Last week, I was in Scotland when the unexpected U.S. election results rocked the world. It felt like Brexit all over again, except more momentous and ominous on multiple levels. Jat Gill, a senior BBC producer invited me to the London headquarters of the BBC to appear on the show Tech Tent. He asked me to analyze the role of tech in the election and predict what’s next for Silicon Valley and clean tech. We explored:
Did Facebook help swing the election in favor of Trump by propagating “fake news” or are we all partly culpable by following those with whom we agree, and demonizing others?
How will a Trump presidency impact Silicon Valley and the clean tech sector?
During the campaign, Trump called global warming a hoax “created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” His choice of Myron Ebell, a climate change skeptic and non-scientist, to oversee the EPA transition is threatening for the clean tech sector. There is growing fear that a Trump presidency will cripple the Paris climate pact and derail global progress toward a low carbon economy. Despite these fears, I am hopeful that the worst excesses of the Trump agenda will be tempered by the concerted efforts of state and local leaders, leveraging existing state laws and making legal challenges when necessary.
Here are some program highlights, edited for length and clarity:
Rory Cellan Jones: Hello and welcome to Tech Tent. This week we’re going to be focusing on the technology of Trump. How did the unexpected winner of the presidential election harness data science to zero-in on key voters? And we’ll be looking at the role social media played in the election and whether Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is the media baron who swung it for the Republican candidate. To help me in all of that I’m joined from the BBC Tech Desk by Chris Foxx. Hello Chris.
Chris Foxx: Hi everyone!
Rory Cellan Jones: And my special guest all the way from California is Alison van Diggelen, our regular commentator on Silicon Valley and green energy. She’s in London with us this time. Good to see you in person.
Alison van Diggelen: Good to see you Rory.
Rory Cellan Jones: Alison will be commenting on all our stories…
It appears that Facebook founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, has been stung by any suggestion that the social network helped swing the election in favor of Donald Trump. Here’s what he said at the Techonomy Conference overnight:
Mark Zuckerberg: I think the idea that fake news on Facebook influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea. There’s a profound lack of empathy in asserting that the only reason why someone could’ve voted the way they did is because they saw some fake news. If you believe that, then I don’t think you’ve internalized the message that Trump supporters are trying to send in this election.
Rory Cellan Jones: Our Silicon Valleyreporter, Dave Lee is on the line from California. Dave, how do you see this Facebook role playing out?
BBC North America Tech Correspondent, Dave Lee: I saw a rattled Mark Zuckerberg in that interview. He was very strongly defending Facebook there. The post he put up about the election… the picture of him and with his daughter, Max, watching the television…as if he was just any kind of onlooker, like the rest of us. I don’t think people are buying that. Of course he had a big role to play. But I think it’s important to take his point: at a time when many people are finding any reason to explain to themselves how this election played out…blaming Facebook is like blaming the mainstream media…various different excuses, other than just a large part of America being extremely angry with how they see the state of the world. We should take his point on that. But to suggest that Facebook hasn’t had a massive influence in this election is naive and I’m not sure Mark Zuckerberg really believes that.
Rory Cellan Jones: Let’s bring in Alison van Diggelen who lives in Silicon Valley. Do you see the impact yourself? I presume you’re a Facebook user. The idea is that Facebook just filters out anything which doesn’t accord with the view you already see.
Alison van Diggelen: I think we are all guilty of (choosing) this siloed information. You follow the people whose opinions you enjoy, that resonate with you. So there is that self perpetuating opinion-making that’s out there. But I think it’s good to listen to Zuckerberg. Donald Trump’s message resonated strongly with people. That’s something that the liberal media and intelligentsia should not overlook. A large percentage of the US population is angry and wants change, even if that means taking a risky change.
Rory Cellan Jones: Before we go, I want to make sure our special guest, Alison van Diggelen, who is an expert on green energy and reports on it a lot from Silicon Valley, gives us the perspective now. How’s that looking given that the president-elect is not noted for his interest in environmental issues?
Alison van Diggelen: Yes, in fact he is a known climate skeptic. I think the clean energy sector is taking a deep breath right now. Trump has said he wants to destroy, or at least not take part in the Paris Agreement and rescind Obama’s Climate Action Plan. But I think it’s not going to be as easy as that to dismantle everything that Obama has put in place. Utility scale wind and solar are already competitive. But I think it is going to hit hard the immature cleantech sector that relies on subsidies. Electric vehicles are somewhere in between.
Rory Cellan Jones: Electric vehicles…one of the arguments about them in middle America maybe is that A: they take away the pleasure of driving and B: they’re a threat to jobs and he’s made big promises about jobs.
Alison van Diggelen: That’s true (re job promises), but Tesla employs about 15,000 people. They’re actually manufacturing in the U.S. which is a rare thing. The thing to remember about Donald Trump is that he is a businessman and I don’t think he’s going to intentionally destroy jobs. But I think what is at risk is the long term research and development investment from the federal government and that could impact America’s ability to compete globally in the clean energy market, which is going to be a big market. You have China and India and Europe which are moving ahead, and I think America needs to look at its global competitiveness in this arena. Hillary Clinton’s plan to be the international leader in cleantech is now a distant dream. It is no longer.
Rory Cellan Jones: Yes, that was then, this is now. We’re moving into a new world. We’ll see how it pans out. Thanks to my special guest Alison van Diggelen who’ll be back in Silicon Valley next week. Thanks to Chris Foxx from the BBC Technology news desk. All of his stories and more at BBC.com/Technology. Don’t forget our Facebook page and join us again in the Tech Tent at the same time next week.
On Thursday, May 12th at 3 am PST, the Solar Impulse plane leaves Phoenix, Arizona on the 11th leg of its journey, bound for Tulsa, Oklahoma. Solar Impulse is attempting to fly around the world, powered only by solar energy. It’s now completed over two-third of the epic journey. As well as breaking records for solar flight, this odyssey shines a spotlight on the many business opportunities that clean technologies offer.
“I never have enough of flying that plane…when you see those four electrical motors that put the plane in the sky with no noise, no pollution, it’s like a jump into the future. The world cannot continue on combustion engines, badly insulated houses, incandescent light bulbs, outdated systems to distribute the energy…this is last Century. You don’t have to be ecological anymore, just logical!” Bertrand Piccard
Piccard is Co-Pilot, Explorer and Solar Impulse Chairman. He’s also a psychiatrist, and a United Nations Environmental Program Goodwill Ambassador.
“We had to build an aircraft that was extremely energy efficient. It’s all about energy efficiency. This efficiency is extremely important on the ground as well. If we would use the technologies now on board this airplane, we could reduce our energy consumptions by at least 50%.” Andre Borschberg
Andre Borchberg is Co-Pilot, MIT Engineer and Solar Impulse CEO
Here’s a transcript of the discussion (edited for length and clarity):
BBC Host, Fergus Nicoll: After an unexpected nine-month delay, a solar-powered aircraft aiming to complete a round-the-world voyage is back in business. Check out their website … it’s got a snappy update for you on the front page – “We are in Phoenix!” Alison has prepared a report for us – talking to the two pilots who’ve been steering this epic journey so far. – so Alison before we play in the piece, set the ground for us – where did you meet the team – what have they achieved so far – and why the big delay?
Alison van Diggelen: It’s a very interesting story, especially if you cover clean tech. Last Monday, I got up at 3 am to watch the Solar Impulse take off from Moffett Field here in SV, bound for Phoenix AZ. I talked with the two pilots who take turns on each flight. They’re attempting to fly around the world, powered entirely by solar energy. They left Abu Dhabi in March 2015, and are two-thirds of their way around.
Bertrand Piccard, one of the pilots told me: you don’t change the world with just an idealistic approach, you change the world if you have practical & profitable solutions. So they’re really pushing this clean energy, energy consumption message. They say we could reduce our energy consumption here by over 50% if we used the clean energy and energy efficiency techniques on that airplane. One of biggest potential business opportunities is solar powered airplanes replacing satellites in the sky…
BBC Report: Solar Impulse Plane Brings Clean Tech Message Around World
Alison van Diggelen: The propellers are starting very slowly, but they’re about to take off…you can hear the propellers….It’s in the air…
Elke Neumann: It’s in the air. Woo hooo hooo!
Alison van Diggelen:All we can see is a line of lights in the sky and it looks like it’s barely moving, just floating there, about 1000 feet off the runway.
Last week, the Solar Impulse plane took off from Moffett Field in SV. Its mission is to fly around the world, powered only by solar energy. It’s now completed about 2/3rds of that journey, flying from Abu Dhabi across Asia to Hawaii last year. The team plans to reach NY by June and cross the Atlantic this summer.
The plane has the weight of a family car, but the wingspan of a 747, covered with 17,000 solar panels. I talked with Bertrand Piccard, a Swiss explorer and one of the two pilots who’s taking turns in the cockpit.
Bertrand Piccard: I never have enough of flying that plane…when you see those 4 electrical motors that put the plane in the sky with no noise, no pollution, it’s like a jump into the future. Thanks to new technologies, the future is already today.
Alison van Diggelen:What for you is the biggest game changer?
Bertrand Piccard: The world cannot continue on combustion engines, badly insulated houses, incandescent light bulbs, outdated systems to distribute the energy…this is last Century. It’s not only about protecting the environment, it’s a lot about making money, new industrial markets, economic development, profit, job creation. These clean techs can be used for electrical mobility, LED lights, smartgrids. It’s a complete demonstration of everything we need in our society…. Maybe Solar Impulse is a way to try to overcome the resistance of the dinosaurs who have not yet understood where the future is.
Bertrand Piccard:What do you say to these naysayers?
Bertrand Piccard: I tell them: be really careful because innovation does not come from inside the system. It’s not the people selling the candles who invented the lightbulb. What you’re doing now will be replaced. If you want to innovate be a pioneer… change your way of thinking. Dinosaurs disappear, they were the strongest one, but the less flexible one to adaptation.
Alison van Diggelen: Andre Borschberg, piloted the Japan to Hawaii flight, an epic 5 day, 5 night journey. He explains that Solar Impulse is like a “laboratory in the sky” and is excited about its multiple tech spinoffs.
Paige Kassalen is part of the Solar Impulse ground crew and works for Covestro, one of the clean tech companies developing lightweight, high efficiency solutions for the “flying laboratory.”
Borschberg: What we have today is an airplane which can fly day and night, a week, a month, non stop …It’s totally sustainable in terms of energy, the limiting factor is the pilot… If we make it unmanned, an airplane can fly in stratosphere (above the bad weather) for 6 months, potentially replacing what satellites are doing, but cheaper in a flexible way…no pollution of space.
Alison van Diggelen: What made the journey even possible?
Andre Borschberg: We had to build an aircraft that was extremely energy efficient. This efficiency is extremely important on the ground as well. If we would use the technologies now on board this airplane, we could reduce our energy use by at least 50%. As it continues on its journey, the Solar Impulse team is striving to change the world, not just of aviation but of energy and communications too. You could call it a Kitty Hawk moment for the 21st Century.
Fergus Nicoll: I want to pick up on one or two of these ideas, the spinoff tech…start off with this amazing idea: the solar drones, solar powered unmanned vehicles in the stratosphere, a kind of neo-satellite…
Alison van Diggelen: That’s right. It was amazing to re-think satellites. Satellites cost up to $100M to produce, and then to launch them, it’s another $50M. So if you could do the same with a solar powered airplane, then there are huge cost savings available. Not only cost, but flexibility. These satellites go up for 7, maybe 15 years maximum, but two years into their journeys, the technology is old, whereas these solar powered airplanes could come down after six months and get repaired if necessary and get the latest technology fitted to them. So there’s all sorts of applications like GPS navigation, communications…observations: deforestation, climate change monitoring. They’ll probably have to make these solar airplanes even bigger to carry the massive payload.
Fergus Nicoll: Are other companies in Silicon Valley and elsewhere watching this…to see what they can spinoff themselves?
Alison van Diggelen: Yes, in fact the solar panels – the 17,000 panels – on the planes wings are made by a Silicon Valley company, and I know of at least one other Silicon Valley solar company that would rather be on the wings. So I think this whole project is a catalyst for companies to say: hey, we want to be the No. 1, the most lightweight, the most efficient solar panel. The “flying laboratory” is stimulating other companies because it’s shining a spotlight on these clean technologies.
“The ad that it was responding to was an ad sponsored by a SuperPAC…sponsored by the Koch brothers… two oil billionaires … and it was an attack particularly on the Solyndra issue but it was really an attack on the whole green energy initiative of the president’s. We’re proud of that initiative…we’re proud that we’re on par to double renewable energy during the course of his first term. He believes very strongly that we need to command the clean energy technology of the future and that as a country we need to be encouraging the development of clean energy technology or we’re going to see that go to other parts of the world.”
Solyndra appears to have become a thorn in the side of Obama. How does he intend to remove the thorn?
“All you can do is be open and candid about it. We knew when made investments in clean energy technology that some would do well and others would not. That’s the nature of this…these are speculative investments. And that’s the reason why they needed some nudging from the government in order to blossom…We’ve seen real growth in solar and wind energy and so these are investments that are paying off for the country. I’m very certain that we’re going to look back at the seeds that were planted during this period and we will say that it has made a big difference for the country in a positive way.”
What percentage of the program’s investment went to Solyndra?
“There were forty under this specific program, so it was a small percentage of the entire program. It was a program… that was begun under the Bush Administration and we accelerated that program because we do believe that we are in a real competition for the clean energy technology of the future and we as a country have a great interest in developing alternative energy and home grown domestic energy and renewable energy. These were investments that made sense. Some will pay great dividends, others unfortunately will not.”
Note: in a recent report at ClimateProgress, Stephen Lacey confirmed that Solyndra’s loan guarantee amounted to 1.3% of the DoE’s total loan portfolio.
On the importance of clean energy technology
“We have our eye on the future and really encourage and develop renewable sources of energy. It’s good for the planet, it’s good for the economy, it’ll create great jobs…high end manufacturing jobs.”
On the future
“This is going to continue being a thrust for us. We’re not going to back off.”
The interview took place backstage at Foothill College’s Celebrity Forum on January 27, 2012. Check back soon for more with David Axelrod:
On Michelle Obama’s influence on green policy
On The First Lady’s organic garden at the White House
Read transcripts, see photos and check out our ARCHIVES featuring exclusive interviews with Tom Friedman, Paul Krugman, Vinod Khosla and many more green experts and visionaries…
In 2010, Fresh Dialogues produced a video featuring Mark Platshon, a venture capitalist at Vantage Point Capital Partners, one of the leading investors in battery and energy storage innovation. Mark gave a good overview of energy storage, its limits and potential; and explained what venture capitalists are looking for in new storage technologies. Let’s call the VIDEO Batteries 101.
For more videos and interviews with Green Visionary and NYT columnist, Tom Friedman; Nobel Prize winning economist, Paul Krugman; Oceanographer and Titanic discoverer, Robert Ballard et al…check out Fresh Dialogues archives
“This is our generation’s Sputnik Moment,” said President Obama in his State of the Union Speech last night. He’s referring of course to the space race with the Soviet Union, which spurred massive investment in research and development… and massive job creation. Today, he challenges the nation to invest massively in the future again, especially clean energy and green tech. It’s the only way we can catch up with (or surpass) China in the clean energy race.
Is China the invincible leader of clean energy and clean tech? It certainly looks that way. In a Fresh Dialogues interview, New York Times columnist, Tom Friedman explained his China envy… and emphasized that government has a huge role in jumpstarting the green economy. Would he like to be Obama’s Green Czar? Not a chance. He explains why in the video below.
What can we learn from China’s remarkable lead in clean energy? I talked with China expert, Isabel Hilton, founder and editor of China Dialogue who has earned a OBE for her groundbreaking work in this field. Her team’s mission: to give the reader an inside look at China’s environmental policy and encourage dialogue between China and the rest of the world. (Check out the site…it’s in Chinese and English)
“If you think you can ignore China, you don’t know what’s coming down the road,” warns Hilton. She describes the strategic economic shift in China over the last four years, from dirty unsustainable development to a new cleaner, greener outlook. In 2011, a new five year plan will be released to position China for the future. Hilton is impressed by the focus and conviction of China’s new policies which invest heavily in research and development; and support for new cleantech industries; strategies Obama says are necessary here in the US.
Hilton cautions that public opinion is a stumbling block to progress in the West and that the “Merchants of Doubt”community is undermining policy change by generating and sustaining doubt on established scientific issues. She challenges Obama to act decisively. So far, she says, “Obama has failed to live up to his convictions.” Time will tell if Obama’s forceful State of the Union speech last night – with its “The Future is ours to win” optimism – and the bipartisan mood of Congress will create real change.