America’s innovators will solve climate change, not regulators

President Joe Biden has pledged to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030. He intends to meet this ambitious target through a wave of new federal spending and government programs.

But our best hope for reducing carbon emissions isn’t new government spending. It’s a technological sea change — one that can only come from the private sector.

In fact, the government is slowing progress against climate change by imposing regulations that prevent emissions-lowering technologies from reaching the market. If our leaders really want to save the planet, they need to get out of the way of entrepreneurs who can actually do so.

One would expect the government to embrace technology with the potential to cut carbon pollution. After all, Biden himself has promised to “spur American technological innovations” as part of his climate agenda.

Unfortunately, some of the most promising green tech breakthroughs face severe headwinds as a result of misguided or antiquated federal policies.

One such technology — profiled in “They Say It Can’t Be Done,” a new documentary on the relationship between innovators and regulations — is an artificial tree developed by Arizona State University physicist and engineer Klaus Lackner. These man-made trees contain a special plastic resin that can absorb carbon dioxide and release it when submerged in water. They’re 1,000 times more effective at taking in carbon dioxide from the air than natural trees. Once captured, this carbon dioxide can then be reclaimed and converted into fuel.

Lackner’s design could be scaled to produce units that each remove a metric ton of carbon dioxide daily. The main stumbling block is the lack of clear regulations surrounding carbon capture technologies — specifically the transport and storage of captured carbon.

Until a uniform federal framework exists, the process of bringing this technology to market will remain impossibly complicated and fraught with risk.

Or consider technologies that could reduce the need for large-scale livestock farming. Raising billions of chickens, pigs and cattle requires vast amounts of water, feed and land. The resulting carbon footprint is massive — about 7.1 gigatons of greenhouse gases a year.

Here too, new technologies could help reduce emissions. Researchers are designing cell-cultured meat — chicken, pork and beef produced in the lab rather than the feedlot. This lab-grown protein is safe, healthy and far less carbon-intensive than traditionally farmed meat.

One startup that makes lab-grown meat, Eat Just, recently obtained approval to sell its cell-cultured chicken in Singapore. But it’s still waiting on the green light from U.S. regulators. According to the firm’s founder, it could be another year — or more — before U.S. approval comes through.

For an industry as capital-intensive as cultured meat production, this sluggish approval process can make it impossible for a startup to launch and get its products to market.

High-tech solutions like these are precisely what’s required to protect our planet from the threat of climate change. While it is impossible to say whether lab-grown meat is the future of sustainable food or if artificial trees are the best solution for sequestering atmospheric carbon, an accessible and level regulatory playing field allows the best innovations to thrive.

Too many Americans believe that when it comes to climate change, only the government is up to the task. The fact is, the main barrier to large-scale adoption of sustainable technologies isn’t a lack of government involvement, but too much — or at least the wrong kind.

In order to make good on his promise to reduce the nation’s carbon footprint, the president and his team will need to recognize how government obstructs the development and deployment of technology that can fulfill that promise.

#carbon-capture-technologies, #carbon-sequestration, #column, #cultured-meat, #government, #greenhouse-gas-emissions, #greentech, #joe-biden, #opinion, #policy, #sustainable-food, #united-states

Salesforce reaches Net Zero energy usage, announces updates to Sustainability Cloud

Salesforce has often preached about responsible capitalism, and today at Dreamforce, the company’s annual customer extravaganza, it announced a notable achievement in the battle against global climate change. The company said that it has achieved effective Net Zero energy usage across its entire value chain with 100% renewable energy, while purchasing carbon offsets when that’s not possible.

At the same time, it announced updates to the Sustainability Cloud, a product that the company sells to other organizations to manage their climate initiatives, proving you can be responsible, and still be capitalists. Suzanne DiBianca, chief impact officer & EVP for corporate relations at Salesforce, speaking at yesterday’s Dreamforce press event says the company is proud to be an example of a large organization taking positive climate action.

“I’m very excited about our commitment to climate action around being a Net Zero company today. And this is not in 2030, not in 2040, not in some other future moment. We know we have to accelerate, and we have gotten to Net Zero today including our entire value chain, which is Scope 1, 2 and 3. Very few companies have gotten here,” she said.

There is a lot of sustainability jargon there, so we spoke to Ari Alexander, GM of Sustainability Cloud to break it down for us. Alexander explained that the sustainability community measures a company’s carbon footprint in three main areas known as Scope 1, Scope 2 and Scope 3. “Scope 1 and 2 are what you own, what you operate, what you control and then what energy is procured in order to power your operation,” he said.

Scope 3 is everything else your company touches, which is referred to as ‘up and down the value chain’ in industry parlance. “The vast majority of the emissions that a company is responsible for are actually not in their direct operational control, but relate to their upstream suppliers that they procure goods and services from, or in the case of other industries the downstream use of the product or the life of a product,” he said. A downstream example might be what happens to your phone after you trade it in for a new one.

So when Salesforce says that it’s Net Zero up and down the value chain, it involves everything it controls and every company it interacts with in the act of doing business. Because there are so many variables here outside of Salesforce’s control, Alexander says when the company can’t ensure that a partner or vendor is in compliance with the standard set by the company, it buys what he calls “high quality carbon offsets.”

“Also for where we can’t do that immediately, we are purchasing high quality carbon offsets to make up the difference to be able to be fully Net Zero now, while we continue on that really important journey of reducing to absolute zero across the supply chain [over time],” he said.

In addition, the company announced updates to the Sustainability Cloud, the commercial tool it has developed to sell to other companies, using the same tools and technology that Salesforce is using in-house.

“Sustainability is undergoing a transformation in that it’s going from something that’s a nice to have to something that’s actually at the heart of business transformation itself. That it’s one of the mega trends of our time and growing exponentially every year, and part of what that means is that companies are moving significant resources in order to respond to the climate crisis and moving sustainability to the core of how they do business,” Alexander said.

At the same time, the company published a blueprint based on its own plans to be a more sustainable organization called the Salesforce Climate Action Plan (link to pdf) that it is making available for free online.

The company also announced plans to accelerate its tree planting goals to grow 30 million trees this year. This involves working with other organizations to plant, grow and restore 100 million trees in a 10 year period, a goal that they have been pushing to make happen much sooner.

Company president and COO Bret Taylor speaking at the Dreamforce press event said that the climate crisis has had an impact on everyone, and he believes Salesforce can have a meaningful impact based on its behavior while acting as an example for other organizations.

“We’re showing up at Dreamforce, […] really to recognize that we think business is the greatest platform for change and to paint a picture of this vision for inspiring every organization to become a trusted enterprise and address these crises [like climate],” Taylor said.

#bret-taylor, #cloud, #dreamforce-2021, #enterprise, #greentech, #saas, #salesforce, #sustainability

Ellen DeGeneres, Portia de Rossi, Shaun White, Shawn Mendes get behind Shelf Engine

Shelf Engine’s mission to eliminate food waste in grocery retailers now has some additional celebrity backers. The company brought in a $2 million extension to its $41 million Series B announced in March.

Ellen DeGeneres, Portia de Rossi, Shaun White and Shawn Mendes are the new backers, who came in through a strategic round of funding alongside PLUS Capital to bring the Seattle-based company’s total funding to $60 million since the company’s inception in 2016. This includes a $12 million Series A from 2020.

Shelf Engine’s grocery order automation technology applies advanced statistical models and artificial intelligence to deliver accurate food order volume so that customers can reduce their food waste by as much as 32% while increasing gross margins and sales of more than 50%. The company has already helped retailers divert 1 million pounds of food waste from landfills, Stefan Kalb, co-founder and CEO of Shelf Engine, told TechCrunch.

“We’ve had phenomenal growth last year, some of it from our mid-market customers, but mostly from customers like Target and Kroger,” Kalb said. “Our other big news is that we hired a president (Kane McCord) in the past six weeks, which is cool to have the reinforcement on the leadership side.”

Over the past 12 months, the company, which works with retailers like Kroger, Whole Foods and Compass Group, saw over 540% revenue growth. At the same time, it grew its employees to 200 from 23, Kalb said. He expects to more than double Shelf Engine’s headcount over the next 12 months.

As a result, the new funding will be used to scale with current customers and accelerate further investment in R&D of its AI systems and automation capabilities.

Meanwhile, Amanda Groves, partner at PLUS Capital, said her firm works with about 65 individuals who are in film, television, sports and culture, including the four new investors in Shelf Engine.

She says many of her clients are looking to participate in business as an investor or with sweat equity. Her firm works with them to determine interests and will then source opportunities and invest alongside them.

Shelf Engine fits into one of PLUS Capital’s core investment areas of sustainability. The firm looks across different sectors like food, energy, apparel, packaging and recycling. Shelf Engine’s approach of leveraging technology to aid in sustainability efforts was attractive to all of the investors, as was their method of scaling within grocery clients without affecting consumer behavior.

“When Shelf Engine is installed in the grocery store, they can reduce spoilage by 10% right off the bat — that immediacy of the impact was what got our clients excited,” Groves added.

One of Shelf Engine’s first celebrity investors was Joe Montana, and Kalb said partnering with celebrities enables the company’s mission to eliminate food waste and address the climate crisis to be made more aware.

“B2B software is not as glamorous, but the climate has become a big issue and something many celebrities care about,” he added. “Shawn Mendes has over 60 million followers, so for him to share about this issue is extremely meaningful. Where he invests will lead to his followers knocking on the doors of stores and saying ‘this matters to me.’ That is the strategy shift from B2B to a movement for our community.”

The company is not alone in tackling food waste, which globally each year amounts to $1.3 trillion. For example, Apeel, OLIO, Imperfect Foods, Mori and Phood Solutions are all working to improve the food supply chain and have attracted venture dollars in the past year to go after that mission.

Shelf Engine is already in over 3,000 stores nationwide in the areas of grocery, food service and convenience stores, which “is a large lift from 18 months ago,” Kalb said. Next up, the company is progressing to open new categories and managing more projects. He is specifically looking at what the company can manage in the store and manage for the customer.

“We are getting to the point where we can manage more of the store in complex categories like meat, seafood and deli that are mainly custom,” he added.

#artificial-intelligence, #b2b-software, #compass-group, #ellen-degeneres, #enterprise, #food, #food-service, #food-supply-chain, #food-waste, #funding, #greentech, #grocery-store, #joe-montana, #kroger, #plus-capital, #portia-de-rossi, #recent-funding, #retailers, #shaun-white, #shawn-mendes, #shelf-engine, #startups, #stefan-kalb, #target, #tc, #whole-foods

EarthOptics helps farmers look deep into the soil for big data insights

Farming sustainably and efficiently has gone from a big tractor problem to a big data problem over the last few decades, and startup EarthOptics believes the next frontier of precision agriculture lies deep in the soil. Using high-tech imaging techniques, the company claims to map the physical and chemical composition of fields faster, better, and more cheaply than traditional techniques, and has raised $10M to scale its solution.

“Most of the ways we monitor soil haven’t changed in 50 years,” EarthOptics founder and CEO Lars Dyrud told TechCrunch. “There’s been a tremendous amount of progress around precision data and using modern data methods in agriculture – but a lot of that has focused on the plants and in-season activity — there’s been comparatively little investment in soil.”

While you might think it’s obvious to look deeper into the stuff the plants are growing from, the simple fact is it’s difficult to do. Aerial and satellite imagery and IoT-infused sensors for things like moisture and nitrogen have made surface-level data for fields far richer, but past the first foot or so things get tricky.

Different parts of a field may have very different levels of physical characteristics like soil compaction, which can greatly affect crop outcomes, and chemical characteristics like dissolved nutrients and the microbiome. The best way to check these things, however, involves “putting a really expensive stick in the ground,” said Dyrud. The lab results from these samples affects the decision of which parts of a field need to be tilled and fertilized.

It’s still important, so farms get it done, but having soil sampled every few acres once or twice a year adds up fast when you have 10,000 acres to keep track of. So many just till and fertilize everything for lack of data, sinking a lot of money (Dyrud estimated the U.S. does about $1B in unnecessary tilling) into processes that might have no benefit and in fact might be harmful — it can release tons of carbon that was safely sequestered underground.

EarthOptics aims to make the data collection process better essentially by minimizing the “expensive stick” part. It has built an imaging suite that relies on ground penetrating radar and electromagnetic induction to produce a deep map of the soil that’s easier, cheaper, and more precise than extrapolating acres of data from a single sample.

Machine learning is at the heart of the company’s pair of tools, GroundOwl and C-Mapper (C as in carbon). The team trained a model that reconciles the no-contact data with traditional samples taken at a much lower rate, learning to predict soil characteristics accurately at level of precision far beyond what has traditionally been possible. The imaging hardware can be mounted on ordinary tractors or trucks, and pulls in readings every few feet. Physical sampling still happens, but dozens rather than hundreds of times.

With today’s methods, you might divide your thousands of acres into 50-acre chunks: this one needs more nitrogen, this one needs tilling, this one needs this or that treatment. EarthOptics brings that down to the scale of meters, and the data can be fed directly into roboticized field machinery like a variable depth smart tiller.

Drive it along the fields and it goes only as deep as it needs to. Of course not everyone has a state of the art equipment, so the data can also be put out as a more ordinary map telling the driver in a more general sense when to till or perform other tasks.

If this approach takes off, it could mean major savings for farmers looking to tighten belts, or improved productivity per acre and dollar for those looking to scale up. And ultimately the goal is to enable automated and robotic farming as well. That transition is in an early stage as equipment and practices get hammered out, but one thing they will all need is good data.

Dyrud said he hopes to see the EarthOptics sensor suite on robotic tractors, tillers, and other farm equipment, but that their product is very much the data and the machine learning model they’ve trained up with tens of thousands of ground truth measurements.

The $10.3M A round was led by Leaps by Bayer (the conglomerate’s impact arm), with participation from S2G Ventures, FHB Ventures, Middleland Capital’s VTC Ventures and Route 66 Ventures. The plan for the money is to scale up the two existing products and get to work on the next one: moisture mapping, obviously a major consideration for any farm.

#artificial-intelligence, #food, #funding, #fundings-exits, #greentech, #recent-funding, #robotics, #startups, #tc

Blue Bear Capital raises $150M to fund climate, energy and infrastructure tech

Blue Bear Capital has raised a new $150 million fund that will be used to find and invest in startups developing technology aimed at speeding up the adoption and industrialization of renewable energy.

This is the venture firm’s second fund, which it says is oversubscribed. Blue Bear has already backed nine new companies since 2020. The firm said the fresh cash will be used to fund digital technologies “making an outsized impact” in markets including wind, solar, the electric grid, EV infrastructure, transportation and energy-intensive industries.

“Trillions of dollars will be spent to scale renewable energy, modernize infrastructure and secure sustainable supply chains,” Blue Bear partner Ernst Sack said in a statement. “Meanwhile, artificial intelligence is redefining how data is captured, decisions are mad and relationships are built all around us. Where these two forces converge — applying the power of AI-enabled technologies to the immense challenges of the energy transition — is where Blue Bear sees the greatest investment and impact opportunity of our lifetimes.”

Blue Bear has a two-fold investment strategy. The firm’s investors look for those that “nail a vertical,” which is code for startups that have developed Software as a Service solutions that help industries address operational bottlenecks and handle niche use cases. Blue Bear also looks for startups that have developed software that can scale horizontally across many markets.

The portfolio companies in Blue Bear’s “nail a vertical” bucket include FreeWire Technologies, which developed a suite of mobile EV charging products and Omnidian, a distributed solar asset management company. Horizontal scale companies that BlueBear has backed include Urbint, which is focused on infrastructure safety and Demex, a climate and weather risk management company.

As with Blue Bear’s first fund, this one is aimed at helping early-stage companies scale — and not just by investing capital. The VC touts the expertise of its partners, who have decades of experience in sustainable investments and hands-on work in climate, policy, corporate venture, cloud computing and other related technologies.

“As specialists we believe in a high conviction and relatively concentrated approach to portfolio construction,” said Blue Bear partner Vaughn Blake in a statement, adding that the firm select companies with long-term partnership in mind. Blake also said the firm avoids the high-volume approach to venture, where a handful of companies are expected to make up a fund’s returns while the bulk are left to fall away.”

Investors in Blue Bear’s fund include AIMS Imprint of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the McKnight Foundation, as well as leadership from other private equity firms and energy companies. Advisory Board members include First Reserve President Alex Krueger, former NASA astronaut Tim Kopra, and former BP Chairman and CEO Lord John Browne.  

#artificial-intelligence, #blue-bear-capital, #climate-tech, #greentech, #tc, #transportation, #venture-capital

Tanso nabs $1.9M pre-seed to help industrial manufacturers do sustainability reporting

The climate crisis is creating massive demand for data capture as industries grapple with how to decarbonize. Put simply, you can’t cut your carbon emissions if don’t know what they are in the first place.

This need to gather data is a big opportunity for startups — and a wave of early companies have already been founded to try to plug the sustainability data gap, through things like APIs to assess emissions for carbon offsetting (which in turn has led to other startups trying to tackle the data gap around offsetting projects…).

One thing is clear: Requirements for sustainability reporting are only going to get broader and deeper from here on in.

Munich-based Tanso is an early stage startup (founded this year) that’s building software to support sustainability reporting for a particular sector (industrial manufacturers) — with the goal of creating a data management system that can automate data capture and sustainability reporting geared towards the specific needs of the sector.

The startup says it decided to focus on industrial manufacturing because it’s both an emissions-heavy sector and underserved with supportive digital tech vs many other industries.

The founders met during their studies at universities in Munich and Zurich — where they’d been researching the assessment of organizational climate impact. Their collective expertise crystalized into the realization of a business opportunity to build a data management system for a notoriously polluting sector that’s facing a mandate to change.

In the coming years, European regulations will expand sustainability reporting requirements — with the EU’s ‘Green Deal’ plan setting an overarching goal of Europe becoming the first “climate-neutral” continent by 2050.

Specific (existing) reporting requirements within the bloc include the EU Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD), which will apply to more than 50,000 companies — requiring they report on their sustainability metrics, starting in 2023.

The UK (now outside the EU) already introduced some reporting requirements for domestic companies, under the Streamlined Energy and Carbon Reporting (SECR) regulation, which has applied since 2019 and applies to over 12,000 businesses in the UK in varying degrees of detail depending on the size of the company.

So there is a clear direction of travel in the region requiring businesses to gather and report sustainability data.

Tanso has just closed a $1.9 million pre-seed raise with the aim of getting its data management support software to market in time for an expected surge in demand as sustainability regulations like CSRD start to bite.

The raise is led by German early stage b2b fund UVC Partners, with participation from Picus Capital, Possible Ventures, and a number of business angels.

Tanso is still in the R&D/product development phase, with co-founder Gyri Reiersen telling TechCrunch it’s currently working with a number of manufacturers to “figure out the sweet spot” for automating data gathering so it can come to market with a scalable product offering. She says the team raised a relatively large pre-seed exactly to see it through until it’s got something fit to launch (it’s hoping to have something “solid, verified and scalable” by the end of 2022, per Reiersen).

The goal for the product is a single platform that gathers and holds all the customer’s sustainability data and can automate the generation of reports to meet regulatory requirements — including auditing.

From 2025, Reiersen points out that CSRD reporting needs to be “auditable”, meaning that you have to have “some form of transparency and traceability”; and also that the “correctness” of sustainability reporting will be a C-Suite responsibility. So that must concentrate boardroom minds.

“Going beyond that it’s all about how can you use this data and the insights that the data gives you to make predictions and models going forward for how should we develop our products? What makes sense to do going forward to make?” she adds.

“What we’re prototyping currently is to streamline the workflow of information gathering,” Reiersen also tells us, discussing the product dev process. “Also to have really good, fundamental user-flow for the users to use our product. And then doing the deep dives on integrations over time.”

She says the challenge is finding the trade-off between usability and “digging into the data”. “For us it’s very important to have a scalable product, especially having it fully scalable from 2023 when the CSRD are started because then there will be desperation on the market. Companies will need to have something,” she adds.

“We need to have these solutions… that take one step in the right direction for all companies and not just have a couple of carbon neutral companies… So for us it’s more about finding the productizable use-cases in the beginning to make this a scalable product.”

But she also warns over a proliferation of overly “shallow” offerings in the space — driven by marketing-led ‘greenwashing’ (and bogus carbon offsetting) rather than a genuine desire to correctly identify the problem and course-correct which is what’s actually needed for humanity to avert climate disaster.

Reiersen adds that she got really interested in this space through her university work researching the overestimation of carbon offsets through deep learning.

“There is such a need for accountability and making sure that the product that is being developed actually do their job correctly. Because it’s so easy to just have a black box and trust it. We can’t afford having systems that overestimate or underestimate. It needs to be accurate and it needs to be validated,” she says.

“Going forward accuracy will mean more and more and then you need to access the ‘real data’ and not just ‘guestimations’,” she predicts. “And that’s where we see that of course we need to be very front-end/UX-friendly, and making it easy for people to enter the right data and have a very user-friendly, usable product and that people are guided through the process of gathering the right data… but also over time really focusing on how do you integrate and get access to the data at the data-base level?”

 

#artificial-intelligence, #carbon-offset, #early-stage-startup, #environmentalism, #europe, #european-union, #fundings-exits, #greenhouse-gas-emissions, #greentech, #munich, #picus-capital, #sustainability, #sustainability-reporting, #tanso, #uvc-partners

EnerVenue raises $100M to accelerate clean energy using nickel-hydrogen batteries

In order to support a buildout of renewable energy, which tends to over-generate electricity at certain times of day and under-generate at others, the grid is going to need a lot of batteries. While lithium-ion works fine for consumer electronics and even electric vehicles, battery startup EnerVenue says it developed a breakthrough technology to revolutionize stationary energy storage.

The technology itself – nickel-hydrogen batteries – isn’t actually new. In fact, it’s been used for decades in aerospace applications, to power everything from satellites to the International Space Station and the Hubble Telescope. Nickel-hydrogen had been too expensive to scale for terrestrial applications, until Stanford University professor (and now EnerVenue chairman) Yi Cui determined a way to adapt the materials and bring the costs way, way down.

Nickel-hydrogen has a number of key benefits over lithium-ion, according to EnerVenue: it can withstand super-high and super-low temperatures (so no need for air conditioners or thermal management systems); it requires very little to no maintenance; and it has a far longer lifespan.

The technology has caught the eye of two giants in the oil and gas industry, energy infrastructure company Schlumberger and Saudi Aramco’s VC arm, who together with Stanford University have raised $100 million in Series A funding. The investment comes around a year after EnerVenue raised a $12 million seed. The company is planning on using the funds to scale its nickel-hydrogen battery production, including a Gigafactory in the U.S., and has entered a manufacturing and distribution agreement with Schlumberger for international markets.

“I spent almost three and a half years prior to EnerVenue looking for a battery storage technology that I thought could compete with lithium-ion,” CEO Jorg Heinemann told TechCrunch in a recent interview. “I had essentially given up.” Then he met with Cui, who had managed through his research to bring the cost down from around $20,000 per kilowatt hour to $100 per kilowatt hour within line of sight – a jaw-dropping decrease that puts it on-par with existing energy storage technology today.

EnerVenue CEO Jorg Heinemann Image Credits: EnerVenue (opens in a new window)

Think of a nickel-hydrogen battery as a kind of battery-fuel cell hybrid. It charges by building up hydrogen inside a pressure vessel, and when it discharges, that hydrogen gets reabsorbed in water, Heinemann explained. One of the key differences between the batteries in space and the one’s EnerVenue is developing on Earth is the materials. The nickel-hydrogen batteries in orbit use a platinum electrode, which Heinemann said accounts for as much as 70% of the cost of the battery. The legacy technology also uses a ceramic separator, another high cost. EnerVenue’s key innovation is finding new, low-cost and Earth-abundant materials (though the exact materials they aren’t sharing).

Heinemann also hinted that an advanced team within the company is working on a separate technology breakthrough that could bring the cost down even further, to the range of around $30 per kilowatt hour or less.

Those aren’t the only benefits. EnerVenue’s batteries can charge and discharge at different speeds depending on a customer’s needs. It can go from a 10-minute charge or discharge to as slow as a 10-20 hour charge-discharge cycle, though the company is optimizing for a roughly 2 hour charge and 4-8 hour discharge. EnerVenue’s batteries are also designed for 30,000 cycles without experiencing a decline in performance.

“As renewables get cheaper and cheaper, there’s lots of time of the day where you’ve got, say, a 1-4-hour window of close to free power that can be used to charge something, and then it has to be dispatched fast or slow depending on when the grid needs it,” he said. “And our battery does that really well.”

It’s notable that this round was funded by two companies that loom large in the oil and gas industry. “I think it’s nearly 100% of the oil and gas industry is now pivoting to renewables in a huge way,” Heinemann added. “They all see the future as, the energy mix is shifting. We’re going to be 75% renewable by mid-century, most think it’s going to happen quicker, and those are based on studies that the oil and gas industry did. They see that and they know they need a new play.”

Image Credits: EnerVenue

Don’t expect nickel-hydrogen to start appearing in your iPhone anytime soon. The technology is big and heavy – even scaled down as much as possible, a nickel-hydrogen battery is still around the size of a two-liter water flask, so lithium-ion will definitely still play a major role in the future.

Stationary energy storage may have a different future. EnerVenue is currently in “late-stage” discussions on the site and partner for a United States factory to produce up to one gigawatt-hour of batteries annually, with the goal of eventually scaling even beyond that. Heinemann estimates that the tooling cap-ex per megawatt hour should be just 20% that of lithium ion. Under the partnership with Schlumberger, the infrastructure company will also be separately manufacturing batteries and selling them in Europe and the Middle East.

“It’s a technology that works today,” Heinemann said. “We’re not waiting on a technology breakthrough, there’s no science project in our future that we have to go achieve in order to prove out something. We know it works.”

#batteries, #cleantech, #energy-storage, #enervenue, #funding, #greentech, #recent-funding, #renewable-energy, #startups, #storage, #tc

Index leads $12.2M seed in Sourceful, a data play to make supply chains greener

Supply chains can be a complex logistical challenge. But they pose an even greater environmental challenge. And it’s that latter problem — global supply-chain sustainability — where UK startup Sourceful is fully focused, although it argues its approach can boost efficiency as well as shrink environmental impact. So it’s a win-win, per the pitch.

Early investors look impressed: Sourceful is announcing a $12.2 million seed funding round today, led by Europe’s Index Ventures (partner, Danny Rimer, is joining the board). Eka Ventures, Venrex and Dylan Field (Figma founder), also participated in the chunky raise.

The June 2020-founded startup says it will use the new funding to scale its operations and build out its platform for sustainable sourcing, with a plan to hire more staff across technology, sustainability, marketing and ops.

Its team has already grown fivefold since the start of 2021 — and it’s now aiming to reach 60 employees by the end of the year.

And all this is ahead of a public launch that’s programmed for early next year.

Sourceful’s platform is in pre-launch beta for now, with around 20 customers across a number of categories — such as food & beverages (Foundation Coffee House), fashion and accessories (Fenton), healthcare (Elder), and online marketplaces (Floom and Stitched) — kicking the tyres in the hopes of making better supply chain decisions.

Startup watchers will know that supply chain logistics and freight forwarding has been a hotbed of activity — with entrepreneurs making waves for years now, promising efficiency gains by digitizing legacy (and often still pretty manual) legacy processes.

Sustainability-focused supply chain startups are a bit more of a recent development (with some category-pioneering exceptions) but could be set for major uplift as the world’s attention spins toward decarbonizing. (Just this month we’ve also covered Portcast and Responsibly, for example.)

Sourceful joins the fray with a dual-sided promise to tackle sustainability and efficiency by mapping client requirements to vetted suppliers on its marketplace — handling the buying and shipping logistics piece (including a little warehousing) — and taking a commission on the overall price as its cut of the action.

At first glance it’s a curious choice of name for a sustainability startup, given the fact that sourcing (a whole lot) less is what’s ultimately going to be needed for humanity to cut its global carbon emissions enough to avert climate disaster. But maybe the intended wordplay here is ‘full’ — in the sense of ‘fully optimized’.

The UK startup is attacking the supply chain sustainability problem from the perspective of doing something right now, arguing that making a dent in consumer-driven environmental impacts of sourcing stuff (packaging, merchansize, components etc) is a lot better than letting the same old polluting status quo roll on. 

However, given all the unverifiable ‘eco’ marketing claims being attached to products nowadays — or, indeed, other forms of flagrant ‘greenwashing’ (like bogus carbon offsets) that are cynically trying to convince consumers it’s okay to keep consuming as much as ever — there are clearly pitfalls to avoid too.

If you’re talking about packaging — which is one of the products that Sourceful is deeply focused on, with a forthcoming design capability offering that will help businesses to customize packaging designs, pick materials, size etc based on real-time data, all with the goal of encouraging ‘greener’ choices — less really is more.

Ideally, zero packaging is what your business should be aiming for (where practical, ofc). Yet Sourceful’s service will, inevitably, support demand for packaging supply and manufacture. At least in the first blush. So there’s a bit of a conundrum.

“You can put a carbon footprint score on packaging in general. So you could say packaging overall is this amount so the best thing you could do is not use any packaging. But the reality is, for most brands right now, especially for ecommerce, if you’re trying to deliver your product to the customer there needs to be some packaging — and so if packaging is unavoidable in its current form or in another form then the best thing you can then do is optimize that packaging,” argues CEO and co-founder Wing Chan, when we make the point that zero packaging is the most sustainable option.

“Right now we think the best solution is to help you optimize your packaging — the next wave will be around circular forms of packaging. Packaging that you can return back to your courier, packaging that you can reuse in another form. But we wanted to start with what is the current pain point. And the pain point is: I’m buying packaging, it’s very expensive, it’s very time-consuming and if I try and get it to be ‘green’ I either put a marketing spin on it or I don’t know how to actually make it more sustainable.

“But I definitely agree with you that long term we’ve got to think about how do I get the supply chain number as close to zero and then offset whatever’s remaining.”

For now, then, Sourceful is using data — combined with its marketplace of vetted suppliers (~40 at this stage) in the UK and China — to help companies optimize sourcing logistics and shrink their supply chains’ environmental impact.

It does this by putting a “carbon footprint score” on the product choices its brand clients are making.

This means that instead of only being able to claim “qualitative things” — such as that a product uses less plastic or a different type of plastic — Sourceful’s customers can display an actual benchmarked carbon footprint score (in the form of a number), based on its lifecycle assessment of the stuff involved in making up the finished product.

“It’s a lifecycle view,” says Chan. “For example if you take packaging we look at the box, we look at what is the cardboard material, where does it come from, how far has it travelled, what type of material is it, how much material gets used, how is then transported — for example is it a manufacturer in Asia all the way to the UK — so we get an overall score. So rather than it just being comparing paper and plastic we actually help the brands to see an overall quantitive outcome.”

“We’ve built the [software] engine that allows you to make choices and see the actual output — so, for example, if you make your box bigger what does that actually do to your carbon footprint score?” he adds.

Sourceful has an internal climate science team to do this work. It is also building on publicly available data sources, per Chan — such as ecoinvent (“the market standard based data”) — but he says the public data available isn’t up-to-date, saying it’s also therefore working with researchers to update these key sources with the last five years of data.

It wants the protocol it’s devised for scoring carbon footprint via this lifecycle assessment to become a universal standard. Hence it’s currently going through an ISO certification process — hoping to have that in place before the planned public launch of its platform in Q1 next year.

“There’s two ISO standards for doing a lifecycle assessment and normally you’d get ISO approval for a specific product but we’re getting ISO approval for the whole methodology — essentially the platform that we’ve built,” explains Chan. “There’s an independent panel of people, from universities, from other consultancies, who will be reviewing this as part of that ISO review — that’s why it’s so important to us that we’re doing that.”

The vetting of the suppliers on its marketplace is something Sourceful is doing entirely by itself, though — without any outside help. So its customers still need to trust that it’s doing a proper job of monitoring all the third parties on its marketplace.

But, on this, Chan argues that’s since sustainability is core to its value proposition it is incentivized to do the vetting in a more thorough and comprehensive way than any other individual player would be.

“The key thing for us is we combine both the data capture you would do when you’re understanding a supplier — asking all the questions about how their supply chain works and all of the laws entered by the new country — but we’re coupling that with a human visit as well. So we have a team in the UK as well as a team in Asia who actually go and visit the manufacturers. So it’s an extra layer of comfort for the brands that we’ve actually spent the time to go and meet them,” he suggests.

“The second thing is, as part of our marketplace build, we’re understanding how their supply chain works — in order to build the lifecycle assessment we actually understand each stage of their manufacturing process. So we have a much deeper understanding of their way of operating than all of the other platforms would have. So, yes it’s more involved, but we think that gives better accountability and a more accurate outcome.”

“We’re taking [the vetting process] to another level,” he adds. “We didn’t find anyone that was going into the same level of depth as us — so that’s why we’ve done it ourselves.”

Pressed a little more, Chan also tells TechCrunch: “Supply chain risks never disappear but the thing is how much investment are you making to learn more about it? And for us because we’re capturing this data on lifecycle assessment it’s part of that process of understanding the supplier. So rather than it being another cost that we pay to go visit the manufacturer, we see it as part of our data gathering — a key part of the platform.

“So rather than it being a cost to minimize, which is why a lot of companies end up in trouble because they don’t visit [their suppliers] enough, we’re invested in making sure that data is as accurate and up-to-date as possible. And the manufacturers see that because they want to have a score that’s good, they also want to understand where their footprint could be improved. So it’s a partnership, rather than it just being a bunch of tick boxes to check — which is what a lot of the audits are… We’re here to try and understand their process better.”

Zooming out to look at the driving forces pressing for supply chain sustainability, Chan suggests demand for greener sourcing by businesses is being driven by consumers themselves — who are certainly more aware than ever of environmental concerns. And can, to a degree, vote with their wallet by choosing more eco products (and/or by putting direct reputational pressure on businesses, such as via social media channels).

There is some regulatory pressure, too — such as existing sustainability and carbon reporting requirements (typically for larger businesses). Along with the overarching ‘net zero’ targets which governments in Europe and elsewhere have signed up for. So there should be increasing ‘top down’ pressure on businesses to decarbonize.

Chan also points to another swathe of environmental laws coming in — such as those banning things like single use plastics — which he says are creating further momentum for businesses to re-evaluate their supply chains.

Nonetheless, he believes the biggest source of pressure for companies to decarbonize is coming from consumers themselves. So — the premise is — brands that can present the strongest story to people about what they’re doing to reduce their environmental impact — backed up by a certified lifecycle assessment (assuming Sourceful gets its ISO stamp) — stand to win the business of growing numbers of eco-minded buyers, at the same time as netting cost efficiencies by optimizing their supply chains.

(And, indeed, part of the team’s inspiration for Sourceful’s business was to challenge the idea that consumers are to blame for the world’s environmental problems — given the lack of choice people so often have over what they can buy, not to mention the paucity of information to inform purchasing choices.)

“In the absence of government regulation on [lifecycle assessment] we’re actually saying to the brand, you’ve got existing products, we’ve measured the material, production, transport, all of these things — given you a carbon footprint score, and actually when you go and look at alternatives we can quantitatively assess the difference between those options. So rather than just pandering to the latest marketing buzzword you get a quantitive view on that,” he says.

“So what we’ve been showing is you can move to a more sustainable outcome — from a quantitative point of view — but also save money. So we’re tackling both problems. The supply chain itself is not very efficient so we can save money and the supply chain is not very transparent so we can give them better visibility into their actual carbon footprint.”

“Every brand that we’ve met that has been started in the last two years, their founder or their premise of the brand had sustainability involved — it’s such a hot topic that if you start a fashion brand or a beauty brand or food brand you have to have somewhere in your mission statement/founder story about your commitment to sustainability. So we thought that’s where the market is going to be. But actually we saw more established companies had the same view — that their consumers are also asking for there to be change in how they talk about their products, how they understand their lifecycle journey. So actually I think the government drive on regulation is of course important but it’s still far behind and actually consumers are driving more of a change,” he adds.

Sourceful’s offering includes a warehousing ‘managed service’ component — where it’s using a predictive algorithm to power auto-stocking so that brands can store (non-current) inventory in its warehouses (to save space etc) and have the goods shipped to them as they need them.

Being able to source supplies like components or packaging in bulk obviously reduces purchasing costs. But depending on how it’s done, it may also mean you can optimize things like transportation requirements, which could limit shipping emissions, so there are potentially efficiency and sustainability strands here too.

“Sea freight is several times more energy efficient than air freight so if we can organize more shipments to go via sea freight than air then that’s a major win. The[n] if we can fill the container up with different client orders so that you end up with one very full container, rather than lots of containers with half of it empty, you’re also going to save a lot of energy too. And so that’s another part of the journey that we do,” says Chan. “The other thing is because were aggregating orders with the manufacturer — they actually have better utilization as well, which is more efficient for them. So all of these things are really important to driving the overall cost as well sustainability score down.”

“The more we thought about it, the more there are so many parts of the supply chain which haven’t been optimzied,” he adds. “So many times you order 2,000 boxes it comes in these air freight shipments and someone has to courier it to you in one trip — there’s so many places where aggregating and being smarter about data you can save so much footprint.”

 

#carbon-footprint, #carbon-offset, #danny-rimer, #e-commerce, #eka-ventures, #environmentalism, #europe, #fundings-exits, #greenhouse-gas-emissions, #greentech, #logistics, #product-management, #sourceful, #supply-chain, #supply-chain-management, #sustainability

Laser-initiated fusion leads the way to safe, affordable clean energy

The quest to make fusion power a reality recently took a massive step forward. The National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory announced the results of an experiment with an unprecedented high fusion yield. A single laser shot initiated reactions that released 1.3 megajoules of fusion yield energy with signatures of propagating nuclear burn.

Reaching this milestone indicates just how close fusion actually is to achieving power production. The latest results demonstrate the rapid pace of progress — especially as lasers are evolving at breathtaking speed.

Indeed, the laser is one of the most impactful technological inventions since the end of World War II. Finding widespread use in an incredibly diverse range of applications — including machining, precision surgery and consumer electronics — lasers are an essential part of everyday life. Few know, however, that lasers are also heralding an exciting and entirely new chapter in physics: enabling controlled nuclear fusion with positive energy gain.

After six decades of innovation, lasers are now assisting us in the urgent process of developing clean, dense and efficient fuels, which, in turn, are needed to help solve the world’s energy crisis through large-scale decarbonized energy production. The peak power attainable in a laser pulse has increased every decade by a factor of 1,000.

Physicists recently conducted a fusion experiment that produced 1,500 terawatts of power. For a short period of time, this generated four to five times more energy than what the whole world consumes at a given moment. In other words, we are already able to produce vast amounts of power. Now we also need to produce vast amounts of energy so as to offset the energy expended to drive the igniting lasers.

Beyond lasers, there are also considerable advances on the target side. The recent use of nanostructure targets allows for more efficient absorption of laser energies and ignition of the fuel. This has only been possible for a few years, but here, too, technological innovation is on a steep incline with tremendous advancement from year to year.

In the face of such progress, you may wonder what is still holding us back from making commercial fusion a reality.

There remain two significant challenges: First, we need to bring the pieces together and create an integrated process that satisfies all the physical and technoeconomic requirements. Second, we require sustainable levels of investment from private and public sources to do so. Generally speaking, the field of fusion is woefully underfunded. This is shocking given the potential of fusion, especially in comparison to other energy technologies.

Investments in clean energy amounted to more than $500 billion in 2020. The funds that go into fusion research and development are only a fraction of that. There are countless brilliant scientists working in the sector already, as well as eager students wishing to enter the field. And, of course, we have excellent government research labs. Collectively, researchers and students believe in the power and potential of controlled nuclear fusion. We should ensure financial support for their work to make this vision a reality.

What we need now is an expansion of public and private investment that does justice to the opportunity at hand. Such investments may have a longer time horizon, but their eventual impact is without parallel. I believe that net-energy gain is within reach in the next decade; commercialization, based on early prototypes, will follow in very short order.

But such timelines are heavily dependent on funding and the availability of resources. Considerable investment is being allocated to alternative energy sources — wind, solar, etc. — but fusion must have a place in the global energy equation. This is especially true as we approach the critical breakthrough moment.

If laser-driven nuclear fusion is perfected and commercialized, it has the potential to become the energy source of choice, displacing the many existing, less ideal energy sources. This is because fusion, if done correctly, offers energy that is in equal parts clean, safe and affordable. I am convinced that fusion power plants will eventually replace most conventional power plants and related large-scale energy infrastructure that are still so dominant today. There will be no need for coal or gas.

The ongoing optimization of the fusion process, which results in higher yields and lower costs, promises energy production at much below the current price point. At the limit, this corresponds to a source of unlimited energy. If you have unlimited energy, then you also have unlimited possibilities. What can you do with it? I foresee reversing climate change by taking out the carbon dioxide we have put into the atmosphere over the last 150 years.

With a future empowered by fusion technology, you would also be able to use energy to desalinate water, creating unlimited water resources that would have an enormous impact in arid and desert regions. All in all, fusion enables better societies, keeping them sustainable and clean rather than dependent on destructive, dirty energy sources and related infrastructures.

Through years of dedicated research at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the National Ignition Facility, I was privileged to witness and lead the first inertial confinement fusion experiments. I saw the seed of something remarkable being planted and taking root. I have never been more excited than I am now to see the fruits of laser technology harvested for the empowerment and advancement of humankind.

My fellow scientists and students are committed to moving fusion from the realm of tangibility into that of reality, but this will require a level of trust and help. A small investment today will have a big impact toward providing a much needed, more welcome energy alternative in the global arena.

I am betting on the side of optimism and science, and I hope that others will have the courage to do so, too.

#clean-energy, #column, #fusion-power, #greentech, #laser, #lawrence-livermore-national-laboratory, #nuclear-fusion, #opinion, #science, #tc

The 4 things needed to reach Biden’s ambitious 2050 solar goal

A report on the future of solar energy from the Department of Energy paints a sunny picture, if you will, of the next three decades, at the end of which nearly half the country’s energy will be provided by the sun. But for that to happen, big pushes need to happen along four major lines: better photovoltaics, more energy storage, lower soft costs, and putting about a million people to work.

Here’s what the report says needs to happen in each of these sectors in order to meet the ambitious goals it sets out.

Better photovoltaics

The solar cells themselves will need to continue to improve in both cost and efficiency in order to achieve the kind of installation volumes hoped for by the DOE. For reference, 2020 saw 15 gigawatts worth of solar installed, the most ever — but we’re going to need to double that installation rate by 2025, then double it again by 2030.

If photovoltaics don’t improve in efficiency, that means these already ambitious numbers need to go even higher to account for that. And if they stay at today’s prices, the costs will be too high to achieve those volumes as well.

Photovoltaics have come a long way, but they also have a long way to go.

Fortunately efficiency is going up and cost is going down already. But it’s not like that just happens naturally. Companies and researchers across the globe have spent millions on new manufacturing processes, new materials, and other improvements, incremental individually but which add up over time. This basic research and advancement of the science and methods around solar must continue at or beyond the pace that they have over the last two decades.

The DOE suggests that research along the lines of making more exotic PVs cheaper, or stacking cells to minimize bandgap-related losses could be crucial. Flexible and tile- or shingle-like substrates or semi-transparent installations that pass light through to crops or building interiors may also figure. Altogether the plan calls for a reduction of the overall cost to drop by almost half from $1.30/watt today on average to $0.70 by 2030 and more after that.

Solar concentrators get their own heading in the report, and many companies are looking into these to replace industrial processes. These will not likely be used to support the grid at large but will nevertheless replace many fossil fuel based processes.

More energy storage

An unavoidable consequence of getting your energy from the sun is that at night you must rely on stored energy in some form or another, originally nuclear or coal but increasingly a form of storage that collects excess power collected during the daytime. With more of peak usage being covered by renewables, cities can safely transition away from carbon-based energy sources.

While we often think of energy storage in terms of batteries, and certainly they will be present, but the amount of energy that must be stored rules out something like lithium-ion batteries as the primary storage mechanism. Instead, the excess energy can be put towards powering energy-hungry renewable fuel production, like hydrogen fuel cells. This fuel can then be used to generate power when solar can’t meet demand.

The diagram shows how demand would normally go (purple) then how it would go with solar (orange) and how energy storage could mitigate that load (solid colors).

That’s just the “off the top of the head” answer. As the report states: “Thermal, chemical, and mechanical storage technologies are under various stages of development, including pumped thermal storage, liquid air energy storage, novel gravity-based technologies, and geological hydrogen storage.”

No doubt there will be a variety of new and old technologies working to provide the various levels of energy redundancy and storage duration needs of the country. These will go a long way towards making solar and other renewable energy sources capable of being relied on for a greater proportion of demand.

Lower soft costs

If we’re going to double and redouble the rate of solar cell deployment, the costs have to come down not just for the cells themselves, but the whole end-to-end process: assessment, accounting, labor, and of course the profit due to the companies that will be doing the actual work.

Lowering non-hardware costs is already the goal of many startups, like Aurora Solar, which clearly saw the writing on the wall and started making it as easy as possible to plan, visualize, and sell solar installations entirely online.

Right now the all-in cost of a solar roof might be twice the cost of the hardware or more. There are several contributors to this, from financing to regulations to markets, and each has its own intricacies beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that if you can shave one percent off the cost of a solar installation by streamlining the time or cost involved in any of these areas, there will be more than enough volume to turn that one point into a major sum. It will take the combined efforts of many organizational and commercial minds to make this happen, just as it takes the efforts of many scientific ones to improve PVs.

A million jobs

Last but certainly not least, someone has to actually do all this work. That means a whole lot of labor — several times the quarter million people currently estimated to be attached to the solar industry in the country today.

Jobs in this sector will run the gamut, from skilled workers with construction experience to energy professionals who’ve managed grids to public-private partnership wizards who connect commerce to the government’s inevitable top-down incentives. The additional half a million to a million jobs will almost certainly comprise many brand new companies and sub-industries, but the general breakdown so far has been about 65 percent installation and project development, 25 percent sales and manufacturing, and the rest in miscellaneous roles.

It is worth noting, however, that energy concerns currently clinging with white knuckles to aging oil and coal infrastructure will need to do right by the tens of thousands they still employ, and the renewable energy sector is a perfect transition space. “Throughout the transition, certain fossil fuel companies may come under increasing financial distress,” the report reads, which is something of an understatement. The authors strongly suggest funding transition programs that cover training, relocation, and guarantees of existing financial benefits like pensions.

The report points out that the solar industry is overwhelmingly white and male, like a few others we could name, so it is probably worth putting in work on that front if the million hires are to be at all equitable.

You can browse the full study here.

#department-of-energy, #doe, #government, #greentech, #hardware, #renewables, #science, #solar, #solar-energy

Forerunner is software for NFIMBYs, or no flooding in my backyard

Mayors have the toughest job in the world, and leading a city is only getting harder. Even as populations swell in urban cores across the world, climate change is constraining the geographies where that growth can happen. Coastal communities which are popular with residents are also taking a gamble when it comes to rising sea levels. How do you tradeoff a need for growth with the requirement for protecting residents from disaster?

In most cases, the pendulum is fully tilted toward growth. Coastal towns continue to allow widespread sprawl and development, chasing ever more property taxes and residents even as sea levels get ever more uncomfortably high. It’s a recipe for disaster — and one that many cities have chosen to bake anyway.

Forerunner wants that pendulum to swing the other way. Its platform allows city planners and building managers to survey, investigate and enforce stricter building codes and land use standards with a focus on mitigating future flood damage. It’s particularly focused on American cities with heavy usage of the federal flood insurance program, and Forerunner helps cities maximize their adherence to that program’s byzantine rules.

The company pulls in data from FEMA and other sources to determine a property’s mandatory lowest floor height requirement, and whether the property conforms to that rule. It also tracks flood zone boundaries and helps with the administrative overhead of processing federal flood insurance documentation, such as creating and managing elevation certificates.

Co-founders JT White and Susanna Pho have been friends for years and worked at the MIT Media Lab before eventually coming together in early 2019 to build out this floodplain management product. “It cannot be underscored enough that a lot of communities just don’t follow [federal flood] regulations,” Pho said. “They will revert their ordinances from something more strict … since they can’t do a lot of day-to-day compliance.”

Coastal cities devastated by floods are protected by federal flood insurance, but that often creates a moral hazard: since damage is paid for, there isn’t much incentive to avoid it in the first place. The federal government is attempting to tighten those standards, and there is also a sense among a new generation of city planners and municipal leaders that the build-devastation-rebuild model of many cities needs to stop given climate change. After flooding, “we want to see communities rebuild to higher standards,” White said. “The sort of cycle of rebuilding and doing the same thing over and over again is infuriating to us.”

Transitioning to a new model isn’t easy of course. “There are a lot of hard decisions that these communities must make,” he said, but “our software makes it a bit easier to do these things.” So far, the company has gotten early traction with 33 communities currently using Forerunner according to the founders.

Although it has customer clusters in Louisiana and northern New Jersey, the company’s largest customer is Harris County, which includes much of the Houston, Texas metro area. The county could potentially save $5 million on their flood insurance premiums with better adherence to federal standards, according to White. “One of the benefits of our product is that we can help you protect and increase this immediate discount to every flood insurance policyholder in your community starting next year,” he said. Ultimately though, FEMA focuses on disincentives rather than incentives. “The biggest stick that FEMA has is that it can suspend communities from the flood insurance program,” he noted.

The company raised an early seed round in 2019, and has been focused on building up the platform’s capabilities and getting the sales flywheel spinning — which can be a tough order in the govtech space.

Even as demand intensifies for more housing and growth, climate change is simultaneously placing its own demands on cities. Mayors and city leaders are increasingly going to have to transition from the growth models of the past to the resilient models of the future.

#climate-change, #emergency-management, #forerunner, #government, #greentech, #startups, #technology-and-disaster-response

Continental’s eco-friendly concept tire includes a renewable tread

Many efforts are underway to reduce the environmental impact of cars, but what about the tires those cars ride on? Continental thinks it might help. Roadshow reports the company has introduced the Conti GreenConcept (yes, a concept tire) where more than half of the materials are “traceable, renewable and recycled.” You can even renew the natural rubber tread with little trouble — not a completely new idea, but refreshable treads have generally been reserved for large commercial trucks. Three renewals would be enough to ensure the material used for casing is cut in half relative to the total mileage.

About 35 percent of the materials are renewables, including dandelion rubber, silicate made from rice husk ash and a string of vegetable oils and resins. Another 17 percent is polyester yarn made from recycled PET bottles, reclaimed steel and recovered carbon black.

The design should improve the efficiency of the cars themselves, Continental added. New casing, sidewall and tread patterns make the GreenConcept about 40 percent lighter than a conventional tire at about 16.5lbs, That, in turn, leads to 25 percent lower rolling resistance than the highest-rated tires in the EU. Continental estimates you’d get six percent more range from an electric vehicle.

While you might not outfit your car with these exact tires any time soon, this is more than just a thought exercise. Continental plans to gradually deploy its recycling technology starting in 2022, including the production of tires using recycled bottles.

Efforts like the Conti GreenConcept are partly meant to burnish Continental’s public image. It wants to be the most environmentally responsible tire company by 2030, and become completely carbon-neutral by 2050 “at the latest.” However, it also hints at a more holistic approach to eco-friendly cars where many components, not just the powertrain, are kinder to the planet.

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Engadget.

#column, #green-tech, #greentech, #tc, #tceng, #tires

LastPad is a reusable menstrual pad that does away with disposable towels

Direct to consumer online sales have helped a number of female-focused startups get products to market in recent years — often pitching better designed and generally more thoughtful feminine hygiene products than mainstream staples.

The lack of innovation in the mainstream market for feminine hygiene has certainly created a gap for startups to address. Examples in recent years include companies like Thinx (absorbent panties for menstruation) and Flex (a disc-shaped tampon alternative for wearing during sex). Or Daye — which makes CBD tampons for simultaneously treating period cramps.

Even so, there still hasn’t been a critical mass of product innovation in the category — to the point where alternatives can trickle down (no pun intended) and influence the trajectory of the mainstream market. The core products on shelves are, all too often, depressingly familiar — disposable pads and tampons — even if they may (sometimes) now be made of organic cotton or have some other mild design tweaks.

The most notable change to the available product mix is probably period pants — which have recently started to appear on mainstream shop shelves and seem to be selling well in markets like the UK, as the Guardian reported recently.

In the average drug store, the other non-disposable alternative you’ll most likely see is the menstrual cup. Which is not at all new — but has finally got traction beyond its original (very) niche community of users, which is another signal that consumers are more open to trying different solutions to deal with their monthly bleeding vs the same old throwaway wadding.

While free bleeding — an old movement which has also seen a bit of wider pick up in recent years — can also be seen, at least in part, as a protest against the poor quality of mainstream products for periods.

All of which makes this forthcoming product launch rather interesting: Meet LastPad, a reusable (rather than disposable) sanitary towel.

Image credits: LastPad

The first thing you’ll likely notice is that the pad is black in color — which certainly rings the changes vs the usual white stick-on fodder. The company behind LastPad says it worked with an unnamed “luxury lingerie manufacture” on look and feel — and, well, judging by the product shots alone it shows.

The bigger behind-the-scenes change is that it’s been designed for sustained, repeat usage. So each LastPad comes with its own fabric pouch (in a range of colors) for folding up and storing after use (and until you get a chance to pop it in the wash). The pad can also stay in its pouch for washing so there’s no need for additional handling until you’re getting it out of the washing machine to dry.

LastPad is the brainchild of Danish designer and entrepreneur Isabel Aagaard whose company, LastObject, has — for the past three years — been taking aim at the wastefulness of single use hygiene and beauty products, designing reusable alternatives for what are unlovely but practical items — like Q-Tips and tissues*.

In total, LastObject has sold around 1.5M products so far — across its existing range of beauty, hygiene and travel-focused items. But LastPad marks its first push into a really female-focused product category.

A reusable (washable) sanitary pad is clearly a big step up on the design challenge front vs making reusable (silicone) Q-Tips or (cotton) tissues or makeup rounds — because of the complexity involved with designing a wearable, intimate hygiene product that can handle the variable and often messy nature of periods, and keep doing so, use after use.

It needs to be both comfortable and reliable — as so many disposable pads actually aren’t.

So it’s not too surprising that, per Aagaard, the company has been working on designing and prototyping LastPad for two years. Now they’re finally ready to bring it to market — launching the LastPad on Kickstarter today — with a goal of shipping to early backers next February.

“We’re seeing amazing conversions [for the LastPad pre-campaign],” she says, discussing how much demand they’re expecting. “This is our sixth [crowdfunder] campaign — and it’s looking really good. So I think the demand is bigger than I actually imagined. Because this is also the first product that is only women. And we were very much in doubt that we should put it on Kickstarter because it’s a very male-dominated platform but it’s looking really positive.”

“We already started working on this two years ago so it’s really been a process. And also because we wanted it to be really innovative. Because right now you can see on the market there’ll be pads that are more like home sewn or do it yourself — and we wanted to really make an exclusive, very, very innovative version of that — that has a lot of the benefits that the single use version has.”

Image credits: LastPad

Each LastPad is made up of three layers: A woven top to help keep the pad feeling dry against the skin by quickly funnelling menstrual fluids down into — layer two — a central absorbent section (made of bamboo) — which sits above a TPU base to ensure no risk of leaks.

“The first layer is a woven material that is really, really fine — it has a little bit of silver in it so that the odours will disappear. It’s also woven with small funnels so that the blood disappears very quickly into the middle layer — because it’s so important that you’re not like wet. Because that’s awful. So it dries quite quickly when you’re wearing it,” explains Aagaard. “And then the middle layer is 100% bamboo — it’s absorbent like crazy; 40% more absorbent than, for example, cotton. And it also has anti-bacterial properties. And then the bottom layer is a TPU [Thermoplastic Polyurethane] — which is just a leak proof cover; it’s comfortable, it’s not like a plastic bag but it does make sure that you cannot bleed through it.”

While disposable sanitary towels rely on an adhesive layer to enable the consumer fix the pad to their panties, LastPad has to do that a bit differently too given it’ll be going through the wash. So the pads have wings — which wrap around the gusset of the panties and fix together underneath with a (soft) velcro fastening.

That’s not all: There’s a (sticky) silicone strip running around the back side of the pad which helps prevent it from moving around — and, per Aagaard, will happily survive repeat washing (in fact if it’s not used for a time, she says dust may temporarily reduce the stickiness — but says that immediately resolves just by wetting it again).

“Where I felt that we really made a huge difference is that on the back side of the pad — it has wings [with] a velcro [fastener] that’s completely soft and you don’t feel it; even if you’re biking — that was like the big test — and then it has a silicone strip in the back and at the bottom, like a sticky silicone… so it doesn’t move around in your pants.”

Practically speaking, it won’t be possible for a LastPad user to use just one LastPad to see them through their period — given the need to wash and dry them between uses. So a pack of several reusable pads will be necessary to entirely replace disposable pads and ensure there’s always a clean towel available to swap out the used pad.

But LastObject’s idea is, much like you own several pairs of socks and briefs, you’ll have a set of LastPads to see you through until after laundry day.

The product comes in three different sizes and thicknesses to cater to different flow levels, too. So the consumer may end up owning a range of reusable LastPads — from a panty liner option to a day flow and heavier duty night pads.

Image credits: LastPad

“It wasn’t as simple as I thought it was going to be — but that’s also because you have to understand the viscoses of blood, for example, compared to water,” Aagaard tells TechCrunch. “And also a flow — it’s not just blood. There’s a lot of other stuff that come out. So it’s taking all of these things into consideration.”

“We’ve been testing it for so long,” she goes on. “That was our main thing with this product. A lot of the other [LastObject products] were very much about printing it, looking at it. Using it of course — but it took us long before we had it in actually a silicone form. Because that is also expensive. Whereas [LastPad] we could sew quite quickly just here at the office and [test it]… So we’ve just been testing it constantly — how’s the feeling? Getting it out to a lot of different women that wear different panties that have different cycles. So it’s really been about testing.”

Pricing for LastPad will be around $60 for three pads — so around $20 per pad. Which is obviously a lot more expensive than the per unit cost of disposable towels. But LastObject says it will offer packs so if a consumer buys more pads it should shrink the per pad cost a little.

Aagaard says the product has been tested to withstand at least 240 washes — which she suggests will mean it’s able to last at least a couple of years, saving likely hundreds of disposable pads from being consumed in its stead.

Although it’s maybe less likely to save consumers money — depending on which disposable pads you’d buy and how many you’d used per cycle (basic disposable pads can cost as little as ~20c each) — as LastObject recommends owning nine of its LastPads which could cost around $80 or more). But the target user is evidently someone with enough disposable income to be able to pay a premium for an eco alternative.

Given the price-point, it does also look more expensive than the menstrual cup — an existing and highly practical alternative to disposable menstrual products — which can cost around $30 (for one reusable cup; and you can get away with owning just one) and, typically, a cup will also last for years as it’s made of silicone.

However the menstrual cup won’t suit every woman — and does require access to clean water to rinse and sanitize — so having more non-disposable alternatives for periods is great.

Aagaard says she’s a fan of the menstrual cup but suggests LastPad can still be useful for its users as a back-up to catch any leaks and/or provide an added layer of reassurance.

While, with period pants, she says the issue she finds unpleasant is the feeling of wetness when wearing them.

On LastPad’s environmental credentials, the washing process required to keep reusing the pad does obviously require some resources (water, soap etc) but — as is the case with other LastObject products — the company’s claim is that it’s still substantially greener to wash and reuse its non-disposable products vs consuming and binning single use items that have to be continually produced and shipped out (generating ongoing CO2). Such products can also pollute the environment after they’ve been thrown away — and plastic waste is of course a huge global problem (including from thrown away sanitary products).

LastObject will be publishing a third party LCA (lifecycle assessment) for LastPad to back up its eco claims for the reusable product — comparing it to using disposable sanitary pads. But Aagaard is confident it will be substantially better when compared against most disposable alternatives.

“You’ll be putting a wash on anyway; [LastPads] don’t take up that much space; you’re not going to wash them just them; it is with your other laundry; and if you wash them at a cold wash I think that the LCA report will look really good,” she suggests when we ask about the eco credentials.

“We’re doing this with all our products where we’re taking them through a third party who’s testing everything and putting them up against [alternatives] and having these considerations with CO2, with water, with chemicals — with the whole pack… So we’ll be doing that more specifically; right now… the alternative of a [disposable] pad — they are so differently produced. It’s crazy. So I could say the worst [for comparative purposes] or I could say the best — and ours is about 12x better than that.”

“When we got the LCA report for the LastTissue and LastSwab they were so much better than I have imagined,” she adds.

From this year the European Union has started banning the sale of some single use plastic items (such as Q-tips and disposable cutlery) as reducing plastic waste is one of the goals for regional lawmakers. And — globally — regulators are increasingly looking for quick wins to shrink the environmental impact of the fast moving consumer goods market’s long standing love affair with plastic.

But some disposable product categories are simply more essential than others — which makes it hard for lawmakers to just ban plenty of wasteful, polluting products. So developing innovative, reusable alternatives is one way to help lighten the usage load.

“The most sustainable pad that you can ever have is actually the one that you don’t produce but that would just be free bleeding — and I think that 99% of women are not ready for that,” adds Aagaard. “So can we make some solutions on some of the things that we actually have to take care of?”

While LastObject is sticking with Kickstarter to get LastPad to market, Aagaard confirms that once they see how much early adopter demand it’s getting they plan to produce enough to also sell via some of the other outlets where they currently sell their products — such as ecommerce sites like Amazon and of course their own web shop.

So far, the US has been the main market for LastObject’s reusable wares, per Aagaard — which she attributes to mostly using Kickstarter to build a community of users. But she adds that the company is starting to see more traction in Europe as it’s increased the number of regional distributors it works with.

So what’s next for the company after LastPad? The product direction they’ll take is an active discussion, she says.

“We can keep going the beauty way, we can go more personal care but we have to also [not] go in too many directions. I personally have a lot of fun things I want to do in the bathroom still, because I feel like it’s a space where not a lot of designers have actually really been investigating some of the products that we’re using. Both in beauty but also in personal care. Like in the floss and toothbrush but also in diapers and wipes and all of that. So I think that there’s some innovation that could be really fun. But… this one took two years and I’m so happy about the result and I couldn’t have spent two months less on it. Then we wouldn’t have had the solutions that we’ve gotten to. So that feels very important.”

Image credits: LastPad

*Washable tissues are also of course not new. Indeed, Wikipedia credits the invention of pocket squares to wipe the nose to King Richard II of England who reigned in the 14th century. But the traditional (fabric) handkerchief — which was used, laundered and reused — became yet another casualty of the switch to single-use, disposable, cheap consumer goods that’s since been shown to have such high environmental costs. So perhaps reversing this damaging default will bring more ‘historical product innovation’ back into fashion as societies look to apply a modern ‘circular economy’ lens

 

#europe, #femtech, #greentech, #hygiene, #kickstarter, #lastobject, #lastpad, #menstrual-cup, #menstruation, #sanitary-pad, #tampon, #tc, #thinx

EV charging solutions will become an asset, not a liability, to the grid

President Joe Biden’s plan for electric vehicles (EVs) to comprise roughly half of U.S. sales by 2030 is a clear indication that the U.S. is making strides in decarbonizing its transportation systems, which currently account for nearly half of total U.S. emissions.

Though this kind of federal support is critical in accelerating the mass adoption of EVs, we must face the impending need to rehabilitate the ailing U.S. electric infrastructure that millions currently rely on, namely the capabilities of the power grid.

As society converts to an all-electric future and demand rises for EVs, a challenge our modern world will face is how to charge the increasing number of vehicles without overstressing the grid past its capacity. While some predict EVs will overload the power grid, others have found methods that support our energy infrastructure, including solutions such as wireless charging, vehicle-to-grid (V2G) integration or more efficient methods of utilizing renewable energy sources, to name a few.

Amid warranted concerns about the unstable grid, there is an urgent need to find solutions that can reinforce this critical infrastructure to avoid pushing the grid to its limits.

The current challenges facing the grid

According to the recent IPCC climate change report, extreme heat waves that previously only struck once every 50 years are now expected to happen once per decade or more frequently due to global warming and anthropogenic emissions. While this has already been seen in this past year through record-breaking heat waves and extreme fires in the Pacific Northwest, utilities, operators and industry experts continue to express concern about whether current energy systems will be able to withstand increasing temperatures from climate change.

And it’s not just heat: In February, a cold snap in Texas crippled energy infrastructure and left millions without power. These numbers will only continue to increase as temperatures rise and the grid overworks itself to meet electricity needs.

In addition to fluctuating temperatures impacting the grid, many are also concerned about its ability to support the increasing number of EVs expected to hit the market in the coming years. With reports indicating that transportation electrification will likely require a doubling of U.S. generation capacity by 2050, there is a need for flexible EV charging options that can increase flexibility and load times during peak charging hours. However, as it currently stands, the U.S. power grid is only capable of supporting 24 million EVs until 2028 一 well under the required number of EVs needed to successfully curb road transport emissions.

Despite these challenges, one thing that industry experts have pointed out is that EVs have the potential to play a massive role in managing demand as well as aid in stabilizing the grid when necessary. However, as EVs are more widely adopted across the U.S., utilities need to ask themselves critical questions such as when people will likely charge their vehicles, how many users are charging their vehicles and when, what types of chargers are in use, and what types of vehicles are charging (such as passenger vehicles or medium- to heavy-duty fleets) to determine the additional demand for electricity and how they must upgrade their grids.

EV charging solutions will become an asset, not a liability

With long lead times for grid infrastructure upgrades paired with an increasing number of individuals and companies looking to electrify their vehicles, municipalities across the U.S. are desperately searching for methods to implement the necessary charging infrastructure to stay ahead of the rising EV tide while simultaneously ensuring the grid’s stability. However, a recent analysis by the ICCT estimates that with the current number of U.S. EV chargers at 216,000, the country will need 2.4 million public and workplace chargers by 2030 if it wants to meet its goals.

To address this concerning lack of charging infrastructure, cities have begun to explore charging options outside of the traditional, stationary station to not only speed up the adoption of the necessary charging infrastructure, but to protect the grid as well. One of these options is dynamic charging, otherwise known as wireless or in-motion charging.

On one hand, some argue wireless electric vehicle charging will pose an additional strain on existing grid infrastructure by increasing demand variability due to fragmented charging duration caused by charging lane layouts and traffic. On the other hand, many argue that wireless charging actually decreases the demand on the power grid due to the fact that energy demand is spread over time and space throughout the day, rather than being confined to stationary chargers’ charging period between 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., which enables a reduction in required grid connections and upgrades.

Additionally, wireless charging can be deployed in locations where conductive (plug-in) charging solutions cannot — such as roads, directly under commercial facility loading docks, at exit and entry points to facilities, under taxi queues, at bus stations and terminals, etc., which means that wireless technology can charge EVs at regular intervals throughout the day with “top-up” charging.

This method also enables more efficient utilization of renewable solar energy, produced and utilized predominantly during daylight hours, meaning limited additional energy storage devices are required, unlike conductive EV charging stations, which can typically only be used in the evening and nighttime hours and require energy storage.

These benefits indicate that cities and utilities alike can capitalize on efficient energy utilization strategies such as wireless charging to spread energy demand over time and space — adding additional flexibility and protection to the grid. While this method can and should be applied to passenger EVs, using it to power medium- to heavy-duty fleet vehicles will allow for a much faster transition to electric in these challenging-to-electrify fleet segments.

Can wireless charging assist the grid in supporting widespread adoption of EVs?

While passenger EVs pose challenges of their own to the grid, large-scale fleet charging will be a monumental task if utilities don’t get ahead of the transition. Wireless charging offers a cost-effective solution to operators looking to transition to meet carbon reduction goals, with projected numbers of electric commercial and passenger fleets making up 10%-15% of all fleet vehicles by 2030. Let’s take a closer look at an example comparison between plugging in large vehicles versus wireless charging and the impact both have on the grid:

  • Conductive (plug-in): 100 e-buses with 240 kWh batteries using overnight conductive charging at a bus depot requires a minimum grid connection of 6 megawatts (MW) because the entire fleet charges at the end of daily operations, typically simultaneously.
  • Inductive (wireless): 100 e-buses using wireless charging stationary charging technology at bus terminals, garages and stations located inside city centers enable the buses to be “topped-up” throughout the day at natural breaks in their operations. This charging strategy enables both massive battery capacity reduction (the exact amount depends on the fleet and vehicle energy requirements) and, because the bus fleet charging is spread throughout the day, the required grid connection(s) can be reduced by 66% to just 2 MW.

Wireless electric roads accompanied by solar panel fences adjacent to the road may be the ultimate solution for decentralizing power generation and eliminating stress on the grid. According to industry calculations, approximately 0.6 miles of this electric fence solution could provide between 1.3-3.3 MW of power. This combination of solar generation coupled with wireless charging infrastructure embedded into the road can support anywhere between 1,300 to 3,300 buses per day independent of power grid supply (assuming an average speed of 50 mph and accounting for seasonal variations in solar radiation).

Furthermore, because wireless electric roads are a shared platform for all EVs, this same road would also charge trucks, vans and passenger vehicles without placing additional pressures on the grid.

Innovative charging methods will play a critical role in modernizing and adapting our power grid

Although wireless charging is still relatively new to the market, the benefits are beginning to become glaringly self-evident. Amid increasing concerns about outdated grid infrastructure in the face of widespread transport electrification efforts, rising temperatures and extreme weather conditions, innovative charging methods can provide an optimal solution.

From distributing EV charging throughout the day to avoid overloads to being able to support the energy capacity needs of both passenger vehicles and large fleets simultaneously, technologies such as wireless charging will become critical resources in adapting to an all-electric decarbonized future.

#charging-station, #column, #electric-vehicles, #energy-storage, #greentech, #transportation, #united-states, #wireless-charging

Heimdal pulls CO2 and cement-making materials out of seawater using renewable energy

One of the consequences of rising CO2 levels in our atmosphere is that levels also rise proportionately in the ocean, harming wildlife and changing ecosystems. Heimdal is a startup working to pull that CO2 back out at scale using renewable energy and producing carbon-negative industrial materials, including limestone for making concrete, in the process, and it has attracted significant funding even at its very early stage.

If the concrete aspect seems like a bit of a non sequitur, consider two facts: concrete manufacturing is estimated to produce as much as eight percent all greenhouse gas emissions, and seawater is full of minerals used to make it. You probably wouldn’t make this connection unless you were in some related industry or discipline, but Heimdal founders Erik Millar and Marcus Lima did while they were working in their respective masters programs at Oxford. “We came out and did this straight away,” he said.

They both firmly believe that climate change is an existential threat to humanity, but were disappointed at the lack of permanent solutions to its many and various consequences across the globe. Carbon capture, Millar noted, is frequently a circular process, meaning it is captured only to be used and emitted again. Better than producing new carbons, sure, but why aren’t there more ways to permanently take them out of the ecosystem?

The two founders envisioned a new linear process that takes nothing but electricity and CO2-heavy seawater and produces useful materials that permanently sequester the gas. Of course, if it was as easy that, everyone would already be doing it.

Heimdal founders Marcus Lima (left) and Erik Millar sitting by a metal gate on stone steps..

Image Credits: Heimdal

“The carbon markets to make this economically viable have only just been formed,” said Millar. And the cost of energy has dropped through the floor as huge solar and wind installations have overturned decades-old power economies. With carbon credits (the market for which I will not be exploring, but suffice it to say it is an enabler) and cheap power come new business models, and Heimdal’s is one of them.

The Heimdal process, which has been demonstrated at lab scale (think terrariums instead of thousand-gallon tanks), is roughly as follows. First the seawater is alkalinized, shifting its pH up and allowing the isolation of some gaseous hydrogen, chlorine, and a hydroxide sorbent. This is mixed with a separate stream of seawater, causing the precipitation of calcium, magnesium, and sodium minerals and reducing the saturation of CO2 in the water — allowing it to absorb more from the atmosphere when it is returned to the sea. (I was shown an image of the small-scale prototype facility but, citing pending patents, Heimdal declined to provide the photo for publication.)

A diagram describing Heimdal's carbon extraction process

Image Credits: Heimdal

So from seawater and electricity, they produce hydrogen and chlorine gas, Calcium Carbonate, Sodium Carbonate, and Magnesium Carbonate, and in the process sequester a great deal of dissolved CO2.

For every kiloton of seawater, one ton of CO2 is isolated, and two tons of the carbonates, each of which has an industrial use. MgCO3 and Na2CO3 are used in, among other things, glass manufacturing, but it’s CaCO3, or limestone, that has the biggest potential impact.

As a major component of the cement-making process, limestone is always in great demand. But current methods for supplying it are huge sources of atmospheric carbon. All over the world industries are investing in carbon reduction strategies, and while purely financial offsets are common, moving forward the preferred alternative will likely be actually carbon-negative processes.

To further stack the deck in its favor, Heimdal is looking to work with desalination plants, which are common around the world where fresh water is scarce but seawater and energy are abundant, for example the coasts of California and Texas in the U.S., and many other areas globally, but especially where deserts meet the sea, like in the MENA region.

Desalination produces fresh water and proportionately saltier brine, which generally has to be treated, as to simply pour it back into the ocean can throw the local ecosystem out of balance. But what if there were, say, a mineral-collecting process between the plant and the sea? Heimdal gets the benefit of more minerals per ton of water, and the desalination plant has an effective way of handling its salty byproduct.

“Heimdal’s ability to use brine effluent to produce carbon-neutral cement solves two problems at once,” said Yishan Wong, former Reddit CEO, now CEO of Terraformation and individually an investor in Heimdal. “It creates a scalable source of carbon-neutral cement, and converts the brine effluent of desalination into a useful economic product. Being able to scale this together is game-changing on multiple levels.”

Terraformation is a big proponent of solar desalination, and Heimdal fits right into that equation; the two are working on an official partnership that should be announced shortly. Meanwhile a carbon-negative source for limestone is something cement makers will buy every gram of in their efforts to decarbonize.

Wong points out that the primary cost of Heimdal’s business, beyond the initial ones of buying tanks, pumps, and so on, is that of solar energy. That’s been trending downwards for years and with huge sums being invested regularly there’s no reason to think that the cost won’t continue to drop. And profit per ton of CO2 captured — already around 75 percent of over $500-$600 in revenue — could also grow with scale and efficiency.

Millar said that the price of their limestone is, when government incentives and subsidies are included, already at price parity with industry norms. But as energy costs drop and scales rise, the ratio will grow more attractive. It’s also nice that their product is indistinguishable from “natural” limestone. “We don’t require any retrofitting for the concrete providers — they just buy our synthetic calcium carbonate rather than buy it from mining companies,” he explained.

All in all it seems to make for a promising investment, and though Heimdal has not yet made its public debut (that would be forthcoming at Y Combinator’s Summer 2021 Demo Day) it has attracted a $6.4 million seed round. The participating investors are Liquid2 Ventures, Apollo Projects, Soma Capital, Marc Benioff, Broom Ventures, Metaplanet, Cathexis Ventures, and as mentioned above, Yishan Wong.

Heimdal has already signed LOIs with several large cement and glass manufacturers, and is planning its first pilot facility at a U.S. desalination plant. After providing test products to its partners on the scale of tens of tons, they plan to enter commercial production in 2023.

#carbon-capture, #cement, #climate-change, #concrete, #desalination, #funding, #fundings-exits, #global-warming, #greentech, #hardware, #heimdal, #recent-funding, #science, #startups, #tc, #y-combinator

On the future of walls, or The Wall

Space may be the endless frontier, but here on Earth, we define space in the modern sense as something enclosed. Walls, fences and barriers enclose space, define it and make it legible. In fact, the sense of limits is so strong these days with place that we often have to add qualifiers like “open space” to describe wholly natural environments like parks and forests as places without spatial limits.

While enclosures have been with us for centuries, the barriers they raise have never been so high or politically fraught. In the United States, one of the most controversial aspects of the Trump administration was over the erection of a southern border wall with Mexico. With climate change accelerating and migrants increasing all around the world though, walls are becoming a common occurrence and political tool. Just this week, Greece erected fencing along its border with Turkey in preparation for an expected deluge of Afghan refugees fleeing violence in the wake of the Taliban’s seizure of Kabul.

John Lanchester has taken these themes of barriers, fear, and politics and intensified them in his atmospheric novel appropriately titled “The Wall.”

The conceit is simple: a thinly-disguised United Kingdom, ravaged by climate change and heavy migration from outside the island, erects a universal wall across all of its shores, posting sentries every few meters or so to monitor the barriers for any potential intruders. Their sole mission: to keep them out, whoever they might be. Failure is symbolically punished with exile and banishment, with the watchers becoming the watched.

We predominantly follow a pair of sentries who, as the above rule all but implicates for the plot, will become exiled in the course of their duties. What we get then is a meditation on the meaning of home, and also the meaning of barriers and dislocation in a world that is increasingly hostile to being a refuge for much of anyone.

While the plot and characters are a bit lackluster, what is fascinating with the novel is how well it manages to create an environment and ambiance of dread, of a society at the end of its journey. People live, parties are hosted, work is done, but all these activities takes place in a world where the jet stream has presumably disappeared, plunging our hypothetical U.K. into the cold abyss. That theme of gray, morose darkness exudes throughout the book, describing everything from the construction of the wall itself to the personalities of the people that inhabit this world.

That’s the ironic tension that propels the book forward, of global warming heating us up while we simultaneously develop the distant sangfroid to fight the ravaging effects of that heat. We are human, but wooden, divorced from the connection and community we have known in order to protect what little we have left.

Climate Change Books Summer 2021

That social coolness also inhabits a new set of class differences, not only between native citizens and refugees, but between generations as well. The younger generation, coming to terms with what has happened to their planet, simply no longer follow the instructions of their supposedly wise elders. A mental barrier has been constructed: how can you learn lessons from the people who allowed this to happen? Yet, the boiling anger has long since cooled to an isolated frostiness — acceptance of reality forces the inter-generational conversation to just move on.

Lanchester is astute and subtle in these extensions of the premise, and they are the most enjoyable part of what is — intentionally — a colorless work. The irony again is that this is probably best read on the beach in the middle of summer, an antidote to the heat of our world. I wouldn’t recommend it for the winter months.

There has been more and more “climate fiction” published over the past few years as the issue of climate change has reached prominence in the global consciousness. Many of these are offshoots of science fiction, with long and meandering discussions of technology, policies, and markets and more depending on the work. That can provide intellectual succor in a way and for a certain type of reader.

What Lanchester does is eschew the minutia and technologies pretty much entirely and instead simply situates us in a realistic future — a space that could even be our home. The limits of our imagination are compacted and we are forced to think in tighter quarters. It’s a thought-provoking look at a world whose frontiers are coming closer and closer to all of us all the time.


The Wall by John Lanchester
W. W. Norton, 2019, 288 pages

See Also

#book-review, #climate-change, #global-warming, #government, #greentech, #immigration, #policy

Air conditioning is one of the greatest inventions of the 20th Century. It’s also killing the 21st

When did indoor air become cold and clean?

Air conditioning is one of those inventions that have become so ubiquitous, that many in the developed world don’t even realize that less than a century ago, it didn’t exist. Indeed, it wasn’t so long ago that the air inside our buildings and the air outside of them were one and the same, with occupants powerless against their environment.

Eric Dean Wilson, in his just published book, “After Cooling: On Freon, Global Warming, and the Terrible Cost of Comfort,” dives deep into the history of this field. It took more than just inventing the air conditioner to make people want to buy it. In fact, whole social classes outright rejected the technology for years. It took hustle, marketing skill, and mass societal change to place air conditioning at the center of our built environment.

Wilson covers that history, but he has a more ambitious agenda: to get us to see how our everyday comforts affect other people. Our choice of frigid cooling emits flagrant quantities of greenhouse gas emissions, placing untold stress on our planet and civilization. Our pursuit of comfort ironically begets us more insecurity and ultimately, less comfort.

It’s a provocative book, and TechCrunch hosted Wilson for a discussion earlier this week on a Twitter Space. If you missed it, here are some selected highlights of our conversation.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Danny Crichton: The framing story throughout the book is about your travels with your friend Sam, who works to collect Freon and destroy it. Why did you choose that narrative arc?

Eric Dean Wilson: Sam at the time was working for this green energy company, and they were trying to find a way to take on green projects that would turn a profit. They had found that they could do this by finding used Freon, specifically what’s called CFC-12. It’s not made anymore, thank goodness, but it was responsible in part for partially destroying the ozone layer, and production of it was banned by the 90s.

But use of it, and buying and selling it on the secondary market, is totally legal. This is sort of a loophole in the legality of this refrigerant, because the United States government and the people who signed the Montreal Protocol thought that when they stopped production of it that it would pretty much get rid of Freon by the year 2000. Well, that didn’t happen, which is kind of a mystery.

So Sam was driving around the United States, finding Freon on the internet, and meeting people (often people who are auto hobbyists or mechanics or something like that) who happened to have stockpiled Freon, and he was buying it from them in order to destroy it for carbon credits on California’s cap-and-trade system. And the interesting thing about this is that he was going to basically the 48 contiguous states, and meeting people that were often global warming deniers who were often hostile to the idea of the refrigerant being destroyed at all, so he often didn’t tell them upfront that he was destroying it.

What was really interesting to me is that, aside from a cast of colorful and strange characters, and sometimes violent characters actually as well, was the fact that sometimes after establishing a business relationship first, he was able to have really frank conversations about global warming with people who were otherwise not very open to it.

In a time in which we’re told that Americans are more divided than ever politically, that we’re not speaking to each other across ideological divides, I thought this was a curious story.

Crichton: And when it comes to greenhouse gases, Freon is among the worst, right?

Wilson: I should be really clear that the main global warming gases are carbon dioxide and methane and some other ones as well. But molecule for molecule, CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) are thousands of times greater at absorbing and retaining heat, meaning that they’re just thousands of times worse for global warming, molecule for molecule. So even though there’s not that many of them in terms of parts per million in the atmosphere, there’s enough to really make a sizable contribution to global warming.

The irony is that the replacements of CFCs — HFCs (hydrofluorocarbons) — for the most part, don’t really do anything to destroy the ozone layer, which is great. But they’re also super global warming gases. So the ozone crisis was solved by replacing CFCs with refrigerant that exacerbated the global warming crisis.

Crichton: Now to get to the heart of the book, you focus on the rise of air conditioning, but you start by giving readers a wide view of what life was like before its invention. Why did you do that?

Wilson: This was a surprise — I did not go into the book thinking that I was going to find this. Before air conditioning really took off in the home, there was a really different sense of what we would call personal comfort, and something that I really argue in the book is that what we’ve come to think of as personal comfort, and specifically, thermal comfort, has changed. What I argue in the book is that it’s really in part a cultural construction.

Now, I want to be really careful that people don’t hear that I’m saying that it’s entirely a construction. Yes, when we get too hot or too cold, then we can die, for sure. But what’s really interesting to me is that there’s a lot of evidence to show that before air conditioning began at the beginning of the twentieth century, people weren’t really hungry for air conditioning.

There was this greater sense that you could deal with the heat. I put that really carefully, because I don’t want to say that they suffered through it. Certainly there were heat waves and summers that got too hot. But there was a real sense that you could manage the heat through analog ways, like sleeping outside, sleeping in parks, or designing buildings that incorporate passive cooling. The thing that really disturbed me was that through the twentieth century, we really kind of forgot all that, because we didn’t need that knowledge anymore because we had air conditioning. So modernist architecture began to kind of ignore the outside conditions, because you could construct whatever conditions you wanted inside.

I think the question that nobody really asked all along is, is this good for everyone? Should we have a homogenized standard of comfort? Nobody really asked that question. And there’s a lot of people that find that the kind of American model of an office or American model of comfort is not comfortable, both in the United States, and in other places.

Crichton: Even beyond a homogenized standard though, you want readers to understand how comfort connects all of us together.

Wilson: I think that one of the pernicious things about the American definition of comfort is that it has been defined as personal comfort. And the reason why I keep using that is because it’s defined as individual comfort. And so what would it mean to think about comfort as being always connected to somebody else, as more ethical that way? Because it’s true.

The truth is that our comfort is related to other people, and vice versa. It’s really asking us to think interdependently, instead of independently, which is how we’re often encouraged to think, and that’s a huge, huge ask. Actually, that’s a huge task and a huge paradigm shift. But I really think if we’re really trying to think ecologically, and not just sustainably, we have to think about how we’re all connected and how these infrastructures, how they influence other people in other parts of the world.

Climate Change Books Summer 2021

Crichton: Air conditioning didn’t take off right away. In fact, its inventors and customers really had to push hard to get people to want to use it.

Wilson: Air conditioning really got its start in the early twentieth century, in order to control the conditions in factories. I was surprised to find out that air conditioning was used in places to make things hotter, or more humid and slightly hotter in a place like a textile factory, where if it’s not humid enough, cotton threads can break.

Outside the factory, movie theaters were really the first time that thermal comfort was used as a commodity. There were all kinds of other commodifications of comfort, but this was really the first time that the public could go someplace to feel cooler. And the funny thing is is that most movie theaters in the 20s and 30s were freezing cold, they were not what I would call comfortable, because the people who were running them didn’t really understand that air conditioning works best when it’s noticed least, which is a hard sell. In the 20s, though, it was a novelty, and the way that you caught people’s attention on a summer day was to crank the AC up, which felt good for like five minutes, and then it was terribly uncomfortable and you had to shiver through an hour and a half of the rest of the movie.

Crichton: I’m jumping ahead, but what does the future look like as global warming persists and our cooling increases in line with that heat?

Wilson: In so many cooling situations, there are major alternatives, like redesigning our buildings so that they require way less energy and way less cooling. There are really amazing architects who are looking to things like termite mounds, because the colonies that they build sort of have brilliantly engineered rooms with different temperatures.

That said, I was surprised how much our opinion on comfort could change by simply understanding that it could change. I think that we have to make the world of tomorrow desirable, and we can take a nod from the commercial advertising industry. We have to sell this future as one that we actually want, not as something that we’re giving up. And I think the narrative is always like, “Oh, we have to stop doing this, we have to lower this, we have to give this up.” And that’s certainly true. But I think if we understand that as not something that we’re giving up, but actually something that we’re gaining, then it makes it a lot easier. For people, it makes it feel a lot more possible.


After Cooling: On Freon, Global Warming, and the Terrible Cost of Comfort by Eric Dean Wilson.

Simon & Schuster, 2021, 480 pages

See Also

#air-conditioning, #book-review, #climate-change, #climate-control, #greentech, #real-estate

How national security is being redefined by climate change

One of the most unfortunate fault lines in climate change politics today is the lack of cooperation between environmentalists and the national security community. Left-wing climate activists don’t exactly hang out with more right-leaning military strategists, the former often seeing the latter as destructive anti-ecological marauders, while the latter often assume the former are unrealistic pests who would prioritize trees and dolphins over human safety.

Yet, climate change is forcing the two to work ever closer together, as uncomfortable as that might be.

In “All Hell Breaking Loose,” emeritus professor and prolific author Michael T. Klare has written a meta-assessment of the Pentagon’s strategic assessments from the last two decades on how climate will shape America’s security environment. Sober and repetitive but not grim, the book is an eye-opening look at how the defense community is coping with one of the most vexing global challenges today.

Climate change weakens the security environment in practically every domain, and in ways that might not be obvious to the non-defense specialist. For the U.S. Navy, which relies on coastal access to shipyards and ports, rising sea levels threaten to diminish and even occasionally demolish its mission readiness, such as when Atlantic hurricanes hit Virginia, one of the largest centers for naval infrastructure in the United States.

While perhaps obvious, it bears repeating that the U.S. military is as much a landlord as a fighting force, with hundreds of bases spread across the country and around the world. A large percentage of these installations face climate-related challenges that can affect mission readiness, and the cost to harden these facilities is likely to reach tens of billions of dollars — and perhaps even more.

Then there is the question of energy. The Pentagon is understandably one of the greatest users of energy in the world, requiring power for bases, jet fuel for planes, and energy for ships on a global scale. Procurement managers are obviously concerned about costs, but their real concern is availability — they need to have reliable fuel options in even the most chaotic environments. That critical priority is increasingly tenuous with climate change, as transit options for oil can be disrupted by everything from a bad storm to a ship stuck in the Suez Canal.

This is where the Pentagon’s mission and the interests of green-minded activists align heavily, if not perfectly. Klare provides examples of how the Pentagon is investing in areas like biofuels, decentralized grid technology, batteries and more as it looks to secure resiliency for its fighting forces. The Pentagon’s budgetary resources might be scorned by critics, but it’s uniquely positioned to pay the so-called green premiums for more reliable energy in ways that few institutions can realistically afford.

That political alignment continues when it comes to humanitarian response, although for vastly different reasons. One of the Pentagon’s chief concerns with global warming is that it will be increasingly waylaid from its highest priority missions — such as protecting against China, Russia, Iran and other long-time adversaries — into responding to humanitarian crises. As one of the only American institutions with the equipment and logistical know-how capable of deploying thousands of responders to disaster zones, the Pentagon is the go-to source for deployments. For Defense, the difficulty is that the armed forces aren’t trained for humanitarian missions — they’re trained for fighting wars. Attacking ISIS-K and managing a camp of climate refugees are decidedly different skills.

Climate activists are fighting for a more stable and equitable world, one that doesn’t lead to millions of climate refugees fleeing from famine and scorching temperatures. The Pentagon similarly wants to shore up fragile states in the hopes of avoiding deployments outside of its core mission. The two groups speak different languages and have different motivations, but the objectives are much the same.

Climate Change Books Summer 2021

The most interesting dynamic of climate change and national security is, of course, how the global strategic map changes. Russia is a major winner, and Klare provides an exacting account on how the Pentagon is securing the Arctic now that the ice has melted and shipping lanes have opened at the pole for much of the year and soon to be year round. For the first time, America has run training missions for its armed forces on how to operate in the Arctic and prepare for potential contingencies in the region.

Klare’s book is readable, and its subject is electrifyingly fascinating, but this is not a brilliantly written text by any stretch of the imagination. I dubbed it a meta-assessment because it absolutely reads as if it was written by a team of defense planning specialists in the E Ring. It’s a multi-hundred page think tank paper — and as a reader, you either have the stamina to read that or you don’t.

More caustically, the book’s research and primary citations center on the Pentagon’s assessment reports and Congressional testimony and some secondary reporting in newspapers and elsewhere. There are few to no mentions of direct interviews with the participants here, and that’s a major problem given the extremely political nature of climate change in modern U.S. discourse. Klare certainly observes the politics, but we don’t know what generals and the civilian defense leadership would really say if they didn’t have to sign off publicly on a government report. It’s a massive gulf — and begs the question of how much we really get a true picture of the Pentagon’s thinking with this volume.

Nonetheless, the book is an important contribution, and a reminder that the national security community — while protective of its interests — can also be an important vanguard for change on climate disruption. Activists and wonks should drop the animosity and talk to each other a bit more often, as there are alliances to be made.


All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon’s Perspective on Climate Change by Michael T. Klare
Metropolitan Books, 2019, 304 pages

See Also

#book-review, #defense-department, #government, #greentech, #military, #national-security, #pentagon

Is the best way to solve climate change to “do nothing?”

When it comes to climate change, it might seem that a book entitled “How to Do Nothing” would not only be irrelevant, but also downright obscene and even dangerous. Not to mention that after more than a year of pandemic living, many people are understandably fatigued at the prospect of continuing to keep their lives empty of social activities.

Yet, messing with our notions of action and contemplation is precisely the plan that Jenny Odell has laid out in her lapidary work, a meditation that is, ironically, a call to action.

Odell is a Bay Area star, who has been an artist in residence at a variety of institutions from the Internet Archive to Recology, San Francisco’s trash pickup and processing company. Her artistic work centers on attention, of focusing on the details that envelop us in this world and what we can learn from them. It’s an activity that leads her to birdwatching and long walks in Oakland’s public parks such as the Morcom Rose Garden.

Her book, it might be helpful to note, is subtitled “Resisting the Attention Economy” and Odell has made it her mission to help wean a generation, and well, a population off the spasmodic negativity that emanates from our social media platforms. In fact, she has a more ambitious goal: to wean people off the notion that productivity is the only value to life — that action is the only useful metric by which to measure ourselves. She wants to direct our attention to more important things.

“I fully understand where a life of sustained attention leads. In short, it leads to awareness,” she writes in the introduction. The key word here is sustained — and that’s also the connection with sustainability and the climate more broadly.

We don’t lack for information, data or opinions. In fact, we are overwhelmed with the dross of human thought. Some studies have shown that modern knowledge workers read more words per day than ever before in history — but they’re reading social media posts, emails, Slack messages and other ephemera that are each nibbling and collectively devouring our attention. What’s left is, for many of us, not much of any thought at all. The world is more frenetic and chaotic than ever before, but in the process, we have traded a deeper understanding of ourselves and our place in this world for an incessant deluge of media. Odell wants us to take that imbalance and level it.

For her, that means practicing a more sustained form of attention. That’s a skill most of us have little practice with (a deficit we may not even be aware of, ironically), and indeed, sustaining attention might even mean regularly refusing to engage with the world around us. That’s a good thing in her analysis. “At their loftiest, such refusals can signify the individual capacity for self-directed action against the abiding flow; at the very least, they interrupt the monotony of the everyday.”

Controlling our attention, directing it, and filtering out the noise of contemporary life results not in further atomization and narcissism, but rather a more collective sense of being. “When the pattern of your attention has changed, you render your reality differently. You begin to move and act in a different kind of world,” she writes. Suddenly, the trees and flowers that were once backdrops to our walks to brunch become complex and elegant life in their own right. We deepen our camaraderie with our friends and colleagues in ways that we never could with an emoji in Slack. We build up the potential to work together to solve problems.

Climate Change Books Summer 2021

Our sustained attention also allows us to notice the details of what is changing around us, the subtle variations of our environment that come from a warming planet. “Things like the American obsession with individualism, customized filter bubbles, and personal branding—anything that insists on atomized, competing individuals striving in parallel, never touching—does the same violence to human society as a dam does to a watershed.” We can’t fix what we don’t see, and with our fragmented attention, we really don’t see much.

The irony of course is that while technology products dissolve attention — building them takes an extraordinary amount of it. While some startup founders strike it rich on a whim and others are injected with product ideas from friends or VCs, the vast majority learned to sustain their attention on a market or customer for sometimes extraordinarily long periods of time in order to notice the gaps in a market. A founder recently told me that he had been working with customers in his market for more than a decade before he eventually understood a need that wasn’t being fulfilled with existing solutions.

What’s missing in the tech and startup community today is connecting that user empathy and focus on product-market fit to the attention we need in all the other aspects of our lives today. Odell analyzes it a bit more negatively than I would: we actually have these skills and in fact, use them quite specifically. We just don’t use them broadly enough to bring our minds to look at our friendships, communities and planet in a deeper light.

Doing nothing allows us to see what matters and what doesn’t. When it comes to solving big problems, particularly some of the most intractable like climate change, it’s precisely doing nothing that allows us to see the right path to doing something.


How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell
Melville House, 2019, 256 pages

See Also

#book-review, #climate-change, #government, #greentech, #health, #meditation, #oakland, #san-francisco-bay-area

Bill Gates offers direction, not solutions

Bill Gates has solved many problems in his (professional) life, and in recent decades, he’s been dedicated to the plight of the world’s poor and particularly their health. Through his foundation work and charitable giving, he’s roamed the world solving problems from malaria and neglected tropical diseases to maternal health, always with an eye toward the novel and typically cheap solution.

It’s that engineering brain and mode of thinking that he brings to bear on climate change in his book “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need” (yes, it’s italicized on the cover — we really do need them). Gates describes a bit of his evolution from software mogul to global health wizard to concerned climate citizen. If you look at challenges like neglected tropical diseases, for instance, climate change abundantly affects the prevalence of mosquitos and other vectors for infection. No one can avoid climate change when analyzing food security in developing nations.

With this early narrative, Gates is attempting to connect perhaps not with climate change skeptics (it’s hard to connect with them on a good day anyway), but instead to build a bridge to the skeptical-but-ready-to-rethink crowd. He admits that he didn’t think much of the problem until he saw its effects first hand, opening the door to at least some readers who may be ready to undertake a similar intellectual journey.

From there, Gates delivers an extremely sober (one could easily substitute dry) analysis of the major components of greenhouse gas emissions and how we get to net zero by removing 51 billion tons of CO2-equivalent emissions per year, which in chapter order are energy production (27%), manufacturing (31%), agriculture (19%), transportation (16%), and air conditioning (7%).

Gates is an engineer, and it shows and it is marvelous. He places a great emphasis throughout the book on understanding scale, of constantly trying to disentangle the numbers and units we hear about in the press and actually trying to understand whether a particular innovation might make any difference whatsoever. Gates offers the example of an aviation program that will save “17 million tons” of CO2, but points out that the figure is really just 0.03% of global emissions and isn’t necessarily likely to scale up more than it already has. With this framing, he’s borrowing the approach of effective altruism, or the idea that charitable dollars should flow to the projects that can provide the biggest verifiable improvement to quality of life for the least cost.

Unsurprisingly, Gates is a capitalist, and his framework for judging each potential solution is to calculate a “Green Premium” for their use. For instance, a carbon-free cement manufacturing process might cost double the more normal carbon-emitting one. Compare those added costs with the actual savings these substitutions would have on greenhouse gas emissions, and voila: you have an instant guide on the most efficient means to solving climate change.

The answer he comes up with tends to be quite portable in the end. Electrify everything, decarbonize electricity, carbon capture what’s left, and be more efficient. If that sounds hard, that’s because it is, and Gates notes the challenges in an aptly-named chapter entitled “This Will Be Hard” which begins with the line “Please don’t let the title of this chapter depress you.” I’m not sure you needed to buy the book to figure that out.

Gates ends up being an end-to-end conservative figure throughout the book. It’s not just his general approach of protecting the status quo, which is obviously latent in solutions which are essentially substitutable tweaks to our way of life and shouldn’t be surprising given the messenger. It’s also the surprising conservatism of his views on the power of technology to solve these problems. For a person who has quite literally invested billions in clean energy and other green technologies, there is surprisingly little magic that Gates proposes. It’s probably realistic, but considering the source, it can feel like pessimism.

Climate Change Books Summer 2021

Read in concert with some of the other books in this group of climate change reviews, and one can’t help but feel a sort of calculated naiveté on the part of Gates, a sense that we should just keep playing our cards a little while longer and see if we get a last-minute royal flush. There are early signs of solutions, but most aren’t ready for scale. Some technologies are already available, but would require prodigious outlays to retrofit cars, homes, businesses, and more to actually impact our emissions numbers. Then there’s everyone outside of the West, who deserve access to modern amenities. It’s all so easy, and yet, so out of reach.

The book’s strengths — and simultaneously its weaknesses — is that it is apolitical, fact-laden and ready to be read by all but the most ardent climate change skeptics. But it also acts as a gateway drug of sorts: once you understand the scales of the problem, the scopes of the solutions, and the challenges of Green Premiums and policy implementation, you’re left with the feeling that there is no way we are going to do this in the next few years anyway, so what’s really the point?

Gates ends the book by saying that “We should spend the next decade focusing on the technologies, policies, and market structures that will put us on the path to eliminating greenhouse gases by 2050.” He’s not wrong, but it’s also an evergreen comment, in a world that won’t be evergreen for much longer.


How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need by Bill Gates
Alfred A. Knopf, 2021, 257 pages

See Also

#batteries, #bill-gates, #book-review, #climate-change, #energy-grid, #government, #greenhouse-gases, #greentech, #policy

Can the world really just fall apart?

Books on climate change, as diverse as the library is, tend to fall into a couple of categories. There are the field guides and observational accounts that chronicle the destruction of our world and make it legible for readers worldwide. There are the policy and tech analyses that splay out options for the future, deliberating tradeoffs and offering guidance to individuals and governments on their decisions. There are the histories that look at missed opportunities, and the geological histories that show what our world was really like over the eons.

Then there’s the much darker category of dystopia.

Dystopic visions of the future are engaging precisely because they are visions. That makes them easy fodder for climate fiction (“cli-fi”) novels or even video games like Final Fantasy VII, a stream of work that has accelerated much in the way that carbon has in the atmosphere. Yet, it’s a field that almost uniquely remains focused on the imagination, of “what if” scenarios and running those contexts to their narrative conclusions.

What makes “How Everything Can Collapse: A Manual for our Times” a rare read is that it is both dystopic and non-fiction.

The book, which was translated into English last year and first published in French in 2015, argues for a hard acceptance of what the authors Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens dub “collapsology.” Less a movement like the Extinction Rebellion and Deep Adaptation communities that have risen up in the Anglophone world, collapsology is centered around a multi-disciplinary and systematic inquiry into the state of our world, our civilization, and our society.

In this, they spurn the American frame of progress and technological advancement to solve challenges, as well as humanity’s innate hopeful desire to see a better world going forward. Instead, they want to understand what’s really happening today, and whether the stresses, shocks, and crises that smash into our consciousness on a regular basis are really just a mirage or a phenomenon far more profound.

It shouldn’t be hard to glean what their answer is. Servigne and Stevens walk through earth systems like energy and food production and more as they scout for tipping points, physical limits, and the other impassable barriers to society’s exponential development. What they find is troubling, of course. Exponential human population growth over more than a century has led to practically insatiable demand for every resource and alimentation that the planet has in stock.

That’s a story many of us are familiar with, but where it gets interesting is when they start to systematically explore what that demand has done for efficiency. Perhaps the most striking example they offered was the history of petroleum and Energy Return on Energy Invested, or the amount of oil and gas it takes to drill for that very resource. ERoEI, they note, has declined from 35:1 in 1990 to a factor today of about 11:1. Fuel is getting harder to find — and that means we use more fuel to drill for less fuel. It’s a negative feedback loop — and worse, an exponential one — and there’s little reason to expect these trends to reverse.

These sorts of negative feedback loops are everywhere in earth systems today if you look closely for them. The permafrost is melting in the Arctic, the Amazon rainforest today emits more carbon dioxide than it absorbs, higher temperatures are making it more difficult and more expensive to grow food. All this at a time when the human population is expected to add several billion more individuals this century.

As with any system, there are lock-ins where components can’t adapt because they are connected to other systems. We can’t replace gas because the entire financial and industrial system is predicated on an abundant and relatively affordable form of energy. We could try to limit the use of automobiles and trucks, but few people (in the West at least) live anywhere near the farms or mining sites where the key sustaining goods of our society come from. Those ears of corn and bags of potatoes are going to have to travel to us, or we to them, but either way, traveling is going to take place.

In the authors’ collective minds, collapsology is about coming to terms with the reality of the systems all around us and just reading the dials. It’s about accepting tipping points, discontinuities, and other non-linear paths in these systems and projecting what they mean for our own lives and those of others. It’s a call to reality, rather than a call to arms. Just look, the authors practically say.

While the first half of the book is mostly centered around exploring systems and how they inter-connect, the second half of the work explores us as humans, and debating collapsology as a phenomenon. Is it too negative? Why do we have psychological barriers that prevent us from seeing the fragility of our ecosystems and our planet? How will art and movies and books adapt to our new context? How are we going to respond to the challenges that are about to confront us in a much more visceral way? The answers — when they are available — are interesting if not always novel.

Climate Change Books Summer 2021

It’s fascinating to see a bit of a cultural counterpoint to the American sensibility. In some ways, collapsology is just the latest manifestation of French existentialism, updated for the twenty-first century. The book doesn’t provide solutions, nor does it necessarily argue that progress must happen or even that it could happen. Instead, it just observes the human condition, and the conditions around humans. Humans are diverse, and they are going to react to the cataclysm in the diverse ways one would come to expect.

The book offers no solution and paints a dreary future that’s just on the cusp of dystopia. But the title is fascinating, since it posits a conditional rather than an assurance. The world “can collapse” not that it “will collapse.” A reader will be forgiven for thinking the latter is the case the book is making, but ultimately, Servigne and Stevens believe that the only way to avoid collapse is to fully see the world in all its complexity. Collapsology then is really anti-collapsology, or deeply understanding the brittleness of our systems before the limits are reached. That’s a refreshingly intellectual point of view, if not necessary a salve to the fears we read and see and feel every day.


How Everything Can Collapse: A Manual for our Times by Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens. Translated from French by Andrew Brown.

Wiley, 2020, 250 pages

Originally published as “Comment tout peut s’effondrer: Petit Manuel de collapsologie à l’usage des générations présentes”

See Also

#book-review, #climate-change, #government, #greentech

Now that summer is forever, here are 6 books on climate change to sharpen your intuitions and models

The climate is finally hitting a climax. Decades of discussions and reports by scientists have yielded pathbreaking works by writers like Elizabeth Kolbert, and today, climate fiction and non-fiction are even becoming global bestselling works. Everyone wants to read about collapse, dystopia, the aftermath — it’s in the very air we breathe after all, what with the IPCC just reporting once again that all numbers point hotter, redder, and closer to us than ever.

The shelves of climate change books extend ever farther, and yet, one can’t help but feel that not much is changing about such a dynamic topic. There are always more details to unravel of course: another species that’s meeting the end of its precarious existence, a river that no longer flows, a town losing its last sparks of civilization. Yet, we know the tropes and the typical plots at this point (or just deny any of it is happening so it doesn’t matter anyway). The most challenging problem on the Earth today is, frankly, getting a bit repetitive.

The upshot is that there are still original works, works that push the edges of our understanding, reformulate some of the old tropes, and can deliver a forceful punch that unmoors our thinking and forces us to confront the familiar destruction with a new empathy.

I wanted to find the most intriguing books for engineers and technologists who are interested in more systematic ways for understanding what is happening to our planet. Not so much on point solutions (although we have one book on that), but rather books that can develop our thinking about how to understand the changes that are by now inevitably coming.

And so, I picked out and reviewed six books that I think represent a strong canon by which to develop our intuitions about climate change, not just as an environmental problem, but as an economic, social, and personal one as well. They range from systems-thinking analyses and prototypical non-fiction to personal reflections and an atmospheric novel. Each in its own way can help us come to terms with what will be the most challenging collective mission in our lives.

Call it beach reading, while that beach is still there.

#book-review, #climate-change, #government, #greentech, #policy

BreezoMeter, which powers air quality in Apple’s Weather app, launches Wildfire Tracker

BreezoMeter has been on a mission to make environmental health hazards accessible to as many people as possible. Through its air quality index (AQI) calculations, the Israel-based company can now identify the quality of air down to a few meters in dozens of countries. A partnership with Apple to include its data into the iOS Weather app along with its own popular apps delivers those metrics to hundreds of millions of users, and an API product allows companies to tap into its dataset for their own purposes.

Right on the heels of a $30 million Series C round a few weeks ago, the company is radially expanding its product from air quality into the real-time detection of wildfire perimeters with its new product, Wildfire Tracker.

The new product will take advantage of the company’s fusion of sensor data, satellite imagery, and local eyewitness reports to be able to identify the edges of wildfires in real-time. “People expect accurate wildfire information just as they expect accurate weather or humidity data,” Ran Korber, CEO and co-founder, said. “It has an immediate effect on their life.” He added further that BreezoMeter wants to “try to connect the dots between climate tech and human health.”

Fire danger zones will be indicated with polygonal boundaries marked in red, and as always, air quality data will be viewable in these zones and in surrounding areas.

BreezoMeter’s air quality maps can show the spread of wildfire pollution easily. Image Credits: BreezoMeter.

Korber emphasized that getting these perimeters accurate across dozens of countries was no easy feat. Sensors can be sparse, particularly in the forests where wildfires ignite. Meanwhile, satellite data that focuses on thermal imaging can be fooled. “We’re looking for abnormalities … many of the times you have these false positives,” Korber said. He gave an example of a large solar panel array which can look very hot with thermal sensors but obviously isn’t a fire.

The identified fire perimeters will be available for free to consumers on BreezoMeter’s air quality map website, and will shortly come to the company’s apps as well. Later this year, these perimeters will be available from the company’s APIs for commercial customers. Korber hopes the API endpoints will give companies like car manufacturers the ability to forewarn drivers that they are approaching a conflagration.

The new feature is just a continuation of BreezoMeter’s long-time expansion of its product. “When we started, it was just air quality … and only forecasting air pollution in Israel,” Korber said. “Almost every year since then, we expanded the product portfolio to new environmental hazards.” He pointed to the addition of pollen in 2018 and the increasingly global nature of the app.

Wildfire detection is an, ahem, hot area these days for VC investors. For example, Cornea is a startup focused on helping firefighters identify and mitigate blazes, while Perimeter wants to help identify boundaries of wildfires and give explicit evacuation instructions complete with maps. As Silicon Valley’s home state of California and much of the world increasingly become a tinderbox for fires, expect more investment and products to enter this area.

#apps, #breezometer, #disaster-response, #emergency-management, #government, #greentech, #israel, #technology-and-disaster-response, #wildfires