California’s Electric Truck Mandate Looks to Address Social and Environmental Injustice

California’s Electric Truck Mandate Looks to Address Social and Environmental Injustice

By Brentan Alexander, PhD; Chief Science Officer & Chief Commercial Officer

 

For those fighting climate change, electric cars are often seen as an impactful (and conspicuous) choice to move away from fossil fuels. Tax credits at the federal level and further incentives in many states have helped make Tesla a household name. Competitors new and old, including Rivian and Ford, have announced new electric vehicles for the consumer market in an effort to keep up. Trucks, however, produce far higher levels of harmful pollutants and CO2, and their impact is felt more acutely in minority communities. These facts have led policymakers in California to once again show leadership on environmental and social justice: By 2045, every new truck sold in California must be zero-emissions.

Trucks represent just under 7% of vehicles in California, but the California Air Resources Board (CARB) reports that truck emissions make up a disproportionate 70% of statewide smog-causing NOx and 80% of cancer-causing soot from the vehicle sector. This is true even though California has some of the world’s strictest emissions regulations for medium and heavy duty trucks, such as the state’s clean idle requirements.

Truck pollution impacts are also not evenly distributed. Medium- and heavy-duty truck traffic is heavily concentrated in major arterials, ports, and logistic centers, which tend to be in closer proximity to low-income neighborhoods. The health impacts on minority communities, particularly the hispanic and black communities, is well documented. One Google-run study performed with the support of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), found that pollution levels in a historically black community near the Port of Oakland fluctuated by many multiples over just a couple of blocks, with levels significantly higher near highways and major thoroughfares.

A transition to zero-emission trucks provides a unique opportunity to help right multiple wrongs at once. Climate change is slowed through the reduction in CO2 emissions, smog is reduced through a drop in NOx, cancer is reduced by lowering soot in the air, and the benefits flow most heavily to traditionally marginalized populations. It’s climate justice, environmental justice, and social justice all wrapped up in one.

The major players are lining up to support the change. Utilities up and down the west coast are planning charging infrastructure to support electric trucks, legacy semi-truck manufacturers are getting in the electric game, and new entrant Nikola is watching its stock price soar.

There will likely be the same tired lawsuits and bad-faith arguments about increased costs for consumers. Some may present the negative environmental impacts of battery manufacturing (which are legitimate, but much smaller by comparison). The Golden State, however, refuses to ignore the real costs of pollution and global warming that are paid inordinately by minority communities. As has been the case for decades, California is once again setting the standard for others to follow.

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Congress Is Mulling Renewable Energy Stimulus: They Should Think Bigger

Congress Is Mulling Renewable Energy Stimulus: They Should Think Bigger

By Brentan Alexander, PhD; Chief Science Officer & Chief Commercial Officer

 

With discussions in the U.S. Congress underway on the makeup of a ‘Phase 4’ coronavirus stimulus package, multiple reports are identifying clean and renewable energy as a key sector that Democrats hope to support. Although details are still scarce, ideas being floated include extensions of the investment tax credit (ITC) for solar power and other clean technologies, an extension of the production tax credit (PTC) for wind power, and the temporary conversion of these programs to a direct tax refund. These are good starts, but given the scale of the climate crisis and this rare opportunity to engage in direct stimulus, Congress should think bigger.

The clean energy economy is a driver for the U.S. economy and investments in its growth will pay dividends many times over. A University College London study published in late 2019 found that the U.S. “green” energy sector employed nearly 10 million people and generated over a trillion dollars in economic activity. It’s not just blue states benefiting either: Behind California, Texas supports the next largest share of clean energy jobs in the United States. Clean energy provides jobs at all rungs on the economic ladder, and investments in the sector ensure that the U.S. continues to be a leader in global technology innovation (it’s currently ranked 4th). This leadership supports global competitiveness while enhancing our energy security at home. And that doesn’t even take into account the critical importance of halting the climate crisis, which unchecked could cost the United States hundreds of billions of dollars a year by 2090.

Lawmakers don’t need to look far to see what the impact of big ideas can achieve. In the wake of the financial crisis just over 11 years ago, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) provided significant support for clean energy programs. $400 million was provided as seed funding for the Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy (ARPA-E), which invests in early-stage research and development across the clean energy landscape. Today, ARPA-E-funded companies have attracted over $3.2 billion in private sector funding and generated 385 new patents. ARRA also expanded the Department of Energy Loan Guarantee Program with Section 1705, specifically dedicated to renewable energy deployments. In two years of operations, the program awarded over $15 billion in guarantees. This funding was used to support the first five utility-scale solar projects in the United States and is credited with kickstarting the domestic utility solar industry. Guarantee funds also supported the buildout of Tesla’s first major car factory in Fremont, California, helping Tesla launch its revolutionary Model S sedan. Many billions of dollars in economic activity and hundreds of thousands of jobs across red and blue states can be directly linked to the ARRA: it had a positive return on investment many times over.

We can again have such an impact, and there is no shortage of big ideas beyond the ITC and PTC to match the scale of this moment. In March, Dan Reicher, the former Assistant Secretary of Energy for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy at the U.S. Department of Energy in the Clinton administration, wrote an outline for what a more ambitious clean energy stimulus looks like. A centerpiece of his approach is the Clean Energy Deployment Administration, a program idea that has percolated in Congress with bipartisan support for years and would provide a centralized resource with a full set of financial tools to help new technologies reach market and scale. The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation provided 16 steps that the U.S. could take to stimulate clean energy and manufacturing. Among their proposals is an Energy Technology Commercialization Foundation, modeled after similar foundations linked to the national parks and the National Institutes of Health, that would work closely with the U.S. Department of Energy to accelerate the deployment of clean energy technologies. Former staffers on Governor Jay Inslee’s presidential campaign have launched the Evergreen Collaborative, which offers a detailed action plan to tackle the climate crisis. Their solutions are focused on investments across the political spectrum and in sectors as divers as agriculture, buildings, and technology innovation.

Although these plans differ in key details, arguments about the best climate strategy at this stage is besides the point. What’s important now is to match the scale of the solution to the scale of the problem. ITC and PTC extensions are nice; converting to a refund structure while the tax equity market recovers will be highly impactful. But these ideas are table stakes; What’s needed are new programs to support the next generation of technologies from the lab to the marketplace. Impactful technologies, such as energy storage and sustainable aviation fuels, are on the cusp of breaking through, as solar power was when ARRA was enacted 11 years ago. With federal support for research, development, demonstration, and deployment (known in D.C. as RDD&D), the U.S. can continue to lead on climate innovation while solving one of the great global challenges of our generation.

 

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Renewable Natural Gas Can’t Deliver The Carbon Neutral Future We Need

Renewable Natural Gas Can’t Deliver The Carbon Neutral Future We Need

By Brentan Alexander, PhD; Chief Science Officer & Chief Commercial Officer

 

In the fight to supplant fossil fuels and build a climate friendly global economy, renewable natural gas (RNG) has been proposed as a prudent and cost-effective method of decarbonizing fossil-based natural gas. As a carbon-negative fuel source that works interchangeably in the hydrocarbon infrastructure we already have, RNG promises a rapid offsetting of the anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from fossil gas without the need to reconfigure large portions of our energy delivery system. Mix some carbon-negative RNG in with fossil natural gas and voilà: The overall mix is carbon neutral. New research out of Georgia Tech, however, paints a different picture: At any meaningful scale, RNG is likely to be more carbon intensive than flaring is.

The promise of RNG is rooted in the comparatively high global warming impact of methane, the primary ingredient in natural gas. Although CO2 gets all the attention, methane is a significantly more potent greenhouse gas, having a global warming potential approximately 30 times greater than CO2. Methane is generated as a natural byproduct of many modern processes, from landfills to waste-water treatment to dairy farming. In these systems, organic materials are broken down by bacteria, which generate methane that generally escapes to the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. If that waste methane is instead captured and utilized in an engine, water heater, cooking stove, or other device normally fueled by natural gas, the global warming impact of the methane emissions is avoided. As a result, RNG under this scenario is carbon negative.

This math works if the captured methane is truly a waste methane that was otherwise going to be released to the atmosphere. Unfortunately, the amount of waste methane that can be made into useful RNG is a small fraction of the overall need (most estimates cap out at 10%). The authors of the new research argue that any structure that rewards the production of RNG is likely to create an incentive for producers to make more “waste” methane for capture from other sources (e.g. wood or other biomass). Methane purposefully created to be captured and used as RNG isn’t really a waste: If it weren’t for the desire to make RNG, methane from these sources never would have been created, and therefore was never at risk for release to the atmosphere. As a result, any action to scale RNG production will make it increasingly difficult to determine what portion of produced RNG is resultant from methane that was truly a waste product (i.e. that it would not have been otherwise captured and utilized). That means a lot of RNG would simply be, at best, carbon neutral.

"Carbon neutral" still sounds pretty good compared to fossil natural gas, but as the authors point out, the very gas infrastructure RNG hopes to utilize partially undermines that promise. The problem is that our gas infrastructure is leaky, losing between 1% to 3% of gas, and if most of the RNG produced is merely carbon neutral, the release of even a small fraction through these leaks degrades its climate-friendly bonafides since methane has such a high global warming impact. The result is RNG turned upside down: A system designed to prevent the release of waste methane instead becomes a system that leaks manufactured methane.

The utilization of RNG at scale to supplant meaningful quantities of natural gas would still be less carbon-intensive than fossil natural gas, but the authors argue this may not be the best strategy if greenhouse gas reduction is your primary goal. If decarbonization is the sole consideration, waste methane is best utilized in an on-site flare (or other on-site usage); the fossil gas grid is better replaced with electrification, green hydrogen, or other solutions. Compared to this outcome, RNG usage in the gas grid is necessarily more carbon-intensive.

This doesn’t mean that RNG is of no value in the fight to decarbonize: RNG is demonstrably better than fossil gas, is still carbon negative (even with manufactured RNG mixed in) when compared against uncontrolled methane release, and it has the ability for rapid deployment through existing infrastructure. Despite the arguments of the authors, economic costs and time-to-market have to be considered in addition to decarbonization potential. And currently, the potential of RNG hasn’t approached the available waste methane resource, leaving lots of low-hanging fruit. But the production of RNG at scales that rival our natural gas demand will also be more carbon-intensive than alternative solutions to decarbonize the gas grid, as the authors demonstrate, and incentivizing its use now will lock in its production for decades. Policymakers aiming for a carbon-neutral future should take note: Blanket support for any RNG will miss the benefits and drawbacks when compared with other solutions. The best policies will account for the full life-cycle impact of RNG, like California’s LCFS program, to incentivize the use of RNG derived from true waste methane. Even then, the math says carbon-negative RNG can only supplant a small fraction of our natural gas demand. Anything else is best seen as an important but incremental step to bridge the gap while the slow change away from gas usage takes hold.

 

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Corona-Lockdowns Shutter Vital Research

Corona-Lockdowns Shutter Vital Research

By Brentan Alexander, PhD; Chief Science Officer & Chief Commercial Officer

 

The image of invention and research in popular culture centers on the lone genius, toiling away silently in a darkened lab while discovering critical breakthroughs that move society forward. Real life isn’t like the movies: 21st century R&D is highly dependent on multidisciplinary teams working hand in hand at shared research centers spanning multiple geographies to advance critical science.

Unfortunately, the conferences, workshops, and daily interactions that are the lifeblood of modern research have stopped as COVID-19 has shuttered labs and facilities worldwide in the (noble and required) goal of saving lives. As a result, our collective progress on solving critical technical challenges is grinding to a halt.

Strewn about on a wooded hill with commanding views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate, the jumbled campus of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory sits eerily quiet. But for essential staff and a select group of researchers utilizing specialized equipment for time-sensitive COVID-19 studies, the lab is essentially closed. Specialized equipment found nowhere else on Earth sits mostly idle, user-facilities normally open to outside groups and companies for cutting-edge research are shuttered, and conference rooms are deserted. The lab even posted a video showing empty parking lots and frolicking deer with a somber musical overlay.

The story is the same at national, academic, and corporate labs across the globe. As MIT professor Asegun Henry put it in a recent interview for Scientific American, “We’re shut down. There’s no more lab work. We’re holding meetings virtually, but it’s a devastating blow to our research.” Conferences have stopped, too: The February meeting for Biogen in Boston led to 70 new cases of COVID-19, prompting the cancellation of hundreds of conferences worldwide. Major events, including the American Chemical Society National Meeting and Expo, have been put on ice.

These stoppages have major ramifications, including for the fight against climate change. Ongoing research hampered by the current circumstances include studies of new battery materials, more efficient or cost effective solar systems, and direct air capture of carbon dioxide. Outside the lab, the inability of researchers from across the globe to come together and share recent successes (and failures), identify new opportunities, and form collaborations also hinders progress by limiting knowledge exchange. Simply put, the technology breakthroughs we need to fight climate change are being delayed even though time is of the essence.

Despite this unprecedented setback, there is some hope on the horizon. Nature reports that the break in conferences is giving researchers a chance to rethink the format entirely; collaborative events more impactful, more equitable, and more suited to the current times may yet develop. One such example: MIT launched a weekly webinar series to share progress on new ideas and advancements in the fields of thermal energy conversion, storage, transport and utilization (admittedly esoteric, but close to this author’s heart).

On the policy side, Dr. Addison Stark at the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC), who has extensive experience in academic and government research, has drawn attention to this issue. The BPC has recommended policy solutions to ensure that research can ramp up when facilities reopen and life returns to some semblance of normal. Addison notes that, “Without federal investment, the current disruption to the United States' R&D and innovation sector could slow down U.S. economic growth for decades to come. Increased funding for innovation needs to be part of future stimulus and recovery legislation in order to get our innovation-driven economy back on the rails.”

If policymakers listen to these ideas, there may be a silver lining on the COVID-19 pandemic: additional motivation for the badly needed increase in research dollars to support the groundbreaking technologies of tomorrow. If not, we’ll be putting all our faith in that lone genius, toiling away in a darkened lab.

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$40 Oil Will Return: This Isn’t the End of Fossil Fuels

$40 Oil Will Return: This Isn’t The End Of Fossil Fuels

 

By Brentan Alexander, PhD; Chief Science Officer & Chief Commercial Officer

 

Last week, May futures for WTI crude, a benchmark often used for U.S.-sourced oil, crashed into negative territory for the first time ever. It was the last day to trade a May contract, and with storage space filling up as oil demand craters, contract holders with nowhere to put the oil they were obligated to physically accept were forced to pay to have somebody take contracts off their hands. This moment represents a stunning new chapter in the ongoing oil crisis that has seen record drops for oil consumption and prices globally. Spot prices in May will remain depressed, and the June market is likely to be painful as well. It may seem like the days of $40 oil are behind us, and that we’re witnessing the beginning of the end for oil as the lifeblood of the global economy. We aren’t: Oil will one day return to $40 a barrel, but the last few weeks have demonstrated in hyperdrive how the oil endgame will play out.

It seems that oil isn’t the precious commodity it has been made out to be. Much ink has been spilled on the concept of peak oil, wherein dwindling reserves of oil cause rising prices as the marketplace becomes more and more supply-constrained. In the endgame scenario, supply shocks send prices soaring to levels that force global economies to find alternative fuels, renewable energy, or otherwise. A key issue with the peak oil theory is that ‘reserves’ are only counted if they’re known to exist and can be extracted with current technology.

As prices soared to upwards of $100 a barrel around 2008, many wondered if the high prices were here to stay, and if peak oil was coming to pass. Instead, high prices were just the motivation needed to unlock a bit of American ingenuity. Within 10 years, new technology unlocked vast fields of oil and gas throughout Texas, Pennsylvania, and the Dakotas. The ‘reserves’ in the United States multiplied, oil prices dropped, and the United States regained its status as the world’s leading producer of oil.

Peak oil, it turns out, is a story of peak demand. As some economies of the world begin to face the realities of climate change, new renewable and net-zero (or negative!) technologies have emerged and will emerge to supplant fossil oil. At first, these technologies require higher fossil prices, government programs, or both, to compete in the market. But as they mature and grow, prices come down. Demand for fossil will drop accordingly. And at some point, so little demand will exist for crude oil that producers will have to pay somebody to take if off their hands or stop producing it altogether.

This market conversion has already begun. Tesla has proven electric vehicles can out-perform and out-sexy the incumbents. Biorefineries are being built to turn household trash in to jet fuel. Governments are taking action to incentivize cleaner fuels. Nevertheless, action thus far has been spotty at best and despite the current market, peak oil demand has not yet come to pass.

The unprecedented demand destruction caused by COVID-19 will eventually subside as the threat of the pandemic wanes. The public will fly again, drive again, and buy plastic again; oil demand will ratchet up again. Shuttered wells won’t restart, stored oil will be drawn down, OPEC will maintain supply controls to balance government budgets, and prices will rise to $40 or more again. But someday, hopefully in the not too distant future, oil will again find itself in decline when a different (and more permanent) source of demand destruction weans the global economy off of fossil carbon for good.

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Advanced Biofuels Cushioned Against Oil’s Crash

Advanced Biofuels Cushioned Against Oil’s Crash

 

By Brentan Alexander, PhD; Chief Science Officer & Chief Commercial Officer

 

Oil prices are cratering to levels unimaginable just months ago and major ethanol producers are idling their plants. Although this is bad news for all types of fuels, renewable and fossil alike, there is a silver lining for advanced biofuels. These sources qualify for a broad set of renewable credits, diversifying their revenue streams and providing a layer of protection against the price destruction occurring in the fuels marketplace.

What’s an advanced biofuel? It’s a fuel produced using wastes or agricultural byproducts, such as the corn stalk instead of the kernel. (The kernel produces traditional ethanol, which directly competes with food-crops for land and farmer attention.) Potential feedstocks for advanced biofuel projects include household trash (known as ‘municipal solid waste’), leftover woody biomass material after logging operations (known as ‘slash’), and the shells from almond orchards.

These feedstocks are currently either landfilled, plowed under, or (depending on local regulations and the desire to follow them) burned. But in the United States, their use in biofuels production is incentivized through a variety of state and federal credit programs. The federal system, known as the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), primarily supports the entire domestic ethanol industry with ethanol-blend targets for the nation’s fuel supply.  Less known is that the program also supports more advanced biofuels development. The RFS authors envisioned that corn-based ethanol would be a temporary bridge to an advanced biofuels future, and created multiple credits, known as Renewable Identification Numbers (RINs), to differentiate between the various feedstocks used to produce a biofuel. These RINs trade on open markets and their prices fluctuate based on the demand from ‘obligated parties’ (those required to buy RINs to demonstrate compliance with the statutory requirement).

One type of RIN is targeted at cellulosic fuels: the ‘D3’. This RIN has unique characteristics that make it more valuable that other RINs under the RFS. It is essentially a wild card: the RFS is a ‘nested’ compliance structure and the D3 RIN also counts as a ‘D5’ or ‘D6’. As a result, in times of oversupply, D3 prices are shielded from falling below the prices of these other RINs. Another unique feature of the D3 is the cellulosic waiver credit (CWC). The value of the CWC is set by the EPA annually, based on the price of gasoline in the Unites States. As gasoline prices fall, the value of the CWC goes up (albeit on a time-lag). In times of undersupply in the D3 market (not true at the moment), this built-in hedge means advanced biofuels projects are protected from oil price drops.

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Coronavirus Won’t Change Minds on Climate Change

Coronavirus Won't Change Minds on Climate Change

In the absence of forceful government action, activists must stay on the front line.

 

By Brentan Alexander, PhD; Chief Science Officer & Chief Commercial Officer

As the global population is ravaged by the novel coronavirus sweeping across countries and continents, those searching for a silver lining have begun to suggest that the painful lessons of the current COVID-19 crisis may help change hearts and minds in the fight to curb climate change. The argument goes like this: If the parallels between the coronavirus crisis and the climate crisis can be properly explained to populations and their leaders, they will collectively see the need for action.

While I hate to add pessimism to an already trying time, I don’t count on that happening. The global response to the climate crisis, so woefully inadequate to address the scale of the problem, is not driven by a lack of understanding of the risks and realities of climate change. Even under the Trump administration, NASA’s climate change website touts the consensus of 97% of scientists that human-caused climate change is real. A full two-thirds of the American public believe the federal government is doing too little to combat the climate crisis. Leaders already know the threat we face, but largely fail to act anyways.

Instead, one enduring lesson of COVID-19 is how, in the face of near universal scientific opinion, political leaders routinely ignore expert advice and choose a path of maximum risk until significant damage has been done. Whether driven by advice from false authorities, fears of upsetting the status quo, or outright denial of the severity of the crisis, leaders around the world have repeatedly underplayed this crisis and failed to take definitive action to stem the onslaught. Even days ago, over 30 million people in the United States were free to congregate and actively continued the spread of the infection, even as deaths from the virus skyrocketed and hospitals in hard-hit areas set up tents to care for the patient surge. Faced with clear and imminent damage to communities and economies, some leaders still fail to act.

Others, however, do act: COVID-19 again demonstrated that action to stem a crisis can come from surprising sources. On the west coast of the United States, tech companies readily understood the science and implemented large-scale work-from-home policies a week or more before local governments followed (nevertheless as relative early adopters). As Washington D.C. argued about the severity of the crisis, the National Basketball Association, of all entities, showed true leadership by suspending its season, sparking a mass cancellation of high-density events from concerts to conferences.

This pattern is familiar to those on the front lines of the climate fight. In recent years, significant progress has been made in the private sector by focusing on so-called ESG (environmental, social, and governance) policies at major corporations. Major insurance providers and financiers now refuse to work with the coal industry, major private equity groups are backing off fossil fuel investments, and Microsoft is leading its industry by pledging significant carbon mitigation programs for its businesses. Progress is made in the absence of forceful government action.

With politicians now talking about further stimulus to recharge economies damaged by the COVID-19 pandemic, those fighting for the climate should stay in the fray and continue to work to secure programs and funding for a greener future. But absent an immediate, direct, relatable threat to our health and our economy, nobody should assume a sudden change-of-heart among the climate change deniers in Congress and the White House. On the climate front at least, it’s still business as usual: Politicians won’t be saving us; rather it’s our collective action that will bridge us to the future.

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Troubles in the Fracking Industry Are Nothing to Celebrate

Troubles in the Fracking Industry Are Nothing to Celebrate

For those fighting climate change, the damage that American frackers are experiencing should be sobering.

 

By Brentan Alexander, PhD; Chief Science Officer & Chief Commercial Officer

With oil prices plunging from over $60/bbl to $30/bbl and lower in a matter of weeks, mid-sized American oil producers reliant on fracking have been identified as likely casualties from the sudden upheaval. The prospect of failures in the space is causing celebration among those opposed to fracking, with some trumpeting the end of an environmentally damaging process. The excitement is misguided: the failure of fracking companies in the current environment will portend increased difficulty stemming the climate crisis.

Hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking,’ is an oil and gas extraction technique that came in to heavy use in the United States around 2007. The process involves drilling long, horizontal wells deep underground in shale deposits, and then pumping high pressure water and chemicals to fracture the rock, increase permeability, and extract valuable hydrocarbons. Fracking was the key driver in pushing the U.S. to again become the largest oil producing country in the world over the last decade.

The technique has also been assailed as environmentally destructive. Poor control at some locations has been blamed for allowing drilling fluids to contaminate local water supplies. Earthquakes in Oklahoma dramatically increased after fracking became widespread. And leakage from fracking wells has been identified as a likely source of the increase in the atmosphere of the potent greenhouse gas methane since 2008.

But despite the environmental costs of fracking, the current situation is not one to celebrate. The underlying driver leading to pain at fracking companies is cheap fossil fuels, which will lead to more use of climate-driving fossil fuels and undermine efforts to decarbonize large swaths of the global economy. Saudi Arabia is now looking to pump over 12 million barrels of oil a day in April, an increase of 20% over January. Although global demand is currently constrained with the COVID-19 pandemic, cheap oil will surely lead to a rebound in demand and undercut competing alternatives, including biofuels and electric vehicles.

The situation is shedding light on a long-known truth in the energy world: prices are not driven by an efficient market based on supply and demand. Instead, the Saudis have longed dictated global prices, artificially limiting supply to hold a higher price. With a reported production cost of $2.80/bbl, the Saudis make considerable profit by constraining production. But as the last few weeks show, the Saudis also have the power to dramatically undercut competitors with little to no warning.

For those fighting climate change, the damage that American frackers are experiencing should be sobering: Saudi Arabia’s ability to suddenly flood the global market with cheap oil and undermine market-based efforts to supplant fossil fuels is an existential risk. If American frackers can’t compete with Saudi oil in an open market, greener alternatives surely won’t either.

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Renewables Poised to Clean Up from Oil’s Price Spill

Renewables Poised to Clean Up from Oil’s Price Spill

The oil market has changed dramatically in the last three weeks but renewables are financial safe bets

By Brentan Alexander, PhD; Chief Science Officer & Chief Commercial Officer

Saudi Arabia abruptly altered its oil production strategy in early March and began to flood the market with cheap oil. Financial markets worldwide hemorrhaged value at the prospect of a protracted and painful price war, and American oil firms immediately cut back spending and dividend payments as the price for their primary product halved. As of last week, WTI Crude (a pricing benchmark tied to US supply) was barely north of $20/bbl, prices not seen since 2002.

This sudden tumult represents an opportunity for the renewable energy sector. At first glance, this may sound counterintuitive. After all, oil prices seem largely unrelated to the prospects of wind, solar, and other renewables in the electricity generation sector, because in the United States the primary fossil source of electricity is natural gas. Natural gas prices have been largely uncorrelated with the price of oil since 2007, when large-scale domestic shale-gas production began to come online (see chart). In other parts of the world, coal drives electricity generation, which is similarly decoupled. Virtually nobody uses oil as a primary electricity source, except in certain very specific locations, such as Hawaii, where the demands of unique geography and supply logistics align to make oil the best bet for power production.

Data from US Energy Information Administration (EIA.gov)

Oil’s link to renewables instead comes through competition in the financing marketplace. As new projects are developed and financing is sought, the infrastructure funds that provide capital to enable these developments naturally prefer projects that promise the most attractive financial returns. With relatively high prices over the last decade and unmatched value as a transportation fuel, oil exploration has beaten out renewable project development on the financial metrics time after time.

The oil shocks over the last weeks could dramatically alter that calculus. Revenues for potential oil projects have suddenly dropped by over 50%, and futures contracts currently show only a modest improvement in prices by year’s end. The market is already pricing in the expectation that oil prices remain below $40/bbl for the foreseeable future, a dramatic change from the $55+/bbl that has been the norm for the last few years.

Even if prices do recover, the sudden volatility will still weigh on the minds of project investors. Oil markets haven’t resembled a purely competitive market since the mid 1960s, and since that time, prices have been regularly impacted by sudden and unforeseen changes in supply by OPEC producers, primarily Saudi Arabia. The rise in shale-oil in the US in the last decade has effectively put a cap on prices and provided a counterweight to OPEC’s pricing power. But the muscle being flexed now shows that the OPEC nations and Russia still maintain substantial influence over the fate of American oil producers. This ‘stroke of the pen’ risk, now that it has again bared its head, may be unlikely to be forgotten in the near future.

Renewables, by contrast, have no supply risk whatsoever, and are primarily exposed to fluctuations in the price of electricity. Insomuch as this relates to the price of natural gas, investors in the US will take comfort knowing gas is essentially a local market, with US prices driven by supply and demand within North America; there is little ability to arbitrage against global markets due to limited export capacity. Therefore, as oil prices come down, project financiers should start to turn more of their attention to the new safe bets that offer more durable returns: wind, solar, and the like.

This isn’t to say that renewables don’t face headwinds in the current environment. Cheap oil also competes with renewables in the transportation sector. Electric Vehicles will be less competitive with their gasoline-powered cousins as the price for gasoline at the pump drops, lowering demand for new grid capacity and forcing renewables to wait for retirements of current assets. The price for natural gas in the US is dropping as well, driven primarily by the sudden decrease in demand due to the shuttering of entire industries. These drops make fossil power from natural gas more competitive with their renewable counterparts.

Futures markets, however, are currently pricing in a full rebound of natural gas prices by year’s end, with the futures contract for Henry Hub for December 2020 currently priced above market levels at the end of 2019. This suggests that the drop in prices of natural gas will be temporary, and investors making long-term bets do not view the current situation as durable. Further, natural gas prices are just one component of the price paid by utilities to power producers, and so a drop in natural gas prices doesn’t necessarily imply a similar fall in the rates negotiated in new power purchase agreements. So the drop in natural gas prices evident in the market now looks to be temporary, and unlikely to dramatically alter the widespread conclusion that renewables are now the cheapest power source to build.

Altogether, the oil market has changed dramatically in the last weeks, in ways unforseen just a few short months ago. But despite the headlines and worrying drops across financial markets, opportunity lies in these disruptions. Renewables are well positioned to capitalize.

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Farm or Fossil: The Battle for the RFS Rages On

Farm or Fossil: The Battle for the RFS Rages On

There is a war being waged between farmers and oilmen impacting everything from the price of corn to the price you pay for gas at the pump.

By Brentan Alexander, PhD, Chief Science Officer & Chief Commercial Officer


For those of us following biofuels, there was an interesting bit of news last week that barely registered in the press outside of Houston and Des Moines: A U.S. Court of Appeals in Denver handed down a
ruling forcing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to re-examine three small-refinery exemptions granted for the 2016 compliance year within the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) regulation. You’d be forgiven for thinking that this ruling impacts something esoteric with limited impact on your daily life. Few Americans know about the RFS at the heart of this court battle, but there is a war being waged over this law between farmers and oilmen. It’s an intraparty slugfest pitting longtime allies against each other and impacting everything from the price of corn to the price you pay for gas at the pump.

Some background: The RFS was adopted in the mid 2000s, with the price of oil spiking and unrest in the Middle East causing concerns at home about domestic energy security. The name of the legislation enshrining the standard in law, the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, left little doubt to the motivations behind the policy: The law was written to jumpstart domestic biofuels production to help lessen America’s addiction on foreign oil. Signed by an oil state Republican, the law passed with just eight ‘no’ votes in the Senate. Republicans and Democrats alike cheered as this comprehensive program to support renewable biofuels became the law of the land.

U.S. farmers, primarily in midwestern states with a history of voting red, cheered as well. The program set mandates for the production of multiple biofuels, but primarily focused on ethanol and biodiesel, which are made from corn. Although more expensive per unit of energy than their fossil brethren, these fuels were literally home-grown, and the RFS supported their use by mandating blend volumes of biofuels in the U.S. fuel supply. With this mandate to refiners in place, corn prices surged, investments flowed to midwestern states, and an entire economy built around ethanol production was born. U.S. ethanol production rose from 1.63 billion gallons in 2000 to 13.5 billion gallons in 2010 and continued to grow from there as the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) increased the blending mandate every year through 2018.

The program, however, was disliked by the oil companies, as it required building the infrastructure necessary to incorporate this new feedstock into their products. This new feedstock was also generally more expensive, raising prices for downstream consumers. To help lessen the blow, the RFS included some carvouts for the oil and gas industry. In particular, small refiners, concerned about their ability to afford necessary plant upgrades to compete with larger competitors under the mandate, were provided a pathway to secure waivers to the mandate. As drafted, the legislation required the DOE to account for the volumes lost from these waivers when setting annual targets, effectively shifting the obligations from the little guys to the big guys. Few waivers were granted, and large oil and gas companies, despite continued lobbying against the program, generally fell in line and followed the program requirements.

And then came President Trump. Unaware of the delicate politics involved, the Trump Administration immediately upon arrival began undermining the program. The number of waivers granted skyrocketed from under 10 to over 30 in two years. Large refineries, never intended to be excluded from the program, were given waivers as well. And the DOE, when setting its mandates, ignored the missing gallons, effectively reducing demand for biofuels by billions of gallons with the stroke of a pen.

The Trump Administration is generally unconcerned about public blowback to its various deregulation activities, but in this case their actions didn’t just #OwnTheLibs, they triggered midwestern Republicans by undermining a significant portion of their economy. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) noted that the EPA “screwed us.” The powerful farmer’s lobby unloaded on members of Congress and administration officials alike. 

Quite accidentally, Trump found himself under attack from his right flank. A full blown crisis was born, no environmentalist lobby needed. Looking to find a compromise with Big Ag and Big Oil, the Administration spent the fall providing promises to both sides and promptly undermining their own efforts. Trump promised farmers at least 15 billion gallons of ethanol mandates for 2020, much to farmers’ relief. Oil groups complained bitterly about Trump reneging on his deregulation promises. When the EPA released the associated rule, it failed to live up to the hype; agricultural groups were incensed as farmers spoke openly of betrayal and deceit

Which brings us to the news of last week from a quiet courthouse in Colorado. In its ruling, the Court of Appeals found that the language of the RFS required waivers to be granted only as an extension of waivers granted prior to 2010. Such an interpretation could have profound impacts on the waivers granted under Trump, most of which had no precedent before his time in office. If upheld on appeal (and given this ruling came from an appeals court, it would seem the remaining path for re-review is limited), this decision would open the door to widespread invalidation of the waivers granted under Trump. Such a decision would be highly impactful because it would solidify the foundations of the RFS program, severely curtailing the ability of the White House to undermine the program, and would ultimately be a big win for Big Ag. 

It’s just the latest battle in this ongoing war. With billions of dollars and federal elections at stake, expect more shots to be fired. Get your (pop)corn ready.

 

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