Trump’s Anti-Environment Policies Don’t Deter Northwest Innovators

There were local antidotes this week for those who see global catastrophe in the Trump administration’s attempts to reverse course on federal policies combatting climate change.

On Thursday, scores of science, engineering, and business students from around the Pacific Northwest pitched their ideas for improving the performance of batteries, recycling food scraps, filtering and conserving water, making jet fuel from wood waste, and capturing energy from the wind and sun in new ways.

For the most part, contestants in the Alaska Airlines Environmental Innovation Challenge say they are undeterred by a barrage of climate-related actions this week by President Donald Trump. Trump issued an executive order that seeks to dismantle the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, de-fund climate mitigation efforts, and withdraw the U.S. from international climate accords. On top of that, Trump’s budget proposal slashes funding for the Environmental Protection Agency. Several of the students I interviewed said they’re actually drawing more motivation from the anti-science, anti-environment policies Trump is advancing.

“Initially it’s very dispiriting, hearing about all the cuts to the EPA, to anyone working on climate change. But it gives our focus a new sense of urgency,” said Katherine Schultz, whose team, GreenFeed (pictured above), took home a $1,000 prize. “And because of that, too, it seems like entrepreneurial ventures are going to have to be the way forward in this current climate. We’re not going to be getting the federal support.”

GreenFeed aims to convert retail food waste into pelletized feed for the aquaculture industry.

Food waste en route to being fish food. Photo: Benjamin Romano / Xconomy

Environmental entrepreneurs can also find solace and support in the actions of established businesses and political leaders in the Northwest and beyond.

On Tuesday, at about the same time President Trump signed the executive order in the other Washington, Gov. Jay Inslee was praising the installation of a very large battery that will help a utility north of Seattle use more renewable energy.

The UniEnergy Technologies flow battery installation at a substation in Everett, WA. Photo courtesy of UniEnergy Technologies

The enormous battery—capable of storing 8 megawatt hours of electricity—is the end result of years of Washington innovation and technology development, backed by state and federal government incentives as well as international investment. The battery system was manufactured by Mukilteo, WA-based UniEnergy Technologies, a spinout from the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory that is backed by Chinese and Japanese investors. The deployment at the Snohomish County Public Utility District (SnoPUD) substation in Everett was financed by some $7.3 million in matching grants from Washington’s Clean Energy Fund. The software to control it comes from a Seattle-based startup, 1Energy Systems, that was acquired last year by Korean giant Doosan Heavy Industries & Construction and is now known as Doosan GridTech.

Inslee spoke last week before the United Nations about the economic opportunity in developing clean energy technologies, where he bragged about the SnoPUD battery.

“On the West Coast, we are shutting down our coal plants. We are electrifying our transportation system,” Inslee said. “We are pricing and capping the unfettered emissions of carbon pollution that we know are so devastating. And importantly, we are battling the evil twin of climate change, which is ocean acidification.”

He added, “Our progress in Washington State is not going to be stopped, by anyone, at any time.”

The investments Washington is making in energy storage technology development and deployment are helping birth a new wave of startup companies.

Greg Newbloom, founder and CEO of Membrion, a UW startup developing what could be a significantly less expensive silica-based membrane material for large-scale batteries such as the one installed this week, said he’s concerned about the global implications of the new federal policy direction, but sees little impact on his nascent business.

Membrion CEO Greg Newbloom. Photo: Benjamin Romano / Xconomy

“It’s the states who have decided to adopt clean energy [and] are the ones who are driving the purchasing agreements, and those haven’t changed,” Newbloom said.

Membrion, with nine paid employees, has attracted funding from a roster of sources: the National Science Foundation; UW’s CoMotion commercialization arm; and the Amazon Catalyst program. The startup won $6,000 at the Environmental Innovation Challenge.

“We’re in this process of making that translation from an idea in the lab to a product,” he said, adding that new facilities such as the Washington Clean Energy Testbeds will be a major asset.

Newbloom sees momentum building toward energy storage, both to help states integrate more renewable energy into their electricity grids, and to improve grid operations—regardless of federal climate policies. “The infrastructure is going to get built one way or another, and so we’re excited to be a part of that,” he said.

Inslee wants to see more of that infrastructure developed here. He sought $60 million to extend the Clean Energy Fund in his budget proposal for the 2017-2019 biennium. The state Senate’s budget cut that amount in half, but also proposes to turn the fund into a continuing program. The clean energy industry is hoping the funding survives as the Senate and House hash out a state budget, under pressure to adequately fund education.

Meanwhile, the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission is taking comments on a draft report providing guidance to investor-owned utilities for evaluating, purchasing, and integrating energy storage technologies. K&L Gates attorneys break down the proposed changes here.

Another company in the innovation competition, Cloud Instruments, wants to help battery researchers capture and analyze data on battery performance and longevity.

Masse, left, and other Cloud Instruments team members Slava Agafonov, center, and Ronbo Fan. Photo: Benjamin Romano / Xconomy

Robert Masse, a UW battery researcher behind the effort, said that while the Trump administration’s retreat from the fight against global warming is “putting gasoline on the fire,” he’s hopeful that they will also be a wakeup call. “Maybe one of the good things that comes out of it is people start taking it a lot more seriously, if we don’t have all the policy levers pushing in the right direction,” Masse said. “So if you’re looking for a silver lining, stuff like what we’re doing here today might be it.”

Benjamin Romano is editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email him at bromano [at] xconomy.com. Follow @bromano

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