In a difficult year, one bright spot is the way America's tech giants are ramping up their ambitions on energy use and climate change.
Microsoft issued a plan in January to become carbon negative by 2030, meaning it would make changes that would lead to a net decrease in carbon emissions.
In July, Apple released a plan to get to net-zero emissions by 2030, a framework notable for including all the company's suppliers and the energy from the use of Apple products.
And now, Google has a plan that is the most ambitious I've seen, pledging to reach zero carbon emissions around-the-clock by 2030.
To understand what this means and why it's a big deal, it helps to know how it compares to a more common type of corporate pledge. Many companies aim for some form of net-zero emissions, which means they are still consuming fossil fuels, but are offsetting this by buying excess renewable energy and selling it to the grid, or some other method of accounting for emissions.
Or a company might have substantial solar and wind power, but still relies on electricity from the grid—some of which comes from fossil fuels—during certain hours of the day when solar and wind aren't available.
In contrast, Google is setting up systems that will allow it to run 24/7 carbon-free, using a combination of renewable energy sources, batteries and other technologies.
"This is our biggest sustainability moonshot yet, with enormous practical and technical complexity," said Google CEO Sundar Pichai in a blog post. "We are the first major company that's set out to do this, and we aim to be the first to achieve it."
Google is a gigantic consumer of energy and its demand varies substantially based on many factors, including weather. The company needs flexibility to produce enough carbon-free energy to meet demand, and it needs to get better at energy conservation and forecasting.The company issued a paper outlining the scope of the challenge and how it intends to implement the plan.
As Google becomes more self-sufficient, that will take pressure off of the grid, which makes it easier for the government and grid operators to focus on reducing emissions, said Lori Bird, director of U.S. energy for the World Resources Institute, a global research organization that focuses on sustainability.
"We need these solutions to be able to move the whole grid to zero-carbon resources," she said.
I spoke with her in June about Apple's plan, which was a big deal for many reasons, including that it accounts for the energy consumed by customers using the company's products.
Google's plan, she said this week, is more ambitious in many ways than the plans of other tech companies and provides examples they can learn from.
I view corporate clean energy plans with skepticism because I have seen many that are light on details and appear to be designed mostly to generate positive news coverage.
Even with my skeptical eye, the plans of companies like Google, Apple and Microsoft, are impressive. Also, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that Facebook issued a net-zero by 2030 plan this week, along with an initiative to fight some of the climate change misinformation on the site.
The companies are betting that it's good for business to find ways to conserve energy and to plan for how best to meet future energy needs, and that makes a lot of sense.
Wildfires May Inspire an Accelerated Push for EVs
The devastating wildfires and spooky orange skies in California this month do not nurture optimism, but there is reason to hope for redoubled efforts to fight climate change.
"There is a growing idea in the research and policy communities that we're going to need to accelerate action," said Austin Brown, executive director of the Policy Institute for Energy, Environment and the Economy at the University of California, Davis.
He was talking specifically about action to reduce emissions from transportation, which is the leading source of carbon emissions in California. Carbon emissions lead to warming, which contributes to the hot and dry conditions that make wildfires more intense.
California is the country's leader in electric vehicle adoption, but also has disproportionately high emissions from transportation because of high levels of car and truck ownership and long commutes.
The state adopted a goal in 2018 of net-zero emissions by 2045, including from transportation. Brown and his institute are part of the state's planning through a project that considers how to manage the decline in demand for transportation fuels.
But there are signs that the 2045 target may get moved up, based on recent comments by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Speaking to reporters amid fire damage near Oroville in Northern California last week, Newsom said the state's current goals are "inadequate" and that officials are going to "have to fast-track our efforts."
He said an important part of this effort would be to "get more electric vehicles out on the street."
Brown told me he felt energized when he saw those comments, even though it is likely to mean that his institute and other researchers are going to have to work much harder to prepare for a shorter timetable.
His comments were punctuated by occasional coughs.
"Excuse me, the smoke around here is making me congested all the time," he said.
Before his current job, Brown worked in the U.S. Department of Energy during the Obama administration and also at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. He saw how the combination of research and actions by the private sector helped to slash prices for EV batteries and solar panels to the point that both are now affordable enough for mass-market use.
"I get optimistic because I've seen that we've already succeeded in a number of ways," he said.
Some of the most difficult parts of the transition to EVs have already been carried out by developing batteries that are affordable and have long enough ranges to meet drivers' needs, he said.
"If we are running in a marathon to the point where EVs are just the default choice, we're well through the first half of the run," he said.
Price reductions and range increases should continue, making it easier for people to buy electric cars.
U.S. sales of plug-in vehicles fell slightly in 2019, in part because there was no major model release that could keep pace with the 2018 rollout of the Tesla Model 3.
California is the country's leader in plug-in vehicle ownership. Last year, plug-in cars and trucks accounted for 7.7 percent of new registrations in the state. This is nearly four times the national share of about 2 percent.
Those sales are happening in some of the places that most need to clean up their air, with metropolitan areas in California taking the top five spots in a ranking of highest plug-in vehicle market share, according to an August report from the International Council on Clean Transportation.
In order, those places were San Jose, with about 20 percent, followed by San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles and Sacramento.
The ICCT report traces some of the factors in each area that may contribute to EV ownership, including purchasing incentives, easy access to charging stations and a large number of EV options to choose from at dealerships.
It is difficult to determine how much each factor helps, but there is little doubt that customers will buy more EVs in cities where multiple factors are acting in concert.
The bottom line is that California's EV market share needs to increase substantially, and state leaders now appear to be emboldened.
The push to take rapid action may mean the summer of 2020 is a turning point, a time when climate change went from moving so slowly that people barely notice, to something that feels much more tangible.
"Even if it's a slow crisis, it's a crisis," Brown said. "And it becomes a fast crisis really quickly."
Meet the Volkswagen ID.3, the Electric Vehicle that Could Change the Market
A potential breakthrough vehicle in the EV market has just gone on sale, but we can't get the car yet in the United States.
The Volkswagen ID.3, a hatchback now on sale in Europe, is the first in the new ID line that's part of VW's strategy to move away from internal combustion engines.
The United States will get its first taste of the ID line next year, with the release of the ID.4 crossover.
The stakes are high because Volkswagen, already the global leader in auto sales, wants to put together a lineup that can challenge Tesla for leadership in EVs. As I wrote in June, Volkswagen wants to become an EV company.
What do critics think of the ID.3?
"Fun to drive, agile, handsome, and impeccably built, it portends good things for VW's herd of coming EVs," said a review in Car & Driver.
The reviewer, Jens Meiners, gushed about the model's interior, saying, "VW got it right" with a look that is " clean and contemporary, not cutesy or overdone."
One of the most negative reviews comes from a German publication, Auto Motor und Sport, which criticizes the paint job and onboard electronics but praises the drive quality.
Among the people who got an early look was Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who took a test drive with Volkswagen CEO Herbert Diess in the passenger seat.
Diess posted an edited video of the drive on LinkedIn, including some banter.
"I think for a non-sporty car it's pretty good," Musk said.
So far, Tesla has dominated EV sales. It's a good thing for the EV market if Volkswagen and others emerge as serious challengers, and we may look back on the release of the ID.3 as a milestone on the way toward a much larger and more competitive market.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly paraphrased a comment by Lori Bird, director of U.S. energy for the World Resources Institute, about Google's net-zero plan. She said it was more ambitious than the plans of many other tech companies, but did not compare it to a specific company's.