Entrepreneurs coast to coast are coming up with innovative technologies showing not only that we can live without carbon-based energy, but also that we can thrive without it. From a Maine startup that's growing kelp forests (which can sequester gigatons of CO2 for centuries) to an electric vehicle company in Eugene, Oregon, that's making affordable electric cars with flair, these green tech startups show that our carbon-free future actually looks pretty cool. Wave energy? Batteries to store renewable energy that are more environmentally friendly than lithium? Biodegradable mushroom-based packaging? These aren't merely futuristic notions. They're happening now, and they've got the funding to prove it.
Tech: Builds right-size EVs for less than $20,000
Founder: Mark Frohnmayer
Home base: Eugene, Oregon
Not everyone needs--or wants--a Tesla. Arcimoto is on a mission to democratize electric vehicles. The startup, founded in 2007, makes a series of right-size EVs that are ideal for urban eco-drivers. The Fun Utility Vehicle (FUV), for example, is an open-air (yet covered) car with three wheels. Doors optional. It's ultra efficient and--unlike so many EVs--actually affordable. The company is growing, having just moved into a new 250,000-square-foot plant, a fivefold increase over its former digs. Next off the line will be a series of specialty vehicles, including the Rapid Responder, outfitted with sirens and lights for emergency services, and the Cameo, designed to create a smooth camera vehicle for the film and influencer industries.
Tech: Grows kelp to capture carbon
Founder: Marty Odlin
Home base: Portland, Maine
Like trees, kelp naturally fixes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere--only kelp does it exponentially faster than land-rooted trees and plants. So founder Marty Odlin decided to build a business selling carbon credits around this fact. Running Tide scientists amplify the process by growing the seaweed on wood buoys layered with ground-up seashells that sit on the ocean surface, allowing the plants to capture carbon via photosynthesis. The buoys themselves are made of carbon-rich wood, and when they get waterlogged over the course of several months they sink to the bottom of the ocean--carbon, kelp, and all--where they will sit for centuries. The potential is enormous: Some suggest kelp farms like these, if scaled in our oceans, could collectively sequester over 270 gigatons of carbon. Shopify, Stripe, which just launched a new $925 million carbon removal initiative, and Frontier (along with Alphabet, Meta, and McKinsey) were early purchasers of Running Tide's carbon credits. Chris Sacca's Lowercase Capital is also an investor. The first deployment of algae is happening in late summer 2022, off the coast of Iceland.
Rye Development's Swan Lake Energy Storage Project
Tech: Uses hydropower to store renewable energy
CEO: Paul Jacob
Home base: Boston
Renewable energy sources like wind and solar are critical to our carbon-free future, but since it's not always windy and/or sunny, they require storage mechanisms to green the grid. When it opens in 2026, the Swan Lake energy storage project, based in Klamath County, Oregon, will be the first pumped storage hydropower project built in the U.S. in 30 years. The system uses excess renewable electricity from the grid to pump water to an elevated reservoir, where it sits as stored energy until it's needed. During peak demand, the water is released, spinning turbines that generate electricity. Swan Lake, which is being built by Boston-based Rye Development, will generate 400 megawatts of clean electricity, vastly increasing the storage capacity for the grid's wind and solar electricity.
Tech: Builds a better battery
Founders: Julia Song and Craig Evans
Home base: Wilsonville, Oregon
These husband-and-wife founders started in their garage in 2011, cooking up so-called "flow" batteries, which store more energy and cost less per kilowatt-hour than lithium-ion cells. That's because they're made of environmentally benign materials: iron, salt, and water. A bonus: Iron batteries have a longer lifespan than lithium batteries--they can operate for 25 years or more with daily use versus lithium ion's 8 to 10 years. This kind of long-duration battery storage, which has been installed at San Diego Gas & Electric and other locations, will be crucial to reliably power a grid that relies on intermittent renewable resources like wind and solar.
Tech: Tunes buoys to the waves to generate power
Founders: Alex Hagmuller and Max Ginsburg
Home base: West Linn, Oregon
Solar and wind energy will be essential for a carbon-neutral future, but the amount of time they produce energy is low. Solar produces energy just 25 percent of the time and wind produces energy 35 percent of the time. Wave energy, by contrast, has the potential to produce energy 60 percent of the time, and AquaHarmonics' founders believe they can increase that capacity to at least 80 percent. They will do this by using many smaller devices rather than a single large device as most other wave energy startups have done. Not only are small devices cheaper and easier to deploy, they can also generate more consistent power because they move out of phase with one another. For a variety of reasons, they can also survive storm conditions better than most bigger devices can, and continue to generate similar amounts of power. AquaHarmonics is designing cylindrical buoys with a mooring line that reels in and out with the waves. Depending on where they're deployed, the average capacity is 300 to 600 kilowatts, about the same as a big wind turbine. In 2017, the startup won the $1.5 million Wave Energy Prize and has since received $4.4 million in grants from the Department of Energy. It will soon deploy a device in Hawaii at a Navy Wave energy test site to demonstrate that the technology works. Grid-connected testing should follow in 2023.
Tech: Makes biodegradable packaging from mushrooms
Founders: Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre
Home base: Green Island, New York
Polystyrene foam, otherwise known as Styrofoam, is made from petroleum. But what if you could use a plant-based version that you could also break up into bits and throw in your garden, knowing it would become soil in a matter of months? That's the solution pioneered by Ecovative, with its 100 percent natural and biodegradable packaging material made from mushroom mycelium, the root structure of fungi. The company uses a patented growth chamber to guide mycelium into enormous sheets, and then forms it into everything from wine shippers to packaging for beauty brands like Ulta Beauty Retailing. Next up? Projects for the fashion industry including shoe insoles and mycelium leathers. The company, which has licensees in many countries, is ramping up production, with plans to open a 20,000-square-foot facility on the East Coast in August 2022.
Tech: Makes faux milk that's nearly identical to the stuff from cows
Founders: Ryan Pandya and Perumal Gandhi
Home base: Berkeley, California
Methane is 28 times more potent at trapping heat than CO2, and a single dairy cow generates about 220 pounds of the greenhouse gas per year. The founders of Perfect Day engineered a way around the climate-warming impacts of the 10 million-cow strong dairy industry in the lab. By introducing the genetic code for whey protein into a fungus, Trichoderma reesei, they get a whey protein that is molecularly identical to the whey protein in cow's milk. As such, it mimics the creamy mouthfeel of dairy, making it a viable substitute. The protein is already used in a handful of popular ice-cream brands including Midwest ice cream manufacturer Graeter's and the Keto-friendly line Nick's. The company also partners with General Mills on a cream cheese and Betterland and Starbucks on an alt milk that the coffee giant is still trying to name.
Correction: This article has been updated to clarify the capacity of the AquaHarmonics wave-energy buoys, and the development stage of the Energy Storage Systems' battery storage and its locations. The buoys generate an average of 300 to 600 kilowatts, depending on their location. The ESS storage is installed but not yet in use at San Diego Gas & Electric and other locations.