From Wildfires to Electrified Spinning Tires
This is the story of how annual record-breaking wildfires taught a team of engineers how to overcome climate anxiety and inspired the founding of their startup, Nanogrid Technologies, PBC.
In October of 2017, an acrid haze bore down on San Francisco. The city is known for its fog, but this was different. 55 miles to the north, the city of Santa Rosa was burning. By the time the Tubbs Fire was contained, it had burned 57 square miles, 5,600 structures, killed 22 people, and blown its smoke down through San Francisco. It was the most destructive wildfire in California history.
At the time, I was a software engineer feeling the ambivalence of being between jobs and not quite knowing what to work towards next. I hadn’t yet made the connection, but breathing the constant reminder of the burning homes and businesses a few towns north was making my internal conflict worse. After a few days of smoke I didn’t know what to do about my job but I did know I had some spare time, so I logged into the Red Cross volunteer portal. The next Wednesday I drove up to a distribution warehouse to pack work gloves, N95 respirator masks, and baby wipes into 30-gallon plastic tote boxes to distribute to folks picking up what they could salvage from their burned-out homes. In the afternoon, another volunteer and I drove over the charred hills delivering supplies to a remote shelter.
At the shelter, I realized the ambivalence I felt that week was about something more than finding my next job. Wildfires are complex events with many factors — forest management, population sprawl, natural ecological fire cycles that have always existed, negligence or a stray exhaust spark — but the common factor that magnifies all others is that climate change is making fires more frequent and more severe. I realized I was actually feeling conflicted with myself for wondering about the banality of my next Bay Area software job while at the same time breathing in the smoke that is going to continue becoming more frequent.
My day of volunteering didn’t bring back the homes of the weary faces I saw on the Red Cross cots set up in that community recreation center shelter, but I would like to believe it helped those people make it through at least that day. I realized it also did something for me: it helped relieve my general anxiety of constantly reading abstract statistics like “5,600 structures burned.” Whenever we’re faced with stressful abstract facts, our first response seems to be a conflict with ourselves: “yeah, but what effect can I have?” We fall into a type of paralysis: the easiest choice is to simply not answer the question, to isolate ourselves and keep the problem abstract. However, like the bad habit we know deep down we need to break, that inaction only makes the stress linger.
What the lingering wildfire smoke did that week is show me sometimes we can’t isolate ourselves. When the problem can no longer be filed away as an abstract thing happening somewhere else, it becomes time to join the people doing something about it. And when you do, you realize it was the continued inaction that was at the root of the stress. It is not about how big of an effect you have, but rather are you participating? My one day of volunteering wasn’t going to bring back the homes of the people I met that day, but it felt good to see a welcoming if momentary glimmer of relief on their faces. I realized the ambivalence I felt about my next job had nothing to do with what my next job would be — the true conflict came from my inaction on what I saw (and was breathing) all around me. With this insight, the next week I co-founded Nanogrid.
It is now November 2018, just over a year after the Tubbs Fire. That same acrid wildfire haze once again is stinging our eyes and lungs in the Bay Area and once again is coming from “the most destructive wildfire in California history.” Today, however, that title belongs to the Camp Fire. Having started last Thursday, the abstract facts you may have read are: it turned the town of Paradise, CA to ashes; it burned 7,600 structures; and it killed at least 63 people. Once again we’re feeling the paralysis of “what can I really do?” And once again what we should be asking is “how can I participate?” The victims of the Camp Fire need relief and volunteers — do that if you can. If you can’t, the victims of the inevitable next record-breaking fire need participation. Today as the title of Most Destructive Wildfire rolls over to a new titleholder, I would like to invite you into our form of participation: the Second Electrification of America with Swing Electric.
The Second Electrification of America
My co-founders and I came from the energy and solar industry with an appreciation of how our energy consumption is closely tied to climate challenges. To talk about climate solutions, we need to talk about how we heat and cool our homes, manufacture our industrial goods, and transport ourselves and those goods across the country, because the energy all those processes require is the source of the carbon emissions that are dislodging the stability of our climate.
For example, our daily transportation needs require energy, but historically the only way to supply that energy has been to burn gasoline. Climate change has always been a difficult topic because the only options have been to give up on cars or keep burning. We founded Nanogrid because there is now a third way: today there are cost-effective (and honestly, fun) alternatives, and the adoption of these alternatives will turn the next decade into the Second Electrification of America.
In the 1930’s during the Great Depression, Americans outside of cities still relied on kerosene lamps and wax candles for light. The Rural Electrification Act brought the glow of electric lightbulbs into their homes for the first time. Seen as outlandishly expensive and a waste of resources at the time, today we can’t imagine modern life without electricity. Time has proven that the initial investment has paid for itself with the new opportunities that electricity enabled.
Today, a second era of electrification is afoot: now that we know what electrification offers, we need to revisit how we create it. Whereas the first wave of electrification created opportunities around what we plugged into the socket, today’s Second Electrification will create opportunities around what the socket itself plugs into. The Second Electrification will shift our energy production from fossil fuels towards electricity. Where electricity we use is generated by fossil fuels, it will shift towards renewable sources. This is already happening — most new electricity generating capacity added in 2018 was renewable. This hasn’t been happening because there is some coordinated federal program to shift to renewables — there isn’t one — it has been happening because renewables are now the cheapest, most cost-effective form of new energy. And where the energy we harvest is not yet in the form of electricity (like burning gasoline to spin wheels), the Second Electrification will shift it to electricity.
Introducing Swing Electric: Shifting to Electrified Transportation
We founded Nanogrid to speed up the adoption of actionable, climate-friendly technologies that are cost-effective and in many cases, objectively superior than the alternative. In our home of California, like most states, the sector with the biggest contribution to carbon emissions is transportation. Electrifying transportation — transitioning from gasoline to electric cars — is one of the most impactful consumer choices you can make. Even in coal country, “coal powered” electric cars have lower lifetime carbon footprints than even the most efficient gasoline-powered sub-compacts. Electric cars are really disruptive however because driving electric just makes sense even if you ignore the climate impact:
- Electric cars are mechanically simpler so they have lower maintenance costs (you never need an oil change because they don’t have oil)
- Electric cars drive 3–4x further per dollar than gasoline cars
- Commuters often get free HOV lane access and discounts on tolls
- EV’s are just fun to drive — the physics of electric motors give you instant acceleration without any throttle lag
Despite these advantages and mass-market EV models from Nissan, Chevrolet, Hyundai, and others now having ranges over 200 miles, the transition from internal combustion engines to electric cars isn’t happening fast enough: to meet California state goals of going from 350,000 Zero Emission Vehicles (ZEV’s) on the road today to 1.5 million by 2025 and 5 million by 2030, we must increase the number of ZEV’s on the road by about 25% every year.
We believe this is possible, but there are a whole host of issues that currently make driving electric more complicated than just walking into a dealership and buying a new car. In addition to the regular 8 hours drivers spend researching new cars, drivers who want to go electric typically spend another 7 hours researching:
- How much range they need to accomplish their daily tasks
- Whether or not they should buy a personal level 2 charger and which makes the most sense
- How to get the charger installed (professional installation is required)
- Which incentives they qualify for and how to apply
- Which electricity rate to be on to minimize their costs
We speak with many climate-aware people who see the same annual record-breaking weather events or breathe the same smoke-filled haze we have been this week. They feel something needs to be done. However, faced with the immensity of the problem, they feel ambivalent about the impact they can have as individuals. For those who drive regularly, we always tell them the same thing: switch to an electric car.
We have found so many people who like the idea, but like any new technology, it takes effort to overcome what is initially unfamiliar (even though like many new technologies, those who do adopt EV’s rarely want to go back). Many people who start looking into EV’s see the extra steps required and are lulled back into the paralysis of ambivalence. We created Swing Electric to help those people join the community of citizens taking definite action against the unstable changes we see and breathe all around us.
Swing Electric is a personalized electric vehicle marketplace that makes it easier to buy electric than sticking with dirty fossil fuels. Customers test drive from home or work to understand the futuristic feel of going electric, while our online tools and network of electricians take care of getting set up with the right charger and maximizing rebates. Personalized energy analytics software will make sure to find the electricity plan that minimizes the cost of charging your EV.
Have you been considering buying an electric car but been too intimidated by the process to get started? Join our community of drivers taking action on their climate impact by electrifying their transportation at www.SwingElectric.com. If you’re not quite ready this month, consider instead donating to the victims of the California Camp Fire — we all breathe the same air.
Dan Lopuch is the co-founder and CTO of Nanogrid Technologies, a registered Public Benefit Corporation. Together with Jon McKay, a Forbes 30 Under 30 energy entrepreneur, they run SwingElectric.com