Clean energy journalism for a cooler tomorrow

Newsletter: High-flying electric aviation startups enthrall investors

But is a whole new category of transportation the best way to help the climate?
By Julian Spector

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Happy Tuesday, everybody.

The status of the Democrats’ major clean energy legislation is very much up in the air these days. While senators hash out their spending preferences, I wanted to flag two state-level successes for climate policy that we’ve seen in recent days.

Illinois adopts bipartisan pathway to 100 percent clean energy 

Canary Media’s David Roberts recounted how this legislation models inclusive coalition-building. Environmental justice groups, renewables developers, nuclear power plant operators and even coal-burning municipal utilities got together and hammered out a compromise that gives everyone something. The law passed with bipartisan supermajorities in both chambers. David considers it extremely ambitious and a new benchmark for the Midwest.”

California sets first state law targeting emissions from cement, a major climate threat

If global cement production were a country, it would be the world’s fourth-largest greenhouse gas emitter. That’s going to have to change because demand for cement is not going away.

California took a stab at that with a newly passed law to set a buy-clean” rule for the state’s cement purchases. State government buys tons of cement to construct freeways, bridges and public works. The law creates a metric for comparing the carbon-intensity of cement from different sources, and then pushes to cut emissions to 40 percent below 2019 levels by 2035. Then California will target net-zero-emission cement by 2045.

Flying on the wings of batteries

If you thought yesterday’s electric trucking dispatch seemed outlandish or futuristic, take a look at Eric Wesoff’s latest tabulation of money flows in cleantech. The takeaway: Investors are pumped about electric flying cars. 

In recent weeks, three different companies (Lilium, Archer and Joby Aviation) have gone public to raise funds for their fully electric vertical takeoff and landing” craft. That’s a vehicle capable of launching straight up from a packed city center and ferrying passengers through the air, without the need for fossil-fuel combustion or runways.

This brought me back to a San Francisco happy-hour conversation I had with a venture capitalist several years ago. I was wondering if we’d see electric air taxis before autonomous terrestrial taxis became widely available. He said yes, which seemed bonkers at the time, but now that seems increasingly plausible.

There’s a lot that still needs to fall into place

As we like to point out at Canary Media, there are plenty of clean energy companies with proven business models and customer bases that investors could bet on. Then there’s an ever-growing assortment of companies entering public markets before they’ve ever made any revenue or produced a commercial product. The flying EV companies fall in the latter camp.

There’s also considerable regulatory risk around where and how these things will be allowed to zoom around U.S. airspace. 

LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, who took Joby public, describes the aviation venture as​“Tesla meets Uber in the air.”

  • Both of those companies have a penchant for transgressing the bounds of public policy in pursuit of their own growth. 
  • That style of Silicon Valley exceptionalism will be harder to pull off in the air, where the stakes of a mishap are far more deadly.

Still, these companies now have hundreds of employees and hundreds of millions of dollars in the bank to make their dreams a reality.

Whether that makes sense as a business model, who knows. And I’m still trying to wrap my head around whether this really counts as a climate solution, as opposed to a brand-new source of demand for energy.

At the most basic level, these businesses are decarbonizing helicopters (and purportedly making them near-silent, which I can appreciate, having been buzzed by too many choppers flying low over Los Angeles).

But these companies talk about a revolutionary potential to reshape urban mobility and beat traffic congestion by better utilizing the space above cities. That’s a bigger claim — and one with a lot of knock-on effects that deserve careful consideration.

Do electric air taxis strike you as a good idea? Let us know at [email protected] or on Twitter @CanaryMediaInc.

Julian Spector is a senior reporter at Canary Media. He reports on batteries, long-duration energy storage, low-carbon hydrogen and clean energy breakthroughs around the world.