Will the climate pledges made by the world’s nations in Paris last December be enough to stave off the most catastrophic effects of climate change? Many experts agree that the pledges alone will not hold global temperatures below 2˚C—we also need significant energy technology innovation in order to meet the climate goals. The International Energy Agency estimated that fulfilling all the climate pledges would require investments of $13.5 trillion in energy efficiency and low-carbon technologies by 2030; keeping the temperature increase below 2˚C would require an additional $3 trillion.
“…We need an energy miracle,” says Bill Gates. The world needs energy that produces zero CO2 emissions, is cheaper than today’s fossil fuels, and is completely reliable. Despite the growth of renewable power, the intermittent nature of wind and solar energy and the limited capacity to store power still impede the widespread implementation of renewables.
The top five tech companies, whose power, wealth and influence keep expanding, are continually pushing the technological envelope. What are Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and their founders doing about climate change?
Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, said that to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change, “We need a massive amount of research into thousands of new ideas—even ones that might sound a little crazy—if we want to get to zero emissions by the end of this century.”
Private investment focused on climate change “shows the people in government that this isn’t just about academics trying to get grants, but that it’s really the central issue of our time.” —Steve Cohen
Meanwhile, the U.S. Energy Department’s budget for R&D is about $5 billion, approximately the same as it was five years ago. To remedy this situation, Gates has launched the Breakthrough Energy Coalition along with 27 of the world’s richest billionaires, including Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Richard Branson (Virgin Group), Jack Ma (Alibaba), Meg Whitman (Hewlett Packard), Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan (Facebook), all of whom have pledged billions of dollars to be invested into researching new energy technologies. They will work in tandem with Mission Innovation, a consortium of 20 countries including the United States, that have pledged to double their investments in clean energy to $20 billion over the next five years. The investment model will be a public-private partnership between governments, research institutions and investors.
The coalition wants to invest in new technologies and innovations that will make energy more efficient, scalable and cheaper. And since no one knows where the best ideas will come from, it will invest across the board in electricity generation and storage, transportation, industrial use, agriculture and energy efficiency.
A few of the innovative technologies that could draw investments include solar chemical, artificial photosynthesis that would use sunlight to split water molecules into hydrogen fuel; flow batteries that could be as large as a swimming pool that could potentially last for decades; solar paint that generates electricity from the sun and could one day turn any surface into a solar panel; and wave and tidal energy.
Gates himself has invested in TerraPower, a company developing a nuclear “traveling wave reactor” that is 50 times as efficient as and more economical than a conventional reactor. The traveling wave reactor uses depleted uranium as fuel, which reduces the need to enrich uranium, minimizes the risk of bad actors obtaining weapons-usable material and solves the problem of nuclear waste. According to the company’s website, the traveling wave reactor could use all the depleted uranium that currently sits in storage in the United States to generate enough electricity to power all American households for 700 years. Moreover, it has safety features that enable it to be shut down automatically in case of emergency. TerraPower expects to build a 600-megawatt prototype in the mid-2020s.
Gates has invested in Aquion Energy Inc., which is developing safe, sustainable saltwater batteries to supply backup energy when solar and wind energy aren’t available. He has also invested in LightSail Energy, a company developing technology that uses compressed air to store energy by capturing the excess heat generated from mechanical energy like a piston that is usually wasted.
Gates is an investor in Carbon Engineering, a company that is commercializing technology to capture CO2 directly from the air. After processing, the pure CO2 that is captured can be sequestered underground or sold for use in industrial processes as ultra-low emissions fuel. According to the website, “Direct air capture can remove far more CO2 per acre of land footprint than trees and plants.” The company is already running a demonstration plant in Squamish, British Columbia, that is removing one ton of CO2 from the air daily.
Microsoft Research’s Earth, Energy and Environment projects develop technologies for scientific visualization and data management to enhance understanding of climate and ecosystems. Among them are a network of sensors in the Brazilian rain forest to study conditions and help scientists understand how the ecosystem affects climate and vice versa. The Joulemeter project makes it possible to measure the energy usage of virtual machines, servers, desktops, laptops and individual software applications running on a computer so that power in data centers can be managed more efficiently.
In addition to investing as a member of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has put money into General Fusion, a Canadian company that is using an unorthodox technology to develop commercially viable fusion energy. For decades, scientists have been trying to capture nuclear fusion, the process by which the sun generates energy, because it is non-polluting, safe and produces no greenhouse gas emissions.
As a company, Amazon is committed to eventually running completely on renewable energy. In April 2015, 25 percent of the power consumed by its infrastructure came from renewable resources. By the end of 2016, it aims to reach 40 percent with energy coming from its wind farms in development in Indiana, North Carolina and Ohio, and its solar farm in Virginia.
Amazon recently launched a grant-making program with the University of Washington called Amazon Catalyst to fund “bold, globally impactful, disruptive” projects that address complex issues such as climate change. The grants, ranging from $10,000 to $100,000, are open to all disciplines.
In 2015, Apple contracted with First Solar in Monterey County, California, to build a solar energy farm that will provide enough electricity to power all of Apple’s California stores, offices, headquarters and a data center, an $850 million investment. The company has also developed three solar plants in North Carolina and one in Nevada. As well, Apple will build 200 megawatts worth of solar projects across China on top of its existing 40 megawatts of solar projects in Sichuan Province to offset the energy used in its supply chain. In the future, the company plans to install more than 2 gigawatts of new renewable energy in China. Foxconn, a major Apple supplier, is also planning to build 400 megawatts of solar projects in Henan Province by 2018.
There is also speculation that Apple is developing an electric vehicle for 2019, code-named Project Titan. Electric vehicles, especially if the electricity comes from renewable sources, are key to reducing greenhouse gas emissions since 14 percent of global CO2 emissions come from transportation. If the car is also self-driving, its emissions could be up to 90 percent lower than those of today’s gasoline-driven cars.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, have pledged to give away 99 percent of their Facebook shares through the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative LLC. They have joined Bill Gates in launching the Breakthrough Energy Coalition to invest in clean tech and alternative energy technologies.
Google and its founders are invested in myriad strategies to combat climate change. Google’s Little Box Challenge, co-sponsored by The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, was an open competition awarding $1 million to the team that created a small power inverter. Inverters are devices that take direct current from solar panels and batteries and convert it into alternating current for use in homes, businesses and cars. Usually, inverters are the size of picnic coolers, but creating an inverter that is smaller than a laptop will enable broader use of solar power, more efficient distributed grids and help bring electricity to remote areas. This month, CE+T Power’s The Red Electrical Devils was declared the winner. They beat out over 2,000 teams by creating a 2kW inverter with the highest power density and smallest volume, 10 times more compact than commercial inverters.
Larry Page, co-founder of Google, has invested in Tesla Motors, which is developing long-range battery powered electric vehicles and batteries for storage. He is also a board member of and contributor, along with Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, to the X Prize Foundation that sponsors competitions in several categories including energy and environment.
The Carbon X Prize is a $20 million global competition that challenges teams to develop innovative technologies to convert CO₂ emissions from power plants and industrial facilities into useful products such as building materials and alternative fuels. Other X Prize competition ideas under consideration include developing a battery with vast improvements in energy density and cycle life; electrifying roads so that electrical vehicles can be charged while they are driving, and creating a personal flying machine.
Alphabet, Google’s new parent company run by Page and Brin, will oversee high-profile, long-term research projects such as Sidewalk Labs that is developing technologies to cut pollution, curb energy use, improve transportation, provide more green space and reduce the cost of city living. It will focus on “technology platforms that people can plug into” to manage energy use and commuting habits. The self-driving cars that Google has been developing will begin offering rides for hire and soon become a discrete business unit under Alphabet.
Brin is an investor in the Cultured Beef project, which is using stem cell technology to culture real beef from the muscle cells of organically raised cows. Global meat production today already requires enormous amounts of land and water and is responsible for 18 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions; with the demand for meat expected to increase by two-thirds by 2050, it will be difficult to feed the expanding global population. According to Maastricht University, which created the first synthetic burger, cells from a single cow could eventually produce 175 million burgers, while it would take 440,000 cows to produce those burgers by traditional means.
Eric Schmidt, former CEO and now executive chairman of Alphabet, and his wife, Wendy, founded the Schmidt Family Foundation that focuses on sustainability and the environment. Through the 11th Hour Project, it channels most of its money to non-profit organizations that help reduce dependence on fossil fuels and promote the implementation of renewable energy. Its Ecological Agriculture Program focuses on reforming animal agriculture and building regional food systems.
While CEO of Google, Schmidt also supervised the creation of Google.org, the company’s philanthropic arm. Google.org has invested in a company that makes solar panels, a company developing a kite system that will tap into the jet stream for energy, and a geothermal demonstration project. Through its Global Impact Awards, Google.org has given to the World Wildlife Fund to protect wildlife, the Natural Capital Project to integrate the value of natural capital into decision making, and charity: water that brings clean water to people in need.
Google Ventures, the venture capital arm of Alphabet, provides funding to technology companies. While it is mainly focused on life sciences, engineering and design, it has also invested in Cool Planet Energy Systems, which is developing negative carbon and carbon neutral fuels based on photosynthesis; Transphorm, which creates modules that save energy across the grid; and Silver Springs Networks, a smart grid solutions provider.
Google Green’s goal is to make the company more environmentally friendly through energy efficiency and renewable power. Already, Google is the world’s largest corporate buyer of renewable energy; it has pledged to purchase nearly 2 gigawatts of renewable energy and to invest $2.5 billion in renewable energy projects. Thirty-seven percent of its operations are powered by renewable energy, and the company plans to triple its purchases of renewable energy by 2025. It has invested in over 20 solar and wind projects.
“Climate change is everybody’s problem, but not everyone can afford to do something about it. Those who can should help,” said Vijay Modi, professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Sustainable Engineering Lab at Columbia University. “We need billionaires putting in their money. But we also need bottom up continuous efforts that occur at the same time, like providing the basic necessities of lighting and communication, things the poor in Africa and India don’t yet have.”
The investment of these major companies and billionaires “legitimizes the issue of climate change,” said Steve Cohen, executive director of the Earth Institute. “It shows the people in government that this isn’t just about academics trying to get grants, but that it’s really the central issue of our time. And it’s very important in moving the dialogue from ‘is this a problem?’ to ‘how do we address the problem?’”
“But the corporate money isn’t enough,” he said. “We really need the budget of the federal government to be much more dedicated to researching the science of climate change. We need the collective scale and muscle of the U.S. government. … Only it has the resources to deal with this.”
Cohen is optimistic that the world is moving in the right direction, though. “I think we’re going to solve these problems. We are an ingenious species, and we tend not to be suicidal.”