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Deepening RMI’s Commitment to Energy Entrepreneurs and Whole-Systems Innovation

Speeding the transition to a clean, prosperous, and secure low-carbon future has been the lodestar for Rocky Mountain Institute for over three decades. In recent years, the Institute has redoubled its efforts in response to the urgency of the global climate challenge by expanding into new markets and geographies. Through these interventions, RMI is moving even faster to foster the necessary innovation and disruption to support system-level transformation in the energy, mobility, buildings, financial, and industrial sectors to help meet the call to action.

Beginning with pioneering work in 1977 by RMI Co-Founder and Chief Scientist Amory Lovins such as The Road Not Taken, RMI has a long track record of driving market-based solutions by thinking holistically about how to untangle complex, interwoven design inefficiencies of energy and resource use within large, industrial systems. Now, RMI is helping to drive the next wave of disruptive innovation, as the urgency of the climate crisis highlights the need for scaling solutions. We support innovation in several strategic ways, including:

  • Running challenges and prizes such as the Global Cooling Prize
  • Supporting startups including WattTime and Energy Web Foundation
  • Launching spinoffs like the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance
  • Facilitating accelerators and workshops such as our annual Electricity Innovation Lab (eLab) Accelerator

Through these strategies, we are more focused than ever on the potential to accelerate solutions by supporting clean energy innovators and entrepreneurs.

Competition to Combat Climate Change

Launched last year, the Global Cooling Prize is a competition to accelerate the transition to more efficient air conditioning units. As average global temperatures continue to rise, the demand for air conditioning will also surge, creating a potentially vicious cycle of increasing energy use and emissions. To combat this dangerous trend, the competition seeks solutions that have five times lower climate impact than a standard air conditioner—at no more than twice the cost—for a payback period of less than four years. So far, over 2000 teams have registered for the challenge, with outreach partners including Project Drawdown, World Wildlife Fund, and others helping spread the word.

As a FastCompany article described the challenge, “The competition is targeting a small group of researchers and startups that are already working on solutions that could meet the goals of the challenge. Startups like SkyCool Systems, for instance, are looking at the potential for deep space radiative cooling technology that essentially helps throw heat into outer space with far less energy use. Others are working on systems that use semiconductors in a heat pump, or devices that use sound to turn heat into cold.” The challenge is supported by Sir Richard Branson and many senior government officials in India. It officially launched in the US last month with a meeting in Washington, D.C. that included speakers such as former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy and Eric Toome of Breakthrough Energy Ventures.

Supporting Innovative Startups

By working directly with energy startups, such as WattTime, RMI is helping to more quickly scale innovation in the industry. Supported by funding from Google’s philanthropic arm, WattTime recently announced the launch of its new satellite emissions monitoring system for real-time detection of greenhouse gases around the world. This detection and analysis will be critical to furthering our mission of targeting large sources of emissions to speed the transition to a more sustainable future. As reported in a recent article from Vox Media’s David Roberts, “WattTime is going to use satellite imagery to precisely track the air pollution (including carbon emissions) coming out of every single power plant in the world, in real time. And it’s going to make the data public. This is a very big deal. Poor monitoring and gaming of emissions data have made it difficult to enforce pollution restrictions on power plants. This system promises to effectively eliminate poor monitoring and gaming of emissions data.” With this information now publicly available, increasing transparency can help lead to a more rapid reduction in global emissions.

RMI also works closely with leading energy blockchain organizations around the world through another recent spinoff, the Energy Web Foundation (EWF). The energy transactions enabled by the blockchain ledger system have the potential to fundamentally transform business models and markets around the world. Jesse Morris, EWF’s chief commercial officer, said in a recent Greentech Media article that the Energy Web Chain’s launch represents an unprecedented level of open-source collaboration in the global energy industry. “If you look at blockchain projects in other industries, you don’t have corporates participating in public networks. The energy sector is leading the rest of the world.”

Creating Change through Workshops and Accelerators

We also provide groundbreaking change labs to support innovation, collaboration, and the acceleration of the ideas that will transform the electricity system from the inside out.  At RMI’s most recent eLab Accelerator, we brought together 13 teams from across the country focused on opportunities to deploy distributed energy resources for resilience during natural disasters, accelerate the electrification of buildings, implement solar and storage for disadvantaged communities, and help utilities to empower cities to achieve clean energy goals. These challenges, as well as the opportunities inherent with them, bring diverse stakeholders together to tackle difficult problems with creative solutions such as new business models and regulatory reform. The process is designed to spur innovation through highly facilitated workshop sessions with teams carefully selected to include all relevant decision makers, creating a whole-systems, multistakeholder, cognitively diverse approach.

Overall, the topics were focused on four core areas: new business models for utilities and other solutions providers, grid modernization and planning for distributed energy resources (DERs), electrification of buildings, and DER adoption at scale. Teams collaborated intensively for a week to move their projects forward, and shared findings with peers and distinguished faculty throughout the event to further refine their approach. Participants included representatives from organizations such as Sunrun and Sierra Club, from utilities such as Duke Energy and Southern California Edison, and others. For a full list of teams and projects check out our event page, and for more insights on the eLab experience listen to two recent podcasts.

The Time to Act Is Now

Accelerating innovation in the energy industry is essential to tackling the global climate challenge, which is why RMI remains committed to supporting innovation and entrepreneurs in many forms—challenges and prizes, startups, spinoffs, and accelerator workshops. Following the path originally set by Amory Lovins, we are sprinting ever faster to innovate and scale creative solutions. The whole world needs global support and investment on a massive scale to tackle this challenge. We look forward to working on this transition together with our donors and expanding our collaboration with innovative partners around the world. Connect with us online or in person at upcoming engagements focused on scaling innovative ideas, such as ARPA-E in Denver in July, where we will be moderating a panel discussion on clean energy incubators and accelerators. We are moving in the right direction toward a more sustainable future, but we need everyone to help us move faster to tackle the challenge.