Climate justice takes center stage at a carbon management startup
Good day! Your Protocol Climate team feels like it’s in a cloud here in New York. But we’re pushing through the fog to bring you the top climate tech news. Today, we have an exclusive chat with Carbon Direct’s new head of climate justice and a dive into Form Energy’s unique iron-air batteries. Plus, what the Biden administration is doing to save the whales from offshore wind development.
Carbon removal justice takes center stage
Christian Braneon has been thinking about climate justice for nearly 20 years. A civil engineer by training, it’s what drew him to graduate school and made him want to study climate change in the first place.
Now, he’s getting a chance to ensure it's central to the nascent carbon removal industry. Braneon, a former NASA climate scientist, has joined carbon management platform Carbon Direct as its first head of climate justice. In that unique role, he’ll ensure that the company’s software and advisory services — used by some of the world’s biggest tech companies — aren’t just scientifically rigorous, but equitable too.
“Sometimes we have a paternalistic approach to deciding what environmental justice looks like or what equitable benefits look like,” Braneon said. One of the first things he told his colleagues at Carbon Direct when he started was, “We don’t get to decide what community benefits are. The community tells us what they perceive as benefits.”
In his first chat after starting the role, he spoke with Protocol about why he thinks climate justice should be central to the carbon removal industry’s work and how to center it the right way.
This conversation has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
What does the role of head of climate justice entail? How do you define climate justice, particularly in the context of carbon removal?
Climate change projections suggest that low-income countries are going to bear the brunt of the climate impacts. They’re not well positioned to deal with extreme weather events and the shocks to agriculture and other sectors of society, and yet they contributed the least to greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon dioxide removal presents an opportunity for wealthy nations to remove legacy emissions they’ve already put in the atmosphere and help society avert these climate change impacts that will disproportionately affect low-income countries. In my role, I’m aiming to deepen and sharpen how we think about environmental and climate justice internally, influencing our culture, our operations, as well as our client engagement.
How would you ensure that Carbon Direct’s platform incorporates consideration of these potential harms when evaluating carbon removal solutions?
We want to make sure that our clients understand all the different dimensions of their impact. In our platform right now, you can get a sense for the tons that you’re managing now and your carbon impact. But what we need to shift to is understanding your broader impact: How many jobs did you create? What’s the quality of those jobs? Perhaps in a place like Kenya, a project is developed and a road is also built, and that is actually the core benefit to the community: having a roadway where there was not a roadway before. So part of what we want to do in our platform is help our clients really understand the broader impact beyond just tons managed.
Read the full interview here.
— Michelle Ma
The $800 million battery tech
The world won’t reach net zero without batteries. Lots of them.
So far, utilities have largely used lithium-ion batteries to store renewable energy when the sun sets or the wind stops blowing. However, existing utility-scale storage can only discharge energy for up to four hours at a time, meaning that systems can falter when the grid needs to provide widespread power for a long period of time, such as during a heat wave or major storm. Form Energy is developing batteries that use iron-air technology and could be poised to fill that power gap.
Fossil fuels currently act as baseload power for the grid. That’s because you can turn a gas power plant off and on relatively easily, regardless of whether it’s sunny or windy. (Nuclear is also another source of baseload power.) But winding down gas and coal use is vital to lowering emissions from the power sector.
Long-duration batteries could offer an offramp. Form Energy’s technology can charge and discharge energy over the course of several days. The company’s iron-air batteries sound deceptively simple.
- Form Energy submerges a porous piece of iron (the anode, reminiscent of a flat and thin brick) in an electrolyte solution.
- Oxygen enters the washer-and-dryer-sized batteries through a specialized membrane that keeps it from going out again.
- Once it makes contact with the electrolyte solution, a series of chemical reactions causes the iron to rust. The natural rusting process is a source of charge and discharge.
- “Before we zeroed in on iron-air batteries, we considered what is fundamentally able to scale and what is fundamentally safe, and what is fundamentally available to us to work with,” CEO Mateo Jaramillo said. “Iron ticks all of those boxes.”
Investors and utilities seem to think Form Energy’s tech could be a winner. The 5-year-old company has raised eye-popping amounts of cash and is forging ties with utilities and industries that need long-duration storage to cut emissions ASAP and ultimately reach net zero.
- Form Energy brought in a whopping $450 million in its series E funding round, bringing its total investment to around $800 million.
- It counts high-profile VCs like Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures and Energy Impact Partners among its investors.
- Form Energy signed a partnership with Georgia Power, its first with an investor-owned utility, earlier this year. The duo will work to deploy up to 15 megawatts of storage capacity.
- In 2020, it announced a much smaller 1 MW pilot project with the Minnesota cooperative Great River Energy.
Read the full story here.— Lisa Martine Jenkins
A MESSAGE FROM SLB
The world is rapidly changing; the scales are imbalanced, and many are feeling the effects. SLB is committed to helping deliver the world’s greatest balancing act—enabling secure, accessible, sustainable energy to meet growing demand.
One big number: 350 (or less!)
The North Atlantic right whale is among the most endangered whales in the world, having been hunted to near-extinction over a century ago. Fewer than 350 remain in the wild. While whaling is thankfully no longer a concern, the big-mouthed beauties now face a new threat: the offshore wind industry.
The whales are in the midst of an “unusual mortality event,” which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration attributes largely to “rope entanglements or vessel strikes.” Reaching the Biden administration’s goal of developing 30 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030 will require a huge uptick in boat traffic and infrastructure being built.
The need to monitor right whales as well as other wildlife that calls the areas around offshore wind farms home has already spawned the development of new climate tech. For instance, offshore wind developer Vineyard Wind and startup incubator Greentown Labs launched an accelerator program for three companies developing the tech to protect whales and other marine animals. The startups’ techniques to save the whales include aerial drone systems for sea inspection and night-vision cameras that can be customized to work on offshore turbines.
The federal government is getting in on the act, too. To protect the whales from further harm, NOAA and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management jointly released a strategy on how to balance the competing priorities of conservation and renewable energy development. It’s so far just a draft that amounts to little more than saying, “let’s research and be in touch about how much of a risk offshore wind is to these endangered animals.” But its very existence highlights that this balance should be top of mind for both the public and private sector.
Whether the tech and federal efforts will be enough to keep whale populations from dropping even further as construction picks up, however, remains to be seen.— Lisa Martine Jenkins
AWS is doubling down on diesel. Amid concerns about electricity shortfalls in Ireland this winter, the data center giant has applied for permits for 105 diesel generators to keep its new Dublin operation up and running.
Toyota is considering a rewrite of its EV plan. The automaker’s potential shift could help it compete with Tesla — but it would slow the rollout of the EVs that are closest to market.
Landfills could be a solar energy goldmine. Turning dumps in solar farms could power 7.8 million homes and undo decades of environmental injustices. That’s what we in the climate biz call a win-win.
Take a look inside GM’s approach to building EVs. Going electric isn’t as simple as merely replacing conventional engines with battery systems; it requires a complete reorientation of U.S. auto manufacturing.
The EPA is creating a bank to protect the climate, equitably. The agency is setting up a green bank with $27 billion in seed money from the Inflation Reduction Act that will offer grants for carbon-free projects in disadvantaged communities.
A habitable planet and fossil fuel expansion can’t co-exist. Sorry to Exxon and company, but a growing body of research shows new oil and gas projects are incompatible with a 1.5-degree-Celsius climate.
A MESSAGE FROM SLB
Our planet needs balance to thrive; for the climate, for people, and for nature. Together, we will pave the way to a balanced planet through better practices, innovative technology, and the commitment to help others on their journey across the globe.
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