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iFixit gives Fairphone 3 a perfect 10 for repairability

By Natasha Lomas

Here’s something the hermetically sealed iPhone can’t do: Score a perfect 10 for repairability.

Smartphone startup and social enterprise Fairphone’s latest repairable-by-design smartphone has done just that, getting 10/10 in an iFixit Teardown vs scores of just 6/10 for recent iPhone models.

The Fairphone 3, which was released in Europe last week with an RRP of €450, gets thumbs up across the board in iFixit’s hardware Teardown. It found all the internal modules to be easily accessible and replaceable — with only basic tools required to get at them (Fairphone includes a teeny screwdriver in the box). iFixit also lauds visual cues that help with disassembly and reassembly, and notes that repair guides and spare parts are available on Fairphone’s website.

iFixit’s sole quibble is that while most of the components inside the Fairphone 3’s modules are individually replaceable “some” are soldered on. A tiny blip that doesn’t detract from the 10/10 repairability score

Safe to say, such a score is the smartphone exception. The industry continues to encourage buyers to replace an entire device, via yearly upgrade, instead of enabling them to carry out minor repairs themselves — so they can extend the lifespan of their device and thereby shrink environmental impact.

Dutch startup Fairphone was set up to respond to the abject lack of sustainability in the electronics industry. The tiny company has been pioneering modularity for repairability for several years now, flying in the face of smartphone giants that are still routinely pumping out sealed tablets of metal and glass which often don’t even let buyers get at the battery to replace it themselves.

To wit: An iFixit Teardown of the Google Pixel rates battery replacement as “difficult” with a full 20 steps and between 1-2 hours required. (Whereas the Fairphone 3 battery can be accessed in seconds, by putting a fingernail under the plastic back plate to pop it off and lifting the battery out.)

The Fairphone 3 goes much further than offering a removable backplate for getting at the battery, though. The entire device has been designed so that its components are accessible and repairable.

So it’s not surprising to see it score a perfect 10 (the startup’s first modular device, Fairphone 2, was also scored 10/10 by iFixit). But it is strong, continued external validation for the Fairphone’s designed-for-repairability claim.

It’s an odd situation in many respects. In years past replacement batteries were the norm for smartphones, before the cult of slimming touchscreen slabs arrived to glue phone innards together. Largely a consequence of hardware business models geared towards profiting from pushing for clockwork yearly upgrades cycle — and slimmer hardware is one way to get buyers coveting your next device.

But it’s getting harder and harder to flog the same old hardware horse because smartphones have got so similarly powerful and capable there’s precious little room for substantial annual enhancements.

Hence iPhone maker Apple’s increasing focus on services. A shift that’s sadly not been accompanied by a rethink of Cupertino’s baked in hostility towards hardware repairability. (It still prefers, for example, to encourage iPhone owners to trade in their device for a full upgrade.)

At Apple’s 2019 new product announcement event yesterday — where the company took the wraps off another clutch of user-sealed smartphones (aka: iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro) — there was even a new financing offer to encourage iPhone users to trade in their old models and grab the new ones. ‘Look, we’re making it more affordable to upgrade!’ was the message.

Meanwhile, the only attention paid to sustainability — during some 1.5 hours of keynotes — was a slide which passed briefly behind marketing chief Phil Schiller towards the end of his turn on stage puffing up the iPhone updates, encouraging him to pause for thought.

Apple 2019 event

“iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 are made to be designed free from these harmful materials and of course to reduce their impact on the environment,” he said in front of a list of some toxic materials that are definitely not in the iPhones.

Stuck at the bottom of this list were a couple of detail-free claims that the iPhones are produced via a “low-carbon process” and are “highly recyclable”. (The latter presumably a reference to how Apple handles full device trade-ins. But as anyone who knows about sustainability will tell you, sustained use is far preferable to premature recycling…)

“This is so important to us. That’s why I bring it up every time. I want to keep pushing the boundaries of this,” Schiller added, before pressing the clicker to move on to the next piece of marketing fodder. Blink and you’d have missed it.

If Apple truly wants to push the boundaries on sustainability — and not just pay glossy lip-service to reducing environmental impact for marketing purposes while simultaneously encouraging annual upgrades — it has a very long way to go indeed.

As for repairability, the latest and greatest iPhones clearly won’t hold a candle to the Fairphone.

Walmart and Tesla are going to try and work things out

By Kirsten Korosec

Walmart came out swinging earlier this week in a lawsuit that accused Tesla of breach of contract and gross negligence over problems with rooftop solar panel systems installed at the retail giant’s stores.

Now, just days later, the lawsuit has been placed on hold while the two companies try to reach an agreement that would keep the solar installations in place and put them back in service, according to a joint statement issued late Thursday night.

“Walmart and Tesla look forward to addressing all issues and re-energizing Tesla solar installations at Walmart stores, once all parties are certain that all concerns have been addressed,” the statement read. “Together, we look forward to pursuing our mutual goal of a sustainable energy future. Above all else, both companies want each and every system to operate reliably, efficiently, and safely.”

Walmart hasn’t dropped the lawsuit. The complaint is still on file with New York state court. But the two parties are going to try to reach an agreement that would avoid a lawsuit.

The lawsuit, which is aimed at Tesla’s energy unit that was formerly known as SolarCity, alleges that seven fires on Walmart rooftops were caused by the solar panel systems. Walmart asked Tesla to remove the solar panel systems on all 244 stores where they are currently installed and to pay for damages related to fires that the retailer alleges stem from the panels.

Now, a Walmart spokesperson said it is “actively working towards a resolution” with Tesla.

Neither Tesla or Walmart would explain the details of the negotiations.

The stakes are high for Tesla. Earlier this month, Tesla CEO Elon Musk  announced a new rental offering for solar power in a bid to reboot the flagging renewable energy business.

Tesla’s share of the solar market has declined since its merger with SolarCity in 2016. In the second quarter Tesla deployed only 29 megawatts of new solar installations, while the number one and two providers of consumer solar, SunRun and Vivint Solar, installed 103 megawatts and 56 megawatts, respectively.

Tesla’s renewable energy business includes residential and commercial solar and energy storage products. The company also has a utility-scale energy product called Megapack. While Tesla still produces solar panels for residential use, much of its focus has been on developing its solar roof, which is comprised of tiles. It still operates a commercial business, which targets municipalities, schools, affordable housing, enterprise and agriculture and water districts as customers.

The company doesn’t provide a breakdown of its solar installations, making it difficult to determine if the commercial business is flat, falling or on the rise. Language in its latest 10-Q suggests Tesla is putting a renewed effort into its solar business.

Tesla said it’s working on revamping the customer service experience for solar products, according to the 10-Q. The company said while its retrofit solar system deployments have it expects they “will stabilize and grow in the second half of the year.”

The 2020 Chevy Bolt EV now has a 259-mile range thanks to some cell chemistry tinkering

By Kirsten Korosec

The 2020 Chevy Bolt EV now has 259 miles of range, a 9% increase from previous year models of the electric hatchback, according to the EPA.

To get there, the company focused on cell chemistry, not the battery pack. The GM brand did not add more battery cells or change the battery pack or the way it is integrated into the vehicle structure, a spokesperson confirmed.

Instead, Chevrolet’s battery engineering team made what the company described as “impactful changes to the cell chemistry.” The changes to the cell chemistry allowed the team to improve the energy of the cell electrodes, and ultimately enabled them to squeeze more range out of the battery.

The increase pushes the 2020 Chevy Bolt ahead of the Kia Niro and the standard range plus variant of the Tesla Model 3, with 239 and 240 miles of range, respectively. Other versions of the Model 3, the long-range and performance, have a much longer 310-mile range. It’s also just one mile better than the 258-mile range Hyundai Kona EV. Nissan Leaf Plus, the laggard in the group, can travel 226 miles on a single charge.

That might not seem like much. But in this small, yet growing pool of electric vehicle models, jumping from 238 to 259 miles could help Chevrolet sell more Bolt EVs next year. It could also cannibalize sales this year.

The electric vehicle has never been a top seller for the GM brand, particularly compared to its top-selling SUVs and trucks. It has beat out some of its other Chevy models and sales are high enough for the company to stick with the compact hatchback for now.

GM delivered 23,297 Chevy Bolt EVs in 2017, the first model year of the electric vehicle. But the following year, deliveries fell 22%, to 18,019. Sales have rebounded in the first half of the year.

The 2020 model year, which will be offered in two new exterior colors, is expected to arrive in dealerships later this year. The base price of the electric vehicle is $37,495, which includes destination and freight charges. Tax, title, license and dealer fees are excluded.

This Thiel Fellow thinks he can help scooters, drones and delivery robots charge themselves with sunlight

By Connie Loizos

From the time he was a high school student, Rohit Kalyanpur thought it was peculiar that although it’s possible to create energy from a solar panel, the panels have long been used almost exclusively on rooftops and as part of industrial-scale solar grids. “I hadn’t seen [anything solar-powered] in the things people use every day other than calculators and lawn lights,” he tells us from him home in Chicago — though he’s moving to the Bay Area next month.

It wasn’t just a passing thought for Kalyanpur. Through research positions in high school, he continued to learn about energy and work on a solar charging prototype — initially to charge his iPhone — while continuing to wonder what other materials might be powered spontaneously just by shining light on it.

What he quickly discovered, he says, is there were no developer tools to build a self-charging project. Unlike with hardware projects, where developers can turn to the open-source electronic prototyping platform Arduino, and to Raspberry Pi, a tiny computer the size of a credit card and was created in 2012 to help students understand how computers work, there was “nothing you could use to optimize a solar product,” he says.

Fast-forward, and Kalyanpur says there is now — and he helped build it.

It’s been several years in the making. After attending the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for two years and befriending a fellow student, Paul Couston, who helped manage and invest the university’s $10 million green fund, the pair dropped out of school to start their now four-person company, Optivolt Labs. Entry into the accelerator program Techstars Chicago was the impetus they needed, and they’ve been gaining momentum since. In fact, Kalyanpur, now 21, was recently given a Thiel Fellowship, a two-year-long program that includes a $100,000 grant to young people who want to build new things, along with a lot of mentorships and key introductions.

Now, the company has closed on a separate $1.75 million round of seed funding from a long list of notable individual investors, including Eventbrite co-founders Kevin & Julia Hartz; TJ Parker, who is the founder and CEO of PillPack (now an Amazon subsidiary); Pinterest COO Francoise Brougher: and Jeff Lutz, a former Google SVP.

What they’re buying into exactly is the promise of a scalable technology stack for solar integration. Though still nascent, Optivolt has already figured out a way to provide efficient power transfer systems, solar developer and simulation tools and cloud-based API’s to enable fleets of machines to self charge in ambient light, says Kalyanpur. Think e-scooters, EVs, drones, sensors and other connected devices.

Asked how it all works on a more granular level, Kalyanpur declines to dive into specifics, but he says the company will begin testing its technology soon with a number of “enterprise fleets” that have already signed on to work with Optivolt in pilot programs.

If it works as planned, it sounds like a pretty big opportunity. Though some companies have begun making smaller solar-powered vehicles, there are presumably many outfits that would prefer to find a way to retrofit the hardware they already have in the world, which Kalyanpur says will be possible.

He says they can use their existing batteries, too — that the solar won’t just power the devices or vehicles in real time but allow them to store some of that energy, too. Optivolt’s technology “seamlessly integrates into everyday products, so you don’t have to change the product design meaningfully,” he insists.

We’ll be curious to see if see if it does what he thinks it can. It sounds like we aren’t the only ones, either.

Asked about Optivolt’s road map, Kalynapur suggests that one is coming together. The company’s top priority, however — beyond hiring more engineering talent with its brand new round — it to see first how it works in the field.

Frontier technologies are moving closer to the center of venture investment

By Jonathan Shieber

As the technologies that were once considered science fiction become the purview of science, the venture capital firms that were once investing at the industry’s fringes are now finding themselves at the heart of the technology industry.

Investing in the commercialization of technologies like genetic engineering, quantum computing, digital avatars, augmented reality, new human-computer interfaces, machine learning, autonomous vehicles, robots, and space travel that were once considered “frontier” investments are now front-and-center priorities for many venture capital firms and the limited partners that back them.

Earlier this month, Lux Capital raised $1.1 billion across two funds that invest in just these kinds of companies. “[Limited partners] are now more interested in frontier tech than ever before,” said Bilal Zuberi, a partner with the firm.

He sees a few factors encouraging limited partners (the investors who provide financing for venture capital funds) to invest in the firms that are financing companies developing technologies that were once considered outside of the mainstream.

Shell’s first Greenlots electric vehicle fast charger lands in Singapore

By Kirsten Korosec

Royal Dutch Shell, the energy giant known for its fossil fuel production and hundreds of Shell gas stations, is creeping into the electric vehicle-power business.

The company’s first DC fast charger from its newly acquired company Greenlots launched Monday at a Shell gas station in Singapore. Greenlots, an EV charging startup acquired by Shell in January, installed the charger. This is the first of 10 DC fast chargers that Greenlots plans to bring to Shell service stations in Singapore over the next several months.

The decision to target Singapore is part of Greenlots’ broader strategy to provide EV charging solutions across all applications throughout Asia and North America, the company said. Both Shell and Greenlots have a presence in Singapore. Greenlots, which is based in Los Angeles, was founded in Singapore; and Shell is one of Singapore’s largest foreign investors.

Singapore has been promoting the use of electric vehicles, particularly for car-sharing and ride-hailing platforms. The island city-state has been building up its EV infrastructure to meet anticipated demand as ride-hailing drivers and commercial fleets switch to electric vehicles.

Greenlots was backed by Energy Impact Partners, a cleantech investment firm, before it was acquired by Shell. The company, which combines its management software with the EV charging hardware, has landed some significant customers in recent years, notably Volkswagen. Greenlots is the sole software provider to Electrify America, the entity set up by Volkswagen as part of its settlement with U.S. regulators over its diesel emissions cheating scandal.

Clarification: Shell has other EV chargers. These are the first through its newly acquired company Greenlots.

How about earning crypto tokens to carbon-offset your Uber rides?

By Mike Butcher

Most of us, by now, are aware that all sorts of crazy stuff is happening to the planet’s climate, and the blame is pretty much universally recognized as lying with humans pumping more and more carbon into the atmosphere. Scientists are now saying tree planting, for instance, has to happen very, very quickly if we are to avert disaster.

A few startups, such as Changers, have tried to incentivize us to do things like walk instead of taking the car, with mixed results.

Now a blockchain startup thinks it may have the making of one solution, rewarding us with crypto tokens for making the right choices for the planet. Now, before you roll your eyes, hear me out…

Imagine rewarding people for taking the bus instead of their car — and them exchanging that token to offset their carbon by planting a tree? Or incentivizing passengers for sharing their travel data — helping companies to improve their experience in the future? That’s the big idea here.

Here’s how it works: The DOVU platform offers a token, wallet and marketplace and allows users to earn tokens and spend them to carbon-offset their activity and on rewards within the mobility ecosystem, starting with their Uber rides.

Users link their Uber account to their DOVU wallet, enabling them to earn DOV tokens for every journey taken. The startup has connected to Uber APIs, meaning that, once authenticated, the user has to do nothing other than take the journey.

The DOVU CO2 calculator then automatically rewards the value of tokens depending on the length of the journey. The DOV tokens can then be spent within the DOVU Action, and the user can choose the project to back or the user can ask DOVU to choose the project on their behalf to ensure the carbon offsetting happens.

The platform can connect to any published API, meaning it is in a notional position to have an immediate impact on all the new mobility solutions globally.

With Jaguar Land Rover as shareholders, DOVU potentially has the backing to try to make this happen.

Mobility-related organizations often have a need to reward, incentivize or nudge their users to do the right thing. It might be sharing their data for better service planning, taking an alternate route to help ease traffic congestion or charging electric batteries at times that are best for the grid. Whether it’s influencing consumer behavior or encouraging data sharing, the DOVU platform could, in theory, provide a solution that meets the needs of both the mobility provider and the end user. That at least is their pitch.

Hell, given the state of the planet, it might be worth a shot…

Through a new partnership and $72 million in funding, LanzaTech expands its carbon capture tech

By Jonathan Shieber

For nearly 15 years LanzaTech has been developing a carbon capture technology that can turn waste streams into ethanol that can be used for chemicals and fuel.

Now, with $72 million in fresh funding at a nearly $1 billion valuation and a newly inked partnership with biotechnology giant, Novo Holdings, the company is looking to expand its suite of products beyond ethanol manufacturing, thanks, in part, to the intellectual property held by Novozymes (a Novo Holdings subsidiary).

“We are learning how to modify our organisms so they can make things other than ethanol directly,” said LanzaTech chief executive officer, Jennifer Holmgren.

From its headquarters in Skokie, Ill., where LanzaTech relocated in 2014 from New Zealand, the biotechnology company has been plotting ways to reduce carbon emissions and create a more circular manufacturing system. That’s one where waste gases and solid waste sources that were previously considered to be un-recyclable are converted into chemicals by LanzaTech’s genetically modified microbes.

The company already has a commercial manufacturing facility in China, attached to a steel plant operated by the Shougang Group, which produces 16 million gallons of ethanol per-year. LanzaTech’s technology pipes the waste gas into a fermenter, which is filled with genetically modified yeast that uses the carbon dioxide to produce ethanol. Another plant, using a similar technology is under construction in Europe.

Through a partnership with Indian Oil, LanzaTech is working on a third waste gas to ethanol using a different waste gas taken from a Hydrogen plant.

The company has also inked early deals with airlines like Virgin in the UK and ANA in Japan to make an ethanol-based jet fuel for commercial flight. And a third application of the technology is being explored in Japan which takes previously un-recyclable waste streams from consumer products and converts that into ethanol and polyethylene that can be used to make bio-plastics or bio-based nylon fabrics.

Through the partnership with Novo Holdings, LanzaTech will be able to use the company’s technology to expand its work into other chemicals, according to chief executive Jennifer Holmgren. “We are making product to sell into that [chemicals market] right now. We are taking ethanol and making products out of it. Taking ethylene and we will make polyethylene and we will make PET to substitute for fiber.”

Holmgren said that LanzaTech’s operations were currently reducing carbon dioxide emissions by the equivalent of taking 70,000 cars off the road.

“LanzaTech is addressing our collective need for sustainable fuels and materials, enabling industrial players to be part of building a truly circular economy,” said Anders Bendsen Spohr, Senior Director at Novo Holdings, in a statement. “Novo Holdings’ investment underlines our commitment to supporting the bio-industrials sector and, in particular, companies that are developing cutting-edge technology platforms. We are excited to work with the LanzaTech team and look forward to supporting the company in its next phase of growth.”

Holmgren said that the push into new chemicals by LanzaTech is symbolic of a resurgence of industrial biotechnology as one of the critical pathways to reducing carbon emissions and setting industry on a more sustainable production pathway.

“Industrial biotechnology ca unlock the utility of a lot of waste carbon emissions. ” said Holmgren. “[Municipal solid waste] is an urban oil field. And we are working to find new sources of sustainable carbon.”

LanzaTech isn’t alone in its quest to create sustainable pathways for chemical manufacturing. Solugen, an upstart biotechnology company out of Houston, is looking to commercialize the bio-production of hydrogen peroxide. It’s another chemical that’s at the heart of modern industrial processes — and is incredibly hazardous to make using traditional methods.

As the world warms, and carbon emissions continue to rise, it’s important that both companies find pathways to commercial success, according to Holmgren.

“It’s going to get much much worse if we don’t do anything,” she said.

Nissan and EVgo to add 200 fast chargers as more electric vehicles hit US roads

By Kirsten Korosec

Nissan and EVgo said Tuesday they will install another 200 DC fast chargers in the United States to support the growing number of consumers who are buying electric vehicles, including the new Nissan Leaf e+ that came to market earlier this year.

The 100 kilowatt DC fast-charging stations will have both CHAdeMO and CCS connectors, making them accessible to more EV drivers. The inclusion of both charger connectors is logical; it’s also notable for Nissan, once the primary advocates for CHAdeMO chargers.

The announcement builds off of the companies’ six-year partnership, which included building out a corridor of EV chargers along Interstate 95 on the East Coast, as well as between Monterey, Calif., and Lake Tahoe.

Nissan says it has installed more than 2,000 quick-charge connectors across the country since 2010.

Plans to add another 200 fast chargers follows the launch of the 2019 Nissan Leaf e+. The Nissan Leaf e+, which came to the U.S. and Canada this spring, has a range of 226 miles and fast-charging capability.

This new version of the Leaf all-electric hatchback has 40% more range than other versions thanks to a 62 kilowatt-hour battery pack. That 226-mile range puts the Leaf e+ just under the Chevy Bolt EV, which has a 238-mile range, the Kia Niro EV with 239 miles and the Tesla Model 3 standard range plus with 240 miles.

“Given the tremendous driver response to the 2019 long-range all-electric LEAF, Nissan and EVgo will accelerate fast charging by committing to a multi-year charger construction program that will continue to expand fast-charging options for EV drivers across the country,” Aditya Jairaj, director, EV Sales and Marketing, Nissan North America said in a statement.

The companies also plan to partner on a marketing campaign to sell consumers on the benefits of EVs, and for Nissan, hopefully persuade more to buy its Nissan Leaf Plus. Nissan’s July sales figures were down compared to the same month last year, a slump that has affected the Leaf, as well.

An autonomous robot EV charger is coming to San Francisco

By Kirsten Korosec

Electric-vehicle chargers today are designed for human drivers. Electrify America and San Francisco-based startup Stable are preparing for the day when humans are no longer behind the wheel.

Electrify America, the entity set up by Volkswagen as part of its settlement with U.S. regulators over the diesel emissions cheating scandal, is partnering with Stable to test a system that can charge electric vehicles without human intervention.

The autonomous electric-vehicle charging system will combine Electrify America’s 150 kilowatt DC fast charger with Stable’s software and robotics. A robotic arm, which is equipped with computer vision to see the electric vehicle’s charging port, is attached to the EV charger. The two companies plan to open the autonomous charging site in San Francisco by early 2020.

Stable render 2 final

A rendering of an autonomous electric vehicle charging station.

There’s more to this system than a nifty robotic arm. Stable’s software and modeling algorithms are critical components that have applications today, not just the yet-to-be-determined era of ubiquitous robotaxis.

While streets today aren’t flooded with autonomous vehicles, they are filled with thousands of vehicles used by corporate and government fleets, as well as ride-hailing platforms like Uber and Lyft . Those commercial-focused vehicles are increasingly electric, a shift driven by economics and regulations.

“For the first time these fleets are having to think about, ‘how are we going to charge these massive fleets of electric vehicles, whether they are autonomous or not?’ ” Stable co-founder and CEO Rohan Puri told TechCrunch in a recent interview.

Stable, a 10-person company with employees from Tesla, EVgo, Faraday Future, Google, Stanford and MIT universities, has developed data science algorithms to determine the best location for chargers and scheduling software for once the EV stations are deployed.

Its data science algorithms take into account installation costs, available power, real estate costs as well as travel time for the given vehicle to go to the site and then get back on the road to service customers. Stable has figured out that when it comes to commercial fleets, chargers in a distributed network within cities are used more and have a lower cost of operation than one giant centralized charging hub.

Once a site is deployed, Stable’s software directs when, how long and at what speed the electric vehicle should charge.

Stable, which launched in 2017, is backed by Trucks VC, Upside Partnership, MIT’s E14 Fund and a number of angel investors, including NerdWallet co-founder Jake Gibson and Sidecar co-founder and CEO Sunil Paul .

The pilot project in San Francisco is the start of what Puri hopes will lead to more fleet-focused sites with Electrify America, which has largely focused on consumer charging stations. Electrify America has said it will invest $2 billion over 10 years in clean energy infrastructure and education. The VW unit has more than 486 electric vehicle charging stations installed or under development. Of those, 262 charging stations have been commissioned and are now open to the public.

Meanwhile, Stable is keen to demonstrate its autonomous electric-vehicle chargers and lock in additional fleet customers.

“What we set out to do was to reinvent the gas station for this new era of transportation, which will be fleet-dominant and electric,” Puri said. “What’s clear is there just isn’t nearly enough of the right infrastructure installed in the right place.”

Tesla has a new energy product called Megapack

By Kirsten Korosec

Tesla has launched a new utility-scale energy storage product called Megapack modeled after the giant battery system it deployed in South Australia as the company seeks to provide an alternative to natural gas “peaker” power plants.

Megapack is the third and largest energy storage system offered by Tesla. The company also sells the residential Powerwall and the commercial Powerpack systems.

Megapack, which Tesla announced Monday in a blog post, is the latest effort by the company to retool and grow its energy storage business, which is a smaller revenue driver than sales of its electric vehicles. Of the $6.4 billion in total revenue posted in the second quarter, just $368 million was from Tesla’s solar and energy storage product business.

Tesla did deploy a record 415 megawatt-hours of energy storage products in the second quarter, an 81% increase from the previous quarter, according to Tesla’s second-quarter earnings report that was released July 24. Powerwalls are now installed at more than 50,000 sites.

The Megapack offering could provide an even bigger boost if Tesla can convince utilities to opt for it instead of the more common natural gas peaker plants used today. And it seems it already has.

Tesla’s Megapack will provide 182.5 MW of the upcoming 567 MW Moss Landing energy storage project in California with PG&E.

The so-called Megapack was specifically designed and engineered to be an easy-to-install utility-scale system. Each system comes fully assembled — that includes battery modules, bi-directional inverters, a thermal management system, an AC main breaker and controls — with up to 3 megawatt-hours of energy storage and 1.5 MW of inverter capacity.

The system includes software, developed by Tesla, to monitor, control and monetize the installations, the company said in a blog post announcing Megapack.

All Megapacks connect to Powerhub, an advanced monitoring and control platform for large-scale utility projects and microgrids, and can also integrate with Autobidder, Tesla’s machine-learning platform for automated energy trading, the company said.

Megapack was inspired by Tesla’s Hornsdale project, which combined its 100 MW Powerpack system with Neoen’s wind farm near Jamestown in South Australia. The Tesla Powerpack system stored power generated by the wind farm and then delivered the electricity to the grid during peak hours. The facility saved nearly $40 million in its first year.

Today, the go-to option for utilities are natural gas “peaker” power plants. Peaker power plants are used when a local utility grid can’t provide enough power to meet peak demand, an occurrence that has become more common as temperatures and populations rise.

Tesla hopes to be the sustainable alternative. And in states like California, which have ambitious emissions targets, Tesla could gain some ground. Instead of using a natural gas peaker plant, utilities could use the Megapack to store excess solar or wind energy to support the grid’s peak loads.

Apple leads corporate American solar energy usage

By Jonathan Shieber

Apple led the way in solar usage as technology companies step up their development of renewable energy projects to offset their carbon emissions.

That’s the word from the Solar Energy Industry Association in its latest tally of leading corporate solar energy installers across the U.S.

Last year, Apple installed 400 megawatts of solar capacity to lead all companies in the U.S.

“Top companies are increasingly investing in clean, reliable solar energy because it makes economic sense,” said Abigail Ross Hopper, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), in a statement. “[And] corporate solar investments will become even more significant as businesses use solar to fight climate change, create jobs and boost local economies.”

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Four of the top 10 corporate solar users in the U.S. were tech companies. Amazon was No. 2 on the Solar Energy Industry Association’s list of companies tapping solar energy to power their businesses. The data center company Switch and search giant Google (a subsidiary of Alphabet) came in as the fifth and sixth companies.

“Playing a significant role in helping to reduce the sources of human-induced climate change is an important commitment for Amazon,” said Kara Hurst, director of Sustainability, Amazon, in a statement. “Major investments in renewable energy are a critical step toward addressing our carbon footprint globally. We will continue to invest in these projects and look forward to additional investments this year and beyond.”

The price for solar continues to come down, which is increasing the adoption — and scale — of solar installations in the U.S.

According to the SEIA, the biggest jump in solar installations have happened in the last three years. In all, 7 gigawatts of solar capacity has been installed at commercial locations, which is enough to power 1.4 million homes.

Of course, these numbers still need to increase even more dramatically for the corporate world to show that it’s serious about addressing climate change. While it’s important to acknowledge the successes of companies that are taking strides to incorporate more renewable energy into their operations, the goal for these massive industrial and technology giants (and really the goal for every institution) should be to get to as close to full decarbonization as possible.

The world has 10 years to wean itself off its current emissions-heavy consumption habits. Increasing solar usage is a step in the right direction, but it’s only a step.

Tesla focuses on service with 25 new service centers in Q2, rate of new openings to ‘increase’

By Darrell Etherington

Tesla is set to aggressively ramp up the rate at which it opens new service facilities, according to CEO Elon Musk’s guidance on the company’s Q2 2019 earnings call. In total, Tesla opened 25 new service centers during the quarter, and added 100 new service vehicles to its existing fleet — which is in contrast to an earlier statement made by Musk that they’d look to close most of their physical stores in an effort to reduce costs.

Notably, Musk referred to the locations only as “service centers” during his comments on the subject on Wednesday’s earnings call, and never as stores — asked about “retail locations,” he corrected the analyst asking and again said that what Tesla opened were “service centers” specifically. He also emphasized the importance of ensuring that service scales in line with the size of Tesla’s overall fleet of vehicles in active use. Musk mentioned that the number of Tesla cars on the road doubled in the last year alone, meaning it’s seeing exponential growth in terms of the total size of the fleet it needs to service.

“Service scales not just with new production, but as the whole fleet sales,” Musk said, adding that they want to grow their service capabilities in a way that’s responsible when it comes to cost, but that that is “quite difficult” when it comes to the rate at which the company’s sales and shipments are increasing.

Even so, Tesla is taking on still more of its service work itself, rather than outsourcing to external vendors.

“We’ve in-sourced a great deal of the collision repair activities, which I think had quite a good impact on customer happiness,” Musk said. “This will continue in the months to come.” Musk also noted that the company is working hard to reset its processes in order to ensure that parts are available on-hand when and where needed for service, which is a gap that has prompted customer complaints in the past.

The Tesla CEO said that he meets with the Tesla service team “multiple times a week” to “get updates on the reliability of the vehicle,” noting the best service possible is “no service” because that would represent maximum reliability (and of course, lowest possible ongoing costs for Tesla). He also said that they’ve seen “fewer and fewer service visits for the most recent cars that we’re building, so we’re on a good trend there.”

Jerome Guillen, President of Automotive at Tesla also noted that the number one reason for service visits is actually people looking to learn how to use Autopilot, and in general education represents a high percentage of visits.

Tesla CFO Zach Kirkhorn addressed a question about the service center expansion later in the call, adding that the company is pursuing a path of systematic “focus on service and supercharging, as opposed to a retail presence.” He also noted that he believes efforts to improve their parts distribution, with a focus on ensuring that parts are available on-hand in inventory at the service centers where they’re needed will actually help bring down costs overall versus housing them centrally or ordering on-demand from suppliers and Tesla’s own fabrication facilities.

Tesla has begun preparations for Model Y production at its Fremont factory

By Darrell Etherington

Tesla has already started the preparations required to get production started on its forthcoming Model Y compact all-electric SUV, according to Tesla CEO Elon Musk . During his introductory comments on the automaker’s Q2 2019 earnings call, Musk noted that prep had started at its facility in Fremont, confirming a report from CNBC from March.

In Tesla’s first earnings call for 2019, Musk said that it was in the process of deciding between Fremont and its Gigafactory in Nevada for production of the Model Y, which is going to be based on the Model 3 platform and will share some of its componentry, something that Musk noted will help reduce its cost of production.

The Model Y, revealed in March, looks quite similar at first glance to the Model 3. It has a slightly higher profile, however, putting it in this compact SUV range. It has similar interior features to the Model 3, including the horizontal 15-inch touchscreen, and also features a panoramic roof more like its larger Model X premium all-electric SUV sibling. Pricing for the Model Y will begin at $39,000, and that version will have a 230-mile range. It’s currently planned to ship sometime in the fall of 2020.

Tesla should be able to get to around 7,500 to 8,000 Model Ys produced at Fremont by the end of the year, Musk confirmed in response to a question from an analyst on the call.

Bosch launches cloud-connected battery management to extend the life of EV batteries

By Jonathan Shieber

Bosch is bringing to market a new cloud-connected software service to manage and monitor the battery life of electric vehicles.

“Bosch is connecting electric-vehicle batteries with the cloud. Its data-based services mean we can substantially improve batteries’ performance and extend their service life,” said Dr. Markus Heyn, member of the board of management of Robert Bosch GmbH, in a statement.

The new connectivity will enable companies to remotely monitor and manage battery status to reduce wear and tear on the batteries by up to 20%, according to Bosch .

By gathering real-time data from batteries on the speed at which they’re charging; the number of charge cycles they’ve undergone; stress from rapid acceleration and deceleration; and ambient temperature, Bosch can optimize recharging and prompt drivers with updates on how to extend their battery life, according to the company.

The first customer for this new cloud-connected service is the Chinese ride-hailing giant, DiDi, which will deploy a fleet of Bosch’s software-enabled electric vehicles in Xiamen.

The tools are not only prescriptive, but predictive, allowing fleet operators to determine when a battery might wear out and provide optimal information on when to replace aging batteries to ensure the best performance from a vehicle, Bosch said in a statement.

“Powerful batteries with long service live will make electromobility more viable,” said Heyn, in a statement.

Bosch sees three advantages in these insights. They’re able to reduce the aging of batteries, improve maintenance and repair times and, by managing the recharging process, can ensure that batteries don’t permanently lose performance and capacity.

BMW unveils the first all-electric Mini with the Cooper SE

By Darrell Etherington

The all-electric Mini Cooper was once just a demonstration car and a dream for EV fans, but now it’s a car people will actually be able to buy, with truly competitive range and a ground-up purely electric drivetrain. The new Mini Cooper SE is the brand’s first purely electric small car, with a range of between 235 and 270 kilometres (146 to 168 miles) and a fast-charing possible at up to 50 kW.

The Cooper SE can also manage zero to 60 acceleration in just over 7 seconds, and has an engine under the hood that’s capable of delivering the equivalent of up to 181 HP. You’ll get that instant acceleration which is a natural benefit of all-electric engines, and really a really quick jump off the line to 37 mph in just 3.9 seconds.

Of course, these performance numbers don’t match up to something like the Tesla Model S (or even the Model 3 for that matter) and the range likewise isn’t quite on par, which may be its biggest challenge. But the classic 3-door Mini Cooper design is a draw in itself, and the pricing on the vehicle is around $36,400 U.S. when converted from the 32,500 Euro starting cost, which could make it attractive for buyers at the entry-level of the luxury scale.

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Meanwhile, this is also the first electric car in the BMW Group family that offers the driver a choice between full regenerative breaking or light, meaning you can tweak how aggressively the vehicle decelerates when you take your foot off the gas. It’s another nice option for people switching from gas cars, or who just like to be able to tune performance as much as possible.

BMW Group says it’s going to start shipping these ASAP, and already has extensive interest from pre-registered customers.

Y Combinator-backed Project Wren is aiming to make carbon offsets more consumer friendly

By Jonathan Shieber

When Landon Brand and Benjamin Stanfield graduated from the University of Southern California this year, they already had the plans for Project Wren, their service for selling carbon offsets to a new generation of conscious consumers.

Along with fellow co-founder Mimi Tran Zambetti (who’s still attending USC), Brand and Stanfield aim to make carbon offsets more accessible to people who may feel like there’s nothing they can do on a personal level to reduce their carbon footprint or support projects that reduce carbon emissions. 

It’s not a novel concept. In 2004, TerraPass launched its service to provide carbon offsets for consumers. The company was acquired in 2014 and now operates as a subsidiary of the publicly traded Canadian retail energy company, Just Energy.

Since TerraPass, other organizations have come in with services to offset consumer and corporate carbon emissions. The Swiss nonprofit MyClimate is another organization working on offsets for corporations and individuals (as is the German nonprofit, Atmosfair) and the North American public benefit corporation, NativeEnergy also has both a retail and corporate offset program.

Project Wren sources its offset investments from Project Drawdown and is trying to choose the projects that the company’s founders consider “most additional,” according to Brand.

Brand, Stanfield and Tran Zambetti met at USC while pursuing a bachelor of science degree in USC’s new Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy. Iovine and Young are the co-founders of Beats, which sold to Apple for roughly $3 billion, but perhaps are more famous for their work in the music business as the co-founders of Interscope Records (Young is the rapper and producer known as Dr. Dre).

From the outset the three students worked together on side projects and in student organizations, and decided last year to launch a sustainable business that could impact consumers in a positive way. The first idea, and the one that was initially incorporated as Project Wren, was to develop an algorithmically enhanced software service to promote diversity and inclusion in companies.

“The idea was promising, but it’s a hard product to sell. Companies aren’t used to leveraging software to help build their culture,” Brand wrote in an email. “Trying to get people to use the product made us realize how difficult it is to build something that’s useful and good for the world. If we were going to build a company around doing good, it would take a decade or more.”

The group convened earlier this year and decided, after spending a year working on their idea, that the more than 10 years it would take to build a successful business was too long for them to see the impact they wanted to make in the world. “We felt like the mission of making companies a better place to work was important, but not urgent,” Brand wrote to me in an email. “Climate change is urgent. It’s the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced. That’s why we decided to pivot.”

The group then decided that they would pool their resources on another project — a vegan cloud kitchen that could potentially become a franchise or chain.

“Meat production is responsible for as much as 20% of greenhouse gas emissions,” Brand wrote. “If we could make eating vegan food easier than eating meat, we would have a huge impact.”

The group ran a cloud kitchen out of Brand’s apartment for two weeks before deciding that, too, ultimately was a wash for the three young co-founders.

With that idea behind them, the three began researching carbon offsets, which led them to Project Drawdown, which led them to build their current website and, ultimately, Y Combinator .

Customers who buy offsets using Wren will support projects that the company has selected for their additionality (meaning the projects would not have been done without the support of organizations like Wren). Once the offsets are purchased, Project Wren retires them from circulation so they can’t be traded on any exchange after their creation.

The company makes money by taking a 20% commission above the price of the project for operating expenses and marketing, says Brand.

What Brand sees as the young company’s competitive advantage is its ability to communicate more directly with a new audience of offset acquirers — engaging them more in the process by providing updates on the project.

“Photos, and stories too, from people on the ground will add a more human, real, touch,” to the projects and their reporting back to carbon offset buyers, according to Brand. “We just talk to a bunch of potential partners and see which partners would be able to give unique compelling updates to our users.”

Toyota testing improved solar roof for electric cars that can charge while driving

By Darrell Etherington

Toyota is testing a new and improved version of the solar power cells it previously launched on the Japan-exclusive Prius PHV, in a pilot along with partners Sharp and Japanese national research organization NEDO. This demo car’s prototype cells can convert solar energy at 34% and up, which is much better than the existing commercial version’s 22.5%. And, unlike its predecessor, it also can charge the car’s driving battery while the car is actually moving, recouping significant range while the vehicle is in use.

The new system will provide up to 44.5 km (27.7 miles) of additional range per day while parked and soaking up sun, and can add up to 56.3 km (35 miles) of power to both the driving system and the auxiliary power battery on board, which runs the AC, navigation and more.

Using a redesigned solar battery cell film that measures only 0.03 mm (that’s 0.001 inches), the vehicle’s engineers could put the film over a much broader surface area of the vehicle compared to the existing production version, with solar cells that wrap around covered body components, the rear door and the hood with relative ease. And as mentioned, the system can now work while the car is actually driving, thanks to changes in how generated power is fed to the system, which is a huge step up from the last generation, which could only push power to that auxiliary battery to run the radio, etc. when in motion.

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This new test vehicle will hit the road in Japan in late July, and perform trials across a range of different regions to test its abilities in different weather and driving conditions. Ultimately, the goal is to use this research to facilitate the commercial deployment of more efficient solar power generation tech that can work in a number of transportation applications.

Solar-powered cars to date have been a bit of an outlier proposition: There’s Toyota’s own Prius PHV, but it’s quite limited in terms of what you gain versus a traditional plug-in electric. Lightyear One, a startup from The Netherlands, unveiled its own solar electric consumer car last month, but production on that vehicle isn’t set to start until 2021, and it’s a new entrant into the market, at that.

Image recognition, mini apps, QR codes: how China uses tech to sort its waste

By Rita Liao

China’s war on garbage is as digitally savvy as the country itself. Think QR codes attached to trash bags that allow a municipal government to trace exactly where its trash comes from.

On July 1, the world’s most populated city (Shanghai) began a compulsory garbage-sorting program. Under the new regulations (in Chinese), households and companies must classify their wastes into four categories and dump them in designated places at certain times. Noncompliance can lead to fines. Companies and properties that don’t comply risk having their credit rating lowered.

The strict regime became the talk of the city’s more than 24 million residents, who criticized the program’s inflexibility and confusing waste categorization. Gratefully, China’s tech startups are here to help.

For instance, China’s biggest internet companies responded with new search features that help people identify which wastes are “wet” (compostable), “dry,, “toxic,” or “recyclable.” Not even the most environmentally conscious person can get all the answers right. Like, which bin does the newspaper you just used to pick up dog poop belong to? Simply pull up a mini app on WeChat, Baidu or Alipay and enter the keyword. The tech firms will give you the answer and why.

wechat garbage sorting

A WeChat mini program that lets users learn the category of cash

Alipay, Alibaba’s electronics payment affiliate, claims its garbage-sorting mini app added one million users in just three days. The lite app, which is available without download inside the e-wallet with one billion users, has so far indexed more than 4,000 types of rubbish. Its database is still growing, and soon it will save people from typing by using image recognition to classify trash when they snap a photo of it. Alibaba’s answer to Alexa Tmall Genie can already answer (in Chinese) the question “what kind of trash is a wet wipe?” and more.

If people are too busy or lazy to hit the collection schedule, well, startups are offering valet trash service at the doorstep. A third-party developer helped Alipay build a recycling mini app (“垃圾分类回收平台”) and is now collecting garbage from 8,000 apartment complexes across 11 cities. To date, two million people have sold recyclable material through its platform.

Ele.me, Alibaba’s food delivery arm, added trash pickup to its list of valet services its fleets offer on top of “apologize to the girlfriend” and dog walking.

Alibaba’s food delivery & local service platform https://t.co/Yh95Bt0DPG just rolled out a “throw out the trash” service for $2. The delivery guy can also “apologize to the girlfriend” on your behalf among other things #DigitalEconomyinChina $BABA pic.twitter.com/C2ey1ePDvJ

— Krystal Hu (@readkrystalhu) June 24, 2019

Besides helping households, companies are also building software to make property managers’ lives easier. Some residential complexes in Shanghai began using QR codes to trace the origin of garbage, state-owned media outlet Xinhua reported. Each household is asked to attach a unique QR code to their trash bags, which will be scanned for sources and classification when they arrive at the waste management station.

shanghai garbage

Workers at a waste management station in Shanghai scan codes on trash bags to check their source (Screenshot from Xinhua feature)

This way, regulators in the region know exactly which family has produced the trash — although the city’s current garbage regulations do not require real-name tracking — and those who correctly categorized receive a small reward of 0.1 yuan, or 1.45 cents, per day, according to another report (in Chinese) from Xinhua.

Volkswagen launches WeShare all-electric car sharing service

By Darrell Etherington

Making good on plans revealed last year to debut an EV-exclusive car sharing service, Volkswagen is actually launching its fleet for customers – debuting WeShare, a new shared service similar to Car2Go or GM’s Maven, but featuring only all-electric vehicles. Initially, WeShare will be available only in Berlin, where it’s launching today with 1,500 Volkswagen e-Golf cars making up the on-demand rental fleet.

The plan is to add 500 more cars to the available population by early next year, specifically the e-up! electric city company car, and then it’ll also play host to the brand new ID.3 fully electric car when that’s officially launched. VW is still targeting the middle of next year for a street date for that vehicle, which is part of its all-new ID line of vehicles designed from the ground-up based on its next-generation electric vehicle platform. In terms of new geographies, WeShare will look to launch In Prague (in partnership with VW Group sub-brand Skoda) and also in Hamburg, both some time in 2020.

WeShare has a coverage area that includes the Berlin city centre and a little bit beyond the Ringbahn train line that encircles it. The cars are available in a “free-floating” arrangement, meaning they’ll be free to pickup and park wherever public parking is available. This one-way model, which is the one used by competitor Car2go, is distinct from the round-trip style rentals preferred by Zipcar, for instance. It’s more convenient for customers, but more of a headache for operators, who have to worry about ensuring cars remain in the rental zone and are parked appropriately and legally.

WeShare will also take responsibility for recharging the vehicles as needed, and will do so using the public charging network that’s available in Berlin, but later on it will seek to incentive actual users of the system to charge up when vehicles need it.

Car sharing, especially one-way, has had a hit-and-miss track record to date. Car2go shuttered operations in Toronto and Chicago, for instance, due to incompatibility with city operations regarding parking in the case of Toronto, and rampant cases of fraud in Chicago that resulted in cars being used to commit crimes. VW notes in a release that in Berlin, however, the number of car sharing users has grown from 180,000 people in 2010 to 2.46 million in early 2019.

Volkswagen also owns and operates a fully-electric ridesharing service called MOIA, which has built its own fit-for-purpose vehicle and which currently operates in Hamburg and Hanover. Last year, VW said the two mobility service operations, which offer very different service models, will work together in future.

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