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.
Generally, you know a company is “serious” about a strategy when they march the chief executive officer out to be the mouthpiece or the face of it. Or at least that’s what the marketing gurus and guru-esses hope.
So, I was intrigued by two recent announcements by two of the biggest technology companies in the earth’s universe — Amazon and Apple — dropped some material into my email inbox in late October. (Actually, the press release involving Apple came from another company, but more on that in the moment.)
Amazon’s proclamation was along the lines of several it has issued over the past two years, trumpeting a contract to buy the power from yet another wind farm in Texas (its largest deal yet). This is a seriously huge facility, more than 100 turbines, each of them more than 300 feet tall. The capacity is 253 megawatts of electricity, which means it can generate 1,000,000 megawatt-hours of power annually.
This is the 18th solar or wind so far made possible because Amazon stepped in to help finance the installation. What’s even more incredible is that the company has almost twice that many projects in its pipeline. So, you can hardly blame the company for releasing this video of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos “christening” one of the turbines. (I’m sure the Amazon board is shuddering.)
The second photo is less dramatic, but also far more unexpected: what the heck is Apple CEO Tim Cook doing in a Swedish forest, planting trees?
It turns out that the company that publicized the visit, Iggesund Paperboard, is one of Apple’s biggest packaging suppliers — a company originally selected by the tech giant’s founder, Steve Jobs. The material is called Invercote. The parent company, Holmen, is listed on the United Nations Global Compact Index of the world’s most sustainable companies. The predecessor firm to Iggesund has actually been around since 1685.
Given Apple’s legacy of being relatively mum about pretty much everything until it is good and ready to talk, Cook’s willingness to give its supplier such a great photo opp is all the more notable.
But lo and behold, the company just released an updated statement about its packaging strategy in October, with heightened attention to the forests where it sources virgin fiber. Sweden isn’t the only place it’s watching: Apple is working with World Wildlife Fund to transition suppliers in China to more sustainable forestry practices. Is that the next photo opp?
It probably won’t surprise you to discover that many of the companies investing in on-site solar technology—rather than waiting around for their local utility to start selling clean power—are either retailers or real estate investment firms. The Solar Energy Industries Association keeps tabs on this with an annual ranking.
Most of the names on that list are pretty familiar, such as Target (No. 1) and Walmart (a close No. 2). Others, not so much.
Over the past several months, I’ve interviewed two of those “others” — industrial warehouse giant Prologis, which is third on the list (its total capacity is now smaller than when I wrote my story), and luxury mall operator General Growth Properties (GGP), which is ninth.
One thing that struck me most about my chat with GGP was the simple fact that it was the chief operating officer who handled the interview. Believe me, these investments were considered carefully — right now about 20 of the company’s malls sport solar panels, and another 30 projects or so are in the pipeline.
The states where they are located are diverse: although the company began experimenting first in New Jersey and Hawaii, mainly because that’s where the financial case was strongest to begin.
Every single one of them is metered carefully, using software that keeps tabs on electricity consumption down to the outlet. For me, this intention to detail is another indication that many of the investments that businesses are making in solar and wind energy are predicated as much on their economic practicality as they are driven by an interest in doing the right thing. Slowly but surely.
What discourages homeowners from investing in solar power generation technology? Cost is certainly the most obvious obstacle, but there’s also a certain snobbery involved. Seriously, most solar panels aren’t all the aesthetically pleasing. No matter how much my contractor-husband appreciates the idea of clean energy, he winces when he sees them.
The good news: Elon Musk, the entrepreneurial billionaire behind both electric vehicle company Tesla and clean energy installer SolarCity, hopes to change that perception with a new SolarCity product that embeds the generation technology right into the roof tiles. The not-so-good news: Musk conveniently neglected to mention when his so-called solar roof will be available.
Solar roofs (aka “building integrated photovoltaic” technologies) aren’t a new idea: more high-profile new buildings are including BIPV features such as the San Francisco 49ers stadium in Santa Clara, California; and the flagship Apple store in San Francisco’s Union Square, which includes PV panels that are integrated into the roof design. But there’s something to be said for brand recognition, something that both SolarCity and Tesla have managed to generate.