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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.