Al Gore is betting on satellites and AI to help save the planet
Happy Tuesday, and welcome to Protocol Climate. The global thermostat has turned down just a tiny bit this week, but we’re still bringing you hot climate news. (Oof, sorry!) Today, we’re sharing a chat with Al Gore and the climate accountability coalition he helped bring together as well as how Formula E racing could shake up the EV battery and charging game. Plus, solar-powered EVs? Sure, why not!
Al Gore thinks AI is key to solving the climate crisis
He’s not alone. This month, AI for the Planet Alliance published a new report that found that 87% of public and private sector leaders overseeing climate and AI programs believe that AI can play a critical role in combating climate change.
Gore spoke to Protocol last week about Climate TRACE, a relatively new coalition, that's doing something that no one has really succeeded in doing until now: detecting and measuring global greenhouse gas emissions in real time. Using AI, machine learning and satellites, Climate TRACE is able to pinpoint emitters down to the country and sector (and starting in October, down to the individual power plant, steel mill or cargo ship). This is a huge deal because accountability is majorly lacking for polluters at the international and company level.
“There’s an old saying in the business world: ‘You can’t manage what you can’t measure,’” the former vice president, who is a backer of Climate TRACE, told Protocol. Climate TRACE is helping with the second part of that when it comes to global greenhouse gas emissions.
- First, it gathers data from sensors on the ground, which are highly accurate but sparse.
- Then, it validates other sources, such as satellite data, against the higher-quality sensor data, training its AI to recognize and detect emissions sources.
- Climate TRACE doesn’t rely on carbon dioxide itself as an indicator for emissions — or, just because you can see carbon dioxide near a power plant doesn’t mean that that power plant emitted it. Instead, the coalition’s AI uses other indicators, including steam coming out of cooling towers and thermal infrared heat.
Climate TRACE’s efforts are a world first. Currently, all the country-level emissions data is self-reported. There are many problems with carbon accounting, from biases to data omissions.
- True to its word, the coalition of researchers and tech companies behind Climate TRACE has already found discrepancies between its observations and what’s been reported: Emissions from the oil and gas industry, for example, were approximately double what had been reported to the U.N.
- The free and open-source data that Climate TRACE is putting out could help spawn new solutions to the climate crisis. For example, emissions data revealed that slowing down a few knots could significantly cut emissions for the shipping industry.
- Gore told Protocol the coalition is also working on developing APIs that could help investors decarbonize their portfolios, corporate supply chain managers reduce emissions and NGOs better target campaigns against polluters.
Climate TRACE is fulfilling a critical role. “Governments aren’t doing it,” Gore said of granular emissions accounting. He added that’s partly because it’s hard, but also partly because the AI technology powering Climate TRACE’s work is pretty nascent. But given what Climate TRACE has done already and the increasing damage from the climate crisis, Gore thinks it’s time for the world to act on the data now.— Michelle Ma (email | twitter)
Formula E is an EV tech test bed
Last weekend, I spent a day at the (electric) races. While there was no shortage of drama — Crashes! Rain! An underdog’s triumph! — we’re here, as always, to discuss climate tech, something Formula E also features in spades.
For the companies developing the batteries and chargers that the race cars rely on, Formula E is a closed environment where they can test their wares at speeds of up to 175 mph; it provides an invaluable opportunity for prototyping the next generation of EV technology at a time when demand is forecasted to rise for ever-more-advanced EVs.
Formula E showcases the future. Formula 1 has had decades to perfect its race cars, and most tweaks today are incremental. But at just 8 years old and with EVs in their infancy, Formula E has seen dramatic technological leaps happening every year, Frank Mühlon, CEO of ABB’s e-mobility division, told Protocol before last weekend’s race (which ABB sponsored).
- Neil Palmer, who works in business development for McLaren’s motorsports division, told me that the race is structured such that “the amount of energy in the battery at the start of a race is not enough to complete the entire race distance.” In order to complete the full race, drivers need to regenerate energy from their cars while slowing down.
- This energy recuperation process helps determine how fast the cars can make their way around the track, meaning that teams are incentivized to improve their efficiency. Those gains can be extrapolated beyond the race track.
That’s especially true in the case of batteries and chargers. While the basic car and battery technology is the same for every vehicle in the race, teams can differentiate themselves by tweaking how they set up the engine, motors and control.
- But in the future, Mühlon said, the teams will have more and more space to set their vehicles apart from one another, including via the battery technology itself.
- The chargers have to be transportable, lightweight, quick and reliable, according to Michele Cecchini, Enel X Way’s head of e-motorsport, which supplied this year’s chargers. He said the partnership has allowed the company to “test technologies that have later been transferred to road infrastructure.”
Other Formula E tech developments can translate to the road, with some tweaks. The average person is looking for an EV with long range and smooth drive cycle, whereas a racing battery has a “very aggressive” drive cycle that moves “from full acceleration to a regeneration cycle before going back to full acceleration,” said Palmer.
- This means race car batteries get hotter and require liquid-cooling technology, even though passive air cooling is typically sufficient for a car destined only for the road.
- But gains in efficiency more generally are a boon for the EV market as a whole, particularly given the critical mineral crunch.
A MESSAGE FROM PEPSICO
The emissions that make up a full greenhouse gas footprint can emanate from outside the four walls of your own manufacturing operations, like in the case of PepsiCo, where 93% of emissions come from its value chain.
One big number: 19,000
That’s the number of preorders for the Sono Sion, an EV covered in solar cells that help extend its range. The company unveiled its production design on Monday as well as a way to outfit buses to solarify fleets across Europe.
“Basically every moving object can be equipped with that solar technology,” Sono Motors co-founder and CEO Jona Christians told Protocol.
In the case of the Sono Sion, that means adding “456 half-cells seamlessly integrated into the body of the car” as a way to extend its range, according to the company. Over the past five years, the company developed the technology to do more than just slap some solar panels on the roof of the Sion.
Sono left behind the fragile and heavy glass encasements that solar panels typically rely on in favor of monocrystalline silicon cells protected by a layer of polymer, integrated into the body of the car itself. The polymer is shatterproof and provides extra protection for the cells in the case of collision. At least 19,000 people have dropped 2,000 euros to pre-order a Sion. (Those deposits are refundable, though, so take it with a grain of salt.)
Of course, Sono is also emerging right as the supply chain of critical minerals needed for both batteries and solar tech is in serious trouble, something Christians acknowledged has had an impact. He expressed optimism at the company’s path ahead, though. Production of the Sion is expected to begin in 2023, so we’ll soon find out if that optimism is well-founded.
— Lisa Martine Jenkins
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The EU has responded to the gas crisis by planning to cut demand by 15%. The geopolitics around Russia's invasion of Ukraine and its stranglehold on gas deliveries to some EU countries means there's never been a better time to get off fossil fuels.
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There’s a juicy patent fight between Impossible Foods and an upstart fake meat company. How it plays out could alter the course of the industry trying to make burgers a little less terrible for the planet.
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Elon wants everyone to be able to use Tesla chargers. His company is continuing to seek out public money with the promise of opening its proprietary Supercharger network to the masses.
Texas Republicans' war on wind energy continues. The state keeps seeing power demand surge this summer, and renewables are generally helping keep the lights (and air conditioning) on. But you wouldn’t know that from listening to certain commentators and policymakers.
GM really wants you to buy an EV. And it’ll even hold your hand while you do so. OK, it won’t quite do that (which would frankly be weird), but the automaker did launch a new site to connect would-be EV buyers with specialists to assuage fears and answer questions.
A MESSAGE FROM PEPSICO
Asking suppliers and associated companies to overhaul the way they work is no small feat, but PepsiCo is taking a three-pronged approach centered around the principles of educating, enabling and incentivizing. The Sustainability Action Center aims to engage and equip value chain partners with tools to undergo their own sustainability journey.
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