15 for '15: The surprising breakthroughs of 2015

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Tesla's Powerwall bursts forth as sustainability thought leaders reveal their picks for most surprising technology development in 2015.

2015 has been a year full of surprises. Fresh off the landmark climate deal among 195 nations at the U.N.’s COP21 talks earlier this month, it’s easy to overlook other big, surprising sustainability developments this year — from the emergence of successful collaborative models to the popularity of Tesla’s Powerwall.

But what do some of the country’s brightest minds and influencers think?

This is the first in what has become our annual three-part year-end VERGE series — featuring the perspectives of a handful of thought leaders and doers spanning a wide range of industries — many of whom have been our most interesting speakers from past VERGE events.

Here are 15 perspectives answering our first question in the series: "What sustainability technology or development surprised you most in 2015?" 

Stay tuned for their 2016 visions and even more provocative 2030 predictions to come. (The following has been edited for clarity and length.)

Resource sharing successes

Robin Chase — co-founder, Veniam, Zipcar

I was surprised that Lyft was able to turn its "people-driven and -owned taxi service" into actual true ride-sharing, where people going the same direction over a short distance were willing to share the trip. What surprised me was the way they backed into the market. They built a critical mass with the taxi service, and then gave those taxi-passengers the opportunity to share the trip and save money. It actually worked. By building the network and evolving the process in a step-wise fashion, they were able to accomplish something that they (and I, and many others) have been unable to make happen over the last 20 years. So: technology + a creative staged approach = improbable success.

Peter Gleick — president and co-founder, Pacific Institute

The growing success and utility of information and communications technologies that permit more effective use and sharing of resources, such as Uber/Lyft for transportation, small-scale solar for energy, along with the growing evidence that new technologies may fundamentally transform (in the long run) personal transportation and energy needs and preferences.

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Data as equalizer

Nicole Ferrini — chief resilience officer, city of El Paso

I have been most surprised not only by the capacity to capture, analyze and manage data at varying scales, but also the emerging ability to clearly communicate that data in a way that is effective for leadership, policy makers and the community at large. For cities, it’s critical that sustainability initiatives be results driven and easy to understand. Technology that allows us to cross reference sustainability factors, analyze co-benefits and measure success in terms of prosperity, human health, community equity and overall quality of life will shift the dialogue and radically increase our capacity to realize the resilient city of the future.

Antwi Akom — founder, ISEEED/Streetwize

Streetlight Data — a groundbreaking company that uses Big Data to better understand people's mobility behavior in cities, and make better planning, development, transportation and infrastructure decisions based on this data. Building more efficient transportation systems is critical to taking on climate change as mobile sources are one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gases. In a nutshell, understanding mobility behavior is critical not only for economic development and planning activities but also sustainability for all communities. Neighborhood revitalization, urban design, compliance and transportation planning all benefit from empirical data about population movements around in a region. StreetLight Data helps planners and development professionals strengthen existing models and observe impacts of policy decisions without requiring costly and time-intensive surveys.

Scaling solar

Kate Brandt — lead for sustainability, Google

At Google we have a great tradition called a 20 percent project where someone can choose to carve out 20 percent of their time to work on something outside their day-to-day job. In 2015 my colleague Carl Elkin’s 20 percent project led to the development of Project Sunroof, which I think is one of the most surprising and exciting sustainability technology developments in 2015. This new online tool, currently available in California, Massachusetts, Arizona, New York, New Jersey, Nevada, Connecticut, Colorado and North Carolina, uses Google Earth mapping technology to determine whether a homeowner's roof is well-suited for solar panels and how much money could be saved by installing them. By simply entering a home address, users can see a home’s solar energy potential, as well as be given a range of options to connect with local solar providers who can help them take the next step. While Project Sunroof is in a pilot phase for now, during the coming months Google will be exploring how to make the tool better and more widely available.

Danny Kennedy — managing director, California Clean Energy Fund

It never ceases to amaze me how PV costs keep coming down. According to Bloomberg they were down again across the globe 15 percent year on year. It is unparalleled in the history of energy uses to have a source keep getting cheaper and cheaper and cheaper year on year on year not by single-digit but by double-digit gains. I know I should know it by now, as it has been on this curve persistently for decades, but it still blows me away. How low does it go? This is especially exciting in emerging markets, which suffer very high prices for fossil electricity and lighting services (think diesel gen sets and kerosene lamps) and enjoy very sunny conditions. There are more people on Earth today without electricity than when Edison began this business. Think how much we will do with PV.

Powerwall popularity

Ev Williams — co-founder, Twitter, Obvious Ventures, Medium

The overwhelming consumer interest in Tesla’s residential battery announcement [called "Powerwall"]. We’ll see if this was more than just excitement for anything Tesla, but it appears to show real pent-up demand. Also, Apple getting into vehicles. While we can’t prove these cars would be electric in design, I think that’s a safe bet — and a big deal.

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Andrew Liu — VP of new ventures, AECOM

Not really a surprise, but I was most impressed by Elon Musk’s move with the Tesla Powerwall. He already had tackled a major barrier to entry for solar panels on private homes — convincing homeowners to make a capital investment to become a private utility — through business model innovation with Solar City; allowing homeowners to lease their rooftop in exchange for cost savings on electricity. The remaining problem lies with storage of energy for night-time usage and the Powerwall addresses that with cost-effective technology. Elon is really owning the energy ecosystem for private homeowners.

Stefan Heck — CEO, Nauto

Biggest surprise: How popular Tesla’s Powerwall is despite the fact that battery storage is not really in the money yet, unlike solar which is highly profitable and still getting pressured by Wall Street over concerns that the ITC is going away when the poorest keep secret within the solar industry is that the ITC is nice but no longer needed.

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Lindsay Baker — president and co-founder, Building Robotics

The technology development that surprised me most in 2015 was the Tesla Powerwall. Energy storage is one of those fantastic fields of R&D that has the potential to make 10x jumps at any moment, so seeing Tesla launch that new line was pretty encouraging. In the buildings sector, I didn't see any real surprises in 2015, to be honest. If anything, I continue to be surprised that technology hasn't disrupted our sector more, since we've watched every sector around it go through such monumental change.

Best of the rest

Cady Coleman — astronaut, NASA

NASA is the ultimate recycler and sustainability champion. On Earth, one could choose not to recycle. But on our Journey to Mars, it is mission imperative to be incredibly good stewards of our resources. Movies like "The Martian" portray this sustainability criticality for living on a different planet. Yet, these same practices could perhaps be used here on earth too. What we learn about sustainable space travel can provide solutions for sustainability challenges here on earth.

Andrew Beebe — managing director, Obvious Ventures

The proliferation of EV options — I’m very, very impressed with how many models might actually get launched in a viable way in the 2017-2018 timeframe by global automotive leaders (with the tragic exception of Toyota, which apparently can’t let go of the hydrogen car. Whoops).

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Frank Pennisi — VP and general manager, Honeywell Connected Buildings

There wasn’t a specific development that surprised me. But I was impressed by the acceleration we’re seeing in the
migration of computing power from building systems to smart edge devices and to the cloud. The shift of computing power to cloud-connected edge devices is making it easier to quickly innovate in the smart building space and bring new smart devices to market, which is opening up a new realm of possibilities when it comes to sustainability.

Adam Lowry — co-founder and chief greenskeeper, Method

The rapid adoption of urban agriculture of all kinds — 2015 saw more and more food products hitting store shelves and supermarkets that were made in urban areas. What’s more, these products are high quality, nutritionally dense and delicious.

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Stephen Ritz — founder, Green Bronx Machine

Mindful that I believe people are the greatest conduits for change, I'm thrilled to see people moving from awareness and concern to action and commitment. Be it on personal, community, business, corporate or policy levels, all around the world, people are committing to fundamental change rooted in a greater global good on a daily basis. This collaborative evolution of the human mindset with a sense of hyper-connectedness and inter-relatedness aligned to empathy and compassion is what excites me most. Each and every day there are new technologies debuting — this relentless commitment to innovation — to getting it right, making life better — rooted in the fact that business as usual is no longer an option is what inspires me most. For the first time — on both micro and macro levels — we are really looking at cause and effect and profit and loss as far more than a traditional spread sheet and quarterly earnings; therein lies the game changer.

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