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An Interview With Amy Harder of Cipher by Breakthrough Energy

Amy Harder, a journalist with chops, takes on the net-zero challenge

In Brief

Amy Harder, as of last year, is executive editor at Cipher. The publication comes from Bill Gates' Breakthrough Energy coalition. 

Prior to joining Breakthrough, she earned a reputation as a climate journalism leader at the Wall Street Journal and Axios. 

She spoke with two Yale College students during a Zoom event on April 13. This is a partial transcript. 

CEFF:There’s a lot of optimism about the potential of the private sector to help drive the energy transition. How do you think about the role of private sector action versus public policy?
Harder: Just today in my column, I quote Eric Toone, who's one of the top scientific experts at Breakthrough Energy Ventures, which is a venture fund associated with Breakthrough Energy. And he says, “The most important contribution I can make is to show the world there is a way to make money in this space."
But we also have to ask, how can capitalism be shaped so that companies aren't just considering their second, third, and fourth quarter profits? How can they be compelled to look 20-30 years ahead? We're starting to see that the US Securities and Exchange Commission has proposed rules that require disclosure on climate change. That’s the type of thing where you really see the public sector and the private sector coming together, having to wrestle with this massive elephant in the economy. And that's why the government needs to come in.
The public and private sectors will have to work in lockstep at the beginning of this transition, and we are still at the beginning. This is an extremely long transition. Governments will need to step up much more than they are now.
CEFF: Right now, we're racing to deploy mature technologies –– ones we already have –– while also racing to develop technologies we don't have. We want to ask about both, but first, let’s talk about mature technologies, ones that can be deployed right now. What are the major roadblocks to deployment?
Harder: That is such a great question. There's always this debate –– should we deploy, or should we innovate? And the answer is, of course, both simultaneously, forever.
On the deployment front, wind and solar are just going to be the absolute backbones of the clean energy future. And so we need to deploy way more of them. The increase since the early 2000s has been hugely significant, but it needs to be even more.
The biggest hurdles are permitting challenges that are facing all sorts of renewable energy projects. We have this NIBMYism blocking or at least slowing down so many things.
Everything comes back to this idea that climate change is so massive –– the elephant in the economy. But when you look at each individual project, everybody has legitimate reasons why they don't want that particular project in their backyard.
I was reading about a toad that's now on the Endangered Species List. It was in Nevada and is slowing down a geothermal project. That toad is important. But is it as important as combating climate change? Maybe not. We need to make probably millions of decisions around the world that always put climate change first. And that's going to be really hard. 

There's always this debate –– should we deploy, or should we innovate? And the answer is, of course, both simultaneously, forever.

There are some proposals that could reform transmission authority at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission –– to give FERC more power to make decisions about the grid and power lines. And there are also changes that can be made within companies to better win over communities. Companies sometimes think just because they're clean energy, they're going to have a good reception, which is obviously not always the case.
Then the other mature technology that needs to be deployed much more is electric vehicles. The problem with EVs is that they're too expensive. We cannot combat climate change if only rich people can drive electric cars. You're starting to see more models come out that are more affordable, but they’re still pretty expensive.
One thing that the government can do: instead of giving tax credits to purchasers of electric cars, give upfront rebates. Tax credits benefit wealthier people because wealthy people can afford to wait until they file their taxes to get money. But people with lower income need upfront rebates.
CEFF: Beyond the deployment of mature technologies, we want to ask about some of the potential breakthroughs to which Breakthrough Energy's name alludes. What are potential energy innovations in which you or people you respect have conviction?
Harder: Breakthrough Energy has a new program called Catalyst. Catalyst is bringing together some of the biggest and most well-funded companies in the world –– for example, Blackrock or ArcelorMittal –– to help fund first-of-their-kind projects. Once startups have demonstrated their technology, Catalyst helps them get over the “valley of death” and scale up their technology.
There are four technologies that Catalyst is focusing on: direct air capture (DAC) to remove carbon dioxide, green hydrogen (from wind and solar electricity), long-duration energy storage (LDS), and sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). Those four are really just critical. They kind of run the gamut of different areas of the energy economy that we need to clean up.
We're seeing tons of innovation –– both from a technical perspective and in terms of financing mechanisms. Stripe and other tech companies have come together to try to speed along the funding for carbon capture. One of my favorite columns that I've done since I launched Cipher was one earlier this year, saying that carbon is like the trash of the climate change era. The trash industry apparently makes really good money. So that's a really important technology. Climeworks, which was at the frontier of this space, just had a $650 million funding round.
Green hydrogen is another one. Hydrogen has a lot of promise, but there's a lot of potential challenges as well. Blue hydrogen could be a transition fuel if carbon capture works, which is a big if. Green hydrogen is the ultimate destination. But you need a lot of wind and solar electricity to make that happen. And I already mentioned the challenges of permitting. The other challenge with hydrogen is that there's a lot of energy loss –– it's not a very efficient use of energy. But nonetheless, hydrogen’s applications are so broad that it is a really exciting technology,
Long duration energy storage is somewhat self-explanatory. We need it in order to get wind and solar up to 60%, 70%, 80% of the energy mix. And you're seeing so many exciting developments. Form Energy is a Breakthrough Energy Ventures portfolio company. Just today, we had something in our Lunchtime Read section of Cipher about pumped hydrogen, which is an oldie but a goodie.

We need to make probably millions of decisions around the world that always put climate change first. And that's going to be really hard. 

And the last technology, sustainable aviation fuel, is critically important. You know, we're not going to fly planes across the world on batteries because they're too heavy. So we need to look at liquid SAF.
Those are just barely scratching the surface of some technologies that I'm looking at.
CEFF: We were going to ask about that article you'd written drawing an analogy between carbon and trash. It’s very interesting to look at climate change as a waste management problem. Can you tell us a bit more about the role that you expect carbon capture to play in the energy transition?
Harder: When I think about carbon capture, there is direct air capture or carbon dioxide removal –– two phrases that mean basically the same thing. That’s capturing CO2 from ambient air. That's what Climeworks does –– they have these machines that look like giant air conditioners out in the middle of a desert. And that's mostly where I focus my time and energy.
But equally important, and perhaps even more controversial, is carbon capture at point source –– at a power plant or manufacturing facility. And so these two technologies are sort of cousins.
Let me take each of them one at a time, starting with carbon removal. We published a piece by Julio Friedmann, who is a longtime carbon removal expert. He praised the UN IPCC report that came out recently saying that we actually do need carbon removal. And he was grateful to see that because for a while, there was concern that if we become too dependent on carbon removal, we'll continue to emit because we’d think we have this escape clause. A moral hazard, so to speak. But most scientists agree –– according to the IPCC –– that it's too late to not consider carbon removal as an option. I also agree, and Julio agrees. But we have to emphasize that this isn't a green light for Exxon or Saudi Aramco to keep drilling.
Moving to carbon capture, there's a more direct line between supporting carbon capture and supporting some continuation of emitting facilities, whether it's a coal plant, natural gas plant, or some sort of emitting plant. I think there is a moral hazard. Environmentalists are rightly concerned that fossil fuel companies are only supporting this because it's a way to continue their business as usual. This technology is something I've been writing about for years. And it's one of those things where, you know, it's always five or ten years away. We do have some success stories. There’s some indication that carbon capture works pretty well on industrial facilities, but not as much on power plants from a technical perspective.
But there's also the concern that the carbon capture won't work that well. We're actually seeing that in Australia with Chevron’s big Gorgon project –– the capture system hasn't worked. So that's a big concern. And of course, you have the communities around these facilities that in some cases are often lower-income or communities of color. They don't deserve another round of fossil fuel infrastructure.
CEFF: One of the most covered issues in energy right now is Russian oil and gas. Given the geopolitical environment, there are a lot of voices in the US and Europe calling to expand domestic fossil fuel production. What do you see as the short-, medium- and long-term implications of the Ukrainian invasion for the energy transition?
Harder: I think short-term, there's no bones about it. There's not going to be a humongous focus on climate change. I think environmentalists will just need to sort of plug their nose and hope for the best.
A recent column that I wrote was looking back in time to before the recent oil and gas boom in the United States, which was driven by fracking and horizontal drilling of shale rock. In 2009 and 2010, Congress wanted to pass a big climate bill –– number one, to create jobs; number two, to ensure energy security; and number three, because, “Oh, by the way, this will help save the planet.” National security was always an incredibly powerful argument to combat climate change. But now we have this false security of having become the world's biggest oil and gas producer. All of a sudden, the national security case evaporated –– I've been covering this since 2009, and I feel like one day, I woke up and it just wasn't talked about anymore. But now we're being reminded that, of course, it's still there. 
The crisis with Russia isn't going away anytime soon, unfortunately. I think that the longer this goes on, the more it will compel action, but this will happen unevenly. Europe is already moving more aggressively than the US. So longer-term, I think hopefully the situation will galvanize more investments and move things farther along. Hopefully, it'll be a catalyst to remember that fossil fuels are a dangerous business to be in.  
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