A view of the U.S. Capitol dome's ceiling
When the first modern electric cars hit the market in the late 1990s , interest was limited. The first people to buy them were either very rich, very climate-conscious, or both.
It wasn’t until the 2010s that electric vehicles (EVs) finally found something like a mass market. Why? Batteries became much cheaper, and EVs became far more affordable — but another key factor was that the government intervened. In 2009, the United States implemented a federal EV tax credit, giving a $7,500 rebate to anyone who purchased a qualifying EV. One 2018 study found that every $1,000 offered as a rebate or tax credit increases average sales of EVs by 2.6%.
At Breakthrough Energy, we support this policy-making around the world, drawing on our technical expertise across all the different sectors you just read about.
Of course, every country’s journey to net zero will be different, and so will the policies they need. But at the highest level, when we think about climate policy from a global perspective, it can be divided into three parts.
The first is the highly-industrialized, high-income countries , like the U.S. and many European countries, where a lot of innovation is happening, and where governments are wealthy enough to help fund the transition to lower sources.
Then there are the middle-income countries — like Brazil, India, and China — who often have higher real-time emissions, but are also the largest markets for adopting those technologies.
Finally, there are low-income nations across the Global South , which don’t have the money to pay for these things, but still need them — arguably the most — because their populations are the most vulnerable to extreme climate change.
Bill Gates and Paul Allen in 1979, at the beginning of their personal computer revolution
Breakthrough Energy Fellows
In 1975, long before Microsoft was a household name, Bill Gates and Paul Allen were just two guys workshopping their ideas in an Albuquerque garage.
Forty years later, when Bill founded Breakthrough Energy, he wondered: Where were the climate tech equivalents of him and Paul Allen? Where were the garages and laboratories populated by young innovators with big ideas? Finding — and supporting — these people is the first, critical step in the journey for any good innovation, which is why we call this stage, “discovery.”
A bridge crossing a large body of water, with forest and mountains in the distance
Breakthrough Energy Catalyst
Imagine you’re an innovator working on emerging climate technologies. You pour your blood, sweat, and tears into developing the technology. Once you get it to work, investors will surely be knocking on your door. Right?
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
For a new technology to draw investors, it needs to be “derisked.” That means more than just proving the technology can work. It means proving it can work at scale — and be cost competitive with fossil fuel alternatives.
An aerial view of Silicon Valley in the 1970s
Breakthrough Energy Ventures
The best way to build technologies is with tech companies, and for almost 50 years, the surest way to build tech companies has been with venture capital .
The first venture firm signed a lease on Silicon Valley’s Sand Hill Road in 1972, and ever since, the playbook for building a very big technology company very quickly has followed four steps: identify a unique way to solve a large problem using technology; secure a venture investment; use the money to hire smart people; and build a successful company.
But there’s always been an unwritten caveat to these instructions: they don’t apply if the company you’re building has something to do with the Earth’s changing climate.
Venture capital has always had a climate problem .
Antora's technology producing thermophotovoltaic cells
Case Study: Antora Energy
When Breakthrough Energy Ventures first met with Antora , the company employed 15 people and had just moved out of their first office at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
“Office,” in fact, was a generous term.
Antora was working out of a trailer.
Andrew Ponec, Justin Briggs, and David Bierman had started Antora with a single question: What is the most important solution to climate change that no one else is building? Their answer: a modular thermal battery capable of outputting zero-emissions heat and power to decarbonize manufacturing, the single largest source of global emissions.
At the time, Antora had recently broken the world record for efficiency in thermophotovoltaics—a groundbreaking technology for converting heat to power. And the scrappy team had built a prototype that demonstrated the basic operational principles of their thermal battery, receiving seed funding from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects-Energy (ARPA-E) , the Office of Industrial Decarbonization and Energy Efficiency (IEDO), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the California Energy Commission (CEC).
BEV's Eric Toone delivers remarks at the Breakthrough Energy Summit
What’s next for BEV?
What are the kinds of companies the climate needs built next?
Last year, at Breakthrough Energy’s inaugural summit, Eric Toone, BE’s Chief Technology Officer, laid out three categories of problems that need addressing:
The challenges we didn’t see in in 2015, when we were founded;
The challenges we did anticipate, but still haven’t solved;
The challenges that didn’t exist in 2015, but now do because the world has changed.
Those questions are informing the future of Breakthrough Energy’s work at this development stage, as we look at funding new early-stage companies — and continue to help the ones already in our portfolio.
How We Plug In
If you only have brain space for three things
A zero-carbon world won’t be one where people use less electricity, but more. Most experts agree that the world will need to triple the amount of electricity we use by 2050. The world is making progress generating this electricity cleanly, but that’s meaningless if we can’t move it or store it efficiently and affordably.
What about nuclear power? Fusion is an innovation on par with the industrial revolution or the discovery of fire. But if we wait for fusion, it may be too late. We have to have a baseload power to rely on, and fission is the best-understood zero-carbon option available.
Going forward, the technology is in decent shape, though prices need to come down to incentivize adoption. But we need to rebuild (or build outright) all our electricity grids — and permitting, siting, and general NIMBYism remain significant policy hurdles to that.
How We Stay Warm and Keep Cool
An Update on
If you only have brain space for three things
Buildings last a long time. The ones we build today will likely still be emitting carbon dioxide (CO₂) long after we’re gone. As we noted in the steel/cement chapter, it takes a lot of carbon to construct them. But it also takes a lot to operate them. That’s why we need to make them far more energy efficient and electrified.
Cooling demand is rising rapidly. Of the five billion A/C units expected to be in operation around the world by 2050, roughly 40% have already been installed. We have the technology to decarbonize this boom by using more efficient A/C units and heat pumps, plugging leaky ducts, and changing out single-pane windows, but mass deployment is a challenge. Buildings waste a lot of energy.
Going forward, behavioral changes will be key to decarbonizing this sector. The technology is here and the Green Premiums are lower than for other grand challenges. Now we need governments, corporate buyers, and other consumers to buy in.
Making Things Better
if you only have brain space for three things
Cement and steel are the most widely used materials in the world, responsible for 10% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. But they’re actually among the lowest emissions-intensive building materials that we have today — we just use them at incredibly high volumes.
Given the challenges of replacing these materials — which are ubiquitous and have unique advantages — our main focus should be on making improvements to their process and supply chain, while also developing high performance substitutes where possible.
Going forward, there’s a lot of opportunity for technological innovation in this sector. But we also need to aggressively incentivize the use of clean steel and cement through public procurement, tax credits, demo project funding, and other methods. More funding and confidence in promising technologies can help move the needle on this notoriously hard-to-decarbonize industry.
How We Get Around
Future of Zero-Carbon
If you only have brain space for three things
Electric Vehicles (EVs) have come a long way. They are now roughly as cheap and can travel just as far as regular cars. And by 2035, some projections show they could account for half of the new vehicles sold in the United States.
The minerals that power batteries are in jeopardy. Not only are we potentially running out of some of them, but most of the world’s current lithium, cobalt, and nickel production is concentrated in just a few places, meaning conflict or natural disaster could cause significant supply disruptions.
Going forward, long-distance and heavy-duty transportation will be the biggest technological hurdle. We need better public and private collaboration not only to incentivize the uptake of batteries and e-fuels but to improve their performance, endurance, and affordability.
How We Grow Things:
An Update on
If You Only Have Brain Space for Three Things
Food demand will only increase as our population grows. We need to find ways to feed the world without contributing to emissions. That means finding better ways to fertilize plants, raise livestock, conserve water, and reduce food waste.
Methane from cows and livestock is the dominant driver of agriculture emissions. By 2050, there could be an additional 500 million cows roaming the planet. Just in the last few years, numerous companies have been founded to tackle enteric emissions. New technologies like cow vaccines and methane-reducing feeds could help significantly.
Going forward, the challenges here are as much geographical and cultural as they are technological. But while there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, it’s clear we need more public R&D funding so we can continue to develop better ways to feed the world without contributing to emissions.