The top energy stories of 2020 — and what to expect in the year ahead

Welcome to a special edition of Insider Energy, a weekly energy newsletter brought to you by Business Insider. This week features our best stories of 2020. 

Here's what you need to know before we dive in:

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  • Do you have feedback or story tips? Reach out to me at bjones@businessinsider.com.
  • We'll return to our regular schedule next week. 

Happy New Year to the exactly five people online this week. We made it! 

Today caps the end of a bad year, but it also marks the roughly one-year anniversary of this newsletter and our energy coverage. 

We originally set out to cover the vanguard of energy — the new technologies, and the companies producing them, that are shaping the industry's future. Then the pandemic hit and caused oil markets to plummet to historic lows. 

From there, we broadened the beat and began reporting on how companies like Exxon and BP responded to the oil rout, while still maintaining a focus on the rise of cleantech.

Along the way, we broke big stories on the nation's largest oil company, uncovered shady behavior in the solar industry, and sat down with some of the most prominent executives and investors.

This week, we tell the sad and sometimes hopeful tale of 2020 through our top stories of the year. 

The founders of Form Energy. From left, Mateo Jaramillo, Yet-Ming Chiang, Ted Wiley, William Woodford, Marco Ferrara.Form Energy

At the start of 2020, clean technologies like batteries were on the rise and investors were circling 

In the serene days before the pandemic struck, clean-tech was gaining steam (again), and batteries were all the rage. 

  • We profiled the secretive battery startup Form Energy in January. Led by a Tesla veteran, the firm — which is developing grid-scale storage — is one of the most talked-about startups. 
  • Early this year we also profiled Advando, a battery startup backed by iPod designer Tony Fadell. It's among the companies in the billion-dollar race to develop more energy-dense lithium-ion batteries. (Tesla is working on that, as well, though some scientists have questioned its approach.)
  • And we wrote about the industries fueling the soaring energy-storage market, from e-scooters to commercial vehicles. (Airplanes might be one of them, too.) 

But batteries were far from the only tech popping at the top of the year.

  • We wrote about digital-utility startup Arcadia and smart sensor company Sense. 
  • Arcadia buys renewable energy certificates, known as RECs, to match customers' energy usage with renewable power. One of my favorite stories this year was a deep dive into the opaque $6 billion REC market. 

Oil workers in Iraq near a pipeline as it ejects oil at the Al Tuba oil field in BasraEssam Al-Sudani/Reuters

Then the pandemic hit. It disrupted supply chains for solar panels and caused the price of oil to collapse. 

As the virus began spreading in China, factories shut down, temporarily disrupting the solar and battery supply chains and causing major research firms to revise down their 2020 forecasts for solar installations. 

But the far bigger story for energy was the pandemic's impact on oil markets. 

  • As people stopped traveling and consuming fuel, demand for oil plummeted and there was a "tsunami" of oversupply, almost overnight. We gathered some photos of what that glut looked like and profiled a neat startup backed by Google's GV that measures oil supply using satellite imagery. 
  • Coupled with a price war playing out between Saudia Arabia and Russia, the surfeit of crude resulted in an epic crash in prices. 
  • The market collapse came to a head in April, when the US benchmark — West Texas Intermediate — went negative for the first time in history. We explain why that happened here, in one of our biggest stories of the year. 

Bonus: I asked a bunch of oilfield workers to send me their photos of crude oil when it comes out of the ground. You can find those bizarre images here. 

Carlos Jasso/Reuters

Oil companies responded by cutting staff and merging with rivals

For months, crude prices struggled to gain ground, and oil companies were forced to cut costs as a result. (Today, prices are still down about 22%.)

  • We began tracking the response of 22 of the largest oil-and-gas firms, from layoffs to mergers. We're still updating that post. 

Highlights: This summer, we broke the news that Exxon — which had resisted a formal layoff program — quietly began cutting staff using its employee ranking system. Insiders called it a layoff in disguise. 

  • We later scooped that the company was cutting 15% of its global workforce by the end of 2022, including as many as 1,900 US roles. You can find a full list of our Exxon scoops here.
  • We also discovered that Schlumberger, the world's largest oilfield services company, rescinded job offers and told some workers that their pay would be cut using letter templates designed for promotions. 
  • Finally, we talked to Schlumberger employees in Ivory Coast who said the company took advantage of the country's poor labor laws to stiff them of fair severance. 

Sunrun

Renewable-energy firms have proven more resilient, but they've felt the pain, too

Rooftop solar installers had to shut down door-to-door sales — an important avenue for finding new customers, and a source of jobs — and move customer acquisition entirely online. 

  • We broke the news that Sunrun, the nation's largest residential solar company, furloughed hundreds of field sales reps, and laid off at least 100 workers. 
  • We also got the inside story on Sunrun's $3.2 billion bid for rival Vivint Solar. The deal, fusing the two largest rooftop installers, was finalized in October.

Side effects: Online lead generation can be cheaper than door-to-door sales, but it's also ripe for misleading tactics. 

  • This summer we investigated the spread of misleading solar ads on Facebook. 
  • That reporting ultimately led to a two-part investigation into the company Powerhome Solar, which is among the nation's fastest-growing energy companies. 
  • Powerhome has been accused of using deceptive tactics to lure customers into home solar deals. Customers have also complained about botched installs and inappropriate behavior among the firm's installation crews. 

Solar's silver lining? Some experts we spoke to earlier this year suggested that the pandemic (and power outages) could give the rooftop solar industry a boost, as homeowners seek energy security. 

In February, BP's chief executive, Bernard Looney, declared that the oil giant would become a net-zero emissions company by 2020.Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images

Large fossil-fuel companies pledged to rely less on oil

Hardly a week went by without a new corporate sustainability commitment. Even large oil companies piled on to the trend. 

  • BP made the biggest splash, saying it would shrink oil and gas production by 40% and invest $5 billion a year on low-carbon energy by 2030. We published six crucial slides that sum up the company's approach. 
  • We also wrote about how BP is set to become a solar giant that rivals the world's largest operators — and what that means for returns (which have traditionally been much lower for renewable energy, compared to oil and gas). 

In related news: Shell has also committed to net-zero emissions, and we profiled a key executive behind that push. 

  • Most other major European oil companies including Total, Eni, and Equinor have made net-zero commitments. Occidental Petroleum is the only US company with a similar pledge. 

Big but: Oil majors including BP and Shell have spent just a small fraction of their budget on so far. We ranked the majors by their clean-energy investments.

Shell is among the largest backers of hydrogen technologyMiquel Gonzalez/Shell

The future energy industry 

What lies in the year ahead? We put that question to two dozen energy experts and CEOs. You can read all 9 of their top predictions here. 

  • One major takeaway is that hydrogen will be huge. We have a big explainer on the industry here, which delves into the hypes and realities. 
  • Expect the incoming Biden administration, and its powerful climate team, to be transformative, even if the government is divided.

List it: We also spent a lot of time this year finding the people and startups that are transforming the energy industry. They offer plenty of insight into what the future has in store. 

  • In the spring we collected nominations for rising stars of clean energy and whittled them down into a list of 21 impressive up-and-comers. 
  • This fall we published Transformers, an annual BI project featuring 100 people who are transforming their industries. It includes 10 people from the energy industry. 
  • And this winter, we asked 15 VCs to name the climate-tech startups that are set to soar in 2021. They gave us 46 of them — though just six startups came up over and over again. 

Bonus: We also gathered up all the energy startups that Bill Gates is backing. 

What should we cover next year? Let us know.  

You can reach me at bjones@businessinsider.com. 

Have a great New Year's Eve tonight, and see you in 2021! 

– Benji 

Ps. My personal best of is a four-way tie between getting an obstinate puppy, this apple tart I made, hunting for salamanders, and finding the grave of my great-great-grandfather in Brooklyn, which I have, for your pleasure, made into a collage. 

Benji Jones

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