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These technologies promise an impact in 2017

Here are powerful tools of future change, identified by movers and shakers in tech and sustainability.

This is part 2 of a 3-part series. Read part 1 here.

For the next installment of our three-part VERGE series, we asked VERGE leaders: "What technology makes you hopeful about the year ahead because of its potential impact?" Here's what they had to say.

Be sure to check back for their predictions about where the world will be, come 2030.

Getting energized

Ramez Naam
Ramez Naam, co-chair, energy and environmental systems, Singularity University

Clean energy technologies as a whole are plunging in price exponentially. Wind, solar, batteries and electric vehicles are all surging towards being cheaper than fossil electricity and fossil cars. That’s the only way that we win on climate: To make clean energy and clean transport cheaper than the dirty alternatives. And it’s happening.


Laura Schewel
Laura Schewel, founder and CEO, Streetlight Data

The progress we’ve seen in renewable energy makes me incredibly hopeful. Solar power is now cost-competitive with coal and natural gas in many places in the U.S., and it is closer than ever before to true grid parity at a national scale.


David Hochschild
David Hochschild, commissioner, California Energy Commission

The most significant trend is that solar costs are down 90 percent and wind down over 60 percent, just in the last decade. The biggest need, looking ahead, is to electrify almost everything, while greening the grid to 100 percent over the long term.


Sara Neff
Sara Neff, senior vice president, sustainability, Kilroy Realty Corporation

At the beginning of 2016, I thought we knew about all possible sources of renewable energy, but during the year I met companies creating new sources of renewables for buildings. While none of those technologies is quite ready for scale yet, I am excited about the idea of increased access to renewables for existing buildings that are not a good fit for traditional sources like solar, wind and geothermal. While maximizing energy efficiency will always be the top priority, getting to net zero is not possible without some renewables, and I’m excited for the field of options to grow.

Integration and efficiency

Tamara Barker
Tamara Barker, chief sustainability officer, UPS

UPS uses a "rolling laboratory" approach in its alternative fuel and advanced technology vehicles, which includes a wide array of fuel sources and vehicle types. We just deployed an electrically assisted eBike in Portland, similar to the ones we’re using in Europe, which allows us to use bike paths and provide emission-free deliveries in cities, helping to address congestion and air quality. It’s a great story of collaboration with city officials, and we’re having discussions with other city leaders to bring the solution to life in other urban environments.


Dennis McGinn
Dennis McGinn, assistant secretary of the U.S. Navy – Energy, Installations & Environment

There have been exciting breakthroughs in recent years that enable our sailors and Marines to be better warfighters. Portable solar panel arrays reduce the need for vulnerable fuel convoys; ships’ energy dashboards enable captains to more efficiently use electricity; and aviation squadrons are saving thousands of gallons of fuel per day with more efficient flight profiles, just to name a few innovations.

In 2017, we are scheduled to begin installing Hybrid Electric Drives (HED) into our Guided Missile Destroyers (DDGs). The DDG is the Navy’s workhorse. Their mission profiles include ballistic missile defense, carrier escort, anti-submarine operations, anti-piracy and surface warfare. Many of these missions require the DDG to transit at speeds under 12 knots, which is an inefficient use of their gas turbine engines.

Using the HED at speeds under 12 knots enables the captain to use fuel more efficiently, extending the ship’s time on station between refueling. Tests show using an HED 50 percent of the time increases a DDG’s time on-station by as much as 2.5 days between refueling, and using it 75 percent of the time can extend that time as much as four days.


Dave Bartlett
Dave Bartlett, chief technology officer, Current by GE

Technology that makes me hopeful in the year ahead is low cost, low power sensors that can give us the insight needed to drive efficiency to a new level, and Industrial platforms like GE’s Predix that can scale to the exponential increase in data and analytics that are required to transform how we use energy and optimize industrial assets.

John Elkington
John Elkington, chairman and chief pollinator, Volans

Autonomous vehicles, mainly because they will force us to rethink the way our cities balance traffic and communities, private and public transport systems, people and nature.

Peter Kosak
Peter Kosak, executive director, urban mobility, General Motors

Embedded vehicle connectivity and car-sharing that is smartphone-based and completely keyless makes using Maven [GM’s car-sharing app] a seamless, intuitive experience. And features like OnStar, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and Sirius XM make it consistent and familiar. Honing the user experience through connectivity, IT and personal device integration will continue to be a technology focus area for Maven.

Gil Friend
Gil Friend, chief sustainability officer, city of Palo Alto, California; chairman, Natural Logic

In addition to the rapidly falling price of renewable energy, and the almost unavoidable advent of autonomous vehicles (my hopefulness is tempered with mixed feelings), I'm surprised and delighted by the growing attention to the potential role of living soil as the ultimate carbon sink, and therefore the potential role of sustainable agriculture, forestry and range management as macro, not niche, strategies.


Rob Bernard
Rob Bernard, chief environmental and cities strategist, Microsoft

The role of the Internet of Things (IoT) and cloud is just beginning to emerge, and 2017 should see strong growth across a few areas:

Energy: Aging infrastructure is already under pressure to keep up with increased demand and more renewable energy on the grid. IoT solutions and the cloud will provide grid operators the tools they need to make energy management more predictable, flexible and efficient. We will also see increased momentum on energy access through small, distributed solar systems in developing nations.

Water: Water scarcity is increasing in many areas around the world. Over the next year, new advances in our understanding of the scope, magnitude and urgency of these problems will create momentum for leveraging technology to better manage this increasingly stressed resource.

Data analytics: 2017 will see an increase in the volume of solutions which address everything from managing energy and water systems to stemming the loss of critical biodiversity, and better understanding the value nature’s ecosystems services provide. 

The best of the rest

Dawn Lippert and Jill Sims
Dawn Lippert and Jill Sims, co-founders, Energy Excelerator

Data is changing the way we understand the world, including how we use and assess hardware and big systems. Machine learning and artificial intelligence are changing our most complex industrial systems, like manufacturing, energy storage, water distribution and transportation. These changes are likely to blur the lines between traditionally siloed industrial processes, as we borrow ideas and breakthroughs in one industrial sector and apply them to another part of the system.

One of our favorite examples is our EEx portfolio company Brightbox, who originally developed machine learning and optimization technology for buildings and was then acquired by NEXTracker to apply the technology to solar tracking. Who will be the winners here? People with an ability to unlearn and relearn things as the world changes.

David McConville
David McConville, co-founder and director of noospheric research, The Eluminati

Applying machine learning to the analysis of geospatial and remote sensing data can rapidly increase understanding the behaviors, functions and interactions of ecosystems and industrial processes. This presents opportunities to more accurately analyze and visualize the impact of manufacturing and supply chains on integrated social-ecological systems — and vice versa.

Krista Huhtala-Jenks
Krista Huhtala-Jenks, senior officer for digitalization in transport and Mobility as a Service, Ministry of Transport and Communications; Helsinki, Finland

Policy. A lot of untapped technology already exists. Also, if creating the right type of operating environment, we enable more yet-unthinkable technology to be developed. However, technology is only means to an end.

The momentum is currently there (like in Finland with our regulative reform — the Transport Code, and continuing our work for enabling mobility as a service [MaaS] — transport  transport system 2.0) to make tremendous shifts in policy that truly have an impact.

Jon Foley
Jon Foley, executive director, California Academy of Sciences 

In 2017 and beyond, I believe we need to see other kinds of institutions — including business, finance, NGOs and cultural organizations, and cities and states — step up and show real leadership in this vacuum. Out of this crisis, where national media and political leadership have utterly failed, where can the new forms of leadership emerge? That will be the defining issue, I think, for sustainability in the coming year.





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