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VERGE influencers offer reasons to be hopeful in 2018

Here's what experts in clean energy, transportation systems and emerging technologies such as the blockchain and artificial intelligence believe could take flight.

As part of our annual year-end survey of VERGE influencers and partners, we recently asked the question: What technology or development makes you hopeful for sustainability in the year ahead? 

The 17 responses we received — from experts within large corporations, utilities, academe, NGOs, investors and incubators across a broad range of sectors, including energy, buildings, transportation, logistics, cities and tech — generally were optimistic and cautious.

The rise of the electrification of cars, trucks and buses in combination with an increasingly cleaner power grid was a common refrain among most. Other inspiring market-driven actions in energy, cities, water, buildings and even solutions via emerging tech such as the blockchain, machine learning and artificial intelligence hold promise in 2018 and beyond.

The following are their responses, edited for length and clarity, and organized by theme.

The acceleration of transportation electrification

Andrew Beebe, managing director, Obvious Ventures

I believe 2018 will be the year we stop waiting for electric vehicles (EVs) to become reality. EVs in many shapes and sizes, from electric bikes to semis, will simply be the obvious solution.

Matt St. Clair, director of sustainability, University of California Office of the President

The development that perhaps makes me the most hopeful for sustainability in the year ahead is the accelerating adoption of EVs. With renewable energy continuing to become more affordable and thus more plentiful, building-related greenhouse gas emissions appear solvable. So transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions loom as the biggest challenge. And people in the United States aren’t going to give up driving fast enough to solve the problem.

So the fact that EV adoption started taking off in the past year finally gives me some hope that we can solve the transportation emissions problem. The University of California campus with the largest EV commuter population doubled in just the last year to about 350 EVs coming to campus each day. And they think that they might be able to double that number again in 2018 to 700.

Elizabeth Fretheim, senior director, supply chain sustainability, Walmart

Only a year ago, an all-electric, heavy-duty, over-the-road truck seemed almost impossible for all but the shortest and lightest routes. Now traditional manufacturers, as well as disruptors, are advancing the technology to where it could become a reality that works for both the environment and for business.

The potential benefits of lower fuel costs, less maintenance and greater safety are driving interest from the trucking industry. There are still many questions, the technology still needs to be proven in real operations and there is a lot of infrastructure to be built, but the puzzle is starting to come together.

Mark Wallace, senior vice president, global engineering and sustainability, UPS

Earlier this year UPS committed that by 2020, one in four new vehicles purchased annually will be an alternative fuel or advanced technology vehicle. By 2025, we will reduce our absolute greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from global ground operations by 12 percent. Twenty-five percent of the electricity we consume will come from renewable energy sources by 2025. And 40 percent of all ground fuel will be from sources other than conventional gasoline and diesel.

We’re looking toward renewable energy, data-driven technology and continued collaboration. There really isn’t a single vehicle type or a single solution that will solve all challenges. So our "rolling laboratory" approach will keep rolling as we continue to test and deploy new vehicles, new ways to use data to drive efficiencies and new solutions to serve our customers sustainably.

John Boesel, president and CEO, CALSTART

2018 is likely to be a big year for the growth of the electric vehicle market — from cars to trucks and buses. Relative to automation and EVs, it’s likely we will continue to see more testing and pilot projects. Government and society will really need to wrestle with the potential for automated vehicle technology to result in a huge increase in vehicle miles traveled. We need to find ways to make this tech work so that we address the climate threat, improve congestion and clean the air. It’s time to get back beyond the gee-whiz factor and get real about how to use it to our advantage.

Matt Petersen, president and CEO, Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator (LACI)

To me, the convergence of electricity and transportation sectors along with shared mobility is incredibly exciting. That includes vehicle-to-grid technology, demand response, solar generation and storage, first/last mile solutions, traffic optimization, EV infrastructure, zero-emissions goods movement, as well as financial technologies and internet of things (IoT) solutions to help enable a shared, electric and autonomous future.

With $120 billion being spent on public transit in Los Angeles over the next 40 years, along with the need to accelerate zero-emissions mobility solutions to meet regional air quality and statewide GHG goals, L.A. can and will become the epicenter for transportation technology and innovation. Here at LACI, we plan to help drive forward that future with utilities, government, transit agencies, OEMs and other partners. Our incubator also will look to fill the gaps with start-ups such as the electric aviation company Ampaire, EV shuttle manufacturer AVM and traffic management software Xtelligent.

Market-driven clean energy and innovation

Marianne Wu, executive managing director, GE Ventures

Energy is becoming increasingly distributed and digital, which means the consumer and end customer are in control. We have witnessed this already with consumers and businesses adopting solar, LEDs, green power purchase agreements (PPAs), and smart-home and smart building solutions leveraging sensors, machine learning (ML) and analytics. In 2018, we will see distributed and digital driving greater sustainability gains through mobile and stationary storage. Customers increasingly will adopt EVs and deploy at home all the way through campus-level storage solutions to reduce costs, increase reliability and reduce carbon footprint.

Overall, the technologies that make me hopeful for sustainability in 2018 are EVs, storage and digital/autonomous solutions, as these will drive energy systems that are more responsive to customer needs and optimize system efficiency to incorporate more renewables and drive a more sustainable future.

Sonia Aggarwal, Energy Innovation

Sonia Aggarwal, vice president, Energy Innovation

The economic landscape has completely flipped for electricity generation. Utilities across the Midwest are choosing wind and solar because of how much money those choices can save their customers.

Xcel CEO Ben Fowke laid out a plan to reach 60 percent renewables in Minnesota by 2030, making 85 percent of the utility’s power mix in that state carbon-free. Meanwhile, in Missouri, Ameren and other utilities are laying out plans to build renewables to save their customers money, and Wisconsin’s largest utility, We Energies, recently announced plans to develop the state’s largest solar array as it shuts down an old coal plant. I expect many more of such announcements in the coming year.

Letha Tawney, director of utility innovation & Polsky Chair for Renewable Energy, World Resources Institute

The growing demands of customers for clean energy on their own terms is creating far-reaching momentum for the clean economy. Galvanized by voluntary efforts such as Science-Based Targets and America’s Pledge, public and private sector customers are setting ambitious goals for clean energy. In the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance, it is clear these customers represent an enormous economic prize for clean energy investors and suppliers alike. Competition for those customers is creating the clean economy in real time.

Stuart Nachmias, vice president, energy policy & regulatory affairs, Con Edison

Energy company and customer priorities are driving change for newer, cleaner technologies every day. The evolution of battery technology — storing energy — is one of the more exciting and promising technologies advancing today.

Lavinia Hollanda, founder and managing director, Escopo Energia

Digital technologies that can connect people and devices and empower society are the ones that make me most hopeful for 2018 and beyond.

The increased use of tools such as data analytics, artificial intelligence (AI) and IoT will help enhance efficiency and bring it to a new level, leading to optimization and waste reduction in all segments. Also, digital technologies will be key to encouraging new forms of decentralized solutions to emerge, including financing mechanisms, which are particularly important for accelerating the pace of transition in developing economies. Blockchain is quite promising — and my favorite, with most of its potential still untapped.

Kate Brandt, lead for sustainability, Google

From the Google Assistants to image recognition and translation, machine learning and AI are already being deployed to help us in our daily lives. We are also just beginning to see the huge positive impact that ML and AI can have for the environment. We've already seen the power of ML and AI in making Global Fishing Watch and Project Sunroof Data Explorer possible, in enabling new partnerships on ship engine efficiency and data center energy efficiency. I'm excited to see the new environmental applications that will emerge in 2018 and beyond.

Inspirations beyond energy

Emily Willson, senior energy & sustainability manager, Global Workplace Solutions | CBRE

I draw inspiration from sectors outside of my primary focus, and the climate plans of city governments make me optimistic for sustainability in 2018. Boston, Washington, D.C., and New York show how preparing for climate-related events actually stimulates economies and improves the health of city dwellers. Climate-Ready Boston, Sustainable DC and OneNYC offer strategic frameworks with much that large-scale private companies can glean as well.

Beth Heider, Skanska

Elizabeth Heider, chief sustainability officer, Skanska USA

New water collection systems could be a game changer. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Brock Environmental Center, for instance, treats rainwater on site to be potable. They had enough water that they actually partnered with a local brewery to make a private label beer.

As populations grow and climate change strains water availability, on-site water treatment systems give me hope we can address this sustainability issue. Additionally, energy-positive retrofits, such as with the American Geophysical Union’s facility, and companies committing themselves to the Paris Agreement (saying "we are still in!") are also reasons I am hopeful moving into 2018.

Skanska USA signed the We Are Still In letter, and Skanska AB has made a global commitment to the Paris Agreement. In 2018, we will assess our carbon footprint and set national and global carbon reduction targets. Skanska Sweden already has announced a target of net zero carbon by 2050. That’s a moon-shot target to inspire all of us.

Kevin Hydes, CEO, Integral Group

I like to break down the acceleration of clean economy into "10 Ts": Technology; Timing; Training; Tariffs; Techniques; Tricks & Tips; Telling; Translating; and Transfer.

Sustainable development relies on the technological solutions being ready at the time when we need them and having the people trained to use them. Tariffs and design techniques are other strategies we can use to advance our deep green mission shared through tricks and tips that reduce the ramp-up time for others to implement these new ideas. Finally, through spreading the word about our work, translating it across countries, climates and disciplines we complete the transfer of innovation. It is the replication of tried and tested innovations, the transfer of those successes and the acceleration of their evolution that makes me the most hopeful for the future. 

One technology I think will see the biggest growth in 2018 is the Arc platform, which helps consultants, owners and occupants track and measure their sustainability performance goals. Arc enrolled 800 million feet of space in its first 10 months — a true rocket launch.

Bridget Croke, external affairs, Closed Loop Fund

At Closed Loop Partners, we envision a world in which virgin and post-consumer recycled plastic feedstocks are used seamlessly by supply chain partners and manufacturers. We are encouraged by the momentum and innovation in chemical recycling, which can help make this a reality. We invested in GreenMantra, which is successfully turning mixed grade plastics into high-value waxes via a chemical process. This product is of value to buyers today and creates the building blocks to build the scale needed in chemical recycling to help turn our vision into reality. In 2018, we are looking forward to the success of green mantra and the development of other chemical recycling technologies.

Vien Truong, CEO, the Dream Corps

What gives me more hope than ever is the increased energy people are putting into solutions. There are more global discussions now around solutions. People are increasingly becoming clear that they have to be the leaders that they have been waiting for — and stepping into that role of leadership. Companies and influencers are increasingly using their resources and influence to support causes. People are increasingly seeking to find work that is more meaningful and aligned to their purpose. There is a shift in energy around the world to help with moving us all towards justice. 

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