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Moonshot Watch: Keeping Up With Climate Tech's Biggest Bets

We check in on "climate moonshots" — speculative innovations that could be game-changers in the fight against climate change, if only somebody would invent them.
Julian Moore
Jul 8, 2022 12 min read
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Originally published on Sunday, April 10th, 2022

It’s moonshot watch! 🚀🌕

In recent weeks, researchers and innovators have made progress towards so-called climate moonshots— still-unproven climate technologies that could make an order-of-magnitude difference in mitigating climate change assuming they ever see the light of day.

Many of these solutions didn’t make it into the third and final instalment of the IPCC’s state-of-the-climate report released this week (spoiler: we need to decarbonize yesterday.)

Still, the urgency of the report recalls John Kerry’s infamous (but truthful) warning that “50% of reductions are going to come from technologies that we don’t yet have.”

Here is the latest on three of those technologies...

⚛️  Direct to Air Capture

No climate tech fantasy is as sweet as direct air capture (DAC). Given the continued inaction of world leaders to reduce emissions, and the deep complexity of doing so even where there is sufficient political will, it is impossible not to dream of a solution that effectively hits “ctrl+z” on decades of emissions.

The trouble with DAC is not the feasibility of harvesting carbon dioxide from thin air, it’s what to do once you’ve harvested it. By one method, extracting carbon from its chemical captors is so energy-intensive it almost defeats the purpose. Beyond that, the current market for captured carbon is mainly fossil fuel producers looking to squeeze out more oil.

That’s why in February, the climate VC Breakthrough Energy Ventures announced it was committing $80 million to a technology that has shown it can reduce the energy requirements of DAC by up to 70%.

Verdox’s innovation is a charged plastic film that can pull CO2 from a mix of gas and release it with a change of electrical charge. After iterating on versions that captured too much oxygen, Verdox claims it has a technology that can ultimately bring the cost of carbon down to $50/ton.

That scenario is a ways down the road for a solution that is still in the lab, but it offers a tantalizing and ambitious alternative to a carbon market currently trading as high as $1,200/ton.

🔋  Solid State Strides

Readers of this newsletter are familiar with the shortcomings of lithium-ion batteries: they’re mining-intensive, hard to recycle and vulnerable to bottlenecks all too similar to those currently throttling the global energy market.

Carmaker Nissan announced this week that a new solid-state battery factory will produce a market-scale solution to those problems. While light on technical details, a close reading of the announcement indicates the company will leverage computation materials science to model the properties of new materials in silico (on a computer).

That means researchers could optimize the cost and speed of innovation by crunching vast data sets on supercomputers that produce a short-list of configurations for engineers to try in the lab. The project, which includes researchers from NASA and UC San Diego, promises to produce a solid-state battery for electric vehicles by 2028.

☀️  Solar Solutions

Climate moonshots are not necessarily "deep tech". As the most ubiquitous, recognizable and readily available climate solution across the world, solar energy is practically the opposite of a moonshot in the conventional sense.

But the scale of solar energy called for in every serious net-zero plan is very much a moonshot that poses difficult technological challenges of its own.

Solar is expected to make up as much as 69% of global energy production once fossil fuels are phased out. Even more modest proposals foresee growth in the sector that will require “the equivalent to installing the world’s current largest solar park roughly every day,” through 2050.

The problem is that such an expansion would mean converting the use of extraordinary amounts of land away from traditional uses like agriculture toward a power source that only generates electricity when the sun is shining.

Indeed, the number one factor slowing down American solar farm construction is local protests against the requisite enormous land-use changes, according a report released this week.

A program launching in Colorado this year might yield answers to the land-use issue. Jack’s Solar Garden is the United State’s largest agrivoltaics demonstration project, where farmers produce crops, such as wheat and hay, underneath a canopy of 3,200 solar panels.

The successful farm is one of several such projects funded by the DOE’s InSPIRE project focused on developing productive, pollinator-friendly farm lands paired with solar.

Meanwhile, a team of Stanford researchers announced they have a prototype solar panel that can generate electricity at night. The panels leverage built-in thermoelectric generators that retain some of the heat solar panels typically emit into the night sky. Researchers say there’s plenty of room for improvement, but that these panels could provide stand-by power for rural communities and mini-grid applications in the future.

⚠️ Moral Hazard

Some corners of the climate world have decried the attention given to speculative technologies like carbon capture and geoengineering as morally hazardous distractions from the hard and necessary work of reducing emissions.

Those arguments are not without merit. The same strain of technological utopianism driving the fossil fuel industry to adopt carbon capture also underlies the dubious notion of “climate overshoot” at the heart of many climate policies.

The global priority for climate action needs to be cutting greenhouse gas pollution. Yet, for many, hope springs that if we can invent our way into the climate crisis, perhaps we can invent our way out of it.

🌎 Climate Jobs

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Accelerate Wind

"Accelerate Wind is an early-stage startup that is working to revolutionize rooftop wind energy in the commercial and industrial spaces by drastically lowering the cost of small wind turbine technologies. This includes development of a patent-pending powertrain concept which drastically reduces the cost of wind turbine power electronics through intermediate energy storage in a small flywheel, and development of a ..."  (full description)


  • Aerospace Post Doc (Remote (Birmingham, AL, USA))

" is a technology company on a mission to decarbonize mobility. Recently named “World’s Best Energy Start-up,” we are a team of former management consultants, data scientists and software developers working on an industry-leading algorithm that obtains real-time data from utilities to charge electric vehicles with the cheapest, greenest energy available while supporting the long-term stability and resilience of the ..." (full description)


  • Commercial Projects Manager (Remote)


"Arcadia is a nationwide home energy platform providing clean energy and savings. Arcadia Power is remaking the customer utility experience from the ground-up, and personalizing it. They offer customers seamless monthly billing, access to wind energy, community solar programs, and on-bill financing of energy efficient products. Founded in 2014, Arcadia has customers across all 50 states, and is a Certified B Corp ..." (full description)


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CEF is an invitation-only senior executive network comprised of Fortune and Global 500 companies spanning two dozen industries with combined revenues over $3 trillion. We provide a year-round neutral, pre-competitive space for Chief Sustainability Officers and other influential executives to exchange best practices, collaborate, and incubate new ideas to drive sustainable value creation and innovation ..." (full description)


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Launch Alaska

We’re on a mission to accelerate the resource revolution — to urgently decarbonize our world by getting solutions to energy, transportation, and industry challenges into use. We work to mitigate the causes and effects of climate change while unlocking incredible economic opportunities in the State of Alaska. Startups are the key. They help to drive the rapid, critical shifts in our ..."  (full description)


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Archive Resale

"Archive 's mission is to change consumer behavior for the better. If you think humans buy too much stuff and throw too much away, then this problem is for you. We’re starting with fashion and expanding from there. Archive is building an ‘operating system for resale’ that delivers a customized online secondhand marketplace site and the underlying infrastructure and operations to ..." (full description)


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A national network of groups working together to advance a sustainable environment while creating economic opportunities for all..." (full description)


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Chloris Geospatial

The global economy urgently needs to transition to new models of operation that remove carbon from the atmosphere and preserve and restore natural capital. Chloris Geospatial is an early-stage company developing technology that will transform the way businesses and governments use data about the environment to guide their investment and carbon management decisions. We use satellite data and artificial intelligence to ..." (full description)


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New York City Energy Efficiency Corporation (NYCEEC)

The New York City Energy Efficiency Corporation (NYCEEC), the country’s first local green bank, is a non-profit specialty financier of projects that save energy and reduce greenhouse gases. NYCEEC’s team is passionate about its mission to deliver financing solutions and advance markets for energy efficiency and clean energy in buildings..." (full description)


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Ranger Power

"Ranger Power is a solar energy development company headquartered in Chicago, IL. Ranger develops utility-scale solar and battery storage projects around the United States and manages a five-gigawatt portfolio of assets. The company is comprised of experienced renewable energy professionals and is looking to grow its team..." (full description)


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Inspire Clean Energy

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Soil Carbon Co.

At Soil Carbon Co, we have the earth in our hands. Our team of scientists and entrepreneurs is united in a mission to realise the potential of microbes to address climate change. We are dedicated to developing solutions that boost agricultural productivity and benefit the environment. We are developing soil carbon sequestration technology that uses the power of microbes to remove..." (full description)


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Regrow Ag

Transforming agriculture systems is the single most important thing we can do to combat climate change. Our Mission & Vision Our mission is to make resilient agriculture ubiquitous. On every acre. Globally. Our vision is for agriculture to be driven by science and technology to restore the environmental balance globally to nourish the population and be equitable for everyone. Environment. People. Equity. In that ..." (full description)


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"Watershed is a software platform for running a world-class climate program. Start reducing your carbon footprint in weeks, not years. Our mission is to accelerate decarbonization by building the tools organizations need to cut carbon..." (full description)


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VertueLab is a nonprofit fighting the climate crisis by providing funding and holistic entrepreneurial support to cleantech startups. Through a decade of work, we have proven that our model can accelerate climate solutions that are key to reversing the climate crisis. We were the first in the nation to utilize patient, risk-tolerant, concessionary, and flexible capital to invest in early ..." (full description)


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Cove Tool, Inc.

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RMI is an independent nonprofit founded in 1982 that transforms global energy systems through market-driven solutions to align with a 1.5°C future and secure a clean, prosperous, zero-carbon future for all. We work in the world’s most critical geographies and engage businesses, policymakers, communities, and NGOs to identify and scale energy system interventions that will cut greenhouse gas emissions at ..." (full description)


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The Author

Julian Moore