Plus: 90 seconds to boil water
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JUNE 29, 2022

Good morning from Seattle!

After laying out the challenges of building new infrastructure last week, my column  today tackles the solutions side of building new infrastructure. Plus: Anca takes us to Africa with our Data Dive.

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If we can’t build things, we can’t tackle climate change: potential solutions

The U.S. government, venture capitalists and academics are looking for solutions to a messy trio of local opposition, outdated permitting processes and backlogged bureaucracy that’s threatening to upend America’s rapid shift to clean energy.

Cipher scrutinizes the technological transformations we need to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Technologies can’t be transformative if we can’t build them at scale. Last week, we looked at the hurdles to building new technologies. This week we’re examining potential solutions.

These solutions include:
  • Recent actions by the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).
  • Congressional action.
  • Increased attention on this topic among climate tech investors.
  • A university-led effort to mediate impasses over clean energy projects.

FERC, an independent agency tasked with overseeing the nation’s electricity and other energy infrastructure, took a first step earlier this month toward expediting backlogged applications of developers seeking to connect wind and solar projects to the grid in a process called the interconnection queue.

“We are witnessing unprecedented demand for new resources seeking to interconnect to the transmission grid,” said FERC Chairman Rich Glick at an agency meeting announcing the moves. “And queue delays are hindering customers’ access to new, low-cost generation.”

The proposed reforms, which must undergo public and agency review, include approving projects in clusters instead of one by one, which has created the cascading Rubik’s Cube problem we mentioned last week.

Some regional transmission organizations—entities that oversee electricity in many parts of the country FERC regulates—have already begun implementing similar types of reforms.

FERC’s move earlier this month follows an even more significant regulation the agency began work on in April. That new rule would require transmission providers to do longer-term and more forward-looking planning. Currently, providers make shorter-term plans that don’t necessarily account for future, climate-related changes in energy needs.

With longer-term planning, costs to upgrade the grid would be better spread out across more entities benefiting from the upgrades. That would help partly ease the cost allocation problems we covered last week, which affect power lines the most, according to Rob Gramlich, founder and president of Grid Strategies LLC, a consulting firm.

Congress and the Biden administration are also exploring ways to help resolve these problems, though progress has been limited.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law includes some reform initiatives, such as giving the federal government more authority to approve power lines over state opposition, although experts say it’s not likely to be invoked.

The bill formerly known as the Build Back Better Act called for a tax credit for certain types of new power lines. That would be a big boost—if the credit makes it into any smaller legislation Congress may pass.

Venture capitalists are also pondering how to tackle opposition to new clean energy projects.

Eric Toone, a leader on the investment team for Breakthrough Energy Ventures, one of the world’s most prolific venture capital investors in climate technologies, expressed concern about the gap between innovation and deployment.

“The name of the game is to solve the climate change problem,” Toone said. “Coming up with the technological solution is one piece of it. If I come up with a technological solution I can’t deploy, what have I accomplished?”

That’s prompted the firm to invest in a few startups working on tech-oriented solutions, including VEIR, which launched in 2019 to develop superconductor power cables that it says can deliver more electricity with a smaller footprint.

Dawn Lippert, founding partner of Earthshot Ventures and founder and CEO of Elemental Excelerator, a global climate technology investor and nonprofit organization, underscored the importance of startups engaging local communities where they will operate.

Lippert challenges startups to engage early and productively with communities, including hiring locally and working with local partners. Too often the focus is only on developing the physical aspect of the technology, she said.

“We don’t want to end up with a bunch of climate technology companies complaining about how they can’t get things permitted and communities pushing back.”
Dawn Lippert, cleantech investor

Larry Susskind, a professor at MIT whose study on opposition to renewable energy projects we mentioned last week, said developers need to change their tune.

“When the private developers continue trying to buy state or local level support for projects prior to engaging people most likely to be affected by them, renewable energy projects will continue to face delays and cancellations,” Susskind said.

He is working to launch a Renewable Energy Clinic at MIT next year, which would serve as a third-party mediator for projects that have reached an impasse.

Government regulators should work with developers and local communities to get pre-approval for development in certain areas, Susskind said, pointing to Maine as a successful example with offshore wind.

“You need a process that speeds things up by slowing down in the beginning,” Susskind said. “We should get pre-approvals in the right way so categories of things can go ahead.”

Editor’s note: Breakthrough Energy Ventures is affiliated with the broader Breakthrough Energy network, which supports Cipher.

Lunchtime Reads and Hot Takes
A taste of Microsoft’s all-electric kitchenGreenBiz
Amy’s take: This is a cool inside look. I love the idea of boiling water in 90 seconds.

A Big Step Toward Fusion Energy Is Hailed by a Seattle Start-UpThe New York Times
Amy’s take: This article did a good job of appropriately scrutinizing fusion without belaboring or being too dismissive.

S. Africa’s $8.5 Billion Climate Pact May Draw New Partners Bloomberg (paywall)
Anca’s take: The plan to help South Africa, the world’s 13th biggest source of greenhouse gases, shed coal will be an interesting one to follow, especially since it involves huge financial commitments from developed countries over the next decades. If successful, it could be a test case of what’s possible for other African countries.

Is a Michigan energy firm using dark money to influence California’s climate plans?Los Angeles Times
Amy’s take: The reporter did a good job of highlighting this connection in a neutral but probing way.

BP Bets Big on Giant ‘Green Hydrogen’ Project in AustraliaThe Wall Street Journal
Amy’s take: This hydrogen hub is expected to be larger in size than Delaware—what?! I didn’t realize Delaware was so small it could be comparable in size to industrial complexes (or that an industrial complex could be so large it could be compared to a state).

Consumers Are Racking Up Rewards in Japan by Buying GreenBloomberg (paywall)
Amy’s take: I suspect these types of incentives will become increasingly common in some parts of the world (probably not the U.S. though).

Can Natural Gas Be Used to Create Power With Fewer Emissions?The New York Times
Amy’s take: Yet another question mark headline from the NYT! (Better: “Startup proves natural gas can generate power with no emissions, but scale is uncertain.”) I would like to have seen a little more reporting about what stands between the company’s small-scale success and commercial success other than the vague quote at the end about engineering.

There’s a carbon-capture gold rush. Some warn better solutions exist. — The Washington Post
Amy’s take: This story conflates a few things. It combines point source carbon capture and direct air capture, but they’re quite different technologies. It also implies a roughly balanced debate for/against, when scientific bodies have been clear this tech is necessary. It is not "either/or," it’s "both/and."

All aboard the climate hypocrisy helicopter at G7POLITICO
Anca’ take: I like articles where journalists think outside the box. This one puts a high-level clean energy announcement in a different light—filled with irony. It recounts how reporters were airlifted in a military helicopter for a five-minute ride to an announcement about sustainable infrastructure.

Indoor Farming Is a ‘No-Brainer.’ Except for the Carbon Footprint.The New York Times
Amy’s take: I won’t look at tomatoes the same again. Also, what a dirty Dutch secret! Lastly, I wonder if wine grapes will ultimately be grown inside.

EU and UK will end investment protection for fossil fuels in 10 years Climate Home News
Anca’s take: Important development under the less well known Energy Charter Treaty that has been used by fossil fuel companies to sue governments over climate policies which hurt their profits. The argument from environmentalists is that it’s still 10 years too long, especially as the world is pushing forward with the clean energy transformation.

More of what we’re reading:
  • U.S. power companies face supply-chain crisis this summer — Reuters
  • EU ministers approve landmark climate measures, but tough talks await — POLITICO Europe
  • US start-up to build turquoise-hydrogen pilot plant after securing funding from major energy players — Recharge
  • French energy giants urge consumers to cut energy use — Reuters
Africa poised for clean energy potential, but basic needs lacking
Source: International Energy Agency • Assessment based on data from the Programme for Infrastructure Development in Africa (PIDA)


A lack of basic access to energy sources remains one of the main barriers to Africa’s industrial development, according to a report out this month from the International Energy Agency (IEA).

More than 640 million Africans don’t have access to energy, with the majority in sub-Saharan Africa.

“The immediate and absolute priority for Africa and the international community is to bring modern and affordable energy to all,” said Fatih Birol, the IEA’s executive director. “It is morally unacceptable that the ongoing injustice of energy poverty in Africa isn’t being resolved when it is so clearly well within our means to do so.”

The report looked at the priorities of the Programme for Infrastructure Development in Africa (PIDA), the main vehicle for promoting cross-border projects on the continent. It has the buy-in of all African countries and is led by the secretariat of the African Union, its development agency and the African Development Bank.

There are 72 energy infrastructure projects on PIDA’s priority list. This represents 15% of all infrastructure projects, the rest dealing mostly with transport and telecommunications.

More than two-thirds of all PIDA energy projects are to increase electricity transmission capacity, mostly for interconnectors. Power generation projects are the second largest in number, of which all but one are hydropower.

The IEA said the global clean energy transition offers strong growth potential for Africa, with investments in solar, critical materials and green hydrogen set to flow toward the continent.

Africa is home to 60% of the best solar resources worldwide, but it currently holds only 1% of solar PV capacity, according to the report. It accounts for less than 3% of the world’s energy-related CO2 emissions to date and has the lowest emissions per capita of any region.

Powerwall = Fire wall
Cipher reader Elaine Reddy shared the following screenshot from her phone, showing that “due to higher fire risk, the Powerwall was switching to charge the battery for emergency backup.” Reddy lives in Boulder, Colo., where fires swept through in the spring.

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
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