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Microsoft commits to putting more water than it consumes back into the ecosystems where it operates by 2030

One good trend in 2020 has been large technology companies almost falling over one another to make ever-bolder commitments regarding their ecological impact. A cynic might argue that just doing without most of the things they make could have a much greater impact, but Microsoft is the latest to make a commitment that not only focuses on minimizing its impact, but actually on reversing it. The Windows-maker has committed to achieving a net positive water footprint by 2030, by which it means it wants to be contributing more energy back into the environment in the places it operates than it is drawing out, as measured across all “basins” that span its footprint.

Microsoft hopes to achieve this goal through two main types of initiatives: First, it’ll be reducing the “intensity” of its water use across its operations, as measured by the amount of water used per megawatt of energy consumed by the company. Second, it will also be looking to actually replenish water in the areas of the world where Microsoft operations are located in “water-stressed” regions, through efforts like investment in area wetland restoration, or the removal and replacement of certain surfaces, including asphalt, which are not water-permeable and therefore prevent water from natural sources like rainfall from being absorbed back into a region’s overall available basin.

The company says that how much water it will return will vary, and depend on how much Microsoft consumes in each region, as well as how much the local basin is under duress in terms of overall consumption. Microsoft isn’t going to rely solely on external sources for this info, however: It plans to put its artificial intelligence technology to work to provide better information around what areas are under stress in terms of water usage, and where optimization projects would have the greatest impact. It’s already working toward these goals with a number of industry groups, including The Freshwater Trust.

Microsoft has made a number of commitments toward improving its global ecological impact, including a commitment from earlier this year to become “carbon negative” by 2030. Meanwhile, Apple said in July that its products, including the supply chains that produce them, will be net carbon neutral by 2030, while Google made a commitment just last week to use only energy from carbon-free sources by that same year.

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Polestar 1 Review: A hybrid grand tourer worthy of its $155,000 price

The Polestar 1 is stunning inside and out. But it drives even better than it looks.

This is a driver’s car. The Polestar 1 is an electric hybrid sports car, and yet it doesn’t feel like a hybrid. The power plant in the Polestar 1 is fascinating and delivers power in a way that’s different from any other electric or hybrid sports car I’ve driven. It feels like a proper gas-powered grand tourer that can keep up with the best from BMW, Mercedes, and Audi.

You’ll swear there’s a V8 in the Polestar 1. And that’s a good thing. Put your foot down, and the car plows forward with the confidence of internal combustion. The power delivery is not digital with an on-or-off feeling familiar in electric vehicles, but rather, it’s organic and fluid. Hit 45, and the torque seemingly increases, mimicking the soul of a balanced gas engine. The Polestar 1 feels more like a Corvette than a Tesla Roadster. And to me, for the first time, I have hope that the future of motoring can be efficient and enjoyable.

The Polestar 1 is a fantastic vehicle full of dumb flaws, but it gets one thing right: The hybrid powertrain in the Polestar 1 is genius. It’s spectacular and foreshadows a future where cars can change their identities to match a driver’s tastes better.

Review

The Polestar 1 is surprising ways. During my time with the vehicle, I found myself lost in its balanced power. It’s smooth off the line and confident at speed. The 600 hp power plant is bottomless and yet restrained where needed. This car won’t beat a Tesla Model S to 60 mph, and to me, that’s ideal. As I learned from Polestar, the engineers used clever software to restrain the 737 ft-lb of torque and allow the powertrain to deliver the power pleasingly.

But first, some context: Polestar is an off-shoot of Volvo designed to explore the possibilities of electric vehicles. The company’s first car is the Polestar 1 featured here. The company’s second vehicle, Polestar 2, is a pure electric sedan that will compete with the Tesla Model 3. The Polestar 2 will be available in the coming months and has an electric range of 275 miles with a starting price of $59,900. The Polestar 1 is a hybrid vehicle and starts at $155,000.

Polestar is following a similar strategy used by Tesla. Like Polestar, Tesla’s first vehicle was a limited-run sports car, the Roadster. From the Roadster, Tesla expanded its line to more accessible vehicles like the Model S, Model X, and finally, the Model 3. Essentially, Tesla (and now Polestar) built the sexy sports car for attention, and an affordable car people need.

And much like the Tesla Roadster, the Polestar 1 has a bunch of quirky shortcomings. In the Polestar 1, the sun visor only tilts down — it cannot pull out and twist to the side. The Polestar 1’s door handles pop-out when the driver approaches the vehicle — sometimes, other times, they do not, and occasionally, they remained popped out from the car after I closed the door.

I experienced a random assortment of error messages from the Polestar 1. Sometimes, the car would beep to have the passenger buckle their seat belt, even though the passenger seat was empty. Other times, the check engine light flashed. And when one of the tires lost air, the vehicle flashed a warning, but I was unable to see the exact tire pressure to help gauge the urgency of the notice.

One more complaint: The trunk is tiny, and I don’t think it can hold more than one set of golf clubs.

And even with these shortcomings, the Polestar 1 is fantastic. It feels alive in a way that’s missing from most hybrid or electric cars. It’s balanced and controlled and has endless potential.

The Polestar 1 is a tourer. It’s designed to be comfortable and controlled on endless road trips. Tourers like the Polestar 1 are among my favorite types of cars. Most are broad and sweeping. In the best, the driver feels like a part of the massive machine, working in tandem with engines, motors, and gears, to achieve a common goal. This is often achieved through a competent chassis and potent powertrain, which is the same formula used in the Polestar 1.

The Polestar 1 powers off the start line with the torque pushing the riders into their seats. As speed increases, the torque increases, much like a small-block V8. At speed, the Polestar 1 settles into a grove, seemingly able to maintain any cruising speed. It carves through curves, with balanced steering and capable corning.

The hybrid powertrain comes alive on open stretches of roads. It’s not rowdy or boisterous, but understated and robust. It’s not jerky, but sublime. It’s intoxicating.

Representatives from Polestar explained to me that engineers used several techniques to deliver an enjoyable driving experience. For one, the software is used to restrain the instantaneous torque generally produced by electric motors. Second, the car’s gearbox utilizes gearing designed for long hauling, not drag racing. Because of this design, the Polestar 1 is slightly slower to 60 mph than some competitors, and yet, it’s fast enough with a 0-60 time of 4.2 seconds.

Like most cars, the Polestar 1 has several different driving modes. In pure electric, the vehicle has a range of 60 miles — the longest such range of any gas-electric hybrid on the market. In this mode, the Polestar 1 is silent and effortless. In hybrid mode, the power is plentiful but not overflowing. In Power mode, the Polestar 1 transforms into its true self as one of the best grand tourers available.

Car bros often lament about the coming age of the electric vehicle. I understand the pessimism. Electric cars often feel digital, and for most people, driving is an analog experience. Electric motors provide a thrilling experience but often lack a sporty enjoyment. The Polestar 1 achieves both.

Polestar knows the Polestar 1 will not sell in large numbers. With a starting price of $155,000, it’s selling against the best from Porsche, BMW, and Mercedes. For one, I wouldn’t get a Polestar 1 over a fully-equipped Porsche 911 or BMW 8 Series. That said, Polestar is only making 1,500 of this initial vehicle.

The Polestar 1 is beautiful and looks like nothing on the road. The hood is long and wide with the back-end stout and robust. The design is clean and straightforward. Hints of Volvo’s involvement are evident throughout the expansive front-end to the sweeping taillights to the infotainment system.

The future of motoring is electric, but that’s miles down the road. That’s okay with me. Cars like the Polestar 1 prove that gas engines still have a place in a world striving to be more energy efficient. Automotive development is evolutionary rather than revolutionary and in the case of the Polestar 1, it’s a big step in the right direction. The software used to tune the hybrid powertrain foretells a future that’s as pleasing as what’s currently available from Europe’s best.

The Polestar 1 sits in an odd spot. It’s not a mass market vehicle thanks to it very high price, and it’s hardly competitive against vehicles in its price range, too. That doesn’t stop it from standing tall as a fantastic vehicle regardless of its price. It’s exciting as a technical marvel more so than an obtainable commodity and in the world of motoring, it’s cars like this that stand the test of time. The Polestar 1 is a future classic.

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ClassPass co-founder Sanjiv Sanghavi joins Arcadia, bringing consumer marketing savvy to clean energy

“Helping navigate the elusiveness of product market fit” is how Sanjiv Sanghavi, the co-founder of ClassPass and itinerant startup executive describes his roles at different companies. 

From ClassPass through Knotel, Sanghavi has shepherded several businesses to growth and over a billion dollar valuations, now he’s looking to bring that branding and marketing savvy to the world of renewable energy as the new chief product officer at Arcadia.

The company encourages renewable energy development by offsetting its customers’ electricity usage by buying an equivalent amount of renewable power or investing in renewable energy projects that provide renewable credits to offset fossil fuel usage.

Sanjiv Sanghavi, ClassPass co-founder and now chief product officer at Arcadia. Image Credit: Arcadia

We founded Arcadia to aggregate the power of consumer demand to fight climate change,” said Kiran Bhatraju, the founder and chief executive at Arcadia, in a statement. “Sanjiv’s deep knowledge of creating and building engaging consumer products will be crucial in the coming years to help us continue to build a world-class home energy experience that people love, and the planet needs.”

Sanghavi will be integral to Arcadia’s expansion into the northeast as it looks to grow its footprint across the United States.

Over the past six months Arcadia has steadily built out its presence across the Atlantic seaboard as it staffs its New York office. The company added a senior vice president of design who previously worked at DoorDash, WeWork, and PayPal, Josh Abrams, and is actively hiring. 

I was drawn to Arcadia because of its lasting power; I wanted to build something that would make an impact for generations,” said Sanghavi. “I believe that what Arcadia is doing is astounding — we’re building a bridge from the people who are generating renewable energy to those who want to do something good.”  

 The company has raised $70 million to date, according to Crunchbase, from investors including G2VP, BoxGroup, Wonder Ventures and Energy Impact Partners. 

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Sunrun’s $3.2 billion Vivint Solar bid challenges Tesla’s energy ambitions

Tesla’s 2014 acquisition of SolarCity turned the electric vehicle manufacturer into the undisputed largest player in residential solar, but that lead has steadily eroded as its major competitor, Sunrun, surged ahead with more aggressive plans. Now with the $3.2 billion dollar acquisition of the residential solar installation company, Vivint Solar, Sunrun looks to solidify its place in the top spot.

From Tesla’s very early days Elon Musk has tried to define the company as an energy company rather than just a manufacturer of electric vehicles. When Tesla made its $2.6 billion bid for SolarCity the move was viewed as the culmination of the first phase of its “master plan,” which called for Tesla to “provide zero emission electric power generation options.”

Now that plan faces a major test from a publicly traded competitor that’s focused solely on providing residential solar power and the ability to lower costs for its panels through greater efficiencies of scale, according to analysts who track the solar energy sector.

Sunrun will be freaking big,” Joe Osha, an analyst at JMP Securities, told Bloomberg News. “They are clearly looking for ways to get scale and efficiency.”

Indeed, the combined companies will save roughy $90 million per year thanks to operational efficiencies, according to a statement from Sunrun. And the economies of scale will give the companies even more leverage when they contract with utilities on feeding power into the electric grid.

As Sunrun acknowledged in the announcement of its acquisition of the Blackstone-backed Vivint, the combined customer base of 500,000 homes represents over 3 gigawatts of solar assets. That figure still is only 3% penetration of the total market for residential solar in the United States.

Sunrun had already edged out Tesla for the top spot in residential solar installations and together the two companies account for 75% of new residential solar leases each quarter, according to data from Bloomberg NEF.

“Americans want clean and resilient energy. Vivint Solar adds an important and high-quality sales channel that enables our combined company to reach more households and raise awareness about the benefits of home solar and batteries,” Sunrun CEO and co-founder Lynn Jurich said in a statement. “This transaction will increase our scale and grow our energy services network to help replace centralized, polluting power plants and accelerate the transition to a 100% clean energy future.”

Even as Sunrun’s $1.46 billion stock (and the assumption of about $1.8 billion in debt) creates a massive competitor to Tesla’s solar business, there’s an opportunity for Tesla to sell more batteries through its residential solar competitor.

Sunrun and Vivint will likely be pushing their customers to add energy storage to their solar installations and that means using either Tesla’s Powerwall batteries or its own Brightbox batteries manufactured in partnership with LG Chem .

Investors have responded to Sunrun’s latest maneuver by pouring money into the stock. Sunrun’s shares were up over $5 in midday trading.

Image Courtesy: Yahoo Finance

“Vivint Solar and Sunrun have long shared a common goal of bringing clean, affordable, resilient energy to homeowners,” said David Bywater, Chief Executive Officer of Vivint Solar, in a statement. “Joining forces with Sunrun will allow us to reach a broader set of customers and accelerate the pace of clean energy adoption and grid modernization. We believe this transaction will create value for our customers, our shareholders, and our partners.”

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Germany Calls U.S. Sanctions against Nord Stream 2 Unacceptable

Possible new U.S. sanctions against Nord Stream 2 are aimed at halting the project’s implementation, which complies with EU legislation, and therefore unacceptable, Minister of State at the Federal Foreign Office Niels Annen said on Wednesday, as reported by TASS.

“It would block a commercial project, which is being implemented on the basis of EU law,” he said.

“The position of the German government on this issue is unequivocal: extraterritorial sanctions are a blatant interference with EU sovereignty. It is obvious that the U.S. side is trying to unilaterally stop the project,” Annen said.

He pointed out that, in addition to German, French, Dutch, and Austrian companies, as well as services, in particular, certification and supervision, may be at risk of restrictive measures.

“The fact that the U.S. Congress acts as a regulator in European affairs is absurd,” he emphasized. “The German government is convinced that the differences between the allies should be resolved through negotiations. Sanctions represent the wrong way,” Annen said.

The Nord Stream 2 project includes the construction of two pipelines with a total capacity of 55 billion cubic meters per year from the coast of Russia through the Baltic Sea to Germany.

The pipeline will bypass transit states (Ukraine, Belarus, and Poland) through exclusive economic zones and territorial waters of Russia, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and Germany. Gazprom’s European partners —British-Dutch Royal Dutch Shell, Austrian OMV, French Engie, and German Uniper and Wintershall —fund 50% of the project in total.

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Saudi Arabia Says It Could Start an Oil War on OPEC Countries

Saudi Arabia has promised an oil war to OPEC + countries in the event of failure to comply with agreements to reduce production, Gazeta.ru wrote with reference to The Wall Street Journal.

According to the interlocutors of the American publication, the Minister of Energy of Saudi Arabia, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman recently put forward an ultimatum to Angola and Nigeria. He asked for plans for additional reductions to compensate for their outstanding obligations, Radio Sputnik reported.

He also noted that he could start trading oil at reduced prices in order to undermine Angola and Nigeria.

OPEC + agreed on April 12 to reduce oil production by 9.7 million barrels per day in May-June, 7.7 million in the second half of the year and 5.8 million further until the end of April 2022. The base of reference was taken in October 2018, but for the Russian Federation and Saudi Arabia, 11 million barrels per day were taken, from which, by analogy with all, there is a decrease of 23%, 18% and 14%, respectively.

Earlier, Radio Sputnik reported that the Kremlin specified whether Putin planned to contact OPEC + participants.

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AI Being Applied to Improve Health, Better Predict Life of Batteries


Researchers are employing AI techniques to study how to extend the life of batteries needed to power next generation devices. (Thomas Kelley on Unsplash)

By AI Trends Staff

AI techniques are being applied by researchers aiming to extend the life and monitor the health of batteries, with the aim of powering the next generation of electric vehicles and consumer electronics.

Researchers at Cambridge and Newcastle Universities have designed a machine learning method that can predict battery health with ten times the accuracy of the current industry standard, according to an account in ScienceDaily. The promise is to develop safer and more reliable batteries.

In a new way to monitor batteries, the researchers sent electrical pulses into them and monitored the response. The measurements were then processed by a machine learning algorithm to enable a prediction of the battery’s health and useful life. The method is non-invasive and can be added on to any battery system.

The inability to predict the remaining useful charge in lithium-ion batteries is a limitation to the adoption of electric vehicles, and annoyance to mobile phone users. Current methods for predicting battery health are based on tracking the current and voltage during battery charging and discharging. The new methods capture more about what is happening inside the battery and can better detect subtle changes.

“Safety and reliability are the most important design criteria as we develop batteries that can pack a lot of energy in a small space,” stated Dr. Alpha Lee from Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory, who co-led the research. “By improving the software that monitors charging and discharging, and using data-driven software to control the charging process, I believe we can power a big improvement in battery performance.”

Dr. Alpha Lee, Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge University

The researchers performed over 20,000 experimental measurements to train the model in how to spot signs of battery aging. The model learns how to distinguish important signals from irrelevant noise. The model learns which electrical signals are most correlated with aging, which then allows the researchers to design specific experiments to probe more deeply why batteries degrade.

“Machine learning complements and augments physical understanding,” stated co-author Dr Yunwei Zhang, also from the Cavendish Laboratory, in .”The interpretable signals identified by our machine learning model are a starting point for future theoretical and experimental studies.”

Department of Energy Researchers Using AI Computer Vision Techniques

Researchers at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory are using AI computer vision techniques to study battery life. The scientists are combining machine learning algorithms with X-ray tomography data to produce a detailed picture of degradation in one battery component, the cathode, according to an account in SciTechDaily. The referenced study was published in Nature Communications.

Dr. Yunwei Zhang, Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge University

For cathodes made of nickel-manganese-cobalt (NMC) particles are held together by a conductive carbon matrix. Researchers have speculated that a cause of battery performance decline could be particles breaking away from that matrix. The team had access to advanced capabilities at SLAC’s Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL), a unit of the Department of Energy operated by Stanford University, and the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF), a European collaboration for the advancement of X-rays, based in Grenoble, France. The goal was to build a picture of how NMC particles break apart and away from the matrix, and how that relates to battery performance loss.

The team turned to computer vision with AI capability to help conduct the research. They needed a machine learning model to train the data in how to recognize different types of particles, so they could develop a three-dimensional picture of how NMC particles, large or small, break away from the cathode.

The authors encouraged more research into battery health. “Our findings highlight the importance of precisely quantifying the evolving nature of the battery electrode’s microstructure with statistical confidence, which is a key to maximize the utility of active particles towards higher battery capacity,” the authors stated.

(Citation: Jiang, Z., Li, J., Yang, Y. et al. Machine-learning-revealed statistics of the particle-carbon/binder detachment in lithium-ion battery cathodes. Nat Commun 11, 2310 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-16233-5)

(For an account of how researchers from Stanford University, MIT and the Toyota Research Institute are studying radical reductions in electric-vehicle charging times, see AI Trends.).

See the source articles in ScienceDaily, SciTech Daily and Nature Communications.

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Could developing renewable energy micro-grids make Energicity Africa’s utility of the future?

When Nicole Poindexter left the energy efficiency focused startup, Opower a few months after the company’s public offering, she wasn’t sure what would come next.

At the time, in 2014, the renewable energy movement in the US still faced considerable opposition. But what Poindexter did see was an opportunity to bring the benefits of renewable energy to Africa.

“What does it take to have 100 percent renewables on the grid in the US at the time was not a solvable problem,” Poindexter said. “I looked to Africa and I’d heard that there weren’t many grid assets [so] maybe I could try this idea out there. As I was doing market research, I learned what life was like without electricity and I was like.. that’s not acceptable and I can do something about it.”

Poindexter linked up with Joe Philip, a former executive at SunEdison who was a development engineer at the company and together they formed Energicity to develop renewable energy microgrids for off-grid communities in Africa.

“He’d always thought that the right way to deploy solar was an off-grid solution,” said Poindexter of her co-founder.

At Energicity, Philip and Poindexter are finding and identifying communities, developing the projects for installation and operating the microgrids. So far, the company’s projects have resulted from winning development bids initiated by governments, but with a recently closed $3.25 million in seed financing, the company can expand beyond government projects, Poindexter said.

“The concessions in Benin and Sierra Leone are concessions that we won,” she said. “But we can also grow organically by driving a truck up and asking communities ‘Do you want light?’ and invariably they say yes.” 

To effectively operate the micro-grids that the company is building required an end-to-end refashioning of all aspects of the system. While the company uses off-the-shelf solar panels, Poindexter said that Energicity had built its own smart meters and a software stack to support monitoring and management.

So far, the company has installed 800 kilowatts of power and expects to hit 1.5 megawatts by the end of the year, according to Poindexter.

Those micro-grids serving rural communities operate through subsidiaries in Ghana, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, and currently serve thirty-six communities and 23,000 people, the company said. The company is targeting developments that could reach 1 million people in the next five years, a fraction of what the continent needs to truly electrify the lives of the population. 

Through two subsidiaries, Black Star Energy, in Ghana, and Power Leone, in Sierra Leone, Energicity has a 20-year concession in Sierra Leone to serve 100,000 people and has the largest private minigrid footprint in Ghana, the company said.

Most of the financing that Energicity has relied on to develop its projects and grow its business has come from government grants, but just as Poindexter expects to do more direct sales, there are other financial models that could get the initial developments off the ground.

Carbon offsets, for instance, could provide an attractive mechanism for developing projects and could be a meaningful gateway to low-cost sources of project finance. “We are using project financing and project debt and a lot of the projects are funded by aid agencies like the UK and the UN,” Poindexter said. 

The company charges its customers a service fee and a fixed price per kilowatt hour for the energy that amounts to less than $2 per month for a customers that are using its service for home electrification and cell phone charging, Poindexter said.

While several other solar installers like M-kopa and easy solar are pitching electrification to African consumers, Poindexter argues that her company’s micro-grid model is less expensive than those competitors.

“Ecosystem Integrity Fund is proud to invest in a transformational company like Energicity Corp,” said James Everett, managing partner, Ecosystem Integrity Fund, which backed the company’s. most recent round. “The opportunity to expand clean energy access across West Africa helps to drive economic growth, sustainability, health, and human development.  With Energicity’s early leadership and innovation, we are looking forward to partnering and helping to grow this great company.”

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DroneBase nabs $7.5 million in a slight down round to double down on its work in renewable energy

DroneBase, a Los Angeles-based provider of drone pilots for industrial services companies, has raised $7.5 million during the pandemic to double down on its work with renewable energy companies.

While chief executive Dan Burton acknowledged that the company was fundraising prior to the pandemic, the industrial lockdown actually accelerated demand for the company’s services.

Even with the increased demand, the company had to make some changes. It laid off six employees and refocused its business.

“In the past three months it’s become clear that this is a moment for drones as an industry,” Burton said. “We were really pushing hard as a company, certainly on revenue growth and harvesting all the investments we made in technology and having a clear, near-term view to profitability.”

The new round, which closed in May, was a slight down round, according to people familiar with the company’s business.

“We see raising a growth round later this year,” Burton said.

New investors in the company included Valor Equity Partners and Razi Ventures, who joined Union Square Ventures, Upfront Ventures, Hearst Ventures, Pritzker Group Venture Capitla and DJI.

In all, DroneBase has raised nearly $32 million in financing, according to a company statement.

The new round will enable the company to focus on its data and analytics services that it has been developing around its core drone pilot provisioning technology — and gives DroneBase more financial wherewithal to expand its European operations under the DroneBase Europe, which operates out of Germany.

“DroneBase’s expansion into renewable energy reflects our belief in the growth potential of wind and solar energy industries,” said Burton in a statement. “Since many energy companies have both wind and solar assets, we are well positioned to leverage our DroneBase Insights platform to grow our global market share in renewable energy.”  

The key application for DroneBase has been allowing wind power companies to monitor and manage their turbines, improving uptimes and spotting problems before they effect operations, the company said.

For solar power companies, DroneBase offers a network of pilots trained in infrared imaging to detect anomalies like defects or hot spots on solar panels, the company said.

“DroneBase has established themselves as the drone leader in the commercial market, and its new work in renewables will have a lasting impact on the future of energy by keeping infrastructure operational for generations,” says Sam Teller, Partner at Valor Equity Partners, in a statement. “We believe DroneBase will continue to be a valuable partner in drone operations and data analysis across a multitude of industries globally.”

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Uber Africa launches Uber Cash with Flutterwave and explores EVs

Uber is launching its Uber Cash digital wallet feature in Sub-Saharan Africa through a partnership with San Francisco based — Nigerian founded — fintech firm Flutterwave.

The arrangement will allow riders to top up Uber wallets using the dozens of remittance partners active on Flutterwave’s Pan-African network.

Flutterwave operates as a B2B payments gateway network that allows clients to tap its APIs and customize payments applications.

Uber Cash will go live this week and next for Uber’s ride-hail operations in South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda and Ghana, Ivory Coast and Tanzania, according to Alon Lits — Uber’s General Manager for Sub-Saharan Africa.

“Depending on the country, you’ve got different top up methods available. For example in Nigeria you can use your Verve Card or mobile money. In Kenya, you can use M-Pesa and EFT and in South Africa you can top up with EFT,” said Lits.

Uber Cash in Africa will also accept transfers from Flutterwave’s Barter payment app, launched with Visa in 2019.

The move could increase Uber’s ride traffic in Africa by boosting the volume of funds sent to digital wallets and reducing friction in the payment process.

Uber still accepts cash on the continent — which has one of the world’s largest unbanked populations — but has made strides on financial inclusion through mobile money.

Update on Uber Africa

Uber has been in Africa since 2015 and continued to adapt to local market dynamics, including global and local competition and more recently, COVID-19. The company’s GM Alon Lits spoke to TechCrunch on updates — including EV possibilities — and weathering the coronavirus outbreak in Africa.

Uber in Sub-Saharan Africa continued to run through the pandemic, with a couple exceptions. “The only places we ceased operations was where there were government directives,” Lits said. That included Uganda and Lagos, Nigeria.

Though he couldn’t share data, Lits acknowledged there had been a significant reduction in Uber’s Africa business through the pandemic, in line with the 70% drop in global ride volume Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi disclosed in March.

“You can imagine in markets where we were not allowed to operate revenues obviously go to zero,” said Lits.

Like Africa’s broader tech ecosystem, Uber has adapted its business to the outbreak of COVID-19 in Africa, which hit hardest in March and April and led to lockdowns in key economies, such as Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa

On how to make people feel safe about ride-hailing in a coronavirus world, Lits highlighted some specific practices. In line with Uber’s global policy, it’s mandatory in Africa for riders and drivers to wear masks.

“We’re actually leveraging facial recognition technology to check that drivers are wearing masks before they go,” said Lits. Uber Africa is also experimenting with impact safe, plastic dividers for its cars in Kenya and Nigeria.

Image Credits: Uber

In Africa, Uber has continued to expand its services and experiment with things the company doesn’t do in in any major markets. The first was allowing cash payments in 2016 — something Uber hopes the introduction of Uber Cash will help reduce.

Along with rival Bolt, Uber connected ride-hail products to Africa’s motorcycle and three-wheeled tuk-tuk taxi markets in 2018.

Uber moved into delivery in Africa, with Uber Eats, and recently started transporting medical supplies in South Africa through a partnership with The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Mobility Africa

In addition to global competitors, such as Bolt, Uber faces local competition as Africa’s mobility sector becomes a hotspot for VC and startups.

A couple trends worth tracking will be Uber’s potential expansion to Ethiopia and moves toward EV development in Africa.

On Ethiopia, the country has a nascent tech scene with the strongest demographic and economic thesis — Africa’s second largest population and seventh biggest economy — to become the continent’s next digital hotspot.

Ethiopia also has a burgeoning ride-hail industry, with local mobility ventures Ride and Zayride. Uber hasn’t mentioned (that we know of) any intent to move into the East African country. But if it does, that would serve as a strong indicator of the company’s commitment to remaining a mobility player in Africa.

Ampersand in Rwanda, Image Credits: Ampersand

With regards to electric, there’s been movement on the continent over the last year toward developing EVs for ride-hail and delivery use.

In 2019, Nigerian mobility startup MAX.ng raised a $7 million Series A round backed by Yamaha, a portion of which was dedicated to pilot e-motorcycles powered by renewable energy.

Last year the government of Rwanda established a national plan to phase out gas motorcycle taxis for e-motos, working in partnership with EV startup Ampersand.

And in May, Vaya Africa — a ride-hail mobility venture founded by mogul Strive Masiyiwa — launched an electric taxi service and solar charging network in Zimbabwe. Vaya plans to expand the program across the continent and is exploring e-moto passenger and delivery products.

On Uber’s moves toward electric in Africa, it could begin with two or three wheeled transit.

“That’s something we’ve been looking at in South Africa…nothing that we’ve launched yet, but it is a conversation that’s ongoing,” said Uber’s Sub-Saharan Africa GM Alon Lits.

He noted one of the challenges of such an electric model on the continent is lack of a robust charging infrastructure.

Even so, if Uber enters that space — with Vaya and others — emissions free ride-hail and delivery EVs buzzing around African cities could soon be a reality.

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