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Climate tech takes on clean energy’s biggest headaches

A 'Google' for site selection? Environmental reviews in minutes? Climate tech startups are taking on clean energy's biggest challenges, from permitting to interconnection, to unlock the benefits of the Inflation Reduction Act.
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Episode 27 of the Factor This! podcast features Robin Laine and James McWalter, two climate tech entrepreneurs aiming to solve some of clean energy's biggest challenges. The episode will be available wherever you get your podcasts on Monday, Nov. 28.

Clean energy is in broad agreement: The Inflation Reduction Act is a game-changer for the industry and our goals of staving off the worst effects of climate change.

But underneath the optimism lies a shared anxiety that significant headwinds still buffet the industry. In particular, costly and time-consuming permitting and interconnection processes remain poison pills for projects.

Enter climate tech.

Often separated from their clean energy infrastructure counterparts, climate tech startups are targeting these industry pain points to unlock the benefits of the Inflation Reduction Act, recognizing an opportunity to streamline cumbersome steps to deploying solar, wind, and battery storage projects.

A 'Google' for site selection? Environmental reviews in minutes, instead of months? Here are two climate tech startups that are throwing gasoline on the transition away from fossil fuels.

Robin Laine's story as the co-founder founder and CEO of Transect begins with what she calls a "crisis of conscience."

For more than a decade, she worked as a consultant providing research and guidance for oil and gas clients navigating the complex and time-consuming project permitting process. She conducted field surveys, habitat assessments, and wetland delineations, and built a leading environmental consulting team.

But Laine couldn't ignore the waste and inefficiency. The consulting business is built on billable hours, and she couldn't help but wonder if software and automation, paired with market intelligence, could drastically reduce the environmental permitting timeline.

Transect can provide a project developer with an environmental review, known as the Critical Issues Analysis, within minutes, a process that historically takes 3-5 weeks and $6,000 to conduct.

Laine said a typical Transect customer conducts 60-80 CIAs per year. And with the vast amount of land that needs to be secured to capitalize on incentives for clean energy deployment in the Inflation Reduction Act, traditional methods can't possibly scale to meet the demand, she said.

"We have this massive, massive need and a pretty short timeline," Laine said on the Factor This! podcast. "We have to leverage technology. There's just too much to do and too little time not to."

Like many who first set out to work in climate, James McWalter and his partner, Charles Bai, weren't sure where to start. His career has largely focused on collecting, managing, and utilizing data, so McWalter knew his next step would likely lean on that background.

He spent a few years bouncing between different startups. Some succeeded, others failed. But McWalter learned a lot about how to best apply artificial intelligence and machine learning tools.

Just over a year ago, McWalter and Bai were discussing how much of the siting and permitting process took place over email with the exchanging of JPEGs and PDFs. Developers were utilizing some geospatial mapping systems but, for the most part, siting was an analog formula.

McWalter and Bai spent dozens of hours surveying developers to better understand their needs and developed Paces, a platform that aims to de-risk climate-positive projects.

An early version of the platform added layer upon layer of mapping data, but developers weren't buying. So, Paces pivoted to become a 'Google' for site selection, allowing a developer to input a set of criteria and receive a list of buildable parcels across the country in minutes.

"It sounds like a fairly subtle difference, but that was a big change," McWalter said on the Factor This! podcast. "All of a sudden we started closing customers."

On top of providing due diligence information on interconnection, permitting, and zoning, the platform monitors the ever-evolving policy landscape from federal to local levels.

There are about 36,000 jurisdictions in the U.S. to monitor, McWalter said, with about 28,000 spanning 25 square miles or more to support development of projects 1 MW or larger.

The Paces team is focusing on this subset to provide developers with the data they need in the most valuable areas, providing them with actionable information before they get too deep into the site control process.

Much of the data collection still involves humans, which McWalter hopes will change in the coming years. Interns spend time calling local planning commissions and county clerks to request maps and data, offering digital versions in return to foster relationships.

"These are very overworked folks," McWalter said. "We are generally trying to add value to their process."

The Paces national map is still spotty. The platform covers only about 11% of the contiguous 48 states. The company's goal is to achieve 50% coverage in the most important jurisdictions as quickly as possible.

Even at their early stage, Paces isn't struggling to get developers on the phone— especially since the Inflation Reduction Act became law— and they're converting about half of trials to paying customers.

"You just try to grab hold of the side of the IRA rocket ship," McWalter said.

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