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COP21 Gets A Spark Of Nuclear Energy From Breakthrough Energy Coalition

Clean Technica

December 3, 2015

by Tina Casey

 

The Intertubes have been buzzing with news of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, the latest venture by US billionaire and Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Introduced earlier this week at the COP21 Paris climate talks as a companion to the equally newsworthy Mission Innovation initiative, the new coalition harnesses the dollar power of the Earth’s billionaires to accelerate the clean energy revolution.

If your definition of clean energy includes nuclear energy, then you have a lot to cheer about because that seems to be a main focus of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition’s interest.

Bill Gates Breakthrough nuclear energyImage: via Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

The Breakthrough Energy Coalition

To be clear, the Breakthrough Energy Coalition* defines its mission quite broadly. It identifies the problem like this:

The existing system of basic research, clean energy investment, regulatory frameworks, and subsidies fails to sufficiently mobilize investment in truly transformative energy solutions for the future. We can’t wait for the system to change through normal cycles.

…and it describes one part of the solution:

The foundation of this program must be large funding commitments for basic and applied research, and here governments play the key role.

That’s where Mission Innovation comes in, by the way. As described yesterday by CleanTechnica, Mission Innovation launched at COP21 with the aim of ramping up government investment in clean energy.

The Breakthrough Energy Coalition aims squarely at the missing piece, which would be the task of attracting private dollars to propel high-risk, high return research across the notorious “Valley of Death” that lies between the laboratory and the marketplace:

This [Valley of Death] collective failure can be addressed, in part, by a dramatically scaled-up public research pipeline, linked to a different kind of private investor with a long term commitment to new technologies who is willing to put truly patient flexible risk capital to work. These investors will certainly be motivated partly by the possibility of making big returns over the long-term, but also by the criticality of an energy transition.

The Bill Gates Nuclear Energy Angle

In contrast to the generalities in the Breakthrough mission statement, Gates dropped a hint about his expectations for the organization in a blog post of November 29, timed to COP21:

The renewable technologies we have today, like wind and solar, have made a lot of progress and could be one path to a zero-carbon energy future. But given the scale of the challenge, we need to be exploring many different paths—and that means we also need to invent new approaches.

You can find another hint in the membership list of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition. So far the only university to join is the University of California, which runs our Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Among many other clean tech endeavors, Berkeley Lab is known for its nuclear energy research facilities:

The Nuclear Science Division conducts basic research aimed at understanding the structure and interactions of nuclei and the forces of nature as manifested in nuclear matter – topics that align the Division with the national program as elucidated in the 2007 U.S. Nuclear Science Long Range Plan.

 

The Division has major programs in low energy nuclear science, including nuclear structure physics, studies of the heaviest elements, exotic nuclei and light radioactive beams, weak interactions, and nuclear reactions; relativistic heavy ion physics; nuclear theory; nuclear astrophysics and neutrino properties; data evaluation; and advanced instrumentation. The Division also operates the 88-Inch Cyclotron. The 88-Inch Cyclotron is the home of the Berkeley Accelerator Space Effects Facility (BASEF) and supports a local research program in nuclear science.

Not for nothing, but did you know that Bill Gates is a co-founder and current Chairman of the innovative nuclear energy company TerraPower? The Washington State-based company launched in 2006 and although the US is unlikely to prove fertile ground for nuclear energy investment in the near future, TerraPower is already well on its way to putting down stakes in China.

Clean Tech, High Tech, And Nuclear Energy

Both Gates and the Breakthrough Energy Coalition are honest about their primary intention, which is to make a profit. In that regard it’s worth noting that members of the coalition stand to profit both directly through a return on their new clean energy investments, and indirectly by enabling them to continue growing the market for their primary products in a carbon-constrained world.

Industries represented by the Breakthrough membership include computer software and hardware (Microsoft, SAP, Hewlett-Packard), telecommunications (Tata Industries), and e-commerce including shipping and logistics (Amazon and Alibaba).

If you can spot more affiliations drop us a note in the comment thread.

The “Other” Nuclear Energy

Before we leave, let’s note that our Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is a hotbed of research into nuclear fusion — basically, generating energy by squeezing particles together rather than blowing them apart — so we’re interested to see if Livermore will hop aboard the Breakthrough coalition, too.

Livermore is the home of the National Ignition Facility and if you want to see this crazy place in action, catch the “Energy on the Edge” episode of National Geographic’s ongoing Breakthrough (no relation to the Breakthrough coalition) series this Sunday at 9:00 p.m. Eastern Standard time on the National Geographic Channel. The episode includes a heartstopping sequence of an actual test firing.

 

[Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own.]

*Breakthrough Energy Coalition founding members: Mukesh Ambani, John Arnold, Marc Benioff, Jeff Bezos, HRH Prince Alwaleed bin Tabal, Richard Branson, Ray Dalio, Aliko Dangote, John Doerr, Bill Gates, Reid Hoffman, Chris Hohn, Vinod Khosla, Jack Ma, Patrice Motsepe, Xavier Niel, Hasso Plattner, Julian Robertson, Neil Shen, Nat Simons, Laura Baxter-Simons, Masayoshi Son, George Soros, Tom Steyer, Ratan Tata, Meg Whitman, Ms. Zhang Xin, Mr. Pan Shiyi, Mark Zuckerberg, Dr. Priscilla Chan and the investment office of the University of California.

 

Fossil Fuel Divestment Farce

A Culture of Imbeciles

May 1, 2015

by Jay Taber

McKibben and Steyer March-7

Above: Tom Steyer (left) and Bill McKibben (center). Peoples Climate March, September 21, 2014

 

As investigative journalist Cory Morningstar reports, fossil fuel divestment is a farce. Fossil fuel divestment — promoted by 350 — targets only publicly traded stocks; but pension funds targeted by the 350 divestment campaign invest hundreds of billions in privately traded securities, such as hedge funds and private equity, that are heavily invested in fossil fuel production–including fracking.

Compromising the 350 divestment campaign is the fact it has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from hedge fund managers like Jeremy Grantham and billionaire Tom Steyer, who has major investments in fossil fuels. Steyer’s Farallon Capital was, in fact, a target of 350, until he bought their silence.

Grantham, meanwhile, donated millions to buy the support of Sierra Club, Nature Conservancy, Environmental Defense Fund and Greenpeace. As usual, the 350 Climateers are clueless about how they are being used by fossil fuel investors to undermine democracy and the environmental movement.

 

[Jay Taber is an associate scholar of the Center for World Indigenous Studies, a correspondent to Forum for Global Exchange, and a contributing editor of Fourth World Journal. Since 1994, he has served as communications director at Public Good Project, a volunteer network of researchers, analysts and activists engaged in defending democracy. As a consultant, he has assisted indigenous peoples in the European Court of Human Rights and at the United Nations. Email: tbarj [at] yahoo.com Website: www.jaytaber.com]

 

Tom Steyer’s Deep Ties to Oregon Corruption Scandal

The Washington Free Beacon

By Lachlan Markay

Police outside outside the home of Gov. John Kitzhaber of Oregon. / AP

Police outside outside the home of Gov. John Kitzhaber of Oregon. / AP


Top advisers to the billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer helped run a green group, financed in part by Steyer himself, that is at the center of a corruption scandal that could force the Democratic governor of Oregon to resign.

An executive at one of Steyer’s nonprofit groups and a political vendor who has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the hedge fund manager’s political operations helped run the group, which is accused of influencing state energy policy through undisclosed payments to Oregon’s first lady.

The controversy centers on Gov. John Kitzhaber’s fiancée, Cylvia Hayes. She was paid $118,000 by the Clean Economy Development Center (CEDC) to advocate for environmentalist policies in Oregon.

Hayes never disclosed those payments, despite acting as an informal adviser to the governor as he pushed a low-carbon fuel standard for the state.

Dan Carol, then a strategic adviser to CEDC, helped Hayes land the position. He was given a $165,000-per-year job in the Kitzhaber administration.

Kitzhaber is expected to resign today under intense scrutiny over the scandal. The scandal could extend beyond Oregon given Steyer’s involvement. Steyer has donated millions to a group that helped finance Hayes’ position, which could ensnare one of the Democratic Party’s most prominent fundraisers in the scandal.

Hayes was reportedly a fellow at the CEDC  in 2011 and 2012, but as of late as August of last year, she was still listed on a since-deleted page of its website.

Also listed on that page was Kate Gordon, a member of the CEDC’s board. Gordon leads the energy and climate division of Next Generation, an environmental nonprofit group founded by Steyer.

Another director of the group, according to the website, was Mike Casey. Casey runs a media and public relations firm called Tigercomm that does polling and advertising work for Steyer’s Super PAC, NextGen Climate Action.

Casey reportedly wrote NextGen’s communications strategy for its involvement in elections in Massachusetts and Virginia in 2013. NextGen and another Steyer group, the CE Action Committee, paid Tigercomm $387,000 that year.

CEDC executive director Jeff King said in an email that Casey and Gordon were never board members, “but were erroneously listed as such at one point.” He would not say who listed them, why, when, or what their roles with the organization were. The IRS revoked CEDC’s tax exempt status in August after it failed to file annual reports for three straight years.

Former CEDC board members, according to the website, include Andy Stern, the former president of the Service Employees International Union. His former assistant, Josie Mooney, is a strategic adviser to NextGen.

David Chen, a former member of CEDC’s advisory board, has hosted Steyer at events held by his investment firm, Equilibrium Capital. Steyer also sits on the board of the Center for American Progress, whose senior fellow in energy and environmental policy, Bracken Hendricks, was listed as a CEDC adviser.

As his team and others to which he has ties helped run CEDC, Steyer steered funds to the group financing Hayes’ fellowship.

Internal Revenue Servicing filings show that the Energy Foundation provided $75,000 to CEDC in 2011 and 2012. The foundation said the funds would help “build support for dean energy policy in the Northwest.” It told the Oregonian that it was supporting the fellowship specifically.

Steyer’s TomKat Charitable Trust has donated more than $3 million to the Energy Foundation.

Steyer is arguably the nation’s most prominent environmentalist financier, but other high-dollar donors to similar groups also bankrolled CEDC generally and Hayes’ fellowship specifically.

The Rockefeller Brothers Fund, a foundation that provides significant financial support for U.S. green groups, granted $25,000 to CEDC in 2012 specifically earmarked for its Clean Economy Acceleration Fellowship Program.

That came after a $100,000 grant to CEDC the year before, itemized as “general support.”

Jessica Bailey, until 2012 a program officer for sustainable development at RBF, also served as a strategic adviser to CEDC.

A former CEDC director, Aimee Christensen, also worked with RBF through her consulting firm, Christensen Global Strategies. According to its website, another of her clients was the Sea Change Foundation, which has quietly poured hundreds of millions of dollars into U.S. environmentalist groups.

Among those groups is the Energy Foundation, which has received nearly $65 million from Sea Change.

Updated: Comment from CEDC’s Jeff King added above.

 

[Lachlan Markay is a staff writer for the Washington Free Beacon.]

Why the Fossil Fuel Divestment Movement is a Farce

Focus on stocks ignores fact that much of dirty energy investment takes place on private markets

July 7, 2014
by Matthew Cunningham-Cook

College campuses across the country have been abuzz with protests calling for the divestment of university endowments and public pension funds from fossil fuels. As a result of the pressure, Stanford University has begun to divest its $18.7 billion endowment from coal stocks. Union Theological Seminary in New York has begun a divestment process as well. Cities have born the brunt of protests as well, and a growing number of them are making decisions to stop investing city funds in dirty energy.

It appears to be a noble, even necessary idea. The campaign, led largely by 350.org (which is headed by the environmental writer and activist Bill McKibben), seeks to stop the continued exploitation of fossil fuel reserves, which it rightly considers a one-way road to climate-change disaster.

But the fossil fuel divestment movement is, at best, a misguided endeavor and, at worst, a self-defeating roadblock. The changes being proposed will do little to stop investment in the fossil fuel economy. Severely hampering the campaign is its focus on publicly traded securities such as stocks and bonds — when much of the fossil fuel investment today is taking place on private markets.

Reading between the lines

Take Massachusetts, where the fossil fuel divestment campaign is attempting to win its first legislative victory. A bill is calling for state pension funds to divest from all publicly traded securities related to fossil fuel companies. Similar language holds for Stanford University, where 350.org has claimed its first major campus victory. According to a press release from the group, Stanford “will not make direct investments of endowment funds in publicly traded companies whose principal business is the mining of coal for use in energy generation.”

Notice the words “publicly traded.” In other words, fossil fuel divestment would target only major corporations that are listed on the stock market. But pension funds and endowments, the entities largely targeted by the 350.org campaign, invest hundreds of billions of dollars in privately traded securities, such as hedge funds and private equity — vehicles that are invested at all levels of the fossil fuel economy. (In particular, hedge funds and private equity have been found to be the key financial backers of the fracking boom.) Were the Massachusetts divestment bill to pass, state pension funds would invariably still be invested in the fossil fuel economy.

The divestment campaign argues that 200 publicly traded fossil fuel companies dominate the fossil fuel exploration market. But they ignore that such companies frequently depend on private equity and hedge funds for financing new investments when large banks are uninterested in taking on further risk. The public can rarely (if ever) verify that these types of arrangements take place, even if it is a teacher attempting to verify what her pension fund is doing with her money.

Pension funds and endowments have not always invested in the private market. In the 1980s and before, in fact, they were almost exclusively invested in publicly traded securities. Laws such as the Securities Act of 1933, the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and the Investment Company Act of 1940 allowed the public to verify how the companies in which pension funds and endowments were investing used their funds and provided transparency to investors in order to prevent fraudulent activity.

The anti-apartheid divestment campaign against South Africa during the 1980s thus carried the possibility of ceasing Western investment in that country. For example, largely as a result of pressure from activists, IBM spun off its South African subsidiary in 1986. Investigators were able to look through all of IBM’s filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission and successfully verify that IBM no longer had investments in South Africa.

By focusing only on publicly traded securities, the fossil fuel divestment campaign ignores the corporate misdeeds of a sector that holds billions of dollars of investments in a dirty energy economy.

The same is not possible with privately traded alternative investments, which have been on the rise since the early 1990s. (It is difficult to ascertain why exactly pension funds and endowments have funneled assets into private markets, as there is little evidence that they perform any better than stocks and bonds and a great deal of evidence that they are far riskier. Private market money managers are notorious as great salesmen, and a series of pay-to-play scandals have implicated some of the largest hedge funds and private equity firms.) Regardless, today pension funds and endowments are by far the largest investors in hedge funds and private equity. Thus only through a wholesale divestment from all alternative investments could the public verify that a given pension fund or endowment lacks fossil fuel investments.

Conflicts of interest

Further compromising the campaign is its questionable line of funding. It has received at least $350,000 from Jeremy Grantham, a hedge fund manager who oversees more than $500 million in assets for public pension funds in Massachusetts. According to a report from Inside Philanthropy, 350.org also receives funding from billionaire hedge fund manager Tom Steyer. (The organization declined to state exactly how much money it has received from Steyer and Grantham.)

Farallon Capital Management, which Steyer founded, has major investments at all levels of the fossil fuel economy. While he is no longer at the helm, during his leadership it pursued major deals in fossil fuels, as a recent report from Reuters showed. In fact, the firm had been a target of student activists before he began funding them. Activists criticized Farallon for attempting to privatize a massive aquifer in Colorado in 1994. More recently, Farallon has made major investments in coal mines in Indonesia and Australia.

Grantham, for his part, argued in an interview with The Guardian that he felt that student activists should “stamp their feet” to get their university endowments to divest from fossil fuels “because they can do that.” With his firm’s significant investments in the fossil fuel economy — according to first quarter 2014 filings, $1.2 billion in Chevron, $570 million in ExxonMobil and $240 million in Monsanto — he, apparently, cannot.

The campaign endangers its legitimacy — and shows how toothless it is — by accepting funding from Steyer and Grantham. Both have a clear financial interest in routing pension fund and endowment investments further from publicly traded securities and into the private markets dominated by their firms. In other words, they stand to benefit from a successful divestment campaign that focuses only on publicly traded securities.

The way forward

By focusing only on publicly traded securities, the fossil fuel divestment campaign ignores the corporate misdeeds of a sector that holds billions of dollars of investments in a dirty energy economy. The divestment campaign would be far more effective if it argued that institutional investors must fully divest — not only from publicly traded fossil fuel stocks but also from the private securities market, a black hole of deregulation that features some of the highest-compensated people in human history.

For the climate justice movement to gain any ground, it will require what Martin Luther King Jr. called “a revolution of values.” Hedge funds and private equity must be held to the same standards as the retirement funds of millions of working-class Americans. The climate justice movement should demand more than an Astroturf campaign that ultimately enriches the wealthy at the expense of retirees and kids on financial aid.

 

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story mistakenly identified the amount that Tom Steyer, through his foundation, contributes to 350.org. It is less than $1 million, though the organization does not disclose the exact amounts it receives from foundations.

 

[Matthew Cunningham-Cook is a freelance journalist focusing on labor and the retirement crisis. He has written for The Nation, Labor Notes and The Public Employee Press.]