Drought, floods, wildfires and heat waves — climate change and extreme weather events are wreaking havoc in California, especially in Los Angeles. The city has recently baked in record temperatures with a long, hot summer still stretching ahead.
It is the new normal: Climate models predict the number of extreme heat days, defined as more than 35?C, will triple by the middle of the century.
Little wonder Hollywood is churning out desert dystopias in films such as Mad Max: Fury Road and The Bad Batch.
Illustration: Mountain people
However, reality has an overlooked subplot: geeks are inventing ways to keep Los Angeles cool — and possibly mint fortunes in the process.
Dozens of start-ups have turned the city and nearby regions into a laboratory for products and services that they hope will avert environmental disaster and yield business models replicable across the globe, even beyond.
“We would welcome opportunities for off-planet growing,” said Brandon Martin, vice president of business development at Local Roots, which turns shipping containers into hydroponic farms. “We’d love to be the first company to grow food on Mars.”
He was completely serious. Engineers from Elon Musk’s Space X have studied how the company uses sensors, algorithms and machine learning to transform forty-foot-equivalent containers into the equivalent of 1.2 to 2 hectares of farmland while using 97 percent less water.
“We want to be a billion-dollar company as soon as possible,” Local Roots executive Kipp Stroden said. “We’d like to feed at least a billion people in the next 10 years.”
Time will tell if that is hubris, but it reflects the confidence of start-ups that think solving some of Los Angeles’ environmental challenges will open other markets in a heating planet.
“LA is essentially a giant opportunity to demonstrate their technologies,” said Mike Swords, vice president of government relations for Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator (LACI), a public-private nonprofit that mentors start-ups. “If you can demonstrate that your company can help solve problems here, there’s a good chance you will export it to other urban areas around the world.”
Los Angeles’ biggest climate challenges were extreme heat and drought and increased fires, said Matt Petersen, who was the city’s first chief sustainability officer before recently taking over the reins at LACI.
“Trees are job No. 1, and cool surfaced roofs and streets are key strategies as well,” he said.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has set bold targets to reduce the so-called urban heat island effect, improve air quality and ease congestion.
Voters approved two measures, which are to generate US$150 billion in the next decades — a sum exceeding former US president Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, according to some estimates — to replace traffic gridlock, a major source of heat and pollution, with cleaner transport and shaded, pedestrian-friendly sidewalks.
“It’s a city that has taken the climate change challenge seriously,” Union of Concerned Scientists western states director Adrienne Alvord said.
Meanwhile, California Governor Jerry Brown and the state legislature champion a cap-and-trade program and ever more ambitious renewable energy targets — big-spending rebuffs to the environmental policies of the administration of US President Donald Trump.
The result is an El Dorado of subsidies, favorable rules and fast-growing markets for “cleantech” companies.
“It has the attributes of a gold rush,” said Mike Hopkins, chief executive of Ice Energy, which makes air-conditioning units that store energy and can cool homes without using electricity.
“It’s a bit of a wild west, the rules are still being formed. Those who innovate and take risks, win,” he said.
A potential big winner is GuardTop, an asphalt coating manufacturer that makes CoolSeal, a reflective street surface that can reduce temperatures by several degrees. It is being piloted around Los Angeles.
Other “green” technology is on display even before entering LACI’s La Kretz Innovation Campus, a 1.3-hectare site in Los Angeles’ downtown arts district.
The car park boasts a canopy of solar panels that feed a microgrid supplying one-third of the campus’ energy needs. A bioswale collects and recycles rainwater. Amid the Teslas and other vehicles sits a triple-function generator that can turn biomass, including banana peels and coconut shells, into electricity, heat or cool air. A “living wall” of 2,100 plants looms over the reception.
The incubator was founded in 2011 with money from the federal government, the city and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, and moved to its current campus in 2015. It has outposts in Silicon Valley and the Northridge neighborhood, and plans to open one in Mexico City.
“We want to bring the best cleantech companies from around the world, especially start-ups, and help them grow,” Swords said. “This level of coaching and mentoring is an incredible deal. Every single one of the companies plans to scale. They hope to sell their products all over the world.”
In return, Los Angeles and its water and power utility will get the chance to acquire technology to combat climate change, he said.
The department has a tradition of thinking big: A century ago it siphoned water from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles, a controversial rerouting fictionalized in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown.
LACI is to survive even if the Trump administration ends federal funding, which was important, but not essential, Swords said.
The buzz on the LACI campus was unmistakable. Pick My Solar, which helps homeowners choose solar panels, has grown from five to 30 employees in a year.
“With the heat waves and brownouts people are thinking a lot about energy,” Pick My Solar analyst Kyle Graycar said.
Start-up Green Commuter said it is the US’ first all-electric vanpool.
“We reduce the cost of commuting, the amount of traffic and CO2 emissions,” Bart Sidles said, as he drove one of the company’s Tesla sport utility vehicles up Alameda Street.
River LA, one of the incubator’s nonprofits, is also feeling emboldened: It has been tasked with helping to spend US$100 million in water bond money to transform the Los Angeles River, in places a sorry trickle, into a lush waterway.
Torrential winter rains ended California’s drought, but Local Roots believes continued water shortages, plus a growing population and pressure to reduce transport costs, will make their container farms a common sight in parking lots across the US and beyond.
One container can produce 4,000 heads of butterhead lettuce every 10 days using just 94.6 liters of water daily, Stroden said.
Jonathan Parfrey, executive director of the nonprofit Climate Resolve, cautioned that Los Angeles will inevitably heat up.
“We could all turn into vegans driving electric vehicles and we’d still see this,” he said.
Low-income residents will suffer most — several studies have shown the inequitable impact. Poorer neighborhoods near the coast, such as Compton, will enjoy relative coolness, but be vulnerable to gentrification, potentially pushing residents to the city’s hotter, eastern side, Parfrey said.
Even so, he was optimistic. Technologies have been getting cheaper and smarter.
“The antidote to climate despair is working on solutions,” he said.
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