As we are all beginning to discover, the complicated science of logistics doesn’t always respond so well to unknown variables.
The extreme household toilet paper shortage is only partially due to panic buying — the reality is that people really DO need more of the stuff, with everyone confined to their homes 24×7. Many of us are spending at least 40 extra hours a week at home. It adds up. So what’s happening to all the commercial product headed for empty offices and factories? Turns out it’s not so simple to divert stuff from a totally different distribution channel onto grocery store shelves.
The more life-threatening challenge, of course, is getting medical supplies to the locations that really need it — recognizing that those locations will keep changing as new hot spots emerge.
That’s something that Flexport.org, the nonprofit arm of logistics software company Flexport, is addressing head-on. Its software is dedicated to facilitating disaster recovery supplies. Right now, it’s entirely focused on trying to alleviate COVID-19 supply shortages around the world.
An early-stage startup making a similar pivot is Rheaply, a Chicago-based company that recently raised $2.5 million to bold out its platform for asset management. The company’s mission is simple: to help universities and companies “share” equipment that is going unused. The founder Garry Cooper, who earned his Ph.D. in neuroscience from Northwestern, came up with the idea after while studying there.
In response to the medical supply crisis, Rheaply has collaborated with Northwestern and state agencies to create a special application of its technology called the Emergency Resource Exchange. The system was developed to help hospitals make requests for resources such as N95 protective masks to gowns or ventilators — and also to list things as they become available. Yes, it’s free.
“We face tough challenges ahead, but moving with a united sense of urgency minimize risk of the virus’s transmission and brings us closer to being with our friends and families once again,” the team writes in its blog about the new resource.
It’s a local resource, but imagine the possibilities if this sort of exchange was expanded to other states. It’s clear that we can’t always count on an adequate national-level response.
BTW, I hope you felt heartened by the news earlier today that Washington state is sending at least 400 ventilators back to the national stockpile, so that they can be sent to places like New York, where the crisis is expected to surge this week. We need more of this spirit.
Greetings from Bergen County in New Jersey, where my socially-isolated spirits have been raised by my afternoon session in the garden.
I just spent some time perusing the news for positive news related to the coronavirus crisis, and came across this update from Apple: it has released an app with fact-checked information about the pandemic. Especially relevant for those of us who are frustrated by the misinformation shared by certain commentators who pose as journalists.
I have downloaded same.
The first thing you should know is that this resource was created “in partnership” with the Centers for Disease Control (aka CDC) the White House Coronavirus Task Force and the Federal Emergy Management Agency (aka FEMA) — that means the information includes the latest federal data on what’s going on.
The app is part screening tool / part news resource. If you’re wondering whether you should be tested, there’s a questionnaire that helps you determine whether that’s necessary — and CDC recommendations what to do next. It doesn’t include information about local testing sites. And there’s a huge disclaimer basically reminding users to consult their doctor and state health resources if they have the described symptoms.
So, why download this thing? If you’re weary of misery surfing for information, the app (and the related web site) gives you one place to look for quick updates. Oh, and you
One more thing worth mentioning: If you DO submit information into the screening app, it won’t be stored or shared. You also won’t need a subscription to read the news that’s included. Personally, I’m still amazed and disappointed by how many big urban newspapers haven’t waived their subscriptions during this crisis.
If my 30-something-years experience as a journalist holds true, this will be the week many U.S. tech companies emerge from the relative radio silence that has characterized their public response to economic upheaval being wreaked by coronavirus to talk about how they plan to help — not just with immediate aid, but with resources to help inspire systemic solutions far into the future.
We’ve already heard a lot about Zoom, of course, the now virtually (pun intended) ubiquitous videoconferencing service that you and I both used umpteen times this week. In mid-March, it moved to make its software free for K-12 schools — and that was before many U.S. school districts officially closed their doors and turned millions of parents across the country into classroom aides. Pretty much any company with similar collaboration software is now offering at least a free trial.
These are wonderful, welcome gestures, and I am eager to see more like them. What I’m equally eager for are resources that help creative, innovative, entrepreneurial individuals mobilize on solutions — to seek not just to weather this crisis but to learn from it.
Sticking with education, one example is the new Teach from Home hub announced March 20 by Google, along with a $10 million “Distance Learning Fund” meant to support organizations working on solutions.
Here are some other initiatives that I’m looking into:
IBM updated the focus of its annual Call for Code solutions hackathon to “take on COVID-19.” The premise: use its open source software to develop technologies that could help. Last year’s winner was Prometeo. The team united a firefighter, nurse and three developers to create a smart device for improving firefighter safety by measuring air quality during disaster response.
Amazon’s cloud division committed $20 million intended to accelerate research on diagnostics approaches. Mind you, this money is going to existing customers but there are at least 35 global research institutions, companies and startups now involved. (Here are the details.)
Their employer, they argued, had a responsibility to be more agressive about reducing its footprint and to be transparent about it.
I agreed, as I wrote in one of my year-end essays for 2018, “Amazon’s sustainability story will receive closer scrutiny in 2019.”
And I felt vindicated last September when the company’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, showed up at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to make a pretty dramatic Climate Pledge not to mention a massive order of 100,000 electric delivery vehicles.
Here’s what he said at the time:
We’re done being in the middle of the herd on this issue — we’ve decided to use our size and scale to make a difference. If a company with as much physical infrastructure as Amazon — which delivers more than 10 billion items a year — can meet the Paris Agreement 10 years early, then any company can. I’ve been talking with other CEOs of global companies, and I’m finding a lot of interest in joining the pledge. Large companies signing The Climate Pledge will send an important signal to the market that it’s time to invest in the products and services the signatories will need to meet their commitments.
Apparently, though, the company now wants its employers to pipe down about this topic, according to AECJ. In a press release released Jan. 2, the group reports that several of their leaders have been told they’ll be fired if they speak to the press or express their opinions on social media — without receiving permission to do so.
Amazon apparently updated its employee communications policy around the time the pledge was announced, when the group was organizing a walkout to support the Global Climate Strike on Sept. 20, 2019.
As someone who has covered the technology industry for more years than I care to share, I’m not really surprised that Amazon would threaten workers for disclosing trade secrets. Every big company does that. But that’s not what is going on here.
“This policy is aimed at silencing discussion around publicly available information,” wrote software engineer Victoria Liang, in the AECJ press release. “It has nothing to do with protecting confidential data, which is covered by a completely different set of policies.”
Whenever I need a crash course in keeping a message succinct, Ray Wang (with Constellation Research) and Vala Afshar (avec Salesforce) drop in to give me a lesson — and to remind me that I tend to run off at the mouth sometimes!
Here’s our latest segment for DisrupTV, in which we talk about the basic infrastructure changes that will be vitally improvement for making the world more sustainable.
Among the things I ramble on about: an amazing infrastructure project in Kearny, New Jersey — the makeover of 100-year-old former shipyard. (By the way, you can hear some of my interview excerpts on Episode 183 of the GreenBiz 350 podcast!)
Plus: Why CEOs need to be bought into sustainability strategy in order for it to become embedded into corporate culture.
This article is drawn from the Energy Weekly newsletter, running Thursdays. Subscribe here.
The co-founders of SolarCity, Lyndon Rive and Peter Rive, are back on the grid.
The brothers, who left their former solar energy services company in mid-2017 after it became part of the Tesla Energy division, were this week named chairman and operational and technology advisor (respectively) of a fast-growing solar-plus-storage company called Zola Electric.
There are two reasons this company isn’t exactly a household name. First, it recently underwent a branding change: It used to be called Off Grid Electric, but that proved to be a hard moniker to defend with the trademark lawyers. Second, its focus is squarely on improving “energy access” in emerging economies, starting with Africa.
“We are offering technically advanced solutions where the grid is unreliable or unaffordable,” Zola CEO Bill Lenihan told me earlier this week.
What is now known as Zola (a play off the Swahili word for “solar”) got its start in Tanzania about seven years ago, when founders Xavier Helgesen, Erica Mackey and Joshua Pierce started an organization dedicated to offering a cleaner fuel alternative to kerosene. Its system combines solar generation with batteries (more on that in a moment). Lenihan was co-CEO with Helgesen until this week, when the latter was named chief technical officer and Lenihan took on sole responsibility as chief executive. Lenihan’s background is in private equity.
The company’s mission has evolved significantly since then (learning from “mistake after mistake,” as Lenihan put it). It helps that Zola has raised more than $100 million in backing from the likes of DBL Ventures, Omidyar Network, Helio Partners (an African fund that is its biggest backer) and energy companies EDF and Total.
We are offering technically advanced solutions where the grid is unreliable or unaffordable.
That’s where the brothers Rive come in: Both made personal investments early on, Lyndon told me. And yes, both were born in South Africa, like their famous cousin, Elon Musk. Here’s Lyndon’s official statement about his appointment as chairman: “After witnessing and investing in Zola Electric’s impressive growth for many years now, I’m eager to play a bigger role as the company continues to democratize renewable energy globally. Zola’s business model and technology platform will enable countries around the world to leapfrog the electric grid.”
Zola doesn’t sell power as a service, but it has created a business model under which customers pay for its system over time — paying around $15 to $35 per month through a digital, microfinancing platform. Eventually, they “own” the equipment. As of this week, it has more than 200,000 installations in homes and businesses (such as kiosks, pubs and restaurants) in five African countries: Tanzania; Rwanda; Ivory Coast; Ghana; and Nigeria.
The Zola system is meant as a primary source of electricity, defaulting to the grid when it’s available. It’s a way that individuals and businesses can buy independence in an environment of daily grid outages, according to Lenihan and Rive. The system replaces diesel generators, which are commonly used as a backup option. Switching back and forth between generators and the grid has traditionally been a very manual process; another benefit of Zola’s technology is that it handles this automatically, they said.
“The market in Africa and the customers’ understanding of electricity far exceeds most people in the United States,” Lyndon Rive said. “When you have an environment where the electricity always goes out, the customer becomes highly educated about energy.”
The loads that Zola supports aren’t that heavy: typically, the technology supports lights, radios, small fans and electronics chargers. Zola is working up to heavier loads, like for air conditioners, refrigerators and power tools (such as saws or drills).
Peter Rive’s role with Zola will be to help build further intelligence into the software that Zola’s equipment uses to interact with the grid, as well as to refine the components over time. Another intriguing twist to the Zola story is that a growing portion of the design, configuration and assembly of the systems is being done “in country” — Zola now has more than 1,000 employees across Africa, Lenihan said.
Where next? The big focus for this year will be cracking massively complicated Nigerian energy sector, Lenihan said: “No other market is as messed up.”
Zola’s rise is yet another proof point for the value of distributed generation, and of innovation that wouldn’t be possible in a system, such as the United States, where many electricity consumers probably couldn’t tell you how much power they use on a monthly basis. Places such as Africa have a real opportunity to leapfrog progress in more established economies when it comes to adoption of off-grid electricity. (Hence the company’s original name.)
It is not lost on me that venture capitalist Nancy Pfund mentioned this company to me last fall, when we were chatting about which of her company’s investments had her most charged up for 2019. Now that SolarCity’s co-founders are involved, I’ll be watching this venture — and others like it — even more closely.
Interestingly, Accenture this week published research noting that 95 percent of North American utility executives recognize the disruptive power of distributed generation — and they’re actively looking for ways to profit. “Mass adoption of electric vehicles and the electrification of building heating is poised to alter demand growth and load shape in the longer term,” said Stephanie Jamison, an Accenture managing director, in a statement analyzing the findings. “The key will be to navigate this disruption by making the grid more resilient through greater use of smart technologies and utilizing all sources of flexibility including on the demand side, adopting a more customer-centric approach.”
Species identification schemes. Early warning systems informed by sensors and big data. Predictive population modeling. Looks like a job for artificial intelligence!
It felt appropriate to weigh in with a year-end riff about a topic that’s guaranteed to spark debate at holiday parties — when and how to use AI for jobs that humans just can’t perform as efficiently as smart software.
This somewhat hypothetical question has special relevance in the context of recent developments at Amazon and Microsoft, two tech giants seeking to outwit each other in establishing their cloud software services as platforms for running and managing AI applications.
On Dec. 10, Amazon Web Services quietly launched what it’s calling the Amazon Sustainability Data Initiative, which builds on the “vast amounts of data that describe our planet.” The idea is to get researchers to store oodles of weather observations and forecasts, satellite images and metrics about oceans, air quality — you name it — so that they can be used for modeling and analysis. And then, it encourages organizations to use the data to make decisions that encourage sustainable development.
One example of how the data is already being used: the Famine Action Mechanism, developed by the United Nations, World Bank and International Committee of the Red Cross. The idea is to monitor indicators about the diverse causes of food insecurity such as droughts, flooding, regional conflict, food pricing and economic policies so that regions of concern can be identified proactively — and so that funding and resources can be applied to preventive full-fledged crises. Naturally, this resource is being hosted on Amazon cloud services.
Microsoft is also busy: it just disclosed 11 more research projects that will receive a total of $1.28 million in new grants under its $50 million AI for Earth initiative, its bid to help scientists, startups and academics apply artificial intelligence to complex research aimed at addressing — or at least better understanding — climate change. One thing the Microsoft team is really prioritizing is how AI can help preserve biodiversity.
The sorts of projects being funded by the likes of Amazon and Microsoft have clear benefits that outweigh many legitimate concerns.
“There are species disappearing off our planet that we’ve never even known about,” notes Microsoft senior director Josh Henretig, pointing to one project AI for Earth is funding, run by an outfit called iNaturalist. “We also don’t understand the reasons or implications for why and how quickly they may be disappearing. We don’t have the ability to scale up millions of field researchers — but we do have the ability to tap millions of smartphone users to help collect that data quickly.”
The latest AI for Earth recipients were selected by Microsoft and National Geographic in tandem — and they’re pretty similar to some of the other research initiatives that the program has supported in the past year: Microsoft’s machine learning algorithms will aid in making decisions about irrigation development and crop water efficiency, mapping dams and reservoirs and monitoring ecosystem health by classifying the songs of insects in tropical rainforests.
The grants include financial support, access to Microsoft’s cloud and AI tools and an affiliation with National Geographic Labs. “Human ingenuity, especially when paired with the speed, power and scale that AI brings, is our best bet for crafting a better future for our planet and everyone on it,” said Lucas Joppa, chief environmental officer at Microsoft, in the press release describing the latest awards.
Indeed, there’s more evidence than ever that AI is a force that everyone involved in sustainability should continue to watch closely, as we suggested earlier this year in the State of Green Business report for 2018. Google’s experiments in using AI for data center management deserve continued scrutiny, as do intriguing startups such as Smarter Sorting, which has raised $9.3 million in seed funding for an AI service that can be used by retailers to automate waste management decisions for returned goods.
Incidentally, Microsoft and Amazon are onto something. One of Deloitte’s predictions for 2019 is that most businesses — up to 70 percent — eventually will turn to cloud-based AI services to take advantage of these capabilities. By 2020, the consulting firm predicts, up to 87 percent of enterprise software apps will have AI built in. That sounds pretty real to me.
And for now, at least, the sorts of projects being funded by the likes of Amazon and Microsoft have clear benefits that outweigh many legitimate concerns frequently raised about AI, such as the potential for ethics breaches, for gender and ethnic discrimination in decision-making and for erasing jobs currently held by people.
Is the world’s largest provider of cloud computing services falling down on its 2014 pledge to one day power all of its data centers entirely with renewable energy?
That’s the question posed recently by an investigative report in The Information (subscription required, but you can snag a free trial), citing as one piece of evidence a November 2016 wind deal in Ohio that since has fallen through. The article’s broader thesis: a senior executive who stepped into his role around that time is balking at the costs of scaling investments in wind and solar projects as Amazon’s cloud expands, and its electricity needs likewise rise. New exec, new policy.
A sentiment of that nature definitely would make it tougher for the tech giant’s sustainability team to present new power purchase agreements for consideration by higher-ups. But that manager might want to consider an attitude adjustment.
That’s because a group of Amazon employees — who also happen to be stockholders — in recent weeks got together to file multiple shareholder proposals urging the company to file a more detailed plan for addressing climate change and reduce its dependence on fossil fuels. The measures will be considered at the company’s annual meeting next spring.
“We realized we could use our position as employees and our power and our rights as shareholders to bring visibility of this issue to the board and the top leaders of this company,” one petitioner, Eliza Pan, told The New York Times.
Do these resolutions have a prayer of passing? Probably not, but it doesn’t really matter. Here’s the thing. Compared with other big tech giants, such as Apple, Google and Microsoft, Amazon doesn’t talk all that regularly about its clean energy strategy. But given the deepening urgency around the need to address climate change more quickly, that really should change.
Here’s what we do know. In January 2018, the company said it had reached the halfway point — and it has nine active projects listed on the Amazon Web Services sustainability page that are expected to deliver more than 2 million megawatt-hours of electricity, including the wind farm where CEO Jeff Bezos did some champagne bottle smashing in October 2017.
But in a year filled with a record 5 gigawatts of corporate power purchase agreements (PPAs) for solar and wind, Amazon is a very noticeable no-show. Considering the massive growth rate for its cloud business — $18.2 billion in revenue for the nine months ended Sept. 30 versus $12.3 billion — that does not bode well. Technically, Amazon’s goal was never timebound; it never offered a date for when it would be all-in on renewables. But maybe it’s time to rethink that alongside its capital investments in new data centers.
Given how much cloud rivals Microsoft and Google have focused on this issue, renewable energy sourcing strategies very well could become a checklist item for businesses looking for cloud service providers that can provide assurances that their data centers aren’t powered by aging coal plants.
On the bright side, someone at Amazon Web Services does see a role in using its power for good.
The division just launched a project called Amazon Sustainability Data Initiative meant to help organize the “vast amounts of data that describe our planet.” The idea is to get organizations and scientists and individuals to share metrics, forecasts, images and other information about oceans, air quality and species. The Famine Action Mechanism, developed by the United Nations, World Bank and International Committee of the Red Cross, is already using this repository to monitor factors that could be causes of food insecurity so that regions of concern can be identified proactively.
Somehow, I think many scientists, startups and humanitarian groups that plan to use this admirable resource will care about the source of the power behind the data.
When rocket scientist K.R. Sridhar founded the technology startup that would become Bloom Energy in 2001 — and famously introduced its electricity-generating “box” to the world in 2010 during a “60 Minutes” segment — his inspiration was a photograph snapped from outer space illustrating the vast swaths of planet Earth still in the dark, unconnected to the electric grid.
He mused then, as he does now: If scientists could generate power for equipment on far-flung planets such as Mars, why can’t they light up rural communities here on Earth? “In a digital world, electricity, like food and shelter, is a human need,” said Sridhar, Bloom’s chairman and CEO, during a relatively rare formal media briefing last week at the company’s Sunnyvale, California, headquarters.
Almost 20 years later, that worldview looms large on a wall in the now-public company’s corporate briefing room. It’s a not-so-subtle reminder of Bloom’s long-term mission “to make clean, reliable and affordable energy for everyone in the world.”
Right now, however, the company’s short-term concern is convincing high-profile commercial and industrial accounts to buy the Bloom Energy Server (the fancy name for its fuel cell technology) to reduce their reliance on the traditional grid. Bloom’s solid oxide fuel cells generate electricity through an electrochemical reaction, rather than through a combustion process, which distinguishes its approach from on-site cogeneration options.
Genusee, an eyeglasses maker that fashions its frames from water bottles sourced in Flint, Michigan. Huskee Cup, which brews up reusable mugs made out of coffee husk waste. EcoTruck, a toy made from a wood-hybrid material that is far tougher than competitive options.
All three of these designers turned to Kickstarter to build their audience, orders and business partners. While their market focus is very different, they all share a common interest. All three are dedicated to reducing their environmental impact by choosing materials that can extend their product lifecycles, are less toxic to humans or the planets, or that rethink substances or objects that otherwise would be considered waste.
Now, the crowdsourcing platform — which helped launch more than 9,000 projects over the past 12 months — is borrowing from their examples to encourage other designers to embed environmental and sustainable sourcing criteria into their planning and ideas at a very early stage of creation.