Bezos unveils ‘game-changing’ grants for clean energy

Source: By David Iaconangelo, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, November 17, 2020

A nearly $800 million pot of climate grants unveiled yesterday by Inc. CEO Jeff Bezos directs funding to emerging energy technologies and groups aiming to boost renewable energy.

The bulk of the financing from the Bezos Earth Fund — some $400 million — went to four well-established environmental groups. But of the 16 grantees announced in the first tranche, at least nine have promised to use funds to scale up early-stage technology, boost the deployment of proven clean energy sources or run advocacy campaigns.

For example, the World Resources Institute, which was among the four biggest recipients with a $100 million grant over five years, told E&E News it would use between $30 million to $40 million to help electrify the nation’s entire fleet of 450,000 school buses by 2030.

The nonprofit ClimateWorks Foundation, which got $50 million, said the overall $10 billion Bezos Earth Fund was “game-changing.” It pledged to organize coalitions in support of policies like a sales mandate for zero-emissions trucks, which California is implementing, and to establish markets for zero-emissions cargo ships and low-carbon cement- and steelmaking.

“[T]hese grants to ClimateWorks and other leading climate-focused organizations are a tremendous boost at a pivotal moment,” said Larry Kramer, a ClimateWorks board member and president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, a philanthropic group.

Some grantees are promoting decarbonization strategies that have recently served as small powder kegs in a heated political season.

The Rocky Mountain Institute, for instance, was awarded $8 million for its carbon-free buildings campaign. The program advocates for all-electric heating and cooling in newly constructed homes and buildings and retrofits in existing buildings to cut emissions from natural gas or propane. The campaign has a 2040 goal for achieving a zero-carbon building sector.

Natural gas industry and allied groups have fiercely resisted local laws and state regulatory proceedings that contemplate all-electric mandates for new buildings.

A spokesperson for the American Public Gas Association, Audrey Casey, responded to emailed inquiries about the Bezos grants by recalling this past summer’s blackouts in California, when grid reliability became an issue.

The blackouts demonstrated “the fragility of the electrical grid” when it’s under stress from high demand. Casey questioned “the wisdom” of developing policies that would vastly expand electricity demand.

Another $43 million grant went to the nonprofit Solutions Project, co-founded by Stanford University energy researcher Mark Jacobson to bolster environmental justice campaigns led by women of color. The funding would help support climate justice projects aimed at a transition to clean fuels. The Solutions Project’s stated vision for the future of electricity excludes fossil fuels and nuclear power.

In a statement, the group called the $43 million their “largest grant to date” and applauded the Bezos Earth Fund’s other grants for environmental justice and front-line communities, which totaled $151 million.

Some energy researchers and climate activists have looked at Bezos and Amazon’s climate and clean energy grants with skepticism. Matt Nisbet, a professor of communications and public policy at Northeastern University, noted an element of “green washing” to the grants during a June interview with E&E News.

“We’re giving up governance of [what] we decide on climate change to the planning, the grandiosity and the whims of the world’s richest man,” he said.

One group of Amazon employees that has agitated for its employer to pursue more aggressive climate goals, Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, responded to the announcement of the first grants by recalling Amazon’s funding of climate deniers and ongoing collaboration with the oil and gas industry. “We applaud Jeff Bezos’ philanthropy, but one hand cannot give what the other is taking away,” they wrote (Greenwire, Nov. 16).

Still, another climate justice group that won $10 million from Bezos’ fund, Dream Corps’ Green for All, said it hoped the grants would encourage more philanthropists to support climate policies for underserved communities. It plans to promote the deployment of zero-emissions cars, trucks and buses in those areas, along with increased funding for low-income home weatherization.

“The obstacle isn’t finding solutions, it is securing the funding to scale our solutions quickly,” said Michelle Romero, national director at Green for All.

The other grantees with clean energy projects include:

  • The Climate and Clean Energy Equity Fund, which will receive $43 million over three years for renewable energy solutions with a direct benefit for communities of color.
  • The Energy Foundation, which gets $30 million for clean vehicles, zero-emissions buildings and renewable power in the 25 states that account for most of the country’s emissions.
  • The Union of Concerned Scientists, which will receive $15 million for two years to advocate for transmission upgrades that would speed wind and solar penetration and to support electric truck adoption.
  • The Natural Resources Defense Council, which gets $100 million for programs that include state-level climate policy efforts.