How tech can boost emissions bang for the buck’ from corporate climate investments

Using emissionality” to target clean energy investments can merge carbon reduction with environmental justice.

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Laura Zapata is co-founder and CEO of Clearloop Corporation, and Gavin McCormick is co-founder and executive director of WattTime. This contributed content represents the views of the authors, not those of Canary Media.

Climate action is back at the top of America’s policy agenda. It’s also front and center for businesses, from tech giants to mom-and-pop shops and all those in between. With consumer and investor interest in climate action rising, companies from all industries have been tripping over each other to make the biggest and boldest climate pledge. Suddenly, brands have realized that it’s not enough to nibble around the edges to seem more green, so instead they’re adopting net-zero standards to truly slash emissions.

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The most important question in climate change is going to be whether companies really deliver on these big, bold promises. How can consumers know which brands are delivering? And what roles should tech innovators play?

Putting tech to work for a clean energy future

Technology can drive corporate progress. But to determine total scale and potential value, we need to answer a couple of big questions. First, how can tech help companies zero out their carbon footprint swiftly and effectively? Second, how can tech offer the kind of verifiable transparency and accounting that helps companies prove their efforts are legitimate, rather than mere greenwashing?

The good news is that the same underlying technology that allows us to do things like map our whereabouts and serve our online preferences can also be used to improve the accountability of investments in greenhouse-gas offsets. We can now see near-real-time satellite imagery of the forests that companies are paying to protect and calculate the exact amount of carbon and other emissions avoided when a renewable energy project flips on.

Some solutions such as carbon offsets have a troubled reputation because they’ve been abused by some companies trying to take up the mantle of climate action, only to later be revealed as just another form of greenwashing. However, we know that even after companies become more efficient with and reduce the carbon impact of their energy and materials usage or production, there is almost always a residual carbon footprint still associated with their ongoing operations. That is why the act of offsetting — taking the carbon out of another part of the economy — is a necessary component of every company’s net-zero strategy.

With climate change getting worse every day, we can’t afford to completely throw away such a crucial tool. But whether companies choose to capture carbon by investing in forestation programs or avoid carbon by preventing fossil fuels from being burned to generate electricity, any meaningful climate action must be transparent.

America’s clean energy revolution is uneven

As companies seek to become more sustainable, private-sector demand for clean energy has driven a surge in renewables investments. 2020 was the third consecutive year for record-setting corporate investment in new North American renewable energy projects.

The distribution of clean energy potential is uneven, however. Texas and the Great Plains have ample wind energy resources; California and the American Southwest have similarly ample solar resources. Meanwhile, states from the Sun Belt through Appalachia and the Midwest with lower renewables potential are being left behind — forced to live with the negative social, environmental, and economic consequences of a dirty electricity grid.

In the United States, the simple act of turning on the lights or plugging in your Tesla can have a significantly higher carbon impact in Nashville than in San Francisco. That’s because the electric grid is broken up into several grid regions, all with their own unique mix of power sources. But if we deploy new clean energy in communities that today rely primarily on fossil-fuel-generated electricity, we can not only decarbonize the grid but also directly and permanently replace the dirtiest fossil fuels from the grid at a faster rate than if the same clean energy project was built in a community already saturated with renewable power.

Thanks to the latest technology and research in U.S. grid emissions, we know how much carbon we’re emitting every time we flip on the lights, plug in our phones or charge up our vehicles. Now we can also measure and quantify the carbon-emissions potential of new renewable energy capacity wherever it’s located in the country.

Image credit: Clearloop

We need to focus initial efforts on communities where clean energy upgrades will deliver the biggest societal impact and the most carbon bang for our solar buck. This approach expands more equitable access to clean energy within communities around the U.S. that are getting left behind. What’s more, it directly accelerates the decarbonization of the second most carbon-intensive polluter in our economy: the electricity grid.

Expanding clean energy through the lens of emissionality

The concept of emissionality” enables climate-conscious companies to invest in locations that drive the biggest emissions reductions. As companies seek opportunities to invest in clean energy infrastructure, using the lens of emissionality can ensure that those investments will have outsize impact on cleaning up the grid. This seems pretty straightforward, but it’s not how clean energy investments work today — though some pioneering companies, like Salesforce, are starting to embrace this idea.

But rather than just talking about emissionality as a concept, we’re putting it into practice with bigger and better emissions reductions through emissionality-based site selection for renewables. This approach will give companies visibility into the impact of their climate investments. Our first application of this new technology will be at our 1-megawatt solar project, which will expand access to clean energy to 200 homes in Jackson, Tennessee. This model can and will be replicated around the country.

We’re using technology to verify the impact of our methodology to expand equitable access to clean energy in the U.S. On a grander scale, the overarching goal of clean energy action should be centered around building on the technology and creativity Silicon Valley companies use every day to make our lives easier and their products more practical. We should apply that same lens to give companies, big and small, more options to take meaningful, transparent climate action. It’s going to take action from all of us to respond to this climate emergency.

The 2020s are being called the decisive decade” for climate action. We hope that through clean energy action, we can offer companies another science-based tool in the toolbox to achieve a more sustainable, equitable future. We call on industry leaders, startups and anyone who has made a promise to slash greenhouse gases to join us in prioritizing equity, accountability and action. Let’s get to work.

(Article image courtesy of Clearloop)