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Summary:

The cleantech crowd was right, at least when it comes to the impact that climate change is having on our planet. Here are some tech trends to watch while the planet is warming.

NOLA

The warming climate will be one of the most powerful influences on the planet that human beings have ever seen, and the changes are already happening, notes a new report published on Tuesday written by a large group of scientists and organized by the U.S. government. For Silicon Valley — which saw a bubble grow and burst in recent years around building and investing in clean technologies — the report should highlight those (unfortunate) trends that are coming our way and that will change our lives fundamentally.

The environmental trends detailed in the report highlight what different regions of the U.S. will look like in the future. In particular, as Time summarizes it, “the southwest will bake,” “Alaska will melt,” “coast lines will be in danger,” and “agriculture will be resilient. . . at first,” (for about 20 to 25 years). For the entrepreneurs and investors who are trying to build needed innovation for the future, no doubt the changing climate will provide unfortunate fodder.

world-map-climate-change-databasin

The first wave of cleantech innovations tried to use the traditional VC model to fund big energy innovations, like new types of solar panels and batteries. As we’ve covered closely over the years, that delivered mixed results (to put it politely), though some winners emerged from that era, too. The next generation of cleantech development is looking outside of the Valley for the bulk of its funding, and it’s also relying heavily on the modern tools that emerged from the Valley decades ago to help provide solutions: computing and communication tech.

Here are some of the tech trends I see — some obvious, some not — that will be created by the changing (heating, storming, burning and drying) climate in the U.S. in the coming years:

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1). Environmental data explosion: Scientists and organizations will need data on every aspect of the changing environment — from weather, to approaching storms, to soil conditions data, to ground water level data — to monitor the massive changes coming. But companies and regular people will need this type of data, too, just to continue their daily lives and do their work — people like farmers, or builders, or firefighters. Workers in different regions of the U.S., like the Southwest and the coasts, will feel some of the affects of these data needs first.

The coming data explosion means that there will need to be more innovation in how environmental data is collected, analyzed, stored and presented back to the people who need to use it. Expect to see new types of environmental sensor companies, big data storage and analytics companies, data design and visualization companies getting funded and started. They already have been in recent years: the Valley created Climate Corp, which sold to Monsanto for billions.

USGS water well

2). Water innovations needed: The California drought has gotten many people thinking about one of the scarier outcomes of a changing planet. The Southwest in particular is entering a time of water scarcity, notes the report. Water data tech (monitoring, managing, conserving) will clearly be needed in the future, but so will some of the more difficult-to-deliver water innovations. We’ll need to create better membranes for cleaning dirty water to reuse it, and we’ll need to build desalination plants that use less energy and are cheaper. Humans will be forced to increasingly clean and reuse water sources, so finding better ways to recycle water will be crucial.

Farm with tractors

3). More productive food tech: Agriculture will be hit hard by the warming climate and lack of water, at the same time that several billion more people are born and need to be fed. The result will be a food crunch that will need to be addressed. This can be aided with more productive food crops, more productive farming and better cultivation of farm lands. It could be solved partly with biology — better seeds and fertilizers — but also with data and software tools for farmers. New types of food products that use fewer animal products (and therefore require less water and emit less carbon) are also being created. Plant protein companies like Hampton Creeks and Beyond Meat have come from the Valley in recent years.

Beyond Meat

4). An evolving energy grid: America will increasingly try to add as much clean power — mostly solar panels and wind — as possible to the grid in the coming decades to support low-carbon energy growth. Some areas are obviously better suited to wind turbines (which need wind) or solar panels (which need sun). While these technologies are already becoming mature, low-cost energy storage will be needed to store that energy when the sun goes down or the wind stops blowing. Companies like Ambri and Aquion Energy are already trying to build these new types of grid-specific energy storage. Innovations that will deliver the next generation of solar panels could emerge in research labs across the globe, but they probably won’t be backed by VCs — it takes decades to move into the commercialization phase.

The immediate effects of a warming planet mean that use of the energy grid will change, too. As temperatures soar in the Southwest, the use of air conditioning in those regions will go up along with it. That’s even more reason why innovations around smart building energy efficiency will become even more important — think companies like Nest, Opower, or Autogrid.

Nest ad screenshot

5). New types of buildings and vehicles: The construction industry has been unproductive and inefficient for decades. New startups like Flux want to use data to transform how buildings are designed and constructed. Buildings of the future need to be smarter and built more efficiently. With most of the population growth happening in the world’s cities, construction will need to be more targeted and resourceful.

While I wish we’d all start driving electric cars that don’t use carbon-emitting gasoline, the reality is that most of the population won’t do so for many decades (if ever). But it’s promising that many people in cities are just giving up their cars and opting for both public transportation and new types of sharing options, whether that’s Zipcar, RelayRides, bike sharing programs or, for commuters, things like Ridepal. Transportation and vehicle sharing innovations will still emerge: Scoot Networks, for instance, is trying something new with shared electric scooters.

  1. there is great potential in so much but wisdom is missing. if you want to encourage lift sustaining technologies, first stop should be the end user, that’s the key here, changing how we do things. wisdom suggests, if you keep on doing you keep in getting, AND THE WORSE IT WILL GET, there is no easy solution, but the end user is usually the key to the solution,

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    1. @bwcarey really good point. thanks for this comment.

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      1. in a nutshell, eat 25% less, health improves within a week, it’s really that easy, thanks for comment

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  2. Nik Fiorito Tuesday, May 6, 2014

    Great insight! Definitely something to watch out for. We’re pretty excited about how our new software, klipmark (closed beta) will allow farmers and agriculturalists around the world to share best practices in practical ways.

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  3. Item #4 misses the entire point and is exactly why climate change policy can now be considered a failure and will continue to fail year after year in the U.S. and Europe. Solar panels and wind turbines are nice small-scale technologies, but they are wholly insufficient to push back climate change. We have been trying them and funding them massively for at least 10 years with huge subsidies, and all of that money and effort has made no meaningful difference for climate change. We need a technology that produces huge amounts of energy in a small space and that can cut emissions to zero right now. Tens of thousands of MW, or hundreds of thousands of MW – not 20 MW or 40 MW. The only technology that does that is nuclear energy. Resistance to nuclear energy in the clean tech world dooms the climate and the U.S. and European citizens who are not paying attention to this issue to all of the horrific consequences in the climate report. Most of them will never realize that all of these consequences were avoidable right now in 2014 but were not avoided because of closed-minded ideology.

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    1. @Charles, you make some interesting points, but I disagree with the conclusion about nuclear.
      Nuclear has Zero emissions only until an accident occurs. Also, we still don’t have an answer to the issue of spent fuel storage or disposal, after 40 years.

      Supporters of nuclear energy seem to forget the human element. In Florida, Progress Energy (now Duke Energy) managed to delaminate a containment building during maintenance operations. The plant is now scrapped (Crystal River). Should we be confident in their ability to run a plant then? Fukushima folks never expected a wave THAT big. Really, in the country that invented Tsunamis? ( :) )

      You are right that we need serious zero-emissions generation capacity fast. But one aspect that is missed in most discussions is the role of efficiency improvements. When I added solar to my property, the first step was to reduce demand. For the same comfort and convenience level, the house consumes 40-50% less energy. With electricity at $0.12 a kWh, most consumers and industry see little need to reduce consumption. But if the country shaved 30%, the problem would be smaller.

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  4. OMG … Did the “sky is falling” Democrats invade THIS site also??

    1) There is no HUMAN caused global warming. The Earth in general is in a warming period that is natural as opposed to a cooling period which is an ICE AGE!!! We WANT warming, too bad humans can not take credit as it is proven the precise output of the sun causes the NATURAL changes.
    2) Solar is great if you want to do it local to reduce your dependence on the corporations to deliver it reliably or cheaply, but in reality we use MORE energy crating those panels than what you get out of them in their 30 year life when you add up the mining of materials, processing of raw materials, energy to transport all this to a company who uses enormous amounts of energy to build these panels, then ship them to you. Neat tech, but a waste … especially when used by corporations where 50%-or more energy is wasted just traveling from the grid to your home!
    3) Nuclear is NOT ZERO EMISSIONS! Are you high? “Until there is an accident”? Really? We all die is an acceptable risk? There is CONSTANT radioactive leakage from every reactor… of course, it’s “safe” amounts. BS. There are million of gallons of radioactive water produced by each reactor and leaking into the ground to infect your water. Did you know that most of the waste by a reactor has to stay on site FOREVER, because we actually do not have the technology to move it!!! The low level waste gets buried in a mountain or landfill that includes a constant supply of clothes, tools, liquid that are used to clean up or fix something ONCE then is too radioactive to use again… This is the worst technology I can ever think of.
    4) Stop whining about PRIVATE CITIZENS wasting electric on old fashioned 60 watt bulbs or telling us we should be ashamed to want air conditioning. Do you even comprehend how much electric is A) Wasted by the grid itself (50% +) , B) How much electric is wasted on crap commercial users (crap meaning they produce NOTHING) like – MINI MALLS, regular malls, loser shopping centers, idiotic stores that have no need to exist like “Batteries Plus” , the SAME fast food restaurants every 2 miles down the road, etc. etc. Most commercial buildings have ZERO insulation! So why whine at our highly insulated homes??

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    1. @Joe, your comment isn’t accurate and you are ignorant of these issues.

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      1. michaelascharf Wednesday, May 7, 2014

        Katie… While Joe’s language might be a little extreme, he is correct in several important ways.
        1. The grid is VERY INEFFICIENT. The loss of power to heat can reach 50% over distances.
        2. Remember where we were 40 years ago (Global Cooling) 15 years ago (Global Warming) and today (Climate Change). In each case, the pundits and professors have been unable to predict 5 to 10 year changes in climate, much less 50 to 100 years or longer.
        3. I guess our betters have got it right with the Climate Change moniker since no one has been able to define what that means. Michael Mann’s hockey stick has been proven to be incorrect. This is being used to control the population of the US rather than change the outcomes.
        4. If the US disappeared tomorrow, China and India would replace all of our emissions within a few years. Their pollution per capita is much higher than the US and grown at an alarming rate. So the question is, “Why don’t current UN climate negotiations include these and similar nations?”

        Next time you want to write an article like this, start with a better premise. There are too many opportunities in energy to get stuck in the politics. Examples:
        – Microgrids
        – Energy Storage (there is so much more here than Li-Ion batteries here
        – Real advances in PV
        – Hydrogen (look at new ways to store Hydrogen that cannot explode)

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        1. @michaelascharf, we are not where we were 40 or even 15 years ago. We have way more data on land, sea, and atmospheric conditions and trends. Part of NASA’s budget is for such satellites devoted to those measurements.
          Moreover, even conservative think tanks and industry leaders are now on board with the fact that human activity is having an unprecedented effect on the environment. Even the Duke Energy CEO volunteered that coal is having devastating impacts (he just feels that we have no other options – hum).
          The fact that China is part of the problem doesn’t mean that we can’t be part of the solution.
          I agree with you that distributed electricity generation is going to be a good improvement over centralized production.

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          1. michaelascharf Wednesday, May 7, 2014

            @EMD
            First, Thank You for being civil. It’s so much better to have a reply like yours compared to the author’s reply to Joe.

            That being said, I agree that we have terabytes of additional data on the climate compared to 40 or 15 years ago. That’s why we know that warming ended in the late 90’s.

            Having grown up in the 60’s and 70’s in Southern California, I can tell you that the air here is so much cleaner than it was and so much cleaner than it is in the major Chinese metros. My point is that we in the US are much better stewards of our Earth than many other nations. We should not and cannot bear the burden of keeping the Earth clean alone.

            Nothing here should deter us from the necessity of being good stewards of the amazing planet that we have inherited. BUT nothing that I see from the extremists (see Al Gore) moves the ball forward. Putting politics into the mix is simply a way for some to make money by forcing others to use their ideas (see cap and trade).

            There are things we can do that improve the environment and allow us to live. Those are the areas we should be focused on.

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            1. Michael

              Warming did not end in the 90’s, it is just a convenient starting point for deniers to cherry pick temperature data. What is unique about the late 90’s is that there was an abnormally strong el nino effect and a peak in solar output occurring at the same time. Therefore, temperatures were abnormally but temporarily high, which is a great starting point to pick if you want to show that temperatures are flat or declining afterwards. It is because of these temporary anomalies that climate scientists use a 30 year time frame as a standard in climate science. Thirty years helps smooth out the variance. Some scientists have also taken the time to remove the short term effects from temperature data. See figures 2 and 3 http://skepticalscience.com/global-cooling-intermediate.htm

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  5. Oh and another …

    5) Yeah, the big corporations want you to “use less” so they can charge you the SAME for LESS. This is evil genius… or just evil!!! One example where a friend from Europe say all the cars in Europe are half the size of American cars. Yeah … but they pay more than double for gasoline!!! Same will happen here as it already has been. As mileage gets better, we pay MORE… for LESS! This only makes the rich even richer! They already know how much money they can squeeze from you, getting you to use less power so that they can neglect upgrading power plants and the grid while collecting the same cash is the plan.

    I am all for REAL environmentalism. Why don’t you worry about stopping genetically modified poison foods, poison pesticides, etc? I say worry about poison pills they are shoving down our throats, poison fluoride in the water and most of all … LOSING OUR FREEDOM!

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  6. pinkspikyhairman Wednesday, May 7, 2014

    Re: your point 3, More productive food tech: Humanity could solve this much more simply by reducing the current 40% (estimates vary) of food we waste!

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  7. Light Bulbs – Courtesy of the fake “cleantech” crowd… Did you know that Phillips Corporation went to the govt officials and bribed them with campaign donations to BAN REGULAR BULBS because they could not make a profit on 50 cent bulbs anymore. They wanted to eliminate smaller competitors and sell you poison mercury filled CFLs and LED bulbs that have toxic controller circuits inside. Profit margins are MUCH higher than old bulbs and they have the benefit of wiping out smaller competitors. Is it “green” to take away our FREEDOM? If people were brainwashed on their own and the market decided, it is one thing but when you say it is against the LAW for me to buy a 60w light bulb in the “Land of the Free”, there is a SERIOUS issue here!

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    1. RFO Jefferson Wednesday, May 7, 2014

      Joe, you forgot the part about the aliens. The aliens, Joe!

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  8. JoAnne Laffey Abed Wednesday, May 7, 2014

    Great information. We are definitely at a crossroads in terms of making clean tech more mainstream by combining the impetus to improve the environment with improved overall ROI. As a major contributor to fossil fuel consumption and pollution, transportation and vehicles will definitely play a major role in this progress, in terms of shaping what the city of the future will look like, how we will navigate it and what infrastructure will be needed. I’d like to see public transportation added to your list. While once viewed as an idea of the future, zero-emissions transit buses are operating successfully in several cities across the country, and interest continues to grow. Even setting the concept of environmental justice aside, the trickle-down effect of making more sustainable transportation options available to the masses cannot be emphasized enough.

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  9. No mention of nuclear power. This is really the only viable way to replace coal and nat gas power plants that heat the atmosphere. Are any tech companies innovating in that space? Nuke plants can be smaller and safer. We NEED nuclear power and it never gets talked about.

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  10. Great article. Perhaps another point to add would be geothermal heating/cooling technology as it has a substantial impact (reduction) in fossil fuel usage for residential and commercial buildings. It’s made headway but should be more main stream in the new construction and building retrofit industry. Could have significant impact.

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