Risky business: betting on climate tech in an uncertain world

Executive Editor

For nearly 50 harrowing days (and counting), Ukrainians have risked their lives defending their homeland from Russia.

For more than two years, all of us have weighed innumerable risks living through a relentless pandemic.

We are beginning to face the risks of a warming world, which will keep growing the longer we increase the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

The sheer amount of risk bombarding us can feel overwhelming. The world must mitigate all these different types of risk simultaneously.

Metaphors help convey the magnitude: If climate change is like unchecked diabetes for the planet, the pandemic and war are like deadly car crashes. All are bad in different ways.

If you get into a car crash, your diabetes doesn’t go away, even if another, temporally more urgent crisis demands your attention.

Here at Cipher, we scrutinize a particular kind of risk: The risks of the clean energy transition itself.

The volume of the risk of the transition is so large and with significant uncertainties, we need to tackle specific pieces at a time.
Harsh Vijay Singh, an expert on the energy team at the World Economic Forum

Will novel technologies work at an affordable price?

Will we have enough raw materials at an affordable price to make them?

Will communities support new infrastructure?

Can workers in fossil-fuel-related industries repurpose their skills?

Will governments pass enough laws fast enough to support new technologies at the pace scientists say we must?

The answers to these questions must be yes if we are to adequately combat climate change, but the risk looms large that the answer to some or all those questions is no.

Energy systems must achieve three priorities, according to WEF: 1) empower economic growth, 2) produce energy in a sustainable manner and 3) ensure security and affordable access.

“If we are not able to have a transition that balances these three priorities, then it can create unintended shocks,” Singh said.

Referring to Europe’s outsized dependence on Russian natural gas, Singh said: “We’re seeing now what happens when countries have low energy security.”

Eric Toone, a chemist who serves as the technical lead for Breakthrough Energy Ventures and co-chairs BEV’s investment committee, scrutinizes the new technologies that must underpin all three of WEF’s transition priorities.

Unlike most other venture funds, where making money is the only goal, BEV is looking to profit specifically from technologies that have the potential to make a comparatively big dent in emissions (a half gigaton a year of emissions).

Toone is intentionally going after the riskiest technologies, ranging from direct air capture, whose high cost remains formidable, to long-duration energy storage, which must grapple with electricity grids wired for older technologies.

“My job is to make sure that we’re really convinced we understand the risk,” said Toone. “You need to make sure the risk is commensurate with the reward.”

He puts the risks into two buckets: technological and business. Will the technology work and will it make enough money to offset associated risks?

“The most important contribution I can make is show the world there is a way to make money in this space,” Toone said.

BEV, launched in 2015 by Bill Gates with backing from numerous other billionaires, is considered the earliest and most prolific fund investing in climate technologies.

Unlike other technologies, such as software, many climate technologies with the biggest upside potential are the most affected by government policy, which investors often eschew.

“A lot of the markets we work in are some of the most regulated markets on Earth, and regulations are layers deep and arcane with strange personalities,” Toone said. “Those are the kind of risks you really hate.”

Toone is prepared for the inevitable downside of risks the fund takes: failure.

“There is definitely stuff in our portfolio that is going to die,” Toone said. “If we never had anything that died, shame on us for not taking enough risk.”

The types of risks Toone spends his time on every day are fast becoming everyday concerns for nearly all types of companies.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission proposed a landmark rule last month that will require publicly traded companies to disclose various kinds of risks that both a warming world and the energy transition pose to their businesses.

Similar requirements are also increasingly likely in Europe and on a global level.

“The risk of acting can be mitigated,” Singh said. “We have some amount of time on which we can set pathways which can help minimize these risks. But the risks of not acting, those risks cannot be minimized.”

Editor’s note: BEV is affiliated with the broader Breakthrough Energy network, which supports Cipher.