Imagining sustainability in 2030: Smart farms to super batteries

Imagining sustainability in 2030: Smart farms to super batteries

Children future sustainability innovation
Innovation cycles already move fast in tech fields related to sustainability, but those in the industry say that action must accelerate to achieve systemic progress.

Sure, 2014 saw its share of forward-thinking business investments and new, collaborative models in sustainability fields ranging from advanced agriculture to renewable energy.

The year ahead, too, is already shaping up to be momentous for technologies, new business models and public policy related to transportation, green buildings and Big Data in all manner of industries.

That brings us to our third and final installment of a series marking the beginning of a New Year for VERGE, where we focus on the unprecedented market openings and opportunities for progress at the nexus of business, the environment and society.

After asking a collection of speakers and presenters at past VERGE events what they saw as the biggest achievements of 2014 and biggest opportunities coming down the pike in 2015, we posed a longer-range question: Where will the conversation be in 2030?

From scaling clean energy solutions to bringing promising technologies to bear, here's what they had to say on issues such as smart grids, connected vehicles and natural capital.

1. Smart grids: Linchpin of the 21st century built environment

Michael McCormick, senior policy advisor, California and Washington, D.C.

What technology could make the biggest difference by 2030? Energy.

Michael McCormick
Technological improvements in how energy is produced, stored and conveyed is at the infancy of where it could be in 15 years. Yes, policy and politics needs to catch up with the technology that is currently available. But the technology we will have in 2030 to do these things has not even been envisioned yet.

Energy is what runs society, and if we can transcend politics and policy that limit our ability to innovate and scale the innovations that are most beneficial to society, we will do amazing things and live in a world that is cleaner and safer. The added bonus is that the side benefit of this innovation will be that society will be less likely to experience the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change.

David Friedberg, CEO, The Climate Corporation

David Friedberg Climate Corporation
Four things:

1. Thorium nuclear power, which is still nearly impossible to be in commercial use by 2030. 

2. Room temperature superconductors, which is also still very speculative, but could change everything from transmission loss to energy storage.

3. Optimal automated agriculture systems (likely and an easy win) 

4. Vegetarian preference diets increase by 30-plus percent, which is likely to become a necessity in parts of the world.

Matthew Nordan
Matthew Nordan, co-founder and managing partner, MNL Partners

A nuclear resurgence, driven by a cost-down based on Chinese reactor standardization and the rise of small modular reactors.

We already have carbon-free baseload power; we just aren’t deploying it.

Rob Threlkeld, manager, renewable energy, global environmental compliance & sustainability, General Motors

Rob Threlkeld
Enhanced solar technologies that improve solar capacity factors beyond 30 percent to 40 percent, plus the development of see-through window solar panels.

This breakthrough will allow large-scale solar development of urban cities where windows are abundant. Windows that generate electricity for buildings. Reducing HVAC costs can also improve the energy efficiency of buildings.

Doubling down on natural capital

Paul Hawken Project Drawdown

Paul Hawken, author, activist and project director, Project Drawdown

What would make the biggest difference is changing dirt back into soil.

Carbon sequestration using sophisticated grazing, no-till, pasture-cropping techniques would outstrip any other technology in terms of its impact on climate change.

Tensie Whelan, president, Rainforest Alliance

The importance of stopping deforestation by 2030 — as the U.N. Climate Summit’s New York Declaration on Forests envisions — can’t be overstated. It would be the GHG equivalent of taking all the world’s cars off the road, or eliminating all U.S. emissions. Saving forests protects the climate, water and biodiversity.

Tensie Whelan
The big drivers of deforestation, such as cattle ranching in the Amazon, will be transformed in the next 15 years. Global demand is rising, so ... we have to intensify cattle production on existing ranchland. At the same time, we need to recognize that there’s no such thing as zero-deforestation in forest products supply chains. But we can get to net-zero deforestation — the key word being “net” — by doing the right things.

If you’re going to source or buy forest products, you need to support the producers who are protecting high-value areas and managing their working forests sustainably, and replanting for the future. We can’t get to net-zero by simply outlawing logging and put communities that depend on forest-based livelihoods out of work.

My hope and belief is that by 2030 those nuances will be widely understood. Businesses, governments and consumers will get behind both sides of the equation: enforcing bans on destructive logging, and supporting the producers who are doing forestry right. That will get us to net zero deforestation.


Denis Hayes, founder of Earth Day; president and CEO, The Bullitt Foundation

Denis Hayes
By 2030, the lion’s share of new electrical generating capacity will come from efficient, flexible, affordable solar technologies that cover much of the built environment the way that photosynthetic materials cover all of the natural environment.

They will be linked in resilient, hack-proof smart grids with sophisticated control mechanisms, and they will also have huge amounts of distributed storage scattered throughout the system — much of it in grid-connected electric vehicles.

Susan Shaheen, co-director, Transportation Sustainability Research Center and adjunct professor, UC Berkeley

Susan Shaheen
What will have made a major difference is the ability to give travelers real-time, targeted information that empower them with choices that fit their mobility needs. Part of that is targeted incentives and seizing gamification opportunities.

This will require the seamless integration of many technologies and services, data sharing and public policy to encourage shared mobility — including public transit — as viable alternatives to solo driving.

Darrell Smith
Darrell Smith, director of facilities and energy, Microsoft

I would expect to see an integrated or interoperable nation with a cloud infrastructure, where “new” services enhance life’s user experience.

That would likely have a substantial impact on the environment.

New business models and collaboration

Brook Porter, partner, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers

Brook Porter
In 2030, I think we’ll look back and realize that long-term financing was the key to unlocking the potential for technologies to reach the market in energy.

We’re used to buying energy on a unit basis and view it as OpEx, whether as consumers or businesses. CapEx businesses — which by nature all startups in energy begin as — inherently have more friction, harder sales, tougher financing requirements, etc.

Crowdfunding, REITS, peer-to-peer lending, Yield-Co’s, PPA’s … this is where innovation in business models (enabled by mobile, cloud, etc.) is unlocking massive growth potential today. If that engine gets going, new technologies will have a much better chance of getting to market. Oh, and a price on carbon would help too.

Elizabeth Baca, senior health advisor, California Governor's Office of Planning and Research

Looking forward to 2030, I would like to see thriving communities that sustain themselves, or perhaps even have a generative capacity.

Elizabeth Baca California Governors office
As we think about the forces to create healthy, resilient places, I believe the most important development to get us there is our ability to think more creatively and collaboratively to solve the problems at hand. It is something I am seeing more and more, and it is inspiring.

I always go back to my favorite quote from Albert Einstein: "We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them." Now more then ever, we need to work together. The data, the technology, and the policies are vital tools to move it forward, but it starts with a vision and requires every single individual coming together in ways that we have not before.

Bina Venkataraman, director, global policy initiatives, Broad Institute of MIT & Harvard

Bina Venkataraman
Partnerships are likely to drive the biggest leaps of the next 15 years. Think of companies working with communities and policymakers to break through barriers to getting technologies in place that will cut carbon emissions or improve the resilience of our food system to weather disruptions.

We are building a jigsaw puzzle where the pieces lie in disparate sectors. Until we connect them, they are less than the sum of their parts. When organizations share a common vision and bring the pieces together, the picture can be transformative.

Thinking big

Mark “Puck” Mykleby, senior fellow, Smart Strategy Initiative, New America Foundation

First, in order to imagine 2030, I have to imagine that I’m a grandpa. That means I have some serious skin in the game. I’d better get my butt in gear because we have GOT to get it right.

That said, I'll refer you to my hope for 2015 as described previously to identify what I think the biggest, most impactful trend will be to get us to our next “good place” in 2030: It’s going to be when we, American citizens, figure out what the American dream looks like in the 21st century — that this new American dream has the logic of sustainability at its core. It’s OUR task — no one else’s — to begin the hard work of our age to make the dream a reality.

The good news is this: I truly believe we are in the midst of the transition…and I think that’s why it’s so hard to see. I only pray we use 2015 as a year of pragmatism and acceleration and not waste time dithering away our collective grandkids’ futures with ideological nonsense … the clock is ticking!