Vic Shao is the CEO of AMPLY Power, the leader in charging solutions for public and private electric vehicle fleets.
According to NASA, without a major intervention to reduce emissions, global temperature is on track to rise by an average of 10.8 °F in just a few years. Instead of checking your phone for the weather before leaving your house, you will soon be forced to make sure that air quality is safe before stepping outside. Or imagine trying to find a new place to live in another part of the world because your location has become uninhabitable.
But there’s still time to avert runaway climate change. That’s why the Biden administration rejoined the Paris Climate Accords on his first day in office. One can expect that’s Biden’s push to Build Back Better, along with similar policy desires in the U.K. and Europe, the world could finally be on the cusp of a cleantech renaissance. Yet, the frontline of this environmental crisis isn’t a new hardware deployment or even a new business model. It’s software.
For today’s software engineers and programmers, the choice to mitigate climate change can be as simple as choosing the company you work for. Because sometimes change comes down to one choice at the right time to do something good.
We've been harvesting power in ways that are both inefficient and destructive to the planet, and this must change to achieve worldwide carbon neutrality. In the U.S., energy expenditures across transportation, industrial, commercial, and residential absorb more than $1 trillion dollars annually. Yet, solar energy is the clear winner, and the forecast on future pricing is ever downward for the consumer. This is because there is no marginal cost in renewable energy like solar or wind power. There is no digging or drilling involved. Just passively collecting what Mother Nature so generously provides without too much effort.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) publishes yearly forecasts for energy supply, and demand in a report titled the World Energy Outlook. The content is a bit dense for the casual reader, and I'm including it here from Carbon Brief. I want you to pay attention to the chart below, which describes the IEA's annual forecast for solar adoption going back to 2000.
Every year, the IEA has underestimated adoption – not just by a little, but by orders of magnitude. The reality is that energy generated from solar is priced at well below 2 cents per kWh. This pricing includes building a brand new power plant from scratch, hooking it up to transmission lines, and maintaining it for the life of the plant. This drastic misestimation of solar power capacity has dire consequences because the marginal cost of coal dug out of the ground (excluding the power plant itself) is double at 3.2 cents per kWh, and natural gas is doubled by that again at 6.5 cents per kWh. Clean energy again proves itself to be far more efficient and sustainable.
Now let’s look at another technology—what I spent a decade of my life working on at Green Charge Networks prior to AMPLY Power—in lithium-ion battery storage. During that period of time, the price per kWh for storage dropped by almost 10X. Here is the graph from Bloomberg New Energy Finance:
Now, this is a critical point because cheap storage enables a whole new world of possibilities–cool electric cars, drones, cameras, and much more. But for the $1 trillion dollars annual energy market, you now have a storage mechanism to smooth out the intermittency created by the ultra-cheap (but choppy) renewable power source.
Let's switch gears here and look at a more complex issue. Engineers are often looking for a good problem to solve, and luckily, there are plenty of those in the clean energy space. Here's a quick example.
Electric utilities publish what is called a "Load Duration Curve" of utilization on their distribution grids. It represents the number of hours the grid experiences annually at a specific power throughput level. Below is a typical annual curve from Con Edison of New York, powering the five New York City boroughs:
This graph tells you that out of 8,760 hours in a year, Con Edison's grid experiences seven hours above 13 gigawatts (GW), 36 hours above 12 GW, and 156 hours above 11 GW. Nonetheless, Con Edison spends billions of dollars every year, maintaining and upgrading its infrastructure to accommodate the peak load, and it's all hardware-based. In fact, there are so-called gas-fired peaker plants that only operate less than 100 hours a year for the express purpose of meeting these peak demands. Using Con Edison's benchmark of 11 GW, those 156 hours (or 1.8% of all the hours in a year) cost a single electric utility several hundred million if not billions annually to operate. And there are 3,300 electric utilities in the U.S.
Here you can see the wastefulness (and the opportunity) that exists in energy. What is missing here to make things efficient? In a word, SOFTWARE. You see, for over 100 years, the electric grid has been a brute force hardware-based system. Grid operators pile on hardware redundancy and safety factors to ensure reliability. But this approach is starting to break down, not only because of the untenable cost, but the hardware itself is proving to be unreliable in the era of climate change. Software is a crucial piece of the puzzle. It has drastically improved efficiencies in other markets like education, medicine, and workflow automation. In energy, it carries the promise of pumping many more kilowatt-hours (kWhs) through infrastructure already deployed. And boy, do we need those kWhs.
Engineers all over the world are beginning to mobilize under a unified mission of moving the needle towards an emissions-free planet. It’s a revolution that is sweeping the technology industry because engineers especially are waking up and realizing that they don’t have to settle for just a job just for the money. Many are realizing they can put their talents to work for a cause that will leave a legacy. The average tech professional barely makes it to three years in a typical position and forty percent of Millennials are taking pay cuts to work for environmentally conscious companies. Now more than ever, Millennials and Gen Z especially are looking for more than just a paycheck. They want to make the world a better place and will work extremely hard to do so if they are inspired.
I had previously written about the "why" of vehicle electrification. Since that time, there has been a massive announcement in this space every week. Most recently, New York State announced $750M to upgrade EV infrastructure. Amazon acquired Zoox. Lyft committed to having a 100 percent EV fleet by 2030. California implemented the Clean Truck Rule to deploy zero-emissions trucks. All of this in the span of about a month and in the middle of a global pandemic!
Needless to say, momentum is building, and it's only accelerating. I serve on the board of a non-profit called New Energy Nexus, where we aim to create 100,000 cleantech startups by 2030 all around the globe–disrupting markets in energy, agriculture, water, and mobility. AMPLY is part of Elemental Excelerator's cohort 8, where we have similar ambitions for doing well while doing good. Obvious Ventures, Congruent Ventures, and many more sustainability-focused VCs have portfolio companies with novel solutions to the climate challenge. Collectively, myself and many others have the ambition to transform Silicon Valley (and many other tech hubs around the world) into climate solution centers and to re-deploy talents towards the most pressing challenges of the day.
To those software engineers that are looking at the world they are leaving to their families, and want to be a part of the change, I'm not going to promise that you'll get rich fast. We are not going from 0 to millions of customers in two years.
AMPLY deals in 480V, 3-phase power, and hundreds (or thousands) of amps at a time. It's not the type of job where you sit quietly at a desk all day long. Instead, we are creating, innovating, and improving physical infrastructure that's been in place for more than 100 years in industries highly resistant to change. It's hard work, but it's soul-satisfying work, and it's ripe for innovation. The reality is that the coronavirus pandemic has made a significant impact on the planet due to daily carbon dioxide emissions plummeting by an average of eight point six percent, and some authorities have reported a drop of up to seventeen percent. We can continue to decrease CO2 in our atmosphere.
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