Samsung’s upcycling program is designed to give new life to old tech

In the world of annual refresh cycles, there’s always been a big question mark around what to do with all of the old tech we too readily abandon. There are a number of options for disposing and recycling these objects that often contain rare earth and sometimes harmful material. The concept of upcycling has also become an increasingly popular option – offering a new lease on life for old technology. After all, your three-year-old smartphone may not be the latest and greatest, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily worthless.

During this morning’s CES kickoff press conference, Samsung outlined its new Galaxy Upcycling at Home program. For now, we got some pretty broad strokes about the program – and we’ll likely get more information at this Friday’s Galaxy Unpacked event. Here’s what the company had to say, “The new program reimagines the lifecycle of an older Galaxy phone and offers consumers options on how they might be able to repurpose their device to create a variety of convenient IoT tools.”

Examples from the presser include a baby monitor, pet care sensor for turning on lights remotely and a more abstract “digitally safe home” using Samsung Knox. It will be interesting to see what else the company’s got in store in that front – and certainly there’s something to be said for keeping old tech relevant even after its planned obsolescence.

The other piece of the puzzle is one of the more fun initiatives the company has introduced in recent years, with boxes that can be converted into house hold objects. The company announced this morning that all of its QLED, UHD TV and audio projects will feature the packaging.

Per Samsung,

As part of an ongoing commitment to eco-consciousness, Samsung is creating products and solutions with sustainability at the core. For example, Samsung’s new Solar Cell Remote Control—made in part with recycled plastic—can be charged via solar or indoor lighting, reducing battery waste.

Coral Vita cultivates $2M seed to take its reef restoration mission global

Coral reefs all over the world are struggling to survive, with millions of people and billions of dollars in business that rely on them at risk — on top of the fundamental tragedy of losing such a crucial ecosystem. Coral Vita aims to modernize both coral restoration techniques and the economy surrounding them, and has raised a $2 million seed round to kick things off in earnest.

I wrote about Coral Vita late in 2019 when I encountered co-founder Gator Halpern on the Sustainable Ocean Alliance’s Accelerator at Sea. At the time, the operation was both smaller and under siege by Hurricane Dorian, which wiped out the team’s coral farm in the Bahamas — and then, of course, the pandemic arrived just in time to spoil the team’s 2020 plans along with everyone else’s.

But despite the general chaos of the last year, Coral Vita managed to start and at last close a $2M round, with the intention to come back bigger and better and demonstrate a new global model for the field.

“We decided rather than just rebuilding our pilot farm to that pilot level, we’d just take the next step forward in our journey. We really believe this is an opportunity to jump start a restoration economy,” said Sam Teicher, co-founder and Chief Reef Officer.

To picture how reef restoration looks today, imagine (Teicher invited me) an underwater garden near the shore, with floating ropes and structures on which grow coral fragments that are occasionally harvested and transported to the area in need of young, healthy corals.

Corals grow in a tank at Coral Vita in the Bahamas.

Image Credits: Coral Vita

“But when you think about the scale of the problem — half the world’s reef are dead and the other half are predicted to die in the next 30 years — relying on underwater facilities isn’t possible,” he said.

The plan Coral Vita has is to transition away from ocean-based farms to land facilities that allow for much improved yield and survivability, and employ advanced techniques to speed up coral’s growth and increase its survival rate. One such technique is coral fragmenting, developed by the restoration community at large, in which corals are broken up into tiny pieces, which can grow as much as 50 times faster in aggregate. And by doing so on land they can exert much more control over the coral’s attributes.

“We’ve got tanks on land with clean sea water pumping through and the ability, among other things, to control conditions,” he explained. “So if you think of what it’ll be like off the coast of Grand Bahama in 40-50 years, we can essentially simulate that to harden the corals against those conditions. Up front, an ocean-based nursery is much cheaper, but when you start thinking about the need to grow millions or billions of corals around the world, land-based facilities start to look a lot more realistic. The cost goes down with scale, too — ocean-based nurseries go to about $30-40 per coral; we can get it down to $10 as we get up to a hundred or a thousand tanks.”

Onlookers view the coral growing tanks at Coral Vita

On the left, a Bahamanian tourism official (far left) listens to Sam Teicher. On the right, Gator Halpern (center) talks with others before the pandemic.

Not only is the physical scale limited at present, but the income sources are as well: often it’s government money instead of the inexhaustible well of private cash. Coral Vita hopes to be able to change that by increasing and diversifying supply and going directly to those affected.

“We’re trying to transform the space away from grants and aid — we’re selling to customers that depend on the ecosystems of reefs,” Teicher said. “If you’re a hotel that relies on scuba or snorkel tourists, if you’re a coastal property owner or insurer, a government, a development bank, a cruise line, you can hire Coral Vita to restore the reefs that you work on.”

This superficially mercenary business model where commercially important reefs get priority wouldn’t be necessary, of course, if governments and industry hadn’t systematically neglected these reefs to begin with. Not that privately funded projects are somehow fundamentally tainted, but this type of restoration work tends to be seen as the milieu of nonprofits and government agencies. One might consider this approach a direct, if late, tax that cuts out the government middle man.

The fact is this is globally crucial work that needs to start now, not in five or ten years when the correct conservation funds are organized by concerned parties. Every month counts when reefs are actively deteriorating, and private money is the only realistic option to scale up fast and do what needs to be done. Plus, as the process becomes cheaper, it becomes easier to fund projects without commercial backing.

Corals grow in a tank at Coral Vita in the Bahamas.

Image Credits: Coral Vita

“On top of that is the ability to innovate,” added Teicher. “What we’re trying to do with this round is to make advances to the science and engineering, including 3D printing and robotics in the process. We’re launching R&D projects not just for restoration but protection.”

He cited Tom Chi, co-founder of Google X and an early advisor and investor, as someone who has pushed on the automation side, comparing the industry to agriculture, where robotics is currently having a transformative effect.

Proving out the scalable land-based farms opens up the possibility of a global presence, as well — lowering costs and lead times for corals to be brought to where they’re needed.

“We’re at a point where we need to rethink adaptation and how to fund it,” said Teicher. “The two year plan is to launch more farms in other countries — ultimately we want this to be the biggest coral farm that ever existed.”

Leading the $2M round was the environment-focused Builders Collective, with participation from Apollo Projects’ Max Altman and baseball’s Max and Erica Scherzer. Earlier investors (in a pre-seed or “Seed one” round) include the Sustainable Ocean Alliance, Tom Chi as mentioned, Adam Draper, Yale University, and Sven and Kristen Lindblad.

What’s behind this year’s boom in climate tech SPACs?

There’s no denying that 2020 has been the year of the special purpose acquisition company.

Since the beginning of the year, 219 SPACs have raised $73 billion, according to widely reported market research from Goldman Sachs. That’s a 462% jump from 2019 and more than traditional public offerings raised by about $6 billion. By some counts, roughly one quarter of the SPACs that have been announced will target climate-related businesses.

Since the beginning of the year, 219 SPACs have raised $73 billion.

Already, of the 78 deals that have either completed or announced a merger since 2018, just over one-third have been climate-related, as tallied by Climate Tech VC. And these SPACs have outperformed the broader technology market, with the 10 climate tech companies that have completed mergers averaging a 131% return on investment versus the 50% return of the total SPAC market (assuming average offering prices of $10 per share).

Clearly this has been a banner year for companies that are tackling the climate crisis across a number of verticals, but can it last?

There are a few reasons to think that it can — led chiefly by the demand for these kinds of public offerings from institutional investors, including the pension funds, mutual funds and asset managers handling trillions of investment dollars.

“[The] current wave [of SPACs] is because over the past 24 months the institutional investor universe has come fully into believing that climate solutions are going to be a major growth area in the 2020s and beyond, but they weren’t seeing options available to them for investing into,” wrote longtime clean technology investor, Rob Day, in a DM.

“The available publicly traded ‘green’ companies were already getting really bought up, and the private equity options were underwhelming as well (smallish in the case of VC, low returns in the case of large-format projects). Throw in a Robinhood market of retail investors with a lot of enthusiasm for EVs and such, and you have a nice recipe for this to happen.”

Residential renewable energy developer Swell is raising $450 million for distributed power projects in three states

Swell Energy, an installer and manager of residential renewable energy, energy efficiency and storage technologies, is raising $450 million to finance the construction of four virtual power plants representing a massive amount of energy storage capacity paired with solar power generation.

It’s a sign of the distributed nature of renewable energy development and a transition from large-scale power generation projects feeding into utility grids at their edge to smaller, point solutions distributed at the actual points of consumption.

The project will pair 200 megawatt hours of distributed energy storage with 100 megawatts of solar photovoltaic capacity, the company said.

Los Angeles-based Swell was commissioned by utilities across three states to establish the dispatchable energy storage capacity, which will be made available through the construction and aggregation of approximately 14,000 solar energy generation and storage systems. The goal is to make local grids more efficient.

To finance these projects — and others the company expects to land — Swell has cut a deal with Ares Management Corp. and Aligned Climate Capital to create a virtual power plant financing vehicle with a target of $450 million.

That financing entity will support the development of power projects like the combined solar and battery agreement nationwide.

Over the next 20 years, Swell is targeting the development of over 3,000 gigawatt hours of clean solar energy production, with customers storing 1,000 gigawatt hours for later use, and dispatching 200 gigawatt hours of this stored energy back to the utility grid.

It has the potential to create a more resilient grid less susceptible to the kinds of power outages and rolling blackouts that have plagued states like California.

“Utilities are increasingly looking to distributed energy resources as valuable ‘grid edge’ assets,” said Suleman Khan, CEO of Swell Energy, in a statement. “By networking these individual homes and businesses into virtual power plants, Swell is able to bring down the cost of ownership for its customers and help utilities manage demand across their electric grids,” said Khan. “By receiving GridRevenue from Swell, customers participating in our VPP programs pay less for their solar energy generation and storage systems, while potentially reducing the risk of a local power outage, and keeping their homes and businesses securely powered through any outages.”

Along with the launch of the virtual power plant financing vehicle, Swell is also giving homeowners a way to finance their home energy systems through Swell. They need the buy-in from homeowners to get these power plants off the ground, and for homeowners, there’s a way to get some money back by feeding power into the grid.

It’s a win-win for the company, customers and early investors like Urban.us, which was seed investor in the company.

 

With another $2.5 million in funding, Julia Collins’ Planet FWD launches climate-friendly snack brand

Planet FWD, the climate-friendly food startup founded by Zume co-founder Julia Collins, is today launching its first product, Moonshot Snacks. The climate-friendly snack is carbon neutral, organic, kosher, plant-based, non GMO and has no sugar added.

The crackers come in three flavors: sourdough sea salt rosemary garlic and tomato basil. A box of crackers costs $5.99.

Planet FWD is also announcing an additional $2.5 million in funding led by Emerson Collective, Concrete Rose, MCJ Collective and Arlan Hamilton, as well as existing investors, including BBG Ventures, January Ventures,  and Kapor Capital among others. This is on top of the $2.7 million the startup announced earlier this year.

What’s unique about Planet FWD’s Moonshot Snacks is that it uses ingredients from farmers that use regenerative agriculture practices. Regenerative agriculture is a farming technique that aims to reverse the effects of climate change by capturing carbon in soil and aboveground biomass, which ultimately increases biodiversity, enriches soils and improves watersheds.

“We want to engage customers and show them they have the power to address climate change just with the way they eat,” Collins told TechCrunch. “We can use our food choices as a way to promote better farm management practices and company practices that can help decarbonize the environment.”

Ideally, Planet FWD will be able to show there’s consumer demand for climate-friendly products, Collins said. From there, she hopes that would encourage more farmers to implement these regenerative agriculture practices.

Unlike organic foods, where those specific farms are relatively well-known and identified, that can’t be said for regenerative agriculture. This is where the software element of Planet FWD comes in.

Additionally, Planet FWD is alpha testing a carbon impact assessment. So, if a brand wanted to determine what its current greenhouse gas impact is for its products, the tool could breakdown where it comes from — whether that’s the packaging, the ingredients, the distribution, etc. From there, the tool would recommend how to reduce the product’s greenhouse gas impact.

“Frankly, I think it’s a privilege to be alive and aware during this time where this is this window of opportunity to address climate change,” Collins said. “We can’t stop it. We can’t reverse it. But we can address it so it’s still possible for people to live on this planet. But the window is closing.”

Moonshot Snacks begins shipping today via its website. On December 16, it will be available via plastic-free grocery store Zero and will have a more traditional retail launch next year.

Planet FWD will create other products down the line, like cookies and chips. But first and foremost, the company’s roadmap is driven by the supply chain and understanding where there are opportunities to convert farms to regenerative practices.

“Through its sustainable and climate-friendly ingredient platform, Planet FWD is building a movement of more climate-conscious farmers and producers who can lead us toward a better, more sustainable future,” Fern Mandelbaum, Managing Director at Emerson Collective, said in a statement. “Through Julia’s inclusive leadership and passion, Planet FWD is helping create a new standard for the food industry and its role in being part of climate solutions.”

Can artificial intelligence give elephants a winning edge?

Images of elephants roaming the African plains are imprinted on all of our minds and something easily recognized as a symbol of Africa. But the future of elephants today is uncertain. An elephant is currently being killed by poachers every 15 minutes, and humans, who love watching them so much, have declared war on their species. Most people are not poachers, ivory collectors or intentionally harming wildlife, but silence or indifference to the battle at hand is as deadly.

You can choose to read this article, feel bad for a moment and then move on to your next email and start your day.

Or, perhaps you will pause and think: Our opportunities to help save wildlife, especially elephants, are right in front of us and grow every day. And some of these opportunities are rooted in machine learning (ML) and the magical outcome we fondly call AI.

Open-source developers are giving elephants a neural edge

Six months ago, amid a COVID-infused world, Hackster.io, a large open-source community owned by Avnet, and Smart Parks, a Dutch-based organization focused on wildlife conservation, reached out to tech industry leaders, including Microsoft, u-blox and Taoglas, Nordic Semiconductors, Western Digital and Edge Impulse with an idea to fund the R&D, manufacturing and shipping of 10 of the most advanced elephant tracking collars ever built.

These modern tracking collars are designed to deploy advanced machine-learning (ML) algorithms with the most extended battery life ever delivered for similar devices and a networking range more expansive than ever seen before. To make this vision even more audacious, they called to fully open-source and freely share the outcome of this effort via OpenCollar.io, a conservation organization championing open-source tracking collar hardware and software for environmental and wildlife monitoring projects.

Our opportunities to help save wildlife — especially elephants — are right in front of us and grow every day.

The tracker, ElephantEdge, would be built by specialist engineering firm Irnas, with the Hackster community coming together to make fully deployable ML models by Edge Impulse and telemetry dashboards by Avnet that will run the newly built hardware. Such an ambitious project was never attempted before, and many doubted that such a collaborative and innovative project could be pulled off.

Creating the world’s best elephant-tracking device

Only they pulled it off. Brilliantly. The new ElephantEdge tracker is considered the most advanced of its kind, with eight years of battery life and hundreds of miles worth of LoRaWAN networking repeaters range, running TinyML models that will provide park rangers with a better understanding of elephant acoustics, motion, location, environmental anomalies and more. The tracker can communicate with an array of sensors, connected by LoRaWAN technology to park rangers’ phones and laptops.

This gives rangers a more accurate image and location to track than earlier systems that captured and reported on pictures of all wildlife, which ran down the trackers’ battery life. The advanced ML software that runs on these trackers is built explicitly for elephants and developed by the Hackster.io community in a public design challenge.

“Elephants are the gardeners of the ecosystems as their roaming in itself creates space for other species to thrive. Our ElephantEdge project brings in people from all over the world to create the best technology vital for the survival of these gentle giants. Every day they are threatened by habitat destruction and poaching. This innovation and partnerships allow us to gain more insight into their behavior so we can improve protection,” said Smart Parks co-founder Tim van Dam.

Open-source, community-powered, conservation-AI at work

With hardware built by Irnas and Smart Parks, the community was busy building the algorithms to make it sing. Software developer and data scientist Swapnil Verma and Mausam Jain in the U.K. and Japan created Elephant AI. Using Edge Impulse, the team developed two ML models that will tap the tracker’s onboard sensors and provide critical information for park rangers.

The first community-led project, called Human Presence Detection, will alert park rangers of poaching risk using audio sampling to detect human presence in areas where humans are not supposed to be. This algorithm uses audio sensors to record sound and sight while sending it over the LoRaWAN network directly to a ranger’s phone to create an immediate alert.

The second model they named “Elephant Activity Monitoring.” It detects general elephant activity, taking time-series input from the tracker’s accelerometer to spot and make sense of running, sleeping and grazing to provide conservation specialists with the critical information they need to protect the elephants.

Another brilliant community development came from the other side of the world. Sara Olsson, a Swedish software engineer who has a passion for the national world, created a TinyML and IoT monitoring dashboard to help park rangers with conservation efforts.

With little resources and support, Sara built a full telemetry dashboard combined with ML algorithms to monitor camera traps and watering holes, while reducing network traffic by processing data on the collar and considerably saving battery life. To validate her hypothesis, she used 1,155 data models and 311 tests!

Sara Olsson's TinyML and IoT monitoring dashboard

Sara Olsson’s TinyML and IoT monitoring dashboard. Image Credits: Sara Olsson

She completed her work in the Edge Impulse studio, creating the models and testing them with camera traps streams from Africam using an OpenMV camera from her home’s comfort.

Technology for good works, but human behavior must change

Project ElephantEdge is an example of how commercial and public interest can converge and result in a collaborative sustainability effort to advance wildlife conservation efforts. The new collar can generate critical data and equip park rangers with better data to make urgent life-saving decisions about protecting their territories. By the end of 2021, at least ten elephants will be sporting the new collars in selected parks across Africa, in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund and Vulcan’s EarthRanger, unleashing a new wave of conservation, learning and defending.

Naturally, this is great, the technology works, and it’s helping elephants like never before. But in reality, the root cause of the problem runs much more profound. Humans must change their relationship to the natural world for proper elephant habitat and population revival to occur.

“The threat to elephants is greater than it’s ever been,” said Richard Leakey, a leading palaeoanthropologist and conservationist scholar. The main argument for allowing trophy or ivory hunting is that it raises money for conservation and local communities. However, a recent report revealed that only 3% of Africa’s hunting revenue trickles down to communities in hunting areas. Animals don’t need to die to make money for the communities you live around.

With great technology, collaboration and a commitment to address the underlying cultural conditions and the ivory trade that leads to most elephant deaths, there’s a real chance to save these singular creatures.

Can artificial intelligence give elephants a winning edge?

Images of elephants roaming the African plains are imprinted on all of our minds and something easily recognized as a symbol of Africa. But the future of elephants today is uncertain. An elephant is currently being killed by poachers every 15 minutes, and humans, who love watching them so much, have declared war on their species. Most people are not poachers, ivory collectors or intentionally harming wildlife, but silence or indifference to the battle at hand is as deadly.

You can choose to read this article, feel bad for a moment and then move on to your next email and start your day.

Or, perhaps you will pause and think: Our opportunities to help save wildlife, especially elephants, are right in front of us and grow every day. And some of these opportunities are rooted in machine learning (ML) and the magical outcome we fondly call AI.

Open-source developers are giving elephants a neural edge

Six months ago, amid a COVID-infused world, Hackster.io, a large open-source community owned by Avnet, and Smart Parks, a Dutch-based organization focused on wildlife conservation, reached out to tech industry leaders, including Microsoft, u-blox and Taoglas, Nordic Semiconductors, Western Digital and Edge Impulse with an idea to fund the R&D, manufacturing and shipping of 10 of the most advanced elephant tracking collars ever built.

These modern tracking collars are designed to deploy advanced machine-learning (ML) algorithms with the most extended battery life ever delivered for similar devices and a networking range more expansive than ever seen before. To make this vision even more audacious, they called to fully open-source and freely share the outcome of this effort via OpenCollar.io, a conservation organization championing open-source tracking collar hardware and software for environmental and wildlife monitoring projects.

Our opportunities to help save wildlife — especially elephants — are right in front of us and grow every day.

The tracker, ElephantEdge, would be built by specialist engineering firm Irnas, with the Hackster community coming together to make fully deployable ML models by Edge Impulse and telemetry dashboards by Avnet that will run the newly built hardware. Such an ambitious project was never attempted before, and many doubted that such a collaborative and innovative project could be pulled off.

Creating the world’s best elephant-tracking device

Only they pulled it off. Brilliantly. The new ElephantEdge tracker is considered the most advanced of its kind, with eight years of battery life and hundreds of miles worth of LoRaWAN networking repeaters range, running TinyML models that will provide park rangers with a better understanding of elephant acoustics, motion, location, environmental anomalies and more. The tracker can communicate with an array of sensors, connected by LoRaWAN technology to park rangers’ phones and laptops.

This gives rangers a more accurate image and location to track than earlier systems that captured and reported on pictures of all wildlife, which ran down the trackers’ battery life. The advanced ML software that runs on these trackers is built explicitly for elephants and developed by the Hackster.io community in a public design challenge.

“Elephants are the gardeners of the ecosystems as their roaming in itself creates space for other species to thrive. Our ElephantEdge project brings in people from all over the world to create the best technology vital for the survival of these gentle giants. Every day they are threatened by habitat destruction and poaching. This innovation and partnerships allow us to gain more insight into their behavior so we can improve protection,” said Smart Parks co-founder Tim van Dam.

Open-source, community-powered, conservation-AI at work

With hardware built by Irnas and Smart Parks, the community was busy building the algorithms to make it sing. Software developer and data scientist Swapnil Verma and Mausam Jain in the U.K. and Japan created Elephant AI. Using Edge Impulse, the team developed two ML models that will tap the tracker’s onboard sensors and provide critical information for park rangers.

The first community-led project, called Human Presence Detection, will alert park rangers of poaching risk using audio sampling to detect human presence in areas where humans are not supposed to be. This algorithm uses audio sensors to record sound and sight while sending it over the LoRaWAN network directly to a ranger’s phone to create an immediate alert.

The second model they named “Elephant Activity Monitoring.” It detects general elephant activity, taking time-series input from the tracker’s accelerometer to spot and make sense of running, sleeping and grazing to provide conservation specialists with the critical information they need to protect the elephants.

Another brilliant community development came from the other side of the world. Sara Olsson, a Swedish software engineer who has a passion for the national world, created a TinyML and IoT monitoring dashboard to help park rangers with conservation efforts.

With little resources and support, Sara built a full telemetry dashboard combined with ML algorithms to monitor camera traps and watering holes, while reducing network traffic by processing data on the collar and considerably saving battery life. To validate her hypothesis, she used 1,155 data models and 311 tests!

Sara Olsson's TinyML and IoT monitoring dashboard

Sara Olsson’s TinyML and IoT monitoring dashboard. Image Credits: Sara Olsson

She completed her work in the Edge Impulse studio, creating the models and testing them with camera traps streams from Africam using an OpenMV camera from her home’s comfort.

Technology for good works, but human behavior must change

Project ElephantEdge is an example of how commercial and public interest can converge and result in a collaborative sustainability effort to advance wildlife conservation efforts. The new collar can generate critical data and equip park rangers with better data to make urgent life-saving decisions about protecting their territories. By the end of 2021, at least ten elephants will be sporting the new collars in selected parks across Africa, in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund and Vulcan’s EarthRanger, unleashing a new wave of conservation, learning and defending.

Naturally, this is great, the technology works, and it’s helping elephants like never before. But in reality, the root cause of the problem runs much more profound. Humans must change their relationship to the natural world for proper elephant habitat and population revival to occur.

“The threat to elephants is greater than it’s ever been,” said Richard Leakey, a leading palaeoanthropologist and conservationist scholar. The main argument for allowing trophy or ivory hunting is that it raises money for conservation and local communities. However, a recent report revealed that only 3% of Africa’s hunting revenue trickles down to communities in hunting areas. Animals don’t need to die to make money for the communities you live around.

With great technology, collaboration and a commitment to address the underlying cultural conditions and the ivory trade that leads to most elephant deaths, there’s a real chance to save these singular creatures.

How four European cities are embracing micromobility to drive out cars

The coronavirus pandemic is acting as a catalyst for urban transformation across Europe as city authorities grapple with how to manage urban mobility without risking citizens’ health or inviting gridlock by letting cars flood in.

Micromobility and local commerce are being seen as both short and long-term solutions for urban revival in a number of cases. We’ve run down key policy developments in four major cities, Paris, Barcelona, London and Milan, which — at varying speeds — are pushing to rethink and reclaim streets for feet and two wheels.

Paris’ 15-minute city

Every year, around 2,500 people die prematurely because of air pollution in Paris. Like most European cities, the number one cause of pollution is motorized traffic.

Due to consistent policy changes over the past two decades, pollution has been slowly decreasing. It’s a long and difficult process and each step provides a new set of challenges.

The city has only had two different mayors for the past twenty years — Bertrand Delanoë and Anne Hidalgo. That consistency combined with long terms as mayor has led to some divisive changes and long-term thinking.

Paris has a long and conflictual relationship with cars. Nearly 20 years ago, bus lanes were highly controversial because it reduced space dedicated to cars. Today, nobody is asking for the removal of those lanes.

That’s why it’s a bit ironic that the same thing is happening again and again. For instance, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo banned cars from the right bank of the Seine in 2016. Many political opponents and car enthusiasts criticized the decision. Earlier this year, none of the candidate in the municipal election mentioned the right bank of the Seine — it became a non-issue.

But the city’s policies aren’t just focused on banning cars. Paris has become a mobility lab for European cities with many public and private initiatives. If they work in Paris, chances are those initiatives will be reproduced elsewhere.

There are two reasons why Paris is an interesting city for mobility experiments. First, the Paris area is the 29th metropolitan area in the world by population density. Georges-Eugène Haussmann initiated some radical urbanization changes in the second half of the 19th century leading to the city’s modern layout — mostly seven-story buildings circled by the ring road.

As the limits of the city haven’t changed in over 100 years, it is still relatively small compared to other major cities. For instance, San Francisco, which is a small city by American standards, is still larger than Paris when it comes to area.

Second, Paris attracts a lot of tourists (in a normal year). In 2019, 38 million tourists came to Paris. These tourists tend to do normal touristy things — they move around the city all day long.

Vélib’ as the epicenter of mobility changes

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and Vélib' bikes

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and a fleet of Vélib’ bikes. Image Credits: Loïc Venance / AFP / Getty Images

In addition to a dense public transportation network with subways, regional trains, buses and trams, other transportation methods have emerged. In 2005, the city of Lyon introduced Vélo’v, a publicly subsidized bike-sharing service based on a network of stations spread across the city.

Two years later, the city of Paris introduced a similar servie called Vélib’. It’s hard to overstate how big of an impact Vélib’ has had on transportation. Just a few years after its launch, Vélib’ had hundreds of thousands of subscribers generation over 100,000 rides per day.

Other cities in Europe and the U.S. have followed course and introduced their own bike-sharing service. But nobody has come close to reaching the success of Vélib’. Despite some growing pains, Vélib’ now has over 400,000 subscribers. On September 4th, 2020, the service handled 209,000 rides. There are around 15,000 bikes on the service, which means that each bike is used nearly 14 times per day.

The reason why Vélib’ is much more successful than Citi Bike in New York or Santander Cycles in London is that Vélib’ is much cheaper. A standard Vélib’ subscription with unlimited ride costs $3.70 per month (€3.10). In London, you pay nearly $10 per month (£90 per year). In New York, it costs $15 per month. Subscribing to Vélib’ is a no-brainer.

And this is all due to political will. Vélib’ is a subsidized service. But it’s hard to understand the financial impact of Vélib’ as there are fewer cars on the road, which means that it’s less expensive to maintain roads. Additionally, the impact on pollution and physical activity means that people tend to be healthier, which reduces the pressure on the public health system.

Bike-sharing services can’t work without public money as it fosters network density, which boosts usage. Once the network reaches a critical mass, it’s a never-ending virtuous circle of network expansion and new clients.

Micromobility’s key battleground

A dozen Bikes from Obike in Paris

Image Credits: Romain Dillet / TechCrunch

Many startups have tried to enter the lucrative market with their own take on bike-sharing without docks. Gobee.bike, Obike, Ofo, Mobike and more recently Bolt have all deployed thousands of bikes in the streets of Paris. They’ve all shut down since then. Jump, which is now a Lime subsidiary, is the only remaining contender.

But bikes are just one transportation method among what people call ‘soft mobility’ in France. A French startup called Cityscoot has also been thriving with tens of thousands of rides per day. The company operating free-floating electric moped scooter service.

And then, there are scooters. At some point, there were just too many scooter startups — Bird, Bolt, Bolt by Usain Bolt, Circ, Dott, Hive, Jump, Lime, Tier, Voi, Ufo and Wind. They all had funny-sounding names and there were even two different companies with the same name (Bolt). And I’m probably forgetting a couple of companies.

Image Credits: Romain Dillet / TechCrunch

This shows once again that Paris is an attractive city for micromobility startups. There are many tourists and you can go from A to B quite easily.

The city of Paris had to regulate the market because scooters were taking over urban space. There are now three permits to operate shared electric scooters in Paris — Dott, Lime and Tier. They each operate a fleet of 5,000 scooters and there are now dedicated parking spots.

The 15-minute city

Up next, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has some ambitious plans to accelerate the pace of changes. During her reelection campaign earlier this year, she laid out a clear multiyear plan with a key concept: the 15-minute city.

“The 15-minute city represents the possibility of a decentralized city. At its heart is the concept of mixing urban social functions to create a vibrant vicinity,” Carlos Moreno, a professor at University of Paris 1, told Bloomberg.

Essentially, Moreno believes that there shouldn’t be residential neighbourhoods, business districts and commercial areas. Each neighbourhood should be a tiny town on its own with workplaces, stores, movie theaters, health centers, schools, bakeries, etc.

In addition to reducing carbon emissions, the 15-minute concept has the potential of revitalizing neighbourhoods altogether. By prioritizing social functions, roads immediately become an afterthought.

The 15-minute city is a concept that sums up a lot of things in three words. Suddenly, there’s a clear political agenda with a strong brand for the next decade of urban planning.

If I paraphrase neoliberal ideology, many policies trickle down from the 15-minute city. Car ownership is relatively low in Paris — more than 60% of households don’t have a car. Even more striking, people going to work use their car extremely rarely — in 9.5% of cases.

There are two consequences. First, cars are no longer the priority. In 2024, you won’t be able to drive a diesel car in Paris. In 2030, gas-powered cars will be banned.

Some major roads are now primarily focused on ‘soft mobility’. Due to the coronavirus outbreak, the city of Paris took advantage of the lockdown to accelerate their mobility agenda with new bike lanes and repurposed roads. It feels like they’re copying the neoliberal shock doctrine, as explained by Naomi Klein. And yet, in that case, it feels like a reverse shock doctrine as the administration is focusing on green initiatives.

For instance, the Rue de Rivoli used to be a major road that connects the Champs-Elysées to Bastille. Now, one-third of the road is dedicated to buses and two-thirds are reserved for bikes and e-scooters.

Rue de Rivoli. Image Credits: Romain Dillet / TechCrunch

Second, the City of Paris wants to reclaim space. Cars in Paris remain parked 95% of the time. That’s why Paris is going to remove 50% of parking spots. Instead, the city of Paris wants to turn some streets into gardens. There are bigger plans for new parks as well in front of the city hall and between the Eiffel Tower and Trocadéro.

After decades of incremental changes, everything is lining up for a drastic transition. In Paris, change happens progressively, then suddenly.

A bike traffic jam near Bastille, Paris

Image Credits: Romain Dillet / TechCrunch

Barcelona’s Superblocks

The Catalan capital — Spain’s second largest city — approved a new Urban Mobility Plan in 2013 with the aim of flipping street space in favor of pedestrians and away from prioritizing private vehicles. The city has the highest vehicle density in Europe and that’s a major problem.

City authorities report vehicle density at around 6,000 per square kilometer — highlighting the deleterious impact on air quality and public health. Per official stats, traffic pollution causes 3,500 premature deaths annually, 1,800 hospital admissions for cardiorespiratory problems, 5,100 cases of bronchitis in adults, 31,100 cases in children and 54,000 asthma attacks in children and adults.

The city’s solution to this public health crisis is an ambitious pedestrianization plan focused, in recent years, on creating ‘superilles’ — also known as ‘super islands’ or ‘superblocks’ — which switch the function of a number of streets from carrying cars to putting neighbourhood life first.

One of Barcelona’s early superblocks in the Poblenou district. Image Credits: Toni Hermoso Pulido / Flickr under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license

A handful of superblocks have been established over the years. Some, such as one in the Gracia barrio, is already so well established it’s all but invisible to the eye unless you stop to ask yourself how come there are so many pedestrians out and about and the cars that pass have to creep along behind them? Or why the edge of the pavement blends seamlessly into the road with no change of level.

But Barcelona is now planning a major expansion of the policy, championed by mayor Ada Colau, that will see it transform the dense, central Eixample district — creating masses more green (and low speed) urban space over the next ten years. They’re dubbing this the Barcelona superblock, given its central location and the larger scale vs what’s come before.

The superblocks model is naturally suited to micromobility — and building out the city’s network of bike lanes is a key part of the urban mobility plan.

Barcelona has had a red-liveried docked bike rental scheme — called Bicing — since 2007. Recently upgraded to include e-bikes alongside mechanical rides, the scheme isn’t yet as heavily used as its equivalent in Paris (and isn’t open to tourists as the subscription requires a local ID to obtain) but it is very popular with residents.

Per official data, Bicing had more than 127,000 subscribers as of September 2020 who racked up around 1.3 million journeys in the month.

In recent years e-scooter ownership has mushroomed, with no specific legislation preventing private use on public roads, though rental companies have faced regulatory controls — not that that’s prevented plenty of scooter startups, from Bird to Bolt to Wind, from scooter-bombing the city seeking to workaround restrictions.

A pair of Wind e-scooters parked in a Barcelona street in the barrio of Gracia where pedestrians and bikes already have priority over cars. Image Credits: Natasha Lomas / TechCrunch

As well as boosting biking and micromobility, the superblocks plan also aims to boost local commerce as streets flip from being ‘for cars’ to greener and more pleasant spaces where people are encouraged to meet, gather and do business.

In other traffic control policy measures, Barcelona began applying restrictions to vehicles based on their emissions at the start of this year — banning older petrol and diesel cars from entering during peak times. (The policy will apply to delivery transportation from next year.) While residents who own polluting vehicles have been encouraged to give up their cars in exchange for a free three-year public transit card (nudging people toward the existing metro, train and bus network).

With the superblocks transformation, there’s a historical architectural challenge that Barcelona’s urban planners are aiming to overcome.

The grid structure of the central Eixample district — conceived in 1856 by Catalan civil engineer, Illdefons Cerdà — aimed to extend the growing city in a healthy way by allowing for green space within every housing block.

However, the plan was implemented with a lack of regulation that allowed infill by developers and speculators over time, fuelled by rising land values and housing prices. That gobbled up gaps in the blocks intended as open public spaces. The result is a far denser city than Cerdà had planned. And one with streets that — so long as they remain packed with petrol and diesel vehicles — are noisy, polluted and unpleasant places to hang around in.

The Barcelona superblock is thus an attempt to right a historical wrong in the implementation of the city’s urban planning. Or “to modernize the Barcelona of the late nineteenth century and achieve better conditions for public health,” as city authorities put it.

It’s also a cautionary story about the need for proper regulation to accompany urban planning to ensure it serves the public interest — to protect residents’ health, quality of life and local commerce — guarding against deleterious external forces powered by private economic interests.

Around a third of Eixample’s 61 streets will be flipped to make way for a “green axes” of pedestrianized carriageway by 2030, under the Barcelona superblock plan. It will also create 21 new public squares at diagonal intersections.

The transformation of the zone will be slow, with city authorities wanting to make sure they bring residents along with them. But they have data to champion the plan — drawing on the success of a handful of existing superblocks, such as one in the Poblenou district — and can point to examples such as a third less NO2 pollution at one of the flipped interchanges and a similar increase in street level commercial activity.

The detail of the new street model has not yet been determined — the city is holding a design competition to choose that next year — but it’s set key parameters such as the need for 80% of the street to be shaded by trees/vegetation in summer, and at least 20% of its surface to be permeable rather than paved.

The city’s vision for the evolution of streets in the Barcelona superblock. Image Credits: Barcelona City Council

“It will be necessary to generate walking spaces, spaces that facilitate spontaneous children’s play and comfortable living spaces,” it writes in a press release [translated from Catalan]. “The design will have to allow for flexible spaces that can accommodate various occasional uses such as fairs, concerts and other acts. All with a feminist vision, prioritizing children and the elderly and promoting services and local trade.”

City authorities describe the aim as “a more sustainable model of public space, healthy and designed for people” — and one which “promotes social relations, which encourages local trade and focuses on the needs of children and seniors.”

They have also committed to maintain access to public transport throughout the superblocks.

Work on converting the first four streets is slated to begin in the first quarter of 2022: In Consell de Cent, Girona, Rocafort and Comte Borrell. City authorities have committed $44.8 million (€37.8 million) to these first transformations — though clearly a lot more public funding will be needed to deliver the full switch.

The coronavirus pandemic has acted as a small-scale opportunity for accelerating pedestrian-focused urban remodeling — enabling city authorities to expand Barcelona’s network of bike lanes during the relative quiet of lockdowns, and install some emergency pedestrian zones to expand outdoor space as an anti-COVID-19 measure.

Some street parking around the city has also been requisitioned and repurposed to make outdoor terrace space for cafés and bars during the pandemic.

But the need to reset an urban infrastructure that’s unhealthily monopolized by motorized traffic is an issue the city has been grappling with for decades — slowly chipping away at the problem with a variety of policies, such as those that allow for temporary road closures for local events and at weekends.

So for many Barcelona residents it’s not controversial to say that creating healthy, commercially active urban spaces means cars giving way to foot traffic. And the 2030 ‘Barcelona superblock’ looks like it will tip the balance for good.

That said, criticism of the project includes that it’s not radical enough — leaving a number of high-speed thoroughfares to keep on slicing right through the heart of the city. So Barcelona’s creep away from cars doesn’t yet look as radical as what’s being planned in Paris.

A Bird e-scooter parked next to a bike lane in Barcelona’s Poblenou district. Image Credits: Natasha Lomas / TechCrunch

London’s Low-Traffic Neighbourhoods

The UK capital has operated congestion charging in central zones of the city since 2003 — charging motorists to drive into the area in a bid to reduce road use during the busiest times. The policy made London a major European pioneer in applying controls on urban car use.

However, a lack of public and political consensus on the issue has restricted policy development for long periods — and even led to a rolling back, at the end of 2010, when then London mayor, Boris Johnson, scrapped a portion of the zone known as the western extension.

London’s huge population and sprawling size — with commercial zones tending to be clustered and concentrated away from large swathes of residential housing (which are often segregated by income) — means the issue of how to get around can be a divisive one, for people and businesses. So, it’s not an obvious candidate for going ‘car free’.

Yet, at the same time, London is extremely well served with public transport (buses, subways, trams and trains) — meaning plenty of journeys can be made without owning or using a private vehicle. There has also been investment in expanding the city’s network of cycle lanes in recent decades. And since 2010 a pay-as-you-go docked bike rental scheme has been in operation — racking up more than 10 million trips in total as of 2017.

Though, again, car-clogged streets and a Northern European climate can put limits on people’s willingness to brave the elements on two wheels.

London’s docked bike hire scheme. Image Credits: Elliott Brown / Flickr under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license

Existing UK regulations have also held back the uptake of modern alternatives like e-scooters — though there are now moves to open up streets to this type of micromobility, with the city’s transport regulator preparing a trial for scooter rental companies.

While a lack of decisive political action to curb car use has undoubtedly contributed to decades of terrible air quality in London — with drastic impacts on public health (one study in 2015 suggested deaths from long term exposed to pollution could be as high as 9,500 annually) — rising awareness of the health risks associated with urban traffic has led city authorities to push policies that aim to deter the most polluting vehicles from driving through the congestion zone by applying a surcharge, Which appears to have led to a decline in peak pollution levels.

London’s ‘ultra-low emission zone’ (Ulez) will also be expanded to cover a larger area of the city next year. So, there’s been a centralized and somewhat sustained push to make urban car use cleaner and less harmful, even though there’s been an inconsistent approach to discouraging car use itself.

But, in a more radical recent development, the shock of the coronavirus has fuelled grassroots campaigns at a borough/neighbourhood level to bar through-traffic in residential neighbourhoods.

This is done by implementing so-called low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) which use a variety of interventions to limit traffic — such as strategically placed planters or bollards and/or timed road use restrictions to block rat runs.

Residents in a number of London boroughs who are sick of living alongside the noise and pollution generated by traffic have seized on the opportunity of COVID-19-related mobility restrictions to restrict access to roads in their immediate vicinity to through traffic.

Per Bloomberg, there were 114 plans for LTNs in the works in London as of late July.

There’s push and pull here too, with LTNs generating opposition, including complaints that rat-running cars are simply being displaced to other streets.

There are also important socioeconomic critiques that they disproportionately benefit wealthier areas at the expense of more deprived neighbourhoods.

Such opposition may in part reflect the relative rapidness of implementation since the pandemic — something a more participatory process and well-rounded monitoring and consultation might be able to avoid.

But for those lucky to be living in LTNs the gains look hard to ignore. “Now, instead of speeding cars, the streets carry street chalk, murals, flowers, and signs with children’s illustrations asking people to step out of their car and explore the neighborhood,” Bloomberg reports on the changed character of street life in one LTN.

Image Credits: Richard Baker / In Pictures / Getty Images

In May, London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan — who has pledged to make London carbon neutral by 2030 if he’s reelected next year — announced a ‘Streetspace’ plan: Pushing a range of policies aimed at “rapidly transforming London’s streets to accommodate a possible 10x increase in cycling and 5x increase in walking.”

The plan also explicitly encourages scooting alongside walking and cycling as an urban mobility priority in London.

Part of the motivation for the policy push has been trying to steer Londoners away from a mass regressive switch away from London’s public transport — and into cars — as lockdown restrictions ease yet the risk of COVID-19 infection lingers.

Khan’s Streetspace plan also voices support for LTNs. But, ultimately, the power to restrict London traffic rests with local councils (or central government) — leaving the mayor to “urge” government/borough councils to get on board with measures aimed at persuading Londoners to switch to “cleaner, more sustainable forms of transport”.

The lack of a central London authority with a policy plan for LTNs may limit how far or fast these through-traffic-free neighbourhoods can spread in the UK capital.

Nonetheless it’s an interesting development that shows how much appetite there is among Londoners to reclaim residential streets for neighbourhood life.

Image Credits: Photo by Richard Baker / In Pictures / Getty Images

Milan’s Open Streets

Italy’s industrial north was among the hardest hit regions in Europe during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic. An extended lockdown was implemented — clearing cars off the streets of cities like Milan for months, as businesses got shuttered and residents were confined indoors — which in turn led to a noticeable improvement in air quality in a region infamous for pollution.

Since then, authorities in Milan have seized on the enforced break with a smog-filled ‘norm’ to push forward with an experimental citywide expansion of cycling lanes and pedestrianized zones — under a mobility plan called Strade Aperte (aka Open Streets) that’s aimed at adapting city infrastructure to find space for social distancing as urban life gets opened back up.

The Open Streets plan includes dropping the speed limit to 30kmph on a majority of Milan’s roads (replacing a 50kmph maximum), via signage and incorporating some structural elements for speed control; and adding 35km to its existing bike network before the end of the year.

The city launched its docked bike rental scheme, BikeMI, in 2008.

Image Credits: Emanuele Cremaschi / Getty Images

“As the Milan 2020 Adaptation Strategy foresees, the current health crisis can be an opportunity to decide to give more space to people and improve the environmental conditions in the city, increasing more sustainable, non-polluting, means of travel and redefining the use of streets and public spaces for commercial, recreational, cultural, and sport purposes, while respecting physical distance requirements,” city authorities write in a memo on the plan.

The overarching policy push is toward the same goal as Paris’ vision: Supporting what’s described as “the neighbourhood dimension” — aka making sure every citizen has access to almost all services within 15 minutes’ walk.

This is a strategic aim while residents are forced to live alongside the virus — and some of the measures are being couched as ‘temporary’.

But while the pandemic is acting as a catalyst/justification for rapid changes, city authorities were already looking for ways to repurpose urban infrastructure to deliver health benefits to citizens, environmental gains and boost local commerce by getting people out of cars and peddling/walking through the neighbourhood.

So, it’s hard to see where the impetus would come from to advocate a reversal back to noisier, more polluted, less playful streets.

In Milan, it’s the same story: The direction of urban travel is about rethinking streets as open public spaces for people and hyper-local micromobility, rather than letting cars colonize the commons and render its roads default highways elsewhere. Addio macchina.

Image Credits: Mairo Cinquetti / NurPhoto / Getty Images

A Biden presidency doesn’t need a Green New Deal to make progress on climate change

Even without a Green New Deal, the sweeping set of climate-related initiatives many Democrats are pushing for, President-elect Joe Biden will have plenty of opportunities to move ahead with much of the ambitious energy transformation plan as part of any infrastructure or stimulus package.

Should Republicans manage to maintain control of the Senate, there are still several opportunities to build climate-friendly policies into the infrastructure and stimulus bills Congress will be pushing through as its first orders of business, according to experts, investors and advisors to the President-elect.

That’s good news for established companies and the wave of startups focused on technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that cause global climate change. And these changes could happen despite intransigence from even moderate Republicans like Mitt Romney on climate issues.

“I think people are saying that conservative principles still account for a majority of public opinion in our country,” Romney said on “Meet the Press” Sunday. “I don’t think they want to sign up for a Green New Deal. I don’t think they want to sign up for getting rid of coal or oil or gas. I don’t think they’re interested in Medicare for All or higher taxes that would slow down the economy.”

Already, current market conditions are forcing some of the largest oil, gas and energy companies to transition to renewables. As those companies begin closing refineries in the U.S., Congress is going to feel increasing pressure to find a way to replace those jobs.

For instance, Shell announced earlier this month in Louisiana that it was closing a factory and laying off roughly 650 workers. The closure is primarily due to declining demand for oil brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, but both Netherlands-headquartered Shell and its U.K.-based counterpart BP believe fossil fuel consumption may have reached its peak in 2019 and is headed for long-term decline.

U.S. oil and gas giants aren’t immune from the economic impacts of COVID-19 and a global shift away from fossil fuels either. Two of the largest companies, Chevron and ExxonMobil, have seen their share prices decline over the past year as the oil industry reckons with steep reductions in demand and other market pressures.

Meanwhile, some of the nation’s largest utilities are working to phase out fossil fuel-based power generation.

The markets are already supporting the transition to renewable energy, without much government guidance, at least here in the U.S. So against this backdrop, the question isn’t if the government should be supporting the transition to renewable energy, but how quickly stimulus can be mobilized to save American jobs.

“A lot of the really consequential climate-related stuff that’s going to come out in the [near term] … won’t actually be related to renewables,” an advisor to the President-elect said.

So the questions become: What will economic stimulus look like? How will it be distributed? and how will it be financed?

Economic stimulus, COVID-19 and climate

President-elect Biden has already spelled out the first priorities for his incoming administration. While trying to manage the COVID-19 pandemic that has already killed over 238,000 Americans comes first, dealing with the economic fallout caused by the response to the pandemic will quickly follow.

Climate-friendly initiatives will loom large in that effort, analysts and advisors indicate, and could be a boon to new technology companies — as well as longtime players in the fossil fuels business.

“If we are going to be spending that money, there is an enormous opportunity to make sure that these investments are moving us forward and not recreating problems,” said one advisor to the Biden campaign earlier this year.

To understand how the trillions of dollars that are up for grabs will be spent, it’s helpful to think in terms of short-, medium- and long-term goals.

In the short term, the focus will be on “shovel-ready” projects that can be spun up as quickly as possible. These would be initiatives like environmental retrofits and building upgrades; repairing and upgrading water systems and electricity grids; providing more manufacturing incentives for electric vehicles; and potentially boosting money for environmental remediation and reclamation projects.

In all, that spending could total $750 billion by some estimates and would be used to get Americans back to work with a focus on industrial and manufacturing jobs that could have long-term benefits for the national economy — especially if that spending targets the government-designated Opportunity Zones carved out around the country to help low-income rural and urban communities.

If these efforts incorporate Opportunity Zones, there’s a chance to deploy the cash even faster. And if there are ways to preferentially rank infrastructure projects that also include a tech component, then that’s even better for startups who have managed to overcome hurdles associated with technology risk.

“Any time you craft policy, especially federal policy, you have to be so careful that the incentives line up correctly with what you’re trying to achieve,” said a Biden advisor.

Medium- and longer-term goals will likely require more time to plan and develop, because they’re relying on newer technologies in some cases, or they will have to wind their way through the planning process at the local and state levels before they can receive federal funds to begin construction.

Expect another $60 billion to be spent on these projects to finance development, workforce training and reskilling to prepare a labor force for a different kind of labor market.

Incentives over mandates 

One of the biggest risks that Biden administration climate policies face is the potential for legal challenges heard before an increasingly sympathetic conservative judiciary appointed under the Trump administration.

These challenges could force the Biden team to emphasize the financial benefits of adopting business-friendly carrots over regulatory sticks.

“Whenever possible you do want to let the markets figure themselves out,” said the advisor to the President-elect. “You always want to default to incentives rather than mandates.”

Coming off of the news this week that Pfizer has received positive results for its vaccine, there are some models from the current administration’s progress on a COVID-19 vaccine that can be instructive.

While Pfizer wasn’t involved in the Operation Warp Speed program created by the Department of Health and Human Services, the company did cut a $2 billion deal with the government that guaranteed a market for its vaccines.

The type of public-private partnerships that Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy mentions could also be employed in the climate space — especially in areas that will be hardest hit by the transition away from coal.

Some of that spending guarantee could come in the form of environmental remediation for orphaned natural gas wells or coal mining operations — especially in regions of the country like the Dakotas, Montana, West Virginia and Wyoming, that would be hardest hit by a transition away from fossil fuels. Some could come from the development of new geothermal engineering projects that require the same kind of skills that engineering firms and oil companies have developed over the past decades.

And, there’s the looming promise of a hydrogen-based economy, which could take advantage of some of the existing oil-and-gas infrastructure and expertise that exists in the country to transition to a cleaner energy future (n.b., that’s not necessarily a clean energy future, but it’s a cleaner one).

Already, nations like Japan are building the groundwork for replacing oil with hydrogen fuels, and these kinds of incentive-based programs and public-private partnerships could be a big boost for startups in a number of industries as well.

Image Credits: Cameron Davidson/Getty Images

Sharing the wealth (rural edition)

Any policies that a Biden administration enacts would have to focus on economic opportunity broadly, and much of the proposed plan from the campaign fulfills that need. One of its key propositions was that it would be “creating good, union, middle-class jobs in communities left behind, righting wrongs in communities that bear the brunt of pollution, and lifting up the best ideas from across our great nation — rural, urban and tribal,” according to the transition website.

An early emphasis on grid and utility infrastructure could create significant opportunities for job creation across America — and be a boost for technology companies.

“Our electric power infrastructure is old, aging and not secure,” said Abe Yokell, co-founder of the energy and climate-focused venture capital firm Congruent Ventures. “From an infrastructure standpoint, transmission distribution really should be upgraded and has been underinvested over the years. And it is in direct alignment with providing renewable energy deployment across the U.S. and the electrification of everything.”

Combining electric infrastructure revitalization with new broadband capabilities and monitoring technologies for power and water would be a massive windfall for companies like Verizon (which owns TechCrunch), and other networking companies. It also provides utilities with a way to adjust their rates (which they appreciate).

Those infrastructure upgrades are also useful in helping utilities find a way to repurpose stranded coal assets that are both costly and — increasingly — useless.

“Coal … it doesn’t make sense to burn coal anymore,” Yokell said. “People are doing it even though it’s out of the money for liability reasons … everyone is looking to retire coal even in the assets.”

If those assets can be decommissioned and repurposed to act as nodes on a distributed energy grid using energy storage to smooth capacity in the same way that those coal plants used to, “it’s a massive win,” according to Yokell. Adoption of energy storage used to be a cost issue, Yokell said. “It’s now a siting issue.”

Repowering old hydroelectric assets with newer, more efficient technologies offer another way to move the needle with shovel-ready projects and is an area where startups could stand to benefit from the push. It’s also a way to bring jobs to rural communities.

The promise of infrastructure spending can be born out across urban and rural areas, but the stimulus benefits don’t end there.

For rural communities there are business opportunities in “climate-smart agriculture, resilience and conservation, including 250,000 jobs plugging abandoned oil and natural gas wells and reclaiming abandoned coal, hardrock and uranium mines,” as the Biden transition team notes. And there’s a huge opportunity for oil industry workers to find jobs in the new and growing tech-enabled geothermal energy industry.

The farm subsidies that have skyrocketed under the Trump administration could continue, just with a more climate-focused bent. Instead of literally giving away the farm to the tune of a projected $46 billion that the Trump administration will hand out to farmers over the course of 2020, payouts could be predicated on “carbon farming.” Wooing the farm vote with the promise of payouts for carbon sequestration could be a way to restart a conversation around a carbon price (a largely failed prospect in government circles). Beyond carbon sequestration, rapid innovations in synthetic biology for biomaterials, coatings and even food could take advantage of the big biofuel fermenters and feedstocks in the Midwest to enable a new biomanufacturing industry.

Furthermore, the expansion of rail lines thanks to the fracking and oil boom means opportunities and the potential to build out other types of manufacturing capacity that can be transported across the U.S.

vw-plant-tennessee

Volkswagen broke ground Wednesday, November 13, 2019 on an $800 million factory expansion in Tennessee that will be the North American hub of its electric vehicle plans. Image Credits: Volkswagen

Sharing the wealth (urban edition) 

The same spending that could juice rural economies can be equally applied in America’s largest cities. Any movement to boost the auto industry through incentives around electric vehicles or federal mandates to upgrade fleets would do wonders for automakers and the original equipment manufacturers that supply them.

Public-private partnerships for urban infrastructure could first receive support from funds devoted to planning and managing upgrades. That could boost the adoption of new tech from startup companies around the country, while creating new jobs for a significant number of workers through implementation.

One large area where urban economic revitalization and climate policies can intersect is in the relatively unsexy area of weatherization, energy efficient appliance installation and building retrofits.

“Local governments across the country are highly interested in the green economy and transitioning to the low-carbon economy,” said Lauren Zullo, the director of environmental impact at the real estate management firm, Jonathan Rose Companies. “Cities are really looking to partner with the private real estate sector because they know we’re going to have to get buildings involved in the green economy. And any work that you do retrofitting local buildings is literally local economy.”

By channeling dollars into green retrofits and the deployment of distributed renewable energy, local economies will get a huge boost — and one that disproportionately will go to helping the communities that have been on the front lines of climate change.

You saw … a lot of investment made just this way out of the Recovery Act,” Zullo said, referring to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the stimulus bill passed in the first term of the Obama administration. “A lot of [funds] focused on low-income weatherization that were earmarked for low income and affordable housing. [Those] funds have allowed us to reduce energy consumption anywhere from 30% to 50% … and being able to gain those utility cost savings have been transformational to those communities.”

Why are these programs so important? Zullo explained further, “Low-income folks are disproportionately burdened by utility and energy costs. Any sort of energy-saving opportunities that we can earmark or target in these low-income communities is truly impactful … not just on a carbon footprint, but on the lives and success of these low-income communities.”

Paying for it

For even this more-modest legislation to make it through Congress, a Biden administration will have to answer the questions of who would pay for the stimulus and how it would get distributed.

In a tweet, the political commentator Matthew Yglesias proffered that the country could afford “to throw an ice cream party.” That policy would enable Republicans to keep the tax cuts while allowing the government to continue to spend on stimulus measures.

“[Interest] rates are very low. The country can afford an ice cream option where we spend money on some good things and ‘offset’ with tax cuts,” Yglesias wrote.

To distribute the funds, Congress could set up a body similar to the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), which was established by Herbert Hoover’s administration back at the start of the Great Depression. It was expanded under Franklin Delano Roosevelt to disburse funds to financial institutions, farms and corporations at risk of collapse.

While the success of the institution itself is somewhat murky, the RFC along with federal deposit insurance and the related Commodity Credit Corporation (which, unlike the RFC, still exists) laid the groundwork for the country to emerge from the Great Depression and gear up manufacturing to engage with a world at war in the 1940s.

The durability of the CCC could provide a model for any infrastructure credit corporation that the government may want to establish.

Some investors support the idea. “It’s more about channeling dollars to state, municipal or private businesses with the ability to underwrite heavily subsidized loans to any entity proposing a modern infrastructure project that could be paid through municipal bonds or tolling,” said one investor in the infrastructure space. “It would offer a credit backstop to anyone who wanted to invest in infrastructure and could have a technological requirement associated with it.”

Several investors suggested that capital from loans paid out through the infrastructure bank could finance the reshoring of industry, with potential tax revenues from the businesses offsetting some of the costs of the loans. Some of these measures could have additional economic benefits if the loans get funneled through local financial institutions as well.

“If you think about a vehicle to deliver these funds, you already have an existing architecture to deliver this … which is the municipal bond market,” said Mark Paris, a managing partner at Urban.us, a venture capital fund focused on urban infrastructure. 

The infrastructure answer

There’s no shortage of levers that the Biden administration can pull to reverse the course of the Trump administration’s policies on climate change, but many of these federal policy changes are likely to face challenges in courts.

Vox’s David Roberts has an excellent run down of some of the direct actions that Biden can take along the path toward decarbonization of the U.S. economy. They include restoring the over 125 climate and environmental regulations that the Trump presidency reversed or rolled back; working with the Environmental Protection Agency to develop a new, more sweeping version of the original Obama-era Clean Power Plan; push the Department of Transportation’s development of new fuel economy standards; and supporting California’s own, very aggressive vehicle standards.

Biden can also encourage financial markets to make more of an effort to price climate risk into their financial models for investment, which would further encourage investment in climate-friendly businesses and a divestment from fossil fuels, as Roberts notes.

Some of America’s largest financial services institutions are already doing just that, and oil-and-gas companies are wrestling with the need to transition to renewable or emission-free fuels as their share prices take a pummeling and demand plummets on the back of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As Mother Jones suggested last year, a Biden administration could declare climate change a national security emergency, in the same way that the Trump administration declared immigration to be a national security emergency. That would give Biden extensive powers to reshape the economy and directly influence industrial policy.

Declaring a national climate emergency would give Biden the powers he needs to enact much of the infrastructure initiatives that comprise the President-elect’s energy plan, but not a popular mandate to support it.

Before taking that step, Biden may choose to try and exhaust all legislative options first. In a divided Congress that means focusing on infrastructure, jobs and industry incentives.

“The impacts of climate change don’t pick and choose. That’s because it’s not a partisan phenomenon. It’s science. And our response should be the same. Grounded in science. Acting together. All of us,” Biden said in a September speech.

“These are concrete, actionable policies that create jobs, mitigate climate change and put our nation on the road to net-zero emissions by no later than 2050,” he said. “We can invest in our infrastructure to make it stronger and more resilient, while at the same time tackling the root causes of climate change.”

Biden’s infrastructure plans could boost startups

As President-elect Joe Biden readies his transition team and sets the agenda for his first 100 days in office, startups can expect to see some movement on long-stalled infrastructure initiatives that could mean big boosts to their business.

Infrastructure is high on the list of priorities of the incoming Biden Administration as the former vice president hopes to make good on his campaign promise to “build back better.”

American infrastructure has been crumbling for decades without significant investment from the federal government, and much of what will be replaced will also be upgraded with new technology, according to people familiar with the Biden plan.

That means tech companies focused on next-generation telecommunications and utility infrastructure, transportation, housing and construction tech around energy efficiency could see new dollars pour in over the next four years.

“Infrastructure and build out of the clean energy economy … doesn’t necessarily mean large wind or large solar projects. It could mean advanced metering … it can be new engine technologies,” said Dan Goldman, a managing partner at Clean Energy Ventures. “We think that that can be a huge opportunity for job creation … not only putting people back to work but putting people back to work in high quality jobs.”

And there’s a willingness to encourage these infrastructure projects in less partisan ways in states like Massachusetts, Virginia and Florida, which are actively building out electric vehicle infrastructure and renewable energy projects, Goldman said.

While the federal government will ultimately be distributing the cash, startups can expect to see the spending actually come from municipalities and state governments, which often have a better understanding of local needs and where the money should go.

Next-generation energy infrastructure

The electrification of everything — a component of any zero-carbon movement — requires significant upgrades to existing power infrastructure. That means everything from systems management technologies to distribution facilities to ways to store power that can be moved on to the grid.

“Without that infrastructure investment it gets quite challenging,” said Abe Yokell, a co-founder and managing partner of Congruent Ventures. 

He pointed to large-scale energy storage technologies as one solution, but management systems for utilities will be another area of interest.

Those infrastructure initiatives will likely mean good things for battery companies like Form Energy, which signed its first major contract with Great River Energy earlier this year; or Antora and Malta, which store energy as heat; or Quidnet, which has a pumped hydroelectric play for large-scale energy storage by pumping water into the gaps between rocks underground that creates pressure and can force water back up through a generator.

Other large-scale energy storage companies working on developing and installing batteries could benefit as well. That means good things for Tesla, which has a few major battery installs under its belt, and Fluence, which manages and operates big install projects.

Natel Energy, another startup working on energy storage (and generation) using hydropower, could also find its technology in the mix, according to company founder, Gia Schneider.

Schneider sees three potential pitches for her company’s technologies. “Climate change is water change,” she said. “We have a bucket in energy, a bucket of stuff in environmental and a bucket of stuff in working lands.”