Plus: Sneak peak at new VC climate data
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SEPT 29, 2021

Good morning from Seattle, and welcome to the first edition of Cipher by Breakthrough Energy.

I’m thrilled and humbled to be part of such an incredible network working toward a common goal of reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

I’ve been a journalist my whole career and have been covering energy and climate change for more than a decade. Most recently, I was full time at Axios and before that at The Wall Street Journal.

I’ll be in your inbox on Wednesdays with my Harder Line column and a rotating collection of other articles and news.

This week, I have an exclusive interview with Energy Secretary Granholm. Then, my column lays out Cipher’s mission. Each week, I’ll end with a notable photo of something (anything!) energy-related—and I’m asking for your help on that!

Send me your best energy-related photosand ideas, tips and moreto

Energy Secretary: ‘Big polluters’ want us to focus on our carbon footprints
The world needs systemic change, not undue focus on individual carbon footprints, to effectively tackle climate change, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said in an exclusive interview with Cipher.

“I think that only focusing on individual responsibility is what the big polluters would want us to do. That is not the answer. The answer is, we must get policy and systemic change in place. Policy is the way you get systemic change,” Granholm said in the virtual video interview.

She was responding to a question about what she thinks the role of individual responsibilitysuch as eating less meat or flying lessshould be compared to systemic change. Here’s the rest of her answer:
“Me individually eating less meat is not going to do anything. And boy, wouldnt they love for us all to be distracted on our individual recycling plans. It is not what we need. We need big change, and that big change happens with policy. So, if anybody wants to do something on an individual level, vote.”

— Secretary Granholm
Although Granholm didn’t specify whom she meant by “big polluters,” she’s likely implying the fossil-fuel industry. Media reports, particularly this deep-dive by Mashable in 2020, said the oil industry—specifically BP—coined the term “carbon footprint” decades ago in an expansive marketing campaign. A recent New York Times oped also made this connection. BP didn’t immediately provide a comment.

Elsewhere in the interview, Granholm tackles the following topics:

  • How the administration aims to bring back cleantech manufacturing from China and elsewhere: “We’re never going to be able to win the war of low wages, nor do we want to. We want to have people be paid a decent wage, a family-sustaining wage at the same time as we are building those products here.”

  • On how opposition could slow the administration’s goal to quickly build out massive amounts of wind and solar power: “We want to make sure that it’s done quickly and that it is done respectfully, and that we triage our build-out efforts in areas where we have the least amount of resistance.”

  • How this summer’s climate-fueled extreme weather makes her feel: “It makes me feel determined and energized. And my hair is on fire to try to get policy change to be able to address this.”

Watch the full interview on Cipher's YouTube channel here.
Putting journalism to work for climate change
Meet Cipher, a new publication by Breakthrough Energy (BE).

BE’s mission is to accelerate the global, technological transformation necessary to take society from the 51 billion tons of greenhouse gases emitted a year today to zero by 2050.

“Cipher” means zero—our goal. “Cipher” also means code, and if we use the kind of coded, scientific language people often use to write about climate change we can’t have conversations about the unprecedented challenges and opportunities ahead.

Cipher will support Breakthrough Energy’s mission with trustworthy and objective journalism that decodes the complex issues involved and makes them clear to people at all levels working to solve climate changeand anyone who wants to be an informed, concerned citizen.
We believe society will benefit from journalism that covers climate through this lens. We also hope to complement—and partner with—other reporters covering this topic. Just like there isn’t only one right way to drive change or call for climate action, there isn’t just one right type of climate journalism.

Breakthrough Energy is a network founded by Bill Gates, Microsoft co-founder and co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This network, first created a few years ago, is rapidly growing. It includes a venture fund, policy advocacy, initiatives supporting research (our Science and Fellows programs) and another initiative encouraging later-stage technologies (Catalyst). My work at Cipher is another way we’re expanding.

When Bill’s book “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster” was released in February, it offered a dispassionate roadmap to tackling climate change in a way accessible to nonexperts. Consider Breakthrough Energy one of the leading drivers—and Cipher the narrator.

As for me, I left something rare—a great job at a thriving journalism company (Axios)—to do something even rarer: Put my journalism to work supporting a critical change we need to see in our world.

I’ve covered energy and climate for more than a decade. In this time, the tired debate of whether climate change is a problem has taken far too much of our collective attention than it should.

This summer’s extreme weather worldwide has shown us that we are now living in a warming world—and the extreme fires, floods and more that come with it. We must move beyond these old debates about whether we have a problem and scrutinize the solutions we need.

This includes both big takes and deep dives into:

  • The trials, tribulations and (hopefully!) ultimate triumph of essential technologies, like clean hydrogen, electricity storage and more.
  • Why cost is central to everything almost everywhere.
  • Why time is both an asset and our enemy.
  • Meeting the leaders helping us with these tech transformations.
  • How our economic and political systems can help or hinder the technologies we need to drastically reduce emissions.
  • How different parts of the world fill different roles in our tech innovation and adoption.

Cipher will have a particular emphasis on ensuring a truly global perspective. We need everyone—from Seattle to New Delhi—to afford clean technologies that enable a high standard of living. That’s what each human deserves, and that’s the only way we’re going to effectively tackle this uniquely global problem.

Some people may wonder how a network with a mission—and advocacy initiatives and investments—can produce objective journalism. It’s an important question and one that we intend to regularly answer with our journalism itself.

From the start, my response lies within the mission of BE. Our network exists to tackle climate change, not to get rich or publicize our work for its own sake.

BE’s network supports some of the biggest initiatives tackling this problem. So its work, including investments and programs, will be part of our coverage. But our stories will report beyond this network because the challenge needs as many people willing to help as possible. Cipher is empowered and encouraged by the leadership at BE to pose critical questions of everyone we interview.

Practically speaking, this means our editorial leadership will have final say over our journalism. We will stress transparency, including disclaimers when we cover topics, people and companies that are in or connected to the BE network.

I anticipate disagreements and tension—internally and externally. I welcome those with open arms, in a spirit of humility and curiosity. Difficult conversations are inevitable in a society tackling a problem as massive as climate change. Cipher will help ensure these dialogues are getting us closer to our goal: zero emissions by 2050.

Amy’s Lunchtime Reads
and Hot Takes

Note to readers: For as long as I can remember, I’ve been sending myself a running email every weekday with articles to read on my phone while eating lunch away from my computer. That habit prompted this section: In each Wednesday edition, I’ll highlight some of these reads here, often with a take of my own alongside it.

Norway-UK power line to start amid UK’s energy crunch: Bloomberg
  • My take: This is a timely example of how redundancy and good grid planning are essential, both for acute energy crises like what Europe is experiencing now—but also for climate action as demand grows for variable wind and solar power.

Ford picks Tennessee, Kentucky for electric-car plants: AP
  • My take: This could help make red states a little bluer. Ford chose these states in part because of lower electricity prices and being less exposed to flooding and hurricanes than other states, according to its CEO (it might also have to do with them not being particularly friendly to unions, per The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer). The choices are already prompting positive statements from those states’ lawmakers not exactly known for being big on climate action—like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY.).

Business groups not backing carbon tax (right now): Washington Examiner
  • My take: Despite saying they support a carbon tax, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Petroleum Institute aren’t backing a carbon tax in the ongoing congressional debate over infrastructure, climate policy and how to pay for everything. This is going to be an increasingly hard position for these groups to take.

Making sense of Europe’s energy crunch: Bloomberg
  • My take: Energy crises will make it harder, not easier, to tackle big climate policy, regardless of the actual causes, as I wrote this summer.

More reading:
Record-breaking investments going into climate since Paris Agreement
Source: PitchBook
A record nearly $30 billion of venture capital money has gone into climate-change technologies so far this year, according to an exclusive sneak peak of a forthcoming report by PitchBook, a research firm and data provider.

PitchBook, which is releasing an expansive climate tech report on Oct. 27, defines “climate tech” broadly, including everything from electric cars to clean cement to carbon accounting for investment purposes.

Most of the VC money is coming from the United States, and fully half of the money globally is going into electric transportation and infrastructure supporting them, says Svenja Telle, a PitchBook analyst.

Although we still have another quarter to go, this year’s tally already surpasses the amount invested in Cleantech 1.0. That’s when investors put $25 billion into a narrower field of clean-energy technologies between 2006 and 2011 and “lost over half their money,” according to a 2016 report by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Much has changed since then, including lower technology costs, more government policy and what Telle describes as a societal “zeitgeist” more favorable to climate action since the Paris Climate Agreement was signed in 2015.
Powerline beauty
My take: My recent run through Cougar Mountain, a park near Seattle, was no less lovely and scenic despite powerlines dotting the sky. We’ll need a heck of a lot more of these to get to net-zero emissions by 2050. We should all be a little more accepting of more powerlines so we can get more clean energy into our homes.
You made it to the end! Thank you for reading. We’re just getting started. If you have feedback on how we can make this better, let us know.

See you next week!
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Cipher by Breakthrough Energy
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