A dry lakebed with a car in the distance.
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The data center climate reckoning is here

Protocol Climate

A hearty welcome to November from your Protocol Climate team! Today we’re taking a look at the upcoming midterms, including a hot climate proposition in California that’s dividing Big Tech. But first we have a dive into data centers’ new climate threats. Plus, a look at the Energy Department’s unique critical mineral pilot.

Data centers need a climate plan

Increasingly extreme weather threatens data centers and one of the things cloud computing customers prioritize most: reliability. While data center operators take today’s climate risks seriously, they may be far too complacent about what the future holds.

There’s a data center reckoning afoot. Amazon Web Services, Google, and Microsoft — dubbed the Big Three in the data center world — have robust risk assessment processes that take into account potential disasters. But most companies aren’t quite so on top of things.

  • A 2019 survey by Uptime Institute, which advises business infrastructure companies on reliability, shows that a significant share of the cloud computing sector is being reactive to the threats that climate change poses. Or — even worse — doing nothing at all.
  • Nearly a third of the nearly 500 data center operators that responded said they had not recently reviewed their risks and had no plans to do so.
  • Meanwhile, just 22% said they are “preparing for increased severe weather events.” That’s a major oversight, especially for smaller operators.
  • “If I’m a smaller company that doesn’t have a big data center infrastructure, but it’s integral to my operation,” Jay Dietrich, Uptime Institute’s sustainability research director, said, “I’d better be proactive, because if that goes down, it’s my business that goes down with it.”

Climate change is throwing a curveball at data centers. Well, technically it’s throwing a curveball at all of us. But the increasing odds of extreme events along with new hazards like rising seas are putting the operations that undergird the internet at risk.

  • Sea level rise could overwhelm cables and other data transmission infrastructure.
  • The rise in large wildfires could directly threaten dozens of centers located in the West.
  • Storms are expected to intensify as well. A recent assessment found that roughly 3.3 gigawatts of data center capacity is in the federally recognized risk zone for hurricanes.
  • Worse still, 6 gigawatts of capacity is either planned or already under construction in the zone.

Data centers will have to step up their climate risk assessment game. Luckily, there are steps they can take to do just that, from moving generators and pumps to higher ground to installing flood barriers. Planning for future climate risks when looking at the potential sites for data centers could also pay dividends.

Read more about the fixes data center operators need to be thinking about here.

— Lisa Martine Jenkins

Lyft vs. Gavin Newsom

What do Gov. Gavin Newsom, teachers unions, the Chamber of Commerce, and a slew of tech billionaires have in common? They all want to kill Proposition 30. The California ballot measure, backed by Lyft and environmentalists, would raise taxes on the wealthy to help subsidize electric vehicles. And it’s led to strange bedfellows ahead of next Tuesday’s vote.

The ballot measure has been more than a year in the making. Last fall, California public transit advocates Stuart Cohen and Denny Zane had just about given up on getting a measure on the ballot that would become Prop. 30.

  • They’d approached Meta, Uber, and “all the biggest tech companies in the Bay Area, except for Apple,” Cohen said, to see if they might throw money behind the effort.
  • None of them bit on backing the measure and Cohen said the duo “mostly left it for dead.”
  • But then it was rescued by Lyft, which went on to spend more than $45 million on the Prop. 30 campaign and now stands as by far its biggest backer — and its biggest liability.

Now, the measure has become a heated battleground. And, perhaps not surprising for a fight over taxes, it’s gotten ugly, with each side accusing the other of putting moneyed interests before the best interests of the state.

  • The No campaign — backed by the likes of Netflix’s Reed Hastings and Sequoia’s Michael Moritz — has cast Prop. 30 as a maneuver to help Lyft make the switch to EVs before a government-mandated deadline in 2030.
  • “There’s just zero possibility that it would be on the ballot without Lyft,” Dan Newman, a strategist for Newsom and the No campaign, told Protocol.
  • On the other side, supporters of Prop. 30 accuse Newsom of spreading misinformation about the measure’s origins and opposing it to appease his biggest donors and to prime the pump for a potential presidential run.
  • “When he says Prop. 30 was devised by a single corporation, I know that’s not true,” said Max Baumhefner, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “I was one of the people who helped write it, amongst many.”
  • While the No campaign has taken on an anti-tech flavor, many of the billionaires bankrolling it actually made their money in tech.

Yet the anti-tech messaging appears to be working. The most recent polling shows support for Prop. 30 at just 41%, down from 63% in July. Next Tuesday will decide the measure’s fate.

Read more about the measure and fight over it here.

Issie Lapowsky

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One big number: $39 million

That’s how much the Department of Energy said it’s spending to bolster the domestic critical mineral supply chain in an announcement last week. Those minerals include copper, nickel, lithium, cobalt, rare earth elements, and others. The clean energy transition depends on having enough of them to produce EVs, wind turbines, and solar panels.

Some of these grants come with an interesting wrinkle: The winners will use captured carbon dioxide to improve critical mineral yields, which could lead to net negative mining. (Eat your heart out, net zero.) Here’s how that investment breaks down:

  • DOE is funding 16 projects across 12 states to “develop market-ready technologies that will increase domestic supplies of critical elements.”
  • Among the recipients is startup Travertine Technologies, which is working on a process of carbon dioxide removal that enables carbon-negative critical element extraction.
  • The largest individual award of nearly $5 million went to the University of Texas, Austin, for research on carbon mineralization and enhanced mineral recovery.

The U.S. is currently lagging far behind China in the critical mineral race. That has it playing a game of catchup using a variety of policy tools.

  • Mining and processing facilities require extensive permits, as well as in-depth looks at the environmental and community impacts, according to Sara Baldwin, Energy Innovation’s electrification director.
  • Proposed projects, such as the Thacker Pass Lithium Mine, have already faced resistance from environmentalist and Indigenous groups alike.
  • The Inflation Reduction Act’s EV tax credit requirements have been followed by some new investment in minerals processing. Piedmont Lithium announced a $600 million investment in a lithium hydroxide processing plant in Tennessee, which will be the U.S.’s largest.
  • The Pentagon and U.S. Geological Survey have also enlisted researchers in a challenge to map out critical minerals using AI.

— Michelle Ma

Hot links

The future of the EU is (only) EVs. The EU is essentially banning the sale of gas-powered cars by 2035, an agreement that is “without precedent,” according to the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association.

Blackstone is doubling down on climate tech. The investment giant just bought a majority $14 billion stake in Emerson Electric’s climate tech business.

Coal is making a comeback in China. The country is installing more renewables than any other country. It’s also set to add more coal capacity than any other country — or the rest of the world combined, for that matter.

NASA’s new satellite has found a slew of methane super polluters. The Earth Surface Mineral Dust Source Investigation, or EMIT (so witty!), has discovered more than 50 methane “super-emitters.”

Frog versus geothermal plant: An ongoing dispute in Nevada embodies the broader conflicts emerging between clean energy, conservation, and Indigenous rights.

Brazil is making a climate comeback. "Lula's victory means the Amazon stands a chance."

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Thanks for reading! As ever, you can send any and all feedback to climate@protocol.com. See you Thursday!

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