Earth Day 2020: 4 Green Shoots to celebrate amongst the devastation

April 21, 2020 |

As I write, the May contract for West Texas Intermediate is selling for -$40.21 a barrel, or a negative cost of $240 per tonne. Let’s put that in context, you can throw unmixed useless garbage into a US-based landfill for an average price of around $75 a tonne.

Literally, you can make money by buying crude oil, and shoving it back into the ground.

As the 50th anniversary of Earth Day arrives, with it comes an outcome that the original organizers in their most optimistic moments could not have imagined. Crude oil is cheaper than garbage, literally. Putting it back into the ground has become more lucrative than burning fossil fuels. Atmospheric carbon levels have dropped 5 percent this year.

Now, these are the temporarily crazy conditions that come with the expiration of futures contracts, and the fall contracts for WTI are still in the $25 range, but if you wonder at some moments whether you have woken up in an alternative reality somewhere in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I wouldn’t blame you. I wouldn’t be completely surprised, at this point, if Superman or Lex Luthor showed up on the nightly news.

No one is of any doubt that we live in a health-driven crisis the likes have not been seen since the Black Death, the last time when most of the planet was, at one time, composed of people hiding in fear and when we saw lines of trade utterly disrupted. Yet, good things happen in terrible seasons, and there are good things to celebrate, and it would be wrong to mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day without seeing the green shoots amongst the devastation.

4 Green Shoots

ClearFlame Engine Technologies closes $3M Series A to commercialize clean combustion engine

In Illinois, ClearFlame Engine Technologies, the developer of an innovative clean combustion engine technology, closed a $3 million initial financing. Clean Energy Ventures led the financing with participation from several other investors. ClearFlame Engine Technologies has developed technology that replaces high-carbon, petroleum based fuels with 100% low-carbon, renewable fuels to reduce emissions and overall engine costs while retaining the same levels of high torque, fuel efficiency and durability benefits currently associated with diesel engines.

The funding allows ClearFlame to accelerate demonstrations of its breakthrough engine technology, which offers the same performance as a diesel engine with up to 90 percent lower CO 2 emissions, pursue instrumental partnerships and expedite commercialization. Cummins, the Fortune 500 engine manufacturer and distributor, will be partnering with ClearFlame to provide hardware, advisory support and development space to address low carbon and near-zero emissions product demands.

As background, ClearFlame recently completed a proof-of-concept demonstration of their technology on a Caterpillar engine at Argonne National Laboratory, and is preparing for a commercial prototype demonstration on a Cummins 15L engine. And you can learn more in our Multi-Slide Guide here, and more about the company here.

EnginZyme closes €6.4M Series A led by Sofinnova Partners

In Sweden, EnginZyme closed a Series A investment of €6.4 million led by Sofinnova Partners, a leading European life sciences venture capital firm based in Paris, London and Milan, bringing the company’s total funding to over €10 million since 2014. The funds will be used to accelerate the development of EnginZyme’s technology platform and take its first internal production process to pilot.

EnginZyme seeks to solve one of the fundamental problems of our time: How to produce sustainable alternatives to plastics, nylons, rubbers, and the tons of other synthetics that are used on a daily basis, without compromising on cost-effectiveness. To achieve this, EnginZyme’s technology platform combines the breadth and power of nature (enzymatic cascades) with the efficiency of the chemical industry (packed bed reactors) in a best-of-both-worlds technical solution.

Over a decade of experience investing in industrial biotechnology, there are few investors as well placed as Sofinnova Partners to bring this domain expertise to the table.”

“There’s never been a more important time to provide solid, long-term support to pioneering companies in industrial biotechnology,” said Michael Krel, Partner of the Sofinnova Industrial Biotech Fund. “We strongly believe in EnginZyme’s outstanding team and the potential of its technology to join the power of biology with the efficiency of chemical engineering to bring us towards a more sustainable future.”

More on the story here.

Crop Enhancement closes $8M Series B to Help Growers Protect Crops With Safe Coatings

In California, Crop Enhancement has closed its $8M Series B financing round led by Spruce Capital Partners/MLS. Joining Spruce are existing investors 1955 Capital (managed by Andrew Chung), Phoenix Venture Partners, Cavallo Ventures, and new investors Davinia Investments Ltd. and Alexandria Ventures.

The funding will be used to support strategic partnership development with agrochemical companies and regional distributors, broaden field trial targets in high-value fruit and vegetable segments, and advance regulatory efforts in the United States, European Union, Brazil, and Central America.

Crop Enhancement has developed proprietary sustainable bio-compatible chemistries that, when sprayed using conventional farm equipment, beneficially protect plant surfaces—leaves, stems, and fruit—to significantly improve their resistance to pests and diseases and decrease the need for synthetic pesticides and pesticide applications. The company’s first product, CropCoat, offers growers a new sustainable solution with effective modes of action that has demonstrated yield protection and enhancement relative to synthetic chemistries in several global crops. CropCoat can also be applied in conjunction with agricultural inputs such as nutrients and other active ingredients.

“This latest financing reflects the successful de-risking of multiple aspects of our business: we’ve advanced our core technology, brought in top talent, addressed regulatory requirements, and cultivated several market-entry approaches,” said Kevin Chen, Ph.D., CEO of Crop Enhancement. “Helping growers protect or enhance crop yield is even more important during the current crisis. We are grateful for the support of our investor syndicate and look forward to welcoming other like-minded organizations and investors to join our mission.”

More on the story here.

Port of Seattle to Halve Carbon Emissions with Renewable Fuel Contract

In Washington state, the Port of Seattle Commission approved a contract to enable the Port to reach its 2030 goal to reduce carbon emissions by 50 percent, almost a decade early. This long-sought major milestone, voted on at the Commission meeting on April 14, 2020 results from an authorization for a 10-year supply contract with U.S. Gain for renewable natural gas.  The $23 million contract allows the Port to purchase enough fuel to heat 55 percent of the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) terminal and to power 100 percent of its bus fleet to reach its 50 percent port-wide carbon reduction goal. SEA will be the first airport in the country to utilize RNG for heating.

The fuel delivery begins October 1, 2020. The RNG-related cost increase to the airline rates is less than one percent. There are no costs to terminal tenants such as Airport Dining and Retail operators or to taxpayers. Natural gas accounts for 75 percent of the Port’s annual climate warming greenhouse gas emissions. This contract will result in the reduction of approximately 11,000 tons of emissions the Port directly produces from its own operations (scope 1) and those from the energy it purchases (scope 2). This reduction is equivalent to heating 4,000 Seattle homes or taking 2,400 passenger vehicles off the roads each year of the contract.

“The Commission vote is another example of the Port’s environmental leadership, even in hard times,” said Commission Vice President Fred Felleman and founding chair of the Energy and Sustainability Committee. “While it’s critical that immediate attention be given to recovery from the COVID-19 crisis, we must continue to reduce our carbon footprint if we are to avoid the long-term economic and human costs associated with the climate crisis.”

4 thoughts for the future on Earth Day

1. There is going to be a future, one in which we have choices. In the past, we organized ourselves as a society, and made the investments we did, on the basis of the criteria and the imperatives as we understood them before Coronageddon. To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, that  it is the Right of the People to institute new models, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.  We may wish to take stock and engage in a good dialogue about our priorities.

2. Good things are happening, even amidst the gloom, and we might celebrate them and commend them to ourselves, and not just sharing the bad news. We’ll come back to that shortly.

3. We may be see a choice between sheltering in place and opening the economy as the fundamental debate of the summer, of the year, perhaps of the century. Open too early, a catastrophe of health. Open too late, it’s life in hell and not life on earth we have made ourselves healthy enough to experience. Protests are welling up, and we’ll see more of them, and demonizing and discounting the fears of frightened, hungry people — is going to feel at some point like defending the Bastille against a hungry Parisian mob. 

4. If you ask yourself, looking at your great-grandparents time, say 100 years ago, how far away from home was the average product was made, you might find that the vast majority were made right at home or a few miles down the street. Belts, shoes, clothes, lamps, cars, radios, grains, vegetables — think about it for a moment. Today, goods are made and distributed via a vast, interconnected and dizzying supply chain and we don’t have to turn a blind eye as to how many of them are made, even a trained eye couldn’t easily pierce the veil that complexity and distances draws over the what and how of what we buy and use.

Accordingly, we buy mostly on price. And so did our forebears, let’s not kid ourselves, they made bad choices probably even more often than we do, they just didn’t have so many opportunities to get things wrong. Sustainable sourcing, safe conditions for harvest, processing and distribution, work-life balance and so forth. Do we really ask how the sausage is made or do we just ask for the meal, more or less?

Now, we are in nefarious times and people are being asked to rise to extraordinary challenges in distribution, logistics, employment, manufacturing, safety and care. People are at home who want and need to work, people are exposed to real danger at essential services, we do not have the goods or services that we need, when we need them, where we need them, at a price we can afford. Despite what we describe as a relatively unburdened market system, free to manufacture to our tastes and needs and not to some dictatorial five-year plan. So, why are the supply chains wrong, some workers exposed, other workers ruinously idled, the materials we use in some cases dangerous or unhealthful, the distribution dangerous, and so forth?

We may find that a return to more local production will help us in the future to navigate these risks and understand our economy better. It costs more in the short run, but have we not learned from this crisis that we can’t measure the cost of every decision by market prices in the short-run. If markets were perfect, we would have never had the shortage in coronavirus testing facilities that we have and the economy would not be going through the wrenching, value-destroying cycle we are living through now. The long run is looking more important then ever, and we might all spare a thought this Earth Day to the day after tomorrow, and not just today, or tomorrow.

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