Week in Review: States, Corporations Look to Save World from Trump

Xconomy Seattle — 

Will this week be remembered as the moment the Earth’s changing climate went irretrievably over the edge—if it hasn’t done so already—or will it be a catalytic moment that accelerates action in spite of the U.S. president’s rejection of the global accord to address climate change?

We explore that question with a couple of veteran Northwest clean technology innovators and investors below. And we’ll get to other news on Paul Allen’s satellite launch venture, Washington workforce development, the greenhouse gas emissions of delivery drones, and another sphere coming to Seattle’s skyline.

—In the aftermath of President Donald Trump’s expected-but-still-somehow-shocking announcement that the U.S. will withdraw from the Paris climate accord, there was a global convulsion of existential dread, but also renewed resolve on the part of cities, states, corporations, environmental groups, and much of the rest of the world, to move on without America—or at least without the U.S. government.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, already a leader in clean energy and an emerging hotbed of energy storage innovation, political leaders doubled-down, at least rhetorically.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat who has made climate change one of the signature issues of his career, (and the subject of early speculation for the 2020 presidential election), formed an alliance with the governors of California and New York to “convene U.S. states committed to upholding the Paris Climate Agreement and taking aggressive action on climate change.”

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is gathering emissions reductions commitments from U.S. mayors, governors, university presidents, and business leaders to submit to the United Nations, where he is currently a special envoy representing cities on the issue. “We’re going to do everything America would have done if it had stayed committed,” Bloomberg tells The New York Times. The U.S. committed to reduce emissions to 26 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 under the non-binding Paris accord.

But will the now-fractured nature of the U.S. approach to climate mitigation hinder American companies developing the relevant technologies?

Clean technology startups have “suffered substantially in recent years from a perception of poor returns,” says veteran Pacific Northwest clean tech investor Kirk Washington. “That occurred prior to this announcement.”

A Brookings Institution report breaks down the decline in VC investment in the sector since 2011. On the bright side, Washington says, “There’s still sources of capital that are actively interested in these innovations: corporate money, and foundations and family money.”

It’s worth noting, too, that one of the country’s largest cleantech focused angel investing groups, Element 8, is based in Seattle and poured $6.1 million into 27 companies in 2016, a record for the organization.

Big businesses are helping drive demand for clean technology—specifically renewable energy. Two of the world’s largest corporations—Microsoft and Amazon—have led the way toward reducing the greenhouse gas emissions of their enormous, energy-hungry operations, largely through renewable energy purchases. Mid-size corporations are following suit, and startups such as Seattle-based LevelTen Energy are setting up the sometimes-esoteric energy transactions that make it happen.

LevelTen co-founder and CEO Bryce Smith, who was one of the early developers of the renewable energy certificates that track carbon-free power production, says corporations are not going to slow down because of the wrong-headed decision of a climate change denier.

“We’re seeing real, substantive decisions coming out of corporations that are making a genuine impact,” he says, adding that corporate energy buyers have mostly grokked the economic benefits of solar and wind power by now, and are now focusing more on the “moral aspect of it … where they feel an obligation to make progress not just for their own companies, but they can really see directly how their actions are part of a broader movement.”

Stratolaunch rolls out of its hangar for the first time. Photo courtesy of Stratolaunch Systems Corp.

—Paul G. Allen opened the doors of his giant hangar in the Mojave Desert and rolled out the Spruce Goosian twin-fuselage Stratolaunch aircraft for a first public viewing, and to conduct fueling tests. The 500,000-pound plane is designed to carry rockets—initially the Orbital ATK Pegasus XL—to an altitude from which they would launch from the airplane and fly to space, depositing small satellites in low Earth orbit.

The fuel tests represent “the beginning of the aircraft ground and flight testing phase,” writes Stratolaunch Systems Corporation CEO Jean Floyd in a blog post. A first launch demonstration could occur as soon as 2019.

—Washington Gov. Jay Inslee created the Career Connect Washington Task Force to guide development of programs designed to better link education with job opportunities in the state.

“We are going to stop telling our kids that a four-year degree is the only path to success. Most of them will require education and training after high school, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a four-year college degree,” Inslee said in a news release. “Through registered apprenticeships, technical training programs, and other career connected learning opportunities, we’ll give students all kinds of ways to fulfill their dreams of helping build airplanes, cure diseases, or design innovative new software.”

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee greets apprentices in the Apprenti program in May. Photo courtesy of Apprenti.

Earlier this year, we profiled one of the first individuals to become a software development apprentice at Avvo through the Apprenti program, an effort of the Washington Technology Industry Association aimed specifically at women, veterans, and minority groups underrepresented in the tech work force. The program has since placed 37 people in apprentices with tech companies including Amazon, Microsoft, Comtech, F5, and Silicon Mechanics.

Inslee appointed Microsoft president Brad Smith and Perry England, vice president at MacDonald Miller Facility Solutions, to co-chair the Career Connect task force.

Ghostruck, a Seattle startup connecting movers with customers, was fined $75,500 by the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC) for “operating as a residential moving company without the required permit,” the commission announced Thursday. Here’s our coverage.

—We profiled WiBotic, a Seattle startup building wireless charging technology for drones and other robots. It’s a spinout from the University of Washington and recently announced a $2.5 million seed funding round.  The company is betting that as drones take on assignments such as package delivery, they will need a faster, automated way to repower.

—Speaking of package delivery by drone—and greenhouse gas emissions—UW researchers pitted drones against trucks to evaluate their relative emissions in different delivery scenarios. The results of their modeling: It depends on factors including the distance from the warehouse, the number of stops on a delivery route, and, of course, the efficiency of the drone and the emissions associated with the power used to charge it.

In the researchers’ models, drones offer the potential for reduced emissions when making deliveries near a warehouse, with fewer stops on the route. Trucks won out on trips farther from a warehouse with more stops along the way.

Anne Goodchild, a UW associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and the director of the UW Supply Chain Transportation & Logistics Center, says the research suggests a hybrid approach.

“Given what we found, probably the most realistic scenario is for drones doing the last leg of the delivery,” Goodchild says in a news release. “You’re probably not going to see these in downtown Seattle anytime soon. But maybe in a rural community with roads that are slow and hard for trucks to navigate and no air space or noise concerns.”

An early rendering of the dome contemplated for a new Seattle residential tower at 2000 Third Avenue. Courtesy of project developer Westbank

—As the Seattle economic and real estate boom continues, are we entering a dome bubble? Or perhaps architects are designing literal bubbles, inspired by the figurative liberal bubble encapsulating Seattle.

Reports this week describe a proposed residential high-rise in the Belltown neighborhood that would be topped with a 59-foot glass sphere—a play area for the tower’s residents with gardens, a gym, and an adjacent pool—just a few blocks from the three spheres anchoring Amazon’s new corporate headquarters building.

The proposed building, at 2000 Third Avenue, is still in the early stages of permitting. The design is by James KM Cheng Architects. The project developer is Vancouver, Canada-based Westbank.