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.  

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?”

 

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.”

 

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

 

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.

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.