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All we need is scale

I’m delighted to be a guest author on OpenSolar’s blog today. I love their vision of a world powered by sunshine by 2050. Free software can enable more of the world’s contractors to sell and install more solar electrification to more homeowners and businesses, more of the time. OpenSolar is an excellent example of the kind of “scale tech” innovation that the climate needs.

We need a wake up call for climate technology. Relying on so many so-called breakthroughs to solve climate change is distracting us from the biggest opportunity. The technologies required to solve climate change are already among us. What they lack is scale. And they need more than just infrastructure money to scale. We need “Scale Tech”-- rapid iterations on existing technologies, financial innovation, and the magic of software – to solve the climate crisis.

The core technologies are available to have a major climate impact within 15 years. The combination of solar, wind, and various storage technologies (batteries and perhaps hydrogen) need to be scaled up to get us to a clean grid, supporting the existing hydro and nuclear power. Electrification of transportation can have outsized climate impact by focusing on high-mileage vehicles. Improvements in land management and agricultural technologies can sequester carbon in soils and plant material.

One proof point is the history of technology and the success of climate tech in the last 15 years. The big accomplishments of greenhouse gas reduction and wealth creation were due to scale tech not breakthroughs. The same is true of virtually all other technology fields. Why should the future of climate tech be any different?

Almost 15 years ago I led a study, “The Gigaton Throwdown” to understand the obstacles to solve climate change through various pathways. Many of the approaches, such as biofuels, required breakthroughs. They didn’t happen. What worked instead was scale tech. Cars were electrified by cribbing the technology of cell phone batteries. Solar and wind got cheap through a gazillion incremental improvements plus clever software and financial innovations. And government support was critical to it all.

Tesla is a scale tech business. Tesla didn’t get to its current position with a technology breakthrough of the sort expected from companies pursuing “deep tech” like fusion or biofuels. A crucial advance was to create technology that can use lithium ion batteries, which at the time were used for laptops and cell phones. At the time, traditional automakers were stuck searching for “deep tech” breakthroughs in batteries and fuel cells. Tesla used software to scale the lithium ion battery cells used in laptops for use in automobiles.

Solar installations have grown at exponential rates because of scale tech innovation. Sunrun, one of the solar industry’s most successful companies, created new software to enable solar installations to happen faster and cheaper than anyone thought possible 15 years ago. Enphase, a pioneer of solar microinverters, leveraged the advances in microelectronics to create better, safer solar panels. Both of these companies exploited advances in other fields and developed their own technology to integrate and adapt those advancements.

Scale tech is not the absence of technology. It is innovation to speed the scaling of existing proven technologies and techniques. It requires recognizing that certain technologies are getting better with scale and finding ways to pushing them forward. It requires brilliance and creativity including using existing technology in new ways. In aggregate, scale tech creates breakthroughs including the staggering gains in price and efficiency of solar, wind, and batteries in the last several decades.

We do not get another 15 years without major reductions in global emissions. We need to focus the energies of engineers, company builders, and investors on scale tech. If we do, 15 years from now, people will be slack jawed at how fast things improve. Like how quickly electricity decarbonizes, and that we make major cuts of carbon emissions from transportation and industry. And that agriculture and forestry become a massive sequestration method for carbon.

A major improvement in climate is within our collective grasp. We need the proper focus to grab it.

The original version of this post was on Sunil Paul’s Linkedin and can be found here. Follow him for more on scale tech.

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