The moon
Photo: Mike Petrucci/Unsplash

Inside the government’s moonshot factory

Protocol Climate

Welcome to Protocol Climate, Tuesday edition. We’re as happy to have you here as we are that seasonal college football-shaped Reese’s peanut butter cups are in stock. (Your Protocol Climate editor enjoyed one, and can confirm this year’s is an excellent vintage.) Today, we’re exploring the government’s secret weapon in fighting climate change, how to clean up the death industry and the ideal EV range.

Shooting for the 🌚 to save the 🌎

Google has X. The federal government has ARPA-E.

Inside the vast ecosystem of the Department of Energy sits an unassuming agency that’s quietly shaping the transformative technology needed to confront the climate crisis. Relatively unknown outside of climate tech circles, ARPA-E (its full wonky name is the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy) has built a reputation among founders for game-changing funding that’s helped startups through their earliest stages.

Welcome to the government’s moonshot agency. ARPA-E’s $500 million budget is a fraction of DOE’s $82 billion pot. But it’s money that, if well spent, could help save the planet.

  • ARPA-E’s mission is to seek out projects that cut emissions, increase energy efficiency or reduce reliance on foreign fossil fuels. Those projects are also almost exclusively high risk and high reward.
  • Since its inception, ARPA-E has provided over $3 billion in funding to more than 1,300 projects.
  • Of those projects, 190 have together received more than $10 billion in private sector follow-on funding, and 25 have even had exits totaling over $21 billion.
  • “Their hit rate is better than the VC community,” said Christina Lampe-Önnerud, CEO and founder of Cadenza Innovation, a startup working on a cheaper, safer lithium-ion battery, which has received ARPA-E funding.

ARPA-E has advantages over other federal funding and venture capital. The agency’s structure and mandate set it and the projects it funds up for success.

  • ARPA-E’s program directors are its secret sauce. Some hail from national labs and others have formed startups of their own, but all have R&D leadership experience and deep subject-level expertise in their area of focus.
  • They’re encouraged to take risks in what they choose to fund. Those projects can also change gears mid-award. That’s a far cry from the traditional government grant-making process, which requires grantees to stick to the script of their application.
  • Unlike venture capital investments, though, ARPA-E funding doesn't dilute founders' equity.
  • William Bonvillian, a lecturer in MIT’s Science Technology and Society department, said the model is exactly what the U.S. innovation system was missing.

The agency can help technologies navigate the “valley of death” critique referenced by Lewis Branscomb and Philip Auerswald in 2003. That valley is where some promising technologies fail to go from technical ideas to commercially successful products.

  • Letting disruptive emissions-cutting technologies linger there poses a serious risk to the climate, given the need to get to net zero by midcentury.
  • Yet Bonvillian said ARPA-E “steps right into that gap,” bridging that valley and helping projects move neatly from idea to prototype.

Find out how ARPA-E could change the carbon-cutting game here.

Michelle Ma

Death care gets a climate-friendly makeover

Our time on Earth is limited, and one startup founder is spending his cleaning up the death care business.

The death industry is currently a bit of a mess. A cremation emits as much carbon dioxide as a 500 mile road trip, while traditional burial in the U.S. involves putting millions of gallons of toxic chemicals into the ground every year.

  • The carbon footprint of the industry is relatively small compared to, say, the transportation sector.
  • Still, Tom Harries, CEO and founder of Earth Funeral, a Washington-based startup, said “that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make it sustainable,” especially considering it’s a person’s final act.

Earth Funeral is an attempt to clean things up by filling a unique niche, and Harries, a death care startup veteran, is all too aware of the need to do so. His previous startup, Tulip, was the largest online funeral brand in the U.S., selling direct-to-consumer cremation services. “I’m repenting for my sins,” he said.

  • Green burial cemeteries have popped up around the U.S. over the past few decades.
  • But Harries said they have two challenges: land availability and accessibility for people living in urban areas.
  • In 2019, Washington state became the first in the nation to legalize composting human remains, and it was followed by Oregon in 2021.
  • Earth Funeral has developed a process that transforms bodies into soil. It does so by wrapping them in a biodegradable shroud and then placing them in a bed of organic mulch inside a stainless-steel vessel for roughly 45 days.
  • The sensors and energy the startup does use are powered by renewables.

A growing number of startups are considering sustainable death care. Earth Funeral raised $10 million to help build out its operations, though Harries said “[i]n many ways, I think we’d rather not be VC-backed.”

  • But given the upfront costs “that went into developing all the hardware, that went into opening a 17,000 square foot state-of-the-art facility for manufacturing our first set of vessels,” he said that wasn’t an option.
  • Earth Funeral joins other startups working on death care. They include Recompose, which raised $15 million series A-3 funding last year, and Return Home, which recently closed a crowdsourced funding round of more than $676,000.

Sure, startups working on carbon removal tend to get a lot of the focus. But in a world where every industry needs to get to net zero, death care has its own fair share of work to do.

— Michelle Ma

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One big question: What’s the ideal EV range?

Given the psychological shift required for mass consumer adoption of electric vehicles, figuring out the right range is still a work in progress. A Cox Automotive survey released last fall found Americans want EVs to have a minimum range of 217 miles, which Katherine Stainken, vice president of policy at Electrification Coalition, noted is below the average of most EVs already on the road.

But how much Americans expect out of their electric cars versus how far they actually drive on a daily basis (that would be about 40 miles) is a tension that manufacturers are actively wrestling with. With battery materials in short supply and costs rising, that tension will only ratchet up.

We posed the question to a panel of experts. Here are their answers, edited for brevity and clarity.

Katherine Stainken, vice president of policy, Electrification Coalition:

“For consumers, we know that most people drive an average of 40 miles per day, which all BEVs on the market today satisfy. However, for the longer trips, consumers’ preference for longer-range EVs is increasing. Many consumers want to plan for the two to three times a year when they take longer road trips, though for day-to-day travel, any EV would suffice. While the median range of a model year 2021 gas vehicle is 403 miles, EV battery ranges are certainly increasing, and with access to dedicated charging along highways and in communities through the NEVI funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, consumer range anxiety will be greatly diminished.”

Edward Niedermeyer, author of “Ludicrous: The Unvarnished Story of Tesla Motors” and a co-host of the podcast “Autonocast”:

“Even though the median EV range has exploded from 90 miles in 2015 to 234 miles in 2021, consumers always want more range. If the consumer's answer to the question ‘What's the ideal EV range?’ is always ‘More,’ the answer from a system-level perspective on fleet electrification is: ‘As little as we can get away with.’ The ideal EV range depends entirely on your mobility patterns and needs, but it’s probably less than you think. If you're a typical American and drive around 40 miles a day, 150 miles of range provides plenty of cushion even if cold weather halves your range. As a consumer, you might feel more comfortable with 300 miles of range, but you have to remember: That unused battery could have allowed another family to electrify their weekday miles with a 150-mile EV.”

Arthur Carvalho, associate professor, Miami University:

“When asking that range question directly, most people would simply say, ‘The same as gas-powered cars,’ which is about 250 to 300 miles. However, in our research, we asked a different question: ‘What is the ideal distance between two charging stations?’ We found that both non-EV and EV owners wanted that distance to be about seven kilometers, and that was less than the 7.5 kilometers for gas-powered cars. This result shows that people are still more comfortable with a known technology (gas-powered cars) than a new one (EVs).”

Michelle Ma

Hot links

Uber is asking its riders to fight a policy it lobbied for. The ride-hailing giant has been imploring New York riders to push back against congestion pricing that would charge tolls for entering lower Manhattan during rush hour.

Diablo Canyon got a respite. California lawmakers approved a $1.4 billion loan to PG&E to keep the beleaguered nuclear plant running for at least five more years.

The West is baking, and California’s grid might not be able to take it. The power load on Tuesday is projected to push 51,000 megawatts, the state’s highest ever, which could prompt outages as temperatures soar.

Tech took over in Colorado. Roughly 22,000 Xcel customers enrolled in an energy-saving program to reduce strain on the grid were locked out of their smart thermostats over the weekend as heat — and energy demand — peaked.

Batteries are going on the blockchain. A “battery passport” that tracks critical minerals across the supply chain and puts their source on the blockchain could allow automakers to prove their cars are built with materials that meet the Inflation Reduction Act’s requirements.

Fossil burning is so 20th century. Now, it’s all about carbon management. The Biden administration created a new mandate of the Department of Energy’s fossil energy office last year, and a new slate of leaders are helping it meet the moment.

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