Silicon Valley Battles Climate Change

Silicon Valley has some of the brightest minds on the planet, or it hosts at least the most successful geeks and nerds. Now they are cooperating in a mission to fight the effects of climate change and find energy solutions for the poorest parts of the planet. Led by Microsoft-founder Bill Gates, they unite in the Breakthrough Energy Coalition and work on the Mission Innovation.

The Coalition was founded at the Paris Climate Summit. Next to driving force Bill Gates, many high-profile tech geeks joined the Coalition. For instance, Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Jeff Bezos (Amazon) and Reid Hoffman (LinkedIn) are part of the movement (but Elon Musk is surprisingly not on the list). In total 28 partners (mostly billionaires) across various sectors take part in the initiative. Although tech companies are not particularly known for production processes which produce a lot of CO2-emmisions, their products are nowhere without electricity. The major part of the required energy to run the software and apps comes from sources which produce a lot of emission, like coal power. But also names from more conventional sectors are featured, such as Mukesh Ambani of Reliance Industries (India) or Patrice Motsepe for South-African mining company ARM. The usual suspect Richard Branson is of course part of the initiative as well. A remarkable name is Chris Hohn from the London hedge fund TCI. The full name of this hedge fund is The Children’s Investment Fund. Part of its profits are redirected to TCI Foundation. Mr. Hohn is known for his aggressive shareholder activism and many boardroom fears his letters with ‘recommendations’. For instance his letter to the Dutch ABN AMRO Bank drove its board to seek for a merger, eventually leading to the disastrous acquisition by the Fortis/Santander/Royal Bank of Scotland-consortium. Usual suspect among hedge fund managers George Soros is also on board.

But the Coalition is not solely driven by pure philanthropy, as Mr. Gates admits: “A key part of the solution is to attract investors who can afford to be patient, and whose goal is as much to accelerate innovation as it is to turn a profit.” That may well be the key, because the only way to direct money to a project is by offering the right risk/reward-profile. The problem is that for climate change the effects are not clearly visible. So the solution may lie in offering the right reward. By creating the Coalition, the members are willing to be patient and take risk in order to bring clean technologies out of the lab and on the market place. The Coalition has agreed on five principles: Invest early, invest broadly, invest boldly, invest wisely and invest together. Sounds great, but what innovations could be offer a solution?

Solar paint is among the examples of solutions offered by the Coalition. A problem of conventional solar panels is that they should be installed on a wall, roof or somewhere else. Space is needed and also maintenance may be costly. A solution is simply painting solar paint on walls etc. According to the Coalition, almost any surface could be transformed to an energy generator. A conductive layer, a base layer and a light-sensitive dye on top can generate electricity. The efficiency rates are better than those at solar panels. The problem is that these dyes contain lead which is poisonous. Funding is needed for research in order to develop non-toxic dye.

As with many problems, solutions are often found not because of the negative effects of the problem, but since there’s something to gain. Therefore, the initiative by Mr. Gates and his partners may be the right approach. Will it be enough to solve one of the most important issues of our planet? Probably not, and more initiatives may be required. But when there’s profit to be made, others will follow.

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