Can Tech Solve Climate Change?

It’s possible to make money AND save the world from climate disaster.

By Elena Foukes (Co-founder & CEO, UtilityAPI)

All eyes were recently on Paris at the 2015 U.N. Climate Change Conference. But what if solving the global climate crisis is less about political willpower and of technical knowhow?

Peter Thiel declared the cleantech sector -- solar panels, wind turbines, and more -- a “disaster” in 2011. But today, the solar industry employs 174,000 people, more than Google, Apple, Facebook and Twitter combined, and job growth is 20x higher than the rest of the U.S. economy.

That includes the company I co-founded, UtilityAPI, which gets data out of utilities and into the hands of companies that can use it, such as solar, energy storage, and energy management companies.

Two major hurdles remain to be jumped — market size and the role of federal incentives.

Let’s look at each in turn.

Is the Market Big Enough?

Yes.

The energy sector, worth trillions of dollars, is the second-largest economic sector in the world, behind the military. The solar industry alone is expected to be at $3.7 trillion by 2025.

Here’s why: We need to reduce carbon emission to avoid climate disaster (keep the global temperature from increasing over 2 degrees Celsius). If we don’t, the seas will rise to swallow the coasts and our food systems will break down.

We can either consume the same amount of energy and generate energy with lower emissions, or we can use less energy to do the things we do. Cleantech software is doing in two ways: 1) increasing zero-carbon energy sources and 2) optimizing energy usage.

Software allows solar installers to put panels on roofs more quickly and cheaply. For example, Energy Toolbase, Sighten and Google’s Project Sunroof use solar irradiance maps to qualify a home for solar, then they can put together a proposal using satellite images and energy usage data from the home or building. Financing platforms, like Mosaic, makes solar more affordable for more people.

Optimizing energy usage is like Fitbit for energy usage. App stores don’t have energy apps because the data is locked away in hundreds of different formats. There is even a startup accelerator, Powerhouse, devoted to solar software tools.

So how do these macro trends play out in Silicon Valley? Some progress has been made, but it’s not enough.

Sometimes it helps to talk about the grid like this: The grid is being disrupted like telecom was 40 years ago. Telecom used to be copper wire and corded phones. Now we all have cell phones in our pockets and Twilio is the great connector for communications.

The same thing is happening in electricity. We’re going from a centralized coal plant in the middle of nowhere, with power lines running to the city, to every building generating electricity with solar panels or Tesla batteries and consumers having control over the electricity they use.

Nest and Tesla are only the beginning. These are some companies taking on electricity:

  • Ohmconnect: Receive weekly payments for reducing your electricity one hour per week.
  • Geli: Make dumb batteries smart with software so companies can cut their electricity bill in half.
  • Energy Toolbase: How do I optimize the arrangement of solar panels on my roof? How many panels do I need? They have the software for that.
  • PickMySolar: A marketplace for solar that is expanding into other energy technologies
  • Chai Energy: Fitbit for your electricity consumption with hardware and software.
  • Clean Energy Collective: Rent or have a shaded roof? You can still go solar!
  • GridCure: We’re still going to need utility poles and wires. GridCure uses algorithms to optimize operations and services for utilities.

Isn’t Solar Subsidized and Uneconomical?

No. It’s cheaper to get electricity from solar panels on your roof than to buy electricity from the grid. In all but four of the 50 states, solar is a better investment than the stock market. Adoption of renewable energy technologies has increased despite the powers of entrenched fossil fuel interests.

The International Energy Agency found that fossil fuels reap $550 billion a year in subsidies. Oil, coal and gas received more than four times the $120 billion paid out in incentives for renewables, including wind, solar, and biofuels. G20 members are spending $452 billion a year subsidizing fossil fuel production, despite pledging to phase out fossil fuel support to tackle climate change.

“The huge subsidies fossil fuels enjoy worldwide gives incentives to their consumption, which means that I’m paying you to pollute the world and use energy inefficiently,” says Fatih Birol, chief economist at the IEA.

DBL Investors, a venture firm based in San Francisco, found that that historical subsidies for fossil fuels and nuclear far outpace those given to cleantech. Given that early years are essential to long-term industry success, we have under-funded renewable energy.

How to Get Involved

Interested and want free money? Solve problems for the electricity sector, and the U.S. Department of Energy will give you funding. They had $45 million last year to invest and deployed only $30 million of funding. UtilityAPI received $763,000 of it. There is another $30 million of funding for this round.

How can you get involved?


About the guest blogger: Elena Lucas is co-founder and CEO of UtilityAPI, a universal API for energy data enabling new energy technologies. Elena began her career at PG&E, where she managed a $200M budget for low-income energy efficiency programs and distributed generation. She is on the board of Women in Cleantech and Sustainability. She holds a Master’s of International Economics with a focus on econometrics and energy policy from UC San Diego. On ElenaLucas.co, she curates a website and newsletter of all the energy, tech, and career development events in the San Francisco Bay Area.