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Solar, drones, food: The top sustainability breakthroughs of 2014

Technological barriers no longer impede progress on cutting-edge sustainability imperatives — and here's what the industry experts point to for proof.

‘Tis the season for year-end reflection. After all, what better way to celebrate the progress we’ve made and to begin envisioning what’s yet to come?

The convergence of technologies — and of people from different sectors — is enabling and accelerating systemic sustainability solutions in unprecedented ways. The massive opportunities at this nexus for business, the environment and society is the focus of GreenBiz's work with VERGE, where we convene the brightest minds and impactful leaders who are paving the way.

This piece — the first in a three-part VERGE series into the New Year — features the perspectives of a handful of speakers from our 2014 VERGE San Francisco event: thought leaders and doers who are on the pulse of trends driving sustainability innovation.

The first question we asked them was seemingly simple: “What sustainability technology or development surprised you most in 2014?”

Here’s what they had to say on a wide range of topics. Stay tuned for their 2015 visions and even more forward-thinking 2030 predictions still to come:

Seeing the Light

Paul Hawken — Author, activist and Project Director, Project Drawdown

Paul Hawken Project Drawdown
What surprised me the most are incipient solar technologies that are coming — third gen, to be sure — but also concentrating modules and other breakthroughs. I can't name the companies since some of this information is confidential, but in at least four cases I was taken aback by the implications of impending solar breakthroughs.

The cost competitive advantage solar will have over coal- and gas-generated power seems unstoppable. Future solar PV is going to be extremely light, and some of it will be ultra-low cost with efficiencies matching the best of today’s silicon modules. There will be PV panels of breathtaking efficiency, which could mean cutting spatial footprint by 70 percent. Imagine running an entire house on three solar panels.

David Friedberg — CEO, The Climate Corporation

David Friedberg Climate Corporation

Two things tie for me on this...

1. The unexpected adoption curve for Tesla Motors' high-end electric cars, which I think just highlights how truly great product and design can really drive sustainable technology adoption — [in other words] it's not just about being "green," it's about delivering something that is fundamentally better, which happens to be green.

2. The price parity achieved in the majority of U.S. states for solar. Did not think that would happen so quickly.

Rob Threlkeld — Manager, Renewable Energy, Global Environmental Compliance & Sustainability, General Motors

Rob Threlkeld
I don’t think it was actually any specific development, but the continued cost reduction of renewable energy — wind and solar primarily.

When looking at the new sources of generation capacity added in the United States, most are coming from wind and solar with rates roughly equivalent to — or even cheaper than — sourcing fossil fuel-based power.

Send in the Drones

Emma Stewart
Emma Stewart — Head of Sustainability Solutions, Autodesk

While 3D printing and the maker movement won most of the press, (there were) quieter developments in solar technology and relevant business models.

It made that industry look competitive for the first time.

Darrell Smith
Darrell Smith — Director of Facilities and Energy, Microsoft

The use of drones in the commercial sector and advanced 3D printing capabilities, like building a house with a 3D printer.

Those were both surprises.

Tensie Whelan — President, Rainforest Alliance

Drones! 2014 was the year where they became widely-available commodities and burst onto the domestic scene  —  literally. This year I was sitting on a Malibu beach at sunset, when a drone taking photos buzzed in and destroyed the moment.

Tensie Whelan

But drones do have a lot of non-military applications that could enhance sustainability in many fields. They can give us a wealth of realtime data about disease outbreaks, water levels or deforestation. They help farmers monitor their crops minutely and precisely target applications of things like agricultural chemicals to just those places they’re needed, and early enough to minimize the intervention.

Big questions remain: Who will control and profit from the data? What level of regulation is appropriate for them? If we get those answers right, drones could be great sustainability tools.

Rethinking Our Rides

Matthew Nordan — Co-Founder and Managing Partner, MNL Partners

Matthew Nordan
After idling for years, China’s EV policy finally got teeth.

Car and bus-makers went from tinkering with test vehicles to ordering hundreds of millions of dollars worth of battery packs.

Westerners who are starry-eyed about Tesla should realize that the real EV action will be across the Pacific.

Susan Shaheen — Co-Director, Transportation Sustainability Research Center and Adjunct Professor, UC Berkeley
One notable development was innovation in what we call “ridesplitting,” which falls within the range of Transportation Network Company (TNC) services, such as Lyft Line, Sidecar Shared Rides, and uberPOOL. These products service group passengers who are traveling in the same direction by funneling them into carpools that are matched in real-time.

Susan Shaheen
In November, Lyft added another new feature called "Driver Destination." This enables Lyft drivers to now pick up passengers along their incidental travel routes — expanding the service's ridesharing potential.

Other shared ride services have emerged this year as well. For instance, Bridj is providing express shuttle services for commuters; Lift Hero connecting community drivers to older adults; and Shuddle scheduling safe rides for children.

Best of the Rest

Brook Porter — Partner, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers

Brook Porter
Agriculture–tech was most surprising for 2014.

It’s a huge area of opportunity, but historically there hasn’t been much interest from Silicon Valley.

We’ve been working in the space for two-three years, but we are surprised by the level of recent activity from both investors and entrepreneurs.

Michael McCormick — Senior Policy Advisor, California and Washington DC
The sustainability technology that impressed me the most in 2014 was lack of user awareness. Technology has transcended the early adopter and is focused on those that are less technologically-savvy users of products.

Michael McCormick

For example, technology for vehicle and home efficiency is seamlessly woven in to our daily behaviors now. My Nissan Leaf — once purchased as a statement of my support for the technology and as someone wanting to show proof of concept as an early adopter — is now easy to drive almost anywhere in California. Café standard increases have resulted in significant improvements in fuel efficiency and increased the comfort and power of vehicles still using internal combustion engines. Plug-in hybrids are showing the ease with which technology allows efficiency and convenience through seamless integration of ICE and EV modes for whatever is most appropriate in that driving situation.

For homes, (Google-owned) Nest is not just being used by energy efficiency aficionados. It’s being used because it’s easy. Nest makes saving money simple and seamlessly blends with our desire for simplicity in how we manage technology — and how technology manages us.

Denis Hayes — Founder of Earth Day, President and CEO, The Bullitt Foundation

Denis Hayes

Biomimicry skyrocketed from being of interest to a group of us who were FOJ (Friends of Janine) to generating a huge amount of national, and even international, excitement.

Learning from a billion years of beta testing by Mother Nature is now a mainstream idea in architecture, materials science, aeronautics and elsewhere.

Bina Venkataraman — Director, Global Policy Initiatives, Broad Institute of MIT & Harvard

Bina Venkataraman
I was most impressed by where technologies were being applied in 2014.

That goes from deploying Big Data technologies to drive down deforestation to leveraging private sector technologies, such as satellites and drones, to track illegal fishing and improve disaster response.

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