Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Ethereum tries to not fry the planet

Protocol Climate

Hello from your Protocol Climate team, and welcome to September. Meteorological summer is over, even if the weather out West hasn’t taken the hint. (Las Vegas at 110 degrees Fahrenheit?! Oof.) Today, we’re helping keep you cool by answering all your burning Ethereum merge climate questions; plus, how tech can help the Jackson water crisis.

How Ethereum’s Merge helps the climate

The time of the Merge is nigh.

“The Merge” refers to Ethereum shifting from a proof-of-work system to validate its blockchain to proof of stake. That change could have huge ramifications for the planet in a very good way.

Crypto mining has been under intense scrutiny for years due to its high energy use. While bitcoin has attracted most of said scrutiny, Ethereum has used the same energy-intensive process to not just validate transactions but also operate smart contracts — software code that runs autonomously on top of the blockchain, such as the ones that mint NFTs. But when the switch flips on Ethereum 2.0 next month, it will dramatically cut the amount of energy needed to keep the cryptocurrency secure and run all that code. Here’s what you need to know about the Merge: particularly, its climate impact.

OK, so what’s the deal with proof of work versus proof of stake?

Both keep a blockchain secure. What differs is how they do that. For a proof-of-work system, a bunch of computers around the world race each other to solve a math equation. The first one to do it mints a block. Importantly, the owner of said computer also gets rewards in the form of tokens. Proof of stake switches things up by having a bunch of computers ready to solve a problem; however, only one is actually chosen at random to do it, mint a block and earn tokens.

In essence, the former is like competitors repeatedly running the 100-meter dash at the same time while the latter is the same race but it has competitors run one at a time, then take a breather.

How will the Ethereum Merge benefit the climate?

A bunch of people running the 100-meter dash ad infinitum burns a lot of energy. So it is with proof-of-work mining. Ethereum’s current setup uses vast amounts of electricity, much of it provided by fossil fuel power plants. Mining it emits as much carbon dioxide in a year as Switzerland, according to calculations from Digiconomist. Switching to proof of stake will slash that energy usage by 99% or more. Goodbye, Switzerland-worth of carbon pollution.

What happens to my ether?

The short answer: nothing. Assuming the Merge goes off without a hitch, ether (the native cryptocurrency of Ethereum) will keep being ether and other Ethereum-based tokens like USDC will likewise stay unchanged. Sara Xi, chief product officer of Prime Trust, told Protocol earlier this month that the Merge is essentially like taking cargo from one moving train and plopping it onto another one.

Could bitcoin switch to proof of stake?

Maybe? But it’s hard to see that happening. Besides the vested interest of miners who profit off of the current system, some bitcoin advocates argue that proof of work is superior to proof of stake because it’s more decentralized and resistant to central control. And if there’s one thing bitcoin lovers really love, it’s decentralization.

Read more about what’s next for Ethereum here.

Brian Kahn

How to end a water crisis

Jackson, Mississippi, a city of more than 160,000, is in a state of emergency after its water system failed catastrophically. Residents have formed long lines to get bottled water as the water pressure in their homes drops precipitously. What’s coming out of taps is so unsafe to drink, there’s a boil notice in place. This isn’t a few bad days: This has been life for a month.

One of the city’s water treatment plants saw its main pumps fail last month, and then flooding driven by heavy rainfall — a symptom of the climate crisis — knocked the plant out completely. It’s indicative of the challenges in the coming decades.

Water infrastructure needs to get ready for a wilder future. Climate change means fiercer downpours and more intense drought. Witness Jackson’s deluge and the West’s megadrought, unseen in 1,200 years. Fixing these systems will be no small task.

  • “We built our cities around centralized water infrastructure that, when functioning, performs very well and has garnered strong improvements in public health,” Nancy Love, an engineer at the University of Michigan, said in an email. “However, these systems are notoriously inflexible to declining populations and other changes that we expect climate change (and consequential flooding) will bring.”
  • That’s the situation facing Jackson and some other cities such as Newark, New Jersey.
  • Western cities, meanwhile, have to deal with reservoirs shriveling up, as well as impacts from wildfires. Las Vegas is a few weeks away from running out of water because of water pollution caused by a wildfire in New Mexico.

There are tech opportunities here to provide some relief. That starts with a mindset shift about how we manage water. Steven Buchberger, a civil engineer at the University of Cincinnati, said “it’s important for municipalities to view rainfall runoff as a resource rather than a nuisance.”

  • “Instead of sending rainfall runoff straight to buried pipes for quick transport to overloaded urban streams, new developments should, where practical, retain stormwater on site using green roofs, retention/detention ponds, permeable pavement, infiltration gardens [and] rainfall harvesting,” he wrote in an email.
  • That could help reduce the strain on water treatment plants, replenish aquifers and generally make places less prone to flooding.
  • Love said “data-driven control strategies” using algorithms and sensors could also allow utilities to “empty retention basins ahead of a storm when you know from forecasts that a big rain is coming [and] optimize existing storage capacity.”
  • That approach could also help drinking water systems by, Love said, “maintain[ing] flushing and water movement to prevent high water age and subsequent water quality problems.”
  • On the user end, smart water meters that connect to users’ phones could help reduce water demand, much like an Apple Watch can remind you to walk around if you’ve been sitting too long.

Tech companies have a role to play in creating a more just future. Jackson is a majority-Black city that has had drinking-water system issues for decades. It’s far from the only case of communities of color dealing with shoddy infrastructure. While tech companies alone can’t solve these problems, they have resources to bring to bear.

  • Love noted many underserved locations generally also have a dearth of data and have dealt with an “infrastructure investment disparity” for decades.
  • Companies like Google and Amazon that loan cloud-computing time could step up to the plate and help researchers and water managers in underserved communities implement more data-driven water management strategies.
  • There’s often a “green premium” for technology that can mitigate or help adapt to climate change. But tech companies like BlocPower are flipping that idea on its head by bringing their technology to low-income communities first.
  • Some cities are also changing their priorities; New York recently announced the winners of a window heat pump challenge, awarding $70 million in contracts to two companies that will overhaul public housing. It’s an investment in climate justice and bringing down the cost of technology for everyone.

Brian Kahn

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Make it rain

Rooftop solar and battery storage startup Lunar Energy, founded by the former head of Tesla’s residential energy business, just raised $300 million in two investment rounds led by Sunrun and South Korea’s SK Group.

U.K.-based battery materials developer and manufacturer Nexeon secured over $200 million in series D funding from groups including GLY Mobility Fund and Shinhan Investments to fund the manufacturing of its silicon-based anode materials.

ESmart Systems just announced an approximately $40 million series B from investors including Equinor Ventures and Energy Impact Partners to develop Grid Vision, an AI-based solution for virtual energy infrastructure inspection.

Danish startup Blue World Technologies nabbed $36.9 million in a series B from investors including Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a sign of the rise of methanol for green maritime shipping.

SparkCharge is entering new California cities with its mobile EV charging, spurred on by a series A investment of $30 million, with $7 million in new capital from Cleveland Avenue.

Open-source platform Recurve raised $18 million to fund its platform for planning and procuring virtual power plants in a series B round. Investors include Calpine Energy Solutions, Quantum Innovation Fund and Toshiba Energy Systems & Solutions.

Indian ocean farming startup Sea6 Energy just announced an $18.5 million series B from BASF Venture Capital GmbH and Aqua-Spark to cultivate and utilize red seaweed as a raw material.

U.K.-based Econic Technologies closed its series D funding round with $12.1 million led by OGCI Climate Investments and Capricorn Sustainable Chemistry Fund. The startup is working on commercializing its catalyst and process technology that turns carbon dioxide into polymers.

Hot links

The IRA is already reshaping the solar industry. Solar manufacturing giant First Solar said the new legislation’s incentives played a major role in the company’s decision to spend up to $1 billion on a new U.S. panel factory.

Futuristic green building materials are also getting a boost. The IRA includes a 30% tax credit for “smart glass,” a material with a tint that can be adjusted on demand.

The U.S.’s road to electric vehicles could go through northern Minnesota. Mining company Talon Metals is analyzing the region’s mineral content in the hopes of developing an underground nickel mine. But the project is running up against local pushback.

The most controversial power line in the U.S. just got more controversial. The New England Clean Energy Connect transmission line has been locked in a legal and political battle for the ages. And this week, Maine’s highest court threw more gasoline on the fire.

We could save the American chestnut — and countless other native trees at risk of extinction from climate change — with a hand from gene editing technology. The question is whether we should.

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