigue: The remarks caused a stir, but a number of analysts quickly pointed out that her views on tax rates are rooted in prior U.S. policy.

  • "Policies under former President Dwight Eisenhower reached 90% in the 1950s. Through the administrations of presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, the rate sat at 70%. President Ronald Reagan then sliced the top rate to 50% in the early 1980s before it eventually fell to 38% in 1986," Business Insider writes.

Go deeper: Axios' Dion Rabouin examines what she said in his first edition of the daily Axios Markets.

6. Exclusive: Carlos Curbelo's next move

Amy reports that Carlos Curbelo, the Republican who lost his re-election bid in a highly contested Florida House district in November, is doubling down on his energy and climate change focus with a new fellowship at Columbia University’s energy think tank.

Why it matters: During his 4 years in Congress, Curbelo was an important outlier in the Republican Party. He created a bipartisan House caucus on climate change and last summer introduced legislation taxing carbon emissions, the first such move by a Republican in a decade.

Details: Curbelo will be a distinguished visiting fellow at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

  • The center, founded by Jason Bordoff, a former top energy adviser to then-President Obama, has ramped up its work on carbon tax policy over the last year, issuing a series of papers on the topic. The group facilitated the event where Curbelo introduced his legislation last summer.
  • The center includes several other fellows, several from the Obama administration but also at least one former Trump adviser: George David Banks, who advised Trump on global energy and climate issues.

The big picture: Congress is unlikely to seriously consider a carbon tax any time soon, given the GOP’s near universal opposition to the idea and Trump’s dismissal of climate change generally.

  • The goal of think tanks like this one is to conduct research that could feed any legislation if/when Congress comes around to the idea politically.

Go deeper