How technology and policy can mitigate climate effects in an age of colliding crises

Today, the federal government spends less than $9 billion annually on energy innovation, which is less than a quarter of what it invests in health innovation and less than a tenth of what it invests in defense innovation. As we sit at a crossroads of an unprecedented confluence of challenges — from a public health crisis, to a leadership crisis, to a climate crisis, to a racial equity and social justice crisis — it’s time we look for new solutions to solve some of our most urgent problems. Our leaders must explore the ways that energy resiliency and climate action can help to see us through these critical times and create a new normal where a resilient, reliable, and affordable energy system powers our economy, safeguards our public health, and provides a path to social and economic mobility.

One part of the equation requires increased federal support for the growing climate technology sector aimed at creating a resilient energy system to support America’s people and economy. The Department of Energy estimates that weather-related power outages alone cost the U.S. economy $18 billion to $33 billion per year. (These estimates were made before the recent years of wildfires and public safety power shut-offs in California.) It’s not just the “coastal elites” who are suffering: Extreme weather is a threat to life, livelihoods, and the consistent supply of electricity in the Midwest and Rust Belt as well. To make energy resilience the centerpiece for our national recovery, we should push legislation through Congress that focuses on the following four areas:

  • Creating a modern, self-healing smart grid
  • Protecting the grid from cyber attack
  • Fostering a series of microgrids to create local energy resilience
  • Incentivizing restorative behaviors from large electricity consumers

The first aspect of this legislation would be to create a federal energy resilience grant program that covers different aspects of resilience throughout the energy system. Such a program, an expanded successor to the Smart Grid Investment Grant from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, would help fund transformational efforts in each of those four major areas, with prioritization on projects that impact multiple areas. Federal grants could be awarded to state energy regulatory agencies or directly to utilities.

The second element would be creating an energy resilience data hub. This hub could be hosted by the Energy Information Administration and the Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response (CESER) and would collect and organize information from around the country that could foster a better understanding of energy threats, responses, and best practices.

Finally, the legislation should establish a Presidential Award in each of these four areas to be awarded annually. This award (coordinated between the White House and CESER) would highlight the year’s best energy resilience efforts as a means of raising awareness of the issue and encouraging ambitious action from the research, development, and tech communities.

A resilient, low-carbon economy must also be built upon the foundation of justice and equality. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, African Americans are almost three times more likely to die from asthma-related causes than their white counterparts. And nearly one in two Latinos in the U.S. live in counties where the air doesn’t meet EPA public health standards for smog. This type of environmental injustice is apparent across the U.S. and has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s clear that more stringent environmental regulations are needed to put an end to polluting industries’ disproportionate effects in poor and minority communities. Building on Congressman Raul Grijalva’s (D-Ariz.) Environmental Justice for All Act is a start. We should develop a formal scoring system that prioritizes environmental justice and frontline engagement over dollar-and-cents cost-benefit analysis, as proposed in the Climate Equity Act, which would use data to inform planning and balance the scales. Investment in microgrids and energy storage will also help to reduce the need to operate “peaker plants” in times of highest demand. These plants produce high levels of particulate emissions and other pollutants that exacerbate already-poor air quality and are disproportionately located near low-income communities and communities of color.

Along with new regulations, we need to merge the minds of community organizers, energy companies, renewable energy developers, and environmental organizations who are on the ground in these communities across the country. By working closely with those on the front line of these issues and leveraging their ideas and insights, we can effect policy with real, lasting change. Progress can be made without congressional approval, massive investments, or new laws.

Finally, to help develop, scale, and fund a path to net zero, Wall Street, venture capitalists, and Big Tech need to be deeply engaged and committed. Old industries, which have been too slow to change, need new tools to tackle climate change. (High-temperature processes like steel and concrete manufacturing are one of the most difficult areas to decarbonize, yet the U.S. DOE spends only 6% of its R&D budget on “Industry.”)  It’s imperative we increase both “technology push” policies that fund academic research and “market pull” policies that create a path for impact at scale. What this requires is early-stage investors to help mitigate risk, and a concerted effort from Wall Street and Big Tech, to support new ideas, technologies, and companies that are solving some of our toughest climate challenges. Real capital, real commitments, real culture change.

Startups aren’t waiting for federal action. Founders continue to develop new solutions across transportation, energy generation, and industry (which collectively make up ~80% of U.S. emissions). Proterra is designing and manufacturing electric buses that operate at a lower overall cost than diesel, hybrid, or natural gas vehicles. Roadbotics (an URBAN-X portfolio company) helps governments better administer their public infrastructure assets by unifying their data on a single cloud platform. Innovation precedes deployment; we need policy that links the two and provides sufficient funding for new solutions to reduce emissions in a major way. Research by PwC indicates that approximately 6% of total capital invested in 2019 is focused on climate tech, reflecting an increase from $418 million in 2013 to $16.3 billion in 2019.

Major corporations, from BlackRock to Amazon to Softbank, also have the power to effect change, both through investment and deployment of forward-thinking climate technologies and by asserting a benevolent influence on Capitol Hill that demands transparent, long-term, and clear policies for an equitable climate agenda. And yes, large companies like these are increasingly committing to ambitious climate goals. However, it’s our role as citizens, investors, entrepreneurs, and shareholders to demand accountability that they live up to their word.

Today, in the midst of a hotly contested presidential election, we’ve seen the conversation on climate change grow in prominence across the nation. As part of Joe Biden’s $5 trillion “Build Back Better” plan, he calls for a $2 trillion investment and strong push for energy innovation to drive a low-carbon future. This type of attention to and investment in climate tech is critical. With it, we may finally be able to act on the promise our country holds to take the lead on climate action be at the forefront of the industries that will define the next century. We can create a robust pipeline for jobs in a low-carbon economy, rather than one pegged to oil and gas. We can have the tools to bridge the yawning equity and environmental justice divide that COVID-19 has laid bare. We can build new companies at scale that bring sustainability-forward solutions to age-old industries.

But to turn this vision into reality requires real leadership, a belief in science, and a true commitment to answer calls for climate action from across the nation. Without strong federal backing, we can’t possibly hope to meaningfully address the society-scale challenge we face. If the last four years are any indication, a second Trump term would mean more inaction, more uncertainty, and more cities and states left to fend for themselves in the face of unprecedented climate disasters.

This election season has been characterized by anxiety, misinformation, and interference from foreign actors. But in my conversations with swing state voters, I’ve also experienced moments of energy, hope, and clarity. The two candidates couldn’t have more oppositional views on the future. Optimism does not come easy, but it’s a choice. And despite the suffering around us and the challenges to come, I’m optimistic that, know it or not, we’ve embarked on a new path that can meet this moment.

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