Newsletter: Nature abhors a vacuum, carbon accounting edition

Startups are jumping in to fill a policy gap when it comes to business-sector carbon tracking.

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Sometimes businesses exploit gaps in regulation and policy for their own ends. In the case of carbon accounting, startups are stepping into the gap left by the absence of policy in ways that could benefit the planet.

The problem is straightforward:

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  • The business world belatedly realized it has to do something about climate change, or at least look like it is. 
  • The obvious place to start is measuring how much they contribute to the problem.
  • Unless you’re big and sophisticated enough to have a dedicated sustainability team, tracking carbon can be baffling, expensive and time-consuming.
  • Most countries don’t have a strong government policy to guide carbon reporting.

Emma Foehringer Merchant profiled the growing ecosystem of carbon reporting startups, which aim to make emissions tracking much easier, and then help companies mitigate their impact. They’re trying out different approaches and styles to achieve a similar result.

  • Watershed collects raw data on direct and indirect emissions from a company’s operations and supply chain. Then the platform connects companies to clean energy and carbon-removal projects to deal with emissions. Clients include fast-casual salad exemplar Sweetgreen and food delivery service DoorDash.
  • Climate Neutral styles itself as the organic label” of emissions accounting. To earn that badge, a company must offset emissions from the previous year and devise short-term carbon-reduction targets that can be accomplished in one to two years. Clients include San Francisco’s most fashionable footwear brand, Allbirds, and outdoor brand Cotopaxi.

There’s a risk here of confusion stemming from a bunch of startups with slightly different methodologies for counting and dealing with carbon emissions. Companies also disagree on the efficacy of carbon offsets, which zero out emissions on paper but not in the atmosphere.

Many corporations push for minimal regulation to give them maximum room to maneuver. But the carbon-accounting execs Emma spoke with were pretty frank about the need for more government policy to clear up discrepancies in how different groups deal with carbon tracking:

It would be really nice if we had some sort of government policy that superseded all of this,” said Climate Neutral CEO Austin Whitman.

The key tool to get 100 percent daytime solar power, today

Grafting new and decentralized clean energy onto the existing hardware of the grid can feel like pushing a rock up a hill in perpetuity. 

But cash-strapped rural utilities have already hit 100 percent of their daytime electricity needs with solar, thanks to a software startup called Camus Energy. Jeff St. John has the story on the company, which just raised a $16 million Series A round led by Park West and joined by Congruent Ventures and other investors.

CEO and co-founder Astrid Atkinson used to work for Google, using software to corral servers at data centers into a highly reliable, always-on service.

The core of that model for Google was basically this idea of unreliable hardware with reliable software,” she said in an interview. That’s what we were looking to bring into the grid space.”

I’ve seen a lot of metaphors for the grid, but the cloud-computing analogy was new for me. It’s also a compelling narrative for Camus. If the electric grid can be optimized the way Google manages its data centers, modernizing the grid sounds less Sisyphean.

Granted, a key difference between cloud computing and the grid is the financial incentives that govern electric utilities. Big regulated utilities typically earn a profit for building new things. 

  • It’s not an accident that Camus focuses on serving publicly owned utilities with fewer than 1 million customers. 
  • Those groups are structurally aligned to save money for their customer-owners while getting the most out of existing infrastructure.

And new from Canary Media…

Eric Wesoff has a new roundup of clean energy finance news, with an eye on discerning real impact from greenwashing and fraud.”

Highlights this time include: 

  • Sustainable infrastructure investor Generate Capital raising another $2 billion
  • Former BP CEO Lord Browne tries his hand at climate investing
  • How much money does Sen. Joe Manchin make from the coal power industry?

(Lead image credit: Veeterzy / Unsplash)

Julian Spector is an editor at Canary Media and reports on the rise of clean energy. He worked at Greentech Media for nearly five years, and before that he reported for CityLab at The Atlantic.