When Virgin Hyperloop co-founder Josh Giegel saw the Biden Administration’s infrastructure proposal, he couldn’t help but think some details sounded familiar. The American Jobs Plan calls for “the second great railroad revolution”–trains that are faster, cleaner, and more energy-efficient, which is the kind of technology Giegel’s California-based company has been working on since 2014. As such, Giegel has little doubt the company will be able to capitalize on America’s push toward greener infrastructure.
“At the end of this decade,” he says, “I think we’ll be talking about the decade of Hyperloop.”
It’s still early days for the infrastructure plan, but Virgin Hyperloop is one of many tech companies well-positioned to capitalize on it. The proposal, which will need approval from the Senate and House before it can be signed into law, calls for a $2 trillion commitment to clean energy projects, roads and bridges, transit systems, agriculture, and home and building upgrades, among other initiatives. Companies in fields ranging from artificial intelligence to construction all stand to benefit.
“The private sector will play an essential role in this,” says climate economist Gernot Wagner, associate professor at New York University and co-author of Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet. “This is about incentivizing, motivating, and providing the money for private contractors and private businesses to come and build.”
For its part, Virgin Hyperloop has been pushing to get its high-speed, magnetic levitation rails built in the U.S. since it began as Hyperloop One in a Los Angeles garage seven years ago. The startup rebranded after Richard Branson invested and joined its board in 2017. Last November, the company held its first passenger test when Giegel and a colleague rode in a Hyperloop pod within a vacuum-sealed tube. Virgin Hyperloop has held discussions with local governments about potential routes like Seattle to Portland and Chicago to Pittsburgh.
Giegel says a fully constructed Hyperloop will be able to travel at the speed of an aircraft, with a 10th the energy consumption. One railway in each direction could move as many people as a 30-lane highway–with a fraction of the carbon emissions, given that the system runs on electricity.
“We have an opportunity now for a seismic change,” says Giegel. “We can make decisions now that we’ll benefit from in the 2060s and 2070s and beyond.”
Biden’s infrastructure plan calls for upgrading four million buildings and two million homes to make them more energy-efficient. Lauren Salz, co-founder and CEO of New York City-based Sealed, hopes her company would benefit from the legislation. Sealed uses artificial intelligence and algorithms to calculate savings to a potential client’s utility bill based on factors like geographic location, size, and age of the home. If an upgrade makes financial sense, the company hires contractors to perform the work, which can include sealing leaks and installing new HVAC systems, smart thermostats, and energy-efficient LED bulbs. There’s no cost to the homeowner, and Sealed keeps the cost of the energy savings.
Sealed currently operates in New York State and is looking to expand soon. The infrastructure plan might necessitate that. “Private-public partnerships are definitely a possibility with this bill,” says Salz. “If that opportunity arose, and if it made sense for us and our customers, we’d definitely be interested.”
Even if no such deals come to fruition, Salz points out that having home-efficiency upgrades included in the plan should give the industry momentum. “There’s been a lack of awareness around how important energy efficiency is, particularly in the residential market,” says Salz. “It’s pretty exciting that it’s making it into the national discussion.”
Construction firms will be sure to get a boost from new infrastructure legislation–as will tech companies that specialize in various aspects of the building process. Chicago-based software company CityZenith builds digital twins of physical spaces, allowing engineers and politicians to study proposed and in-progress projects to see how certain materials and features would impact the project’s carbon footprint and energy usage. The firm is currently working with the organizers of a new sports and entertainment district in Orlando and the 2030 District in New York City, a set of neighborhoods being outfitted with renewable energy and more sustainable design.
CityZenith founder Michael Jansen thinks the Biden proposal would be a boon for business. “We expect to get a lot of different types of work out of this,” he says. “The plan affords a lot of opportunities for projects that address climate change. It’s bold–and right now, the nation needs bold.”
Not all green tech entrepreneurs agree. Johnnie Taul, CEO of Scottsdale, Arizona-based solar power plant company Depcom Power, which claimed the No. 5 spot on the 2018 Inc. 500 and expects to hit $1 billion in annual revenue by next year, isn’t encouraged. “From what I’ve seen of the plan, I don’t have any positive takeaways,” he says. Taul doesn’t believe the government should play a role in helping certain industries grow, even if his industry is one that stands to benefit. He has a different idea for how to ensure the solar industry continues its growth.
“Lowering taxes,” he says. “It allows good businesses like ours to hire more, innovate more.”
NYU’s Wagner thinks it isn’t so simple, especially when something like climate change is at stake. “If you want the outcome that’s best for society and best overall, there is a very real role for government to play,” he says, adding that he believes Biden’s plan will have a positive overall impact on the private sector. “Investing money in green infrastructure creates jobs.”
Wagner notes that entrepreneurs in any industries potentially impacted by the plan should take the time now to ensure they’re ready if it’s passed. If you’re a roofer, for example, make sure you know how to install solar panels, but also know what permits and certificates you need, how to deal with local utility companies, how to talk with customers about pricing, and what you’ll need to do to potentially earn a government contract.
“It’s better to climb that learning curve now rather than later,” says Wagner. “There’s a lot of specialized learning involved and a lot of companies looking to take advantage of this plan.”