Why China is winning the clean energy race - Axios
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Why China is winning the clean energy race

U.S. politicians have been warning for years that America couldn't let China win the clean energy race. That's exactly what has happened, with the trends most stark in electric cars, solar and nuclear energy.

Why it matters: Building for the last decade, these trends have accelerated in the last couple of years. Politicians and business leaders said America's dominance in this space would bring jobs to the U.S. and security to our clean-energy resources, and now both of those goals are at risk.


Data: Rhodium Group; Chart: Chris Canipe / Axios

Why China is doing this:

  1. It needs to literally energize its 1.4 billion people, both how they travel and how they power their homes.
  2. Its leadership feels compelled to do it in a cleaner way than the U.S. did. Air pollution is at dangerously high levels across many of China's cities. People are seeing and feeling health repercussions of China's dependence on fossil fuel-fired cars and power plants in an acute way. Traditional air pollution, not climate change, is a big driver.
  3. China sees this as a national security and geopolitical strategy to both make and deploy clean-energy technologies.

Why America is losing:

  1. As a Democratically run nation, it can't push policies and subsidies by fiat. "China is able to simply mandate things in a way that would take us much longer to do," said Ethan ZIndler, head of Americas at Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
  2. The United States has no long-term, coordinated energy and environment strategy, unlike China. "It's very obvious the U.S. would have all the technology, innovation potential and money to be the leader," said Paolo Frankl, head of the renewable energy division at the International Energy Agency, a Paris-based group tracking global energy trends. "Ultimately, it's a question of strategic choices."

The U.S. is still creating technologies, the dozen experts interviewed for this article said. But China has blown past the U.S. in actually deploying them, and it's beginning to edge out America on the innovation front too. Let's take a look at three key areas:

Electric vehicles

Chinese manufacturers made nearly half of all electric vehicles sold in the world last year, a big change from just two years ago, according to newly released data from the IEA.

"There really is a concerted effort, central government led and provincial government supported, to push an electric vehicle policy that is one order of magnitude more aggressive than what's taken place in the U.S.," said Trevor Houser, partner at the Rhodium Group, a research firm.

Check out this recent piece by my colleagues Steve LeVine and Ben Geman for a deeper dive into China and it's electric vehicles push.

Solar energy

For the last several years, China has been the world's leader in solar panel manufacturing, driven by its expertise in broader manufacturing. Chinese companies account for around 60% of total annual solar cell manufacturing capacity globally, the IEA says.

More recently, China has blown past other countries as the top deployer of solar energy too, accounting for about 50% of deployment and demand.

China's dominance in this space is at the heart of a brewing trade battle between two U.S.-based (but foreign-owned) solar cell manufacturers and most of the rest of the industry. The two companies are asking the Trump administration to impose tariffs or another kind of remedy against a flood of cheap solar imports, mostly from China or Chinese-owned companies, while most of the industry is worried about prices going up.

Nuclear power

TerraPower, a company founded by Bill Gates, decided to test and ultimately deploy its new advanced nuclear technology in China. The project will include a partnership with the Chinese government and financial backing. Marcia Burkey, TerraPower's chief financial officer, said China has two things it needs to make the investment work that the U.S. doesn't: sizable electricity demand growth and long-term policy.

NuScale, a company developing another kind of advanced reactor that's smaller than what's operating today, says it's designing in the U.S. because of the safety gold standard certified by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Ultimately, NuScale is also eyeing China for its booming electricity market.

"Right now the focus is getting deployed and licensed in the U.S.," said Chris Colbert, chief strategy officer for NuScale. "We do think that once we do that our ability to scale this technology across the globe, including in China, could happen pretty rapidly."

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Eatsa's robot-assisted tech for restaurants heads to Chicago

Eatsa, the San Francisco-based company that recently shuttered most of its robot-assisted restaurants, is beginning to make its technology available to outside eateries, starting with Chicago's Wow Bao.

Why it matters: This is a classic startup play—focus on the tech while leaving heavy operations to partners and customers, helping them to streamline restaurant operations.

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Report: Trump administration plans to halt work permits for H-1B spouses

Computer information specialist and immigrant from India, Santosh Pala, right, carries his three-month-old son Hemang during a prayer procession at the Karya Siddhi Hanuman Temple in Frisco, Texas, in 2015. Photo: LM Otero / AP.

The Trump administration plans to halt work permits for the spouses of H-1B visa holders, which would discourage H-1B visa applicants from staying in the country and would revoke the ability to work for thousands of visa holders' spouses, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

Why it matters: It's another move by the Trump administration to make it more difficult for foreign workers to come to America in its larger effort to safeguard American jobs.

  • Approximately 100,000 spouses and children of H-1B visa holders come to the U.S. every year on a visa known as H-4.
  • These workers were not able to work in the U.S. before 2015, when President Barack Obama created a work permit for some H-4 holders.
  • Silicon Valley will be disproportionately affected, since many high-tech employers employ H-1B workers. Because of the region's high cost of living, It is difficult for a family to survive on one salary and, as a result, may not be able to stay in the country.
  • A decision on the H-4 work authorization will likely come soon, immigration attorneys told The Chronicle.

Other efforts: Earlier this week, a House committee advanced Rep. Darrell Issa's bill to increase restrictions on how "H-1B dependent" companies can obtain the work permits for employees. Find details of Issa's bill here, and the Indian firms' lobbying efforts against crack downs on H-1B visas here.

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Former JC Penney CEO: Amazon should fear Walmart

Elise Amendola / AP

Former JCPenney CEO and Apple Store pioneer Ron Johnson said on CNBC's Fast Money that Amazon "should be really worried" about Walmart's resurgence of late, arguing that the Bentonville retailer's network of stores is cheaper and more efficient to operate than Amazon's collection of warehouses.

Why it matters: Walmart's earnings announcement was the highlight of a week filled with surprisingly strong performances by Amazon's brick-and-mortar competitors, like Best Buy, Gap, Abercrombie, and Foot Locker, which all reported stronger than expected same-store sales growth. These performances have powered the SPDR S&P Retail ETF 3.9% higher this week — its best five-day stretch of the year.

Sound smart: Despite a good week, Retail indices are still down year-to-date, while Amazon's value is up more than 50%. Outside of a few exceptions like Walmart and Best Buy, brick-and-mortar retailers are still struggling to attract traffic and grow sales, just less so that we thought last week.

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Elon Musk unveils an electric semi-truck

Screenshot from Tesla live feed

In a typically showy ceremony in Southern California last night, Tesla CEO Elon Musk unveiled a sleek prototype electric semi-truck that he said will travel 500 miles on a charge, go zero to 60 mph in 20 seconds fully loaded, and charge most of the way in 30 minutes while a driver rests and eats. He appeared to say that the vehicle will be able to operate semi-autonomously in convoy, which would be the first step to self-driving trucks.

Why it matters: Musk did not say how much the truck will cost, but that it will be cheaper to operate than a standard diesel. If he is able to deliver the semi-truck as described, it seems likely to shake up the freight market just as he has the car business. Experts expect semi-truck traffic to surge in the coming decades as the global population grows to 9 billion people.

The unveil in an airport hanger in Hawthorne, CA., came as Musk is confronting doubts about his ability to pull off arguably his most important project of all — the scale-up of the Model 3, the flagship mainstream-priced electric that he has touted as Tesla's route to the mass market, and the jump-starting of a global electric car industry.

Tesla has taken more than 450,000 reservations at $1,000 apiece for the Model 3, which launched in July, and he was supposed to be turning out 5,000 of them a week by now. But, while making high-profile announcements about a Hyperloop, Space-X launches and now the prototype semi-truck, he has failed to create a standard automated assembly line for the Model 3, so his workers are building them in part by hand, and only by the dozen. As a result, Tesla's sky-high share price has plunged by about 19% over the last two months, closing at $312.50 yesterday.

    • Yet the semi-truck launch, with unexpected specs including a far-more-than-expected range, seems likely to wow his fans and quiet at least some of his critics. Musk said the average truck trip is less than 250 miles, which meant that a driver could do a round trip without recharging. Still, Musk said the truck's battery pack, built into the floorboard, can be charged to 80% of capacity in 30 minutes. He said solar-powered "mega-charging" stations for the trucks would be installed worldwide, and would be priced at 7 cents a kilowatt.
    • The cost per mile would be $1.26, compared with $1.51 for a diesel-operated truck. If the semi-truck is operated in a convoy, he said, the efficiencies took the operating cost below $1 a mile, and made them cheaper than moving freight by train.
    • The two details — range and recharge time — were crucial, and they dispelled the most profound doubts about the truck. In addition, he said standard equipment will include automatic breaking, lane-keeping and forward collision warning.
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GOP tax plans could worsen housing affordability crisis

Photo: Keith Srakocic / AP

Proposed changes to corporate tax rates, and tax credits for the construction of below-market housing, could worsen the nation's affordability crisis, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Why it matters: A recent report from Freddie Mac estimates that America's stock of housing that is affordable for low-income Americans fell by 60% between 2010 and 2016.

  • The problem is concentrated in cities with the highest-paying jobs, like New York, Seattle, and San Francisco.
  • The lack of affordable homes in America's most economically vibrant areas is reducing economic mobility, because workers cannot afford to move to cities with higher-paying jobs.

Both the House and Senate tax bills, by lowering the corporate tax rate from 35% to 20%, would automatically reduce the uptake of the affordable housing credit, because lower rates make tax credits less valuable.

  • The House bill goes further, eliminating a tax break on bonds used to finance affordable housing projects.
  • The Journal cites a report by Novogradac & Co., an accounting firm specializing in real estate, that predicts if the House bill passes, the U.S. economy would create 1 million fewer affordable housing units over ten years.

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Immelt says he wasn't "ready" to lead Uber

Lauren Olinger / Axios

Former GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt said he's ok with not getting picked to be CEO of Uber. "At the end of the day I wasn't really ready for something that visible, that intense," Immelt said at an Axios "Smarter Faster Revolution" event at the University of North Carolina.

He said Uber is based on a "seminal" idea but an open question remains: "Can you take this thing that's an amazing idea and turn it into a fantastic business, a profitable business?"

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Average Bitcoin investor would sell at $196,165 — or 26x current value

A Robocoin kiosk used to sell bitcoins. Photo: Jeff Chiu / AP

A new LendEDU survey of Bitcoin investors shows that a vast majority plan to hold their investment for over a year, challenging the assumption that the cryptocurrency is mostly used by short-term investors.

Why it matters: Only 16.49% of respondents to the survey said they planned to hold their Bitcoin for less than a year, coupled with more than two-thirds who hadn't sold any of their investment. If these results are actually indicative of most Bitcoin investors, that finding suggests a much stronger long-term outlook for the cryptocurrency as a viable, productive investment.

More from the survey:

  • A third of Bitcoin investors don't plan on reporting their purchase to the IRS, which officially states that "virtual currency is treated as property for U.S. federal tax purposes. General tax principles that apply to property transactions apply to transactions using virtual currency."
  • The average investor would sell their Bitcoin at a price of $196,165.78, which is more than 26 times higher than the current price of $7,476.78.
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Best Buy misses revenue forecast on late iPhone release

Alan Diaz / AP

Best Buy reported third-quarter earnings and revenue below analyst forecasts, sending the retailer's stock down 6.6% in early trading Thursday. It said $100 million in revenue was not registered in the third quarter, due to Apple delaying the release of its iPhone X—though these sales will presumably show up in the fourth quarter numbers.

Why it matters: Best Buy has ramped up discounts to keep pace with rivals like Amazon.com, and is now offering free shipping through Christmas, with no minimum order requirements.

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Trucks are fueling the world's oil demand

Tesla is hardly the only player in the nascent electric truck market — as Bloomberg notes — as big companies like Daimler and Cummins are moving toward commercialization.

Why electric trucks matter: Trucks, especially big rigs, are a small percentage of vehicles on the road but use lots of oil. (Check out the chart above, reconstructed from the International Energy Agency's new World Energy Outlook 2017.)

Data: IEA World Energy Outlook 2017, OECD/IEA; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon / Axios

In what amounts to IEA's base case (a model of existing and officially announced policies), oil demand for trucking swells to 20 million barrels per day in 2040, led by that sharp increase you see in diesel demand for heavy-duty freight.

  • It's one reason, though hardly the only one, why IEA does not forecast a peak in global crude oil demand through the end of their analysis period in 2040.

The bottom line: Widespread deployment of electric heavy-duty trucking — alongside other alternative fuels and stronger fuel efficiency mandates for diesel-powered rigs — could alter the trajectory of oil demand in coming decade if Musk and other players can make it cost-effective.

Go deeper: Check out a preview of Tesla's electric truck, which is scheduled to be unveiled today.

Featured

Walmart revenue soars on strength of online sales

Photo: Jeff Chiu / AP

The reigning heavyweight champion of brick-and-mortar retail is making a name for itself in e-commerce, with Walmart announcing that online sales grew 50% in the third quarter, powering the company's revenue past analyst expectations.

Why it matters: Acquisitions of e-commerce upstarts like Jet.com, Modcloth, and Bonobos have helped supercharge online growth, but Walmart.com is also benefiting from innovations like free two-day delivery on orders more than $35 and curbside pick-up.

The better than expected numbers were about more than e-commerce:

  • Same-store sales rose by 2.7%, well above analyst expectations of 1.7%.
  • Grocery sales were strong, powering the average customer spend 1.2% and illustrating customers durable preference so far for brick-and-mortar grocery shopping.
  • Walmart stock is up 4% in early trading.
One problem was a decline in operating income due to shrinking profit margins as Walmart and subsidiaries like Jet.com invest heavily in discounting aimed at growing market share.