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FEB 23, 2022

G'day! I’m moderating a virtual panel tomorrow (Friday if you’re Down Under) on the importance of energy innovation in Australia and the U.S. Register here.

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Send your energy photos, ideas and more to news@ciphernews.com or to me directly at amy@breakthroughenergy.org.

VOICES
Big wave surfing and swimming against the tide in cleantech
BY: GURINDER NAGRA

Nagra is founder of Furno Materials, a startup working to produce zero-emission cement. You can reach him at gurinder@furnomaterials.com.

Starting a hard-tech, climate entrepreneurial journey is like big wave surfing: if you fail to prepare, you’re asking for a beating.

I recently watched the HBO series ‘100 Foot Wave’ staring Garrett McNamara, the father of big wave surfing. It’s an exhilarating show that prompted me to reflect on the parallels between Garrett’s journey and the journey of an innovator. 

It’s a journey I’ve been on for the last two years as founder of Furno Materials. We’re working to decarbonize one of the hardest to abate sectors: cement. Our technology enables a step change in the way we make cement by developing smaller, capital light, more efficient and carbon-neutral cement plants.

In ‘100 Foot Wave,’ McNamara is his own kind of entrepreneur. In 2008, he ventures off the beaten trail to carve his own path and he finds his passion: surfing the biggest waves in the world.

Garrett is an underdog and struggles for years to get recognition, but he is patient and lets his love for his craft guide him.

These are struggles any innovator can relate to, especially those of us working in climate tech, where the incumbents are strong on unit economics, the engineering demand is high stakes and the required scale is massive.

Take cement. It’s 8% of global CO2 emissions. Today’s cement plants are massive and have had 100 years to dial in their operations and bring down their costs.

At Furno, we’re not looking to compete directly with those massive plants. Instead, like McNamara, we’re charting our own path with smaller plants that are capital light.

After years of searching, McNamara comes upon an opportunity and an undiscovered wave: Nazaré, Portugal, which would later be determined the biggest wave on Earth. He instantly realizes his life’s mission is to share this with the world.

He spends 10 years studying the waves, building a safety protocol team, practicing, surfing the wave again and again, honing his craft and ultimately developing foundational safety practices that shaped the sport.

Today, the sport draws on McNarama’s lessons. Surfers who prepare well and charge with humility live to ride another wave. Those who don’t—who are overconfident and seek glory without exerting the right amount of discipline—risk failure, injury or even death.

I see similar dynamics playing out in the cleantech innovation community in which I work: some entrepreneurs rush ahead with too much ego and too little discipline, while others build solid foundations of understanding the market and move forward with humility.

Companies that express a bias toward action at the expense of meticulous preparation and testing key assumptions are like surfers attempting to ride Nazaré with little preparation or safety protocols in place.

These companies overlook or dodge fundamental questions such as: What is my core value proposition? Is there a customer, and if so, who? What do my economics look like against the incumbents? Is this new solution competitive in the marketplace regardless of public policy, or am I solely dependent on government regulations?

Instead, some of my colleagues in this ecosystem focus on the technology, team growth and raising more capital to sustain that growth. These are important, of course, but we can’t consider them in the absence of core questions. These types of innovators may not realize they’re missing targets until a few years down the line.

The other type are innovators that seek depth in understanding the core problem and exert discipline in their action—akin to understanding everything about the big wave before getting in the water.

Like Garrett’s meticulous preparation for Nazaré, these early stage entrepreneurs seek to understand by patiently testing both business and technical hypotheses, and only when they are confident do they execute their plan broadly. These approaches are more likely to hit their targets.

These are the hard-tech climate bets we need to tackle climate change, and these are the innovations that will survive the inevitable big waves coming our way.

I’m just two years into what I hope is a long entrepreneurial journey. I’m seeking to keep a sense of humility while building a disruptive and impactful solution by going after one of the biggest, baddest waves in cleantech: cement.

Editor’s note: Nagra is a participant in the Fellows Program at Breakthrough Energy, which also supports Cipher. The Fellows Program identifies and supports individuals and teams around the world working to develop, scale and commercialize technologies that have the potential to reduce carbon emissions by at least 500 million tons per year by 2050.

Amy’s Lunchtime Reads
and Hot Takes

US envoy warns geopolitics risk hurting climate effortsAP News
My take: John Kerry is talking about two overlapping things: 1) Geopolitical focus shifting away from the systemic risk of climate change toward the acute threat of war and 2) rising energy costs dampening the public's appetite for big climate policy. Given climate change is a crisis we will be addressing for the rest of our lives, we need to figure out a way to keep the focus up no matter what.

How Europeans Are Responding to Exorbitant Gas and Power BillsThe New York Times
My take: A decade ago, such an energy crisis would have prompted far more reliance on polluting sources like coal and wood. Today, it’s at least a mix of those types of sources and cleaner energy, like solar panels, given the drop in costs of this kind of technology over the last 10 years.

Climate ETF on brink of failure months after UN summit launchFinancial Times (paywall)
My take: It is failing because individual commitments hinged on getting critical mass to support it, and that critical mass wasn’t reached because entities (often banks) wouldn’t support it until others did. Talk about vortex for failure.

Republicans propose border carbon taxE&E News
My take: The irony is a bit much. Republicans don’t want to tax their own people due to the economic harms they say it will cause, yet they apparently think it’s OK to tax other people.

3 states with shuttered nuclear plants see emissions risePOLITICO
My take: Always an important story. I’d be interested in knowing whether any state (or country) has shut down nuclear plants and their emissions did not rise.

To Store the Wind and Sun, Energy Startups Look to GravityThe Wall Street Journal (paywall)
My take: Science to the rescue! In all seriousness, it’s invigorating to see all the different types of technologies being pursued for energy storage.

Big Green Brands Have a Dirty Supplier Problem, CDP SaysBloomberg | Quint
My take: One company’s scope 3 emissions are some other companies’ scope 2 emissions.

What are the hurdles to electrifying a home? Contractors and experts weigh inCanary Media & 
New tools and tech to prep your electrical panel for an all-electric home Canary Media
My take: We need more stories like these two that blend the practical, consumer-facing challenges with the climate crisis.

More of what I'm reading:
  • Energy agency: Methane emissions higher than countries claim AP News
  • Democrats’ climate plan languishes, putting hundreds of billions in private investment on hold The Washington Post
  • Bill Gates and Chris Sacca invest in energy storage start-up Antora to help heavy industry go green CNBC
  • India unveils hydrogen plan to speed shift from fossil fuels Bloomberg | Quint
DATA DIVE
Corporate climate disclosure sees biggest annual percentage increase
Source: CDP

The number of companies filing disclosure statements on climate change through CDP increased 36.5% between 2020 and 2021.

That’s the biggest one-year percentage increase since the not-for-profit charity started tracking roughly 20 years ago. For context, about 80% of the companies listed on the S&P 500 index disclose through CDP.

CDP runs what’s considered the most comprehensive global disclosure system for a range of entities, including companies and cities, to measure and manage their environmental impacts.

The topic is taking on renewed interest with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, which is preparing a rule to require some level of disclosure regarding greenhouse gas emissions from companies’ businesses. The rule, initially expected last year, is now delayed until spring, according to The Wall Street Journal.

AND FINALLY...
Skiing with the wind and waste
Stuart Dwyer, a senior U.S. diplomat in Copenhagen shared this photo of him skiing at Copenhill, a skiing hill built atop a waste-to-energy incinerator in Copenhagen. No snow required! It’s like skiing on frozen granular snow, he emails. His son, Cameron Dwyer, snapped this photo. You can also see the offshore wind turbines in the distance. Multi-use should be a goal of more infrastructure—both for good publicity (umm, like this!) and for greater community support.
Each week, we feature a photo that is somehow related to energy, the thing we all need but don’t notice until it’s expensive or gone. Email your ideas and photos to news@ciphernews.com.
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