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In today’s issue, we look at how the world’s biggest private investors are changing the nature of th͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
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April 28, 2023

Net Zero

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Tim McDonnell
Tim McDonnell

Hi everyone, welcome back to Net Zero.

Building up the necessary clean energy systems needed to meet the Paris Agreement goals will cost up to $44 trillion globally by 2030. Where will all that money come from? If current trends are an indication, much of it will come from private equity firms. PE firms are on an energy shopping spree focused on solar, wind, and other low-carbon technologies — and, as we see below, also on a lot of fossil fuels.

Also today, ideas for what the White House should do with its new environmental justice office, and a plan to pump excess CO2 from the atmosphere into the oceans.

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European countries are taking steps to restrict imports of Russian liquefied natural gas, which has so far evaded EU-level sanctions. After a mild winter, Europe has an unusually high level of gas in storage facilities, strengthening its position against the Kremlin. Meanwhile, India is set to become Europe’s largest supplier of refined oil products this month — using crude oil it imported from Russia.

REUTERS/Patricia Pinto

Despite a dollar shortage, the pandemic’s toll on global supply chains, and an array of local restrictions, Bolivia’s Quantum launched the first EV designed and built entirely in Latin America. The tiny Quantum — which fits three and has a highway range of just 60 miles — sells for $7,500, and can be plugged into any wall socket. Although charging takes up to eight hours, owners pay just $7 a month to power their cars, according to the founders.

A prolonged drought in East Africa that left 20 million people at risk of severe food shortages and killed millions of livestock was made 100 times more likely by man-made climate change, a scientific study found. This latest result from the nascent field of weather attribution science strengthens the argument that low-income countries are due financial reparations for the greenhouse gas emissions of rich countries, advocates say.

ExxonMobil posted a record quarterly profit for the first quarter of 2023, with Chevron and TotalEnergies also beating analysts’ expectations. Annual profits for the year are likely to be lower than the all-time highs reached last year, however, as oil and gas prices cool. BP and Shell will post quarterly results next week.


After reaching a record in 2022, global venture capital investment in early-stage climate tech companies is likely to dip this year because of higher borrowing costs, the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank, and other factors, according to an extrapolation of first-quarter data from market intelligence firm HolonIQ.

Tim McDonnell

The energy economy is becoming privatized



Investment in the energy market is increasingly private.

2022 was a record-breaking year for private-equity investment in renewables and other clean energy companies, reaching more than $20 billion in the U.S. Firms like Carlyle and Brookfield unleashed more of the war chests they’d built up from pension funds, wealthy individuals, and other investors.

Private equity is financing a growing share of the energy transition, and clean energy companies are waiting longer before going public, if they ever do. As a result, the energy economy is gradually transforming from one dominated by publicly traded fossil fuel companies into one dominated by privately held low-carbon ones that may operate with less oversight of their finances and operations by regulators and the public.

“There’s been an absolute flood of capital into energy transition funds in private markets,” said Peter Gardett, executive director of research at S&P Global Commodity Insights, who authored a report on the subject last week. “It’s been remarkable how much of the work on the energy transition is being done in private markets.”


Private equity firms are well-suited to investing in low-carbon technologies. They’re able to front the large volumes of cash needed to build a wind farm or battery factory, and can be more comfortable waiting years to see a return than a public company that has to satisfy shareholders every quarter. A rash of climate tech companies that went public via special-purpose acquisition companies in 2021 and 2022 have since underperformed or gone bankrupt.

“These investments require a significant amount of time and expertise to get up and running,” said Pooja Goyal, chief investment officer of Carlyle Global Infrastructure, who leads the firm’s energy transition portfolio. “You can’t have your thesis dependent on a quick flip to go public.”

That’s a departure from the path Big Tech and other recent major economic transformations have followed, Gardett said, where companies get started with private venture capital and then aim to go public once they reach a certain size. Private equity investors in clean energy are holding on to companies longer, he said, “moving them from one private fund to the next and growing them along the way.”


Private equity will likely be indispensable to the goal of reaching $44 trillion in total global investment in the energy transition by 2030 to meet the Paris Agreement climate goals. The economy is far off-track for that goal, with only $1.3 trillion invested in 2022.

Gardett said PE investment is ramping up because more multi-million dollar opportunities, attractive to large firms, are becoming available as demand for low-carbon energy grows. Tax credits in the Inflation Reduction Act also make these projects much more enticing. And there’s further investment to come, Gardett said, with U.S. firms sitting on at least $180 billion in unspent energy transition funds.

Large new PE funds targeting the energy transition are popping up all the time. In February, Brookfield said it will launch a second such fund this year to follow an initial $15 billion fund it closed last year. In the last week, Apollo Global Management launched a $4 billion energy transition fund and Hong Kong-based Kerogen Capital said it would raise $1 billion to invest in niche clean energy technologies like geothermal and small nuclear reactors. But even if fundraising slows in response to rising interest rates and other macroeconomic headwinds—venture capital for earlier-stage companies dropped in the first quarter of this year—these funds will be able to build more with less capital as the cost of clean energy technologies falls.


A risk of all this private investment, Gardett said, is that policymakers have less information about what exactly is being built than they do when capital spending plans are disclosed in public companies’ filings. “You can’t just build a lot of clean power and hope for the best,” he said. “If regulators can’t forecast accurately, power markets could be dislocated by surprise.”

At the same time, private equity investment in the energy sector is still heavily skewed toward fossil fuels. A report yesterday from Global Energy Monitor and other research groups found that Carlyle’s portfolio invests $16 in fossil fuels for every dollar invested in low-carbon energy. That lopsidedness is intentional, Goyal said, because the firm is keen to snatch up high-carbon assets — pipelines, refineries, and the like — being sold off by traditional fossil fuel companies, or to buy a controlling stake in those companies as a whole, and push them toward decarbonization.


On Monday, U.S. private equity fund Quantum Energy Partners announced a $373 million investment in an aging port facility in Inverness with a view toward redeveloping it as a hub for offshore wind services. The investment is a good example of how PE firms can lay the infrastructure groundwork for the renewable energy aspirations of oil and gas giants like BP and Shell, which have been snapping up North Sea wind leases.


  • The rush of private investors into clean energy has driven up the price tag for low-carbon assets, Gardett’s report notes. That may drive away some smaller investors. But ultimately, increased investment in energy infrastructure will lower the retail price of low-carbon power.
One Good Text

Sheila Foster, professor of public policy at Georgetown University’s Earth Commons Institute. On Monday, U.S. President Joe Biden established an Office of Environmental Justice in the White House.

Semafor Stat

Share of aviation fuels supplied at European airports that must be derived from biofuels by 2025, per regulations adopted by the EU this week. By 2050 that share will be required to reach 70%.

Green Shoots
Courtesy Ebb Carbon

Startups have a new idea for what to do with all the excess CO2 in the atmosphere: Put it in the ocean. Scientists project that even in a best-case scenario for economy-wide emissions reductions, meeting the Paris Agreement climate goals will require the removal of 10 billion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere per year by 2050. We’ve covered some options for that process here before, including carbon-sucking cement and “direct air capture” machinery. The ocean already does some of this work for us naturally, as it draws in CO2 in the process of seeking chemical balance with the atmosphere, gas which turns to solid carbonates that sink to the bottom.

Now, startups want to speed that process up by increasing the alkalinity of seawater. Last week Ebb Carbon, an ocean carbon-removal firm founded by former Google X engineer Ben Tarbell, raised $20 million in venture capital to scale up a method for processing waste seawater that’s dumped back into the ocean from aquaculture farms, desalination plants, and other industrial facilities. Tarbell is aiming to make the technology work for less than $100 per ton of CO2 within five years, which would make it competitive as a producer of carbon removal credits for other high-carbon companies to buy. Another startup, Equatic, is developing a system that uses renewable-energy-powered electrolysis to achieve a similar end, with hydrogen gas as a lucrative byproduct.

Both companies are working on environmental impact assessments to make sure there are no unintended side effects for marine life, but Tarbell said that because of the ocean’s vast size, if this approach were used for the entire 10 billion ton goal it would raise the ocean’s carbonate concentration only 0.1%. “Basically what we’re doing,” he said, “is the way the Earth would heal itself if we were able to wait a million years.”

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— Tim (with Prashant Rao and Jeronimo Gonzalez)