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Disclaimer: I am totally agnostic regarding the reasonableness of this funding decision, and am merely noting that it appears to me impossible to make any assessment of reasonableness based on the information at hand.  I have not conducted more than 1-2 hours research/thinking on this topic, so am uncertain of whether this is true, and am happy to be corrected. 

Also, the question is posed but I make no comment on whether Founder's Pledge needs answer it. Perhaps the donors to this fund are provided with some private information with regards to these causes, or Founder's Pledge reasonably believes their donors are happy to trust them a priori with respect to the efficacy and value set behind their decisions. 


In the last 12 months (March 2022 to present), Founder's Pledge (FP) has (publicly) dispersed approximately $4.3 million from its Climate Change Fund (CCF):

Of this, $1.6 million has been given to Qvist Consulting Ltd. (QCL), for the reason shown above. Unlike the other recipients, QCL does not contain any external link to resources in which you are able to discover more about this organisation's operation/mission. 

Above this table, FP states that more information regarding their rationale is available here, however this document does not discuss QCL. As far as I have discovered, the only other mention of QCL is in a retrospective of the CCF after two years, which contains a minute video from Staffan Qvist (henceforth Staffan, for clarity). There is little/no new information about their mission, aside from the suggestion that "repowering" coal plants is particularly important because of the possible emissions from current coal plants in their remaining life cycle. 

What, then, is repowering coal? Curiously, another grantee, TerraPraxis, is the first Google result.  The basic principle seems to be to try and refit those current coal plants for a non-carbon emitting form of energy production. 

So how does Qvist consulting fit into this effort? One might reasonably expect a search of their company to shed some light. 

This, however, turns out not to be the case. 

The company's first Google result is for their company listing on the UK gov. registry. The second is for their website, but it is merely a wordpress template totally devoid of information. 

So what about their founder? Staffan has, as per his LinkedIn, a PhD in Nuclear Engineering, and has written academic and popular press (including with Stephen Pinker in the NYTimes) articles advocating for nuclear energy. 

Staffan appears to be prolific - his LinkedIn lists him as a managing director/director at two other companies: Deepsense , an "intelligence platform", and QuantifiedCarbon, a decarbonisation consultancy, both of which appear to have little web presence (the former is difficult to search, as it is a common company name). Curiously, Staffan does not list QCL on his LinkedIn - perhaps this is an oversight? He is listed as a consultant for the Clean Air Task Force, another grantee of FP interested in nuclear advocacy. 

I have no reason to believe Staffan is not an excellent academic researcher and passionate advocate for a cause that seems plausibly very important (though I am no expert). Given the scale of the grant, however, it seems reasonable to wonder what in particular led FP to believe Staffan is the best contributor to this cause, and why he and QCL required such a large first grant to begin work on this


Postscript: There are other reasonable questions to be asked, including why FP believes their near-exclusive funding to organisations that appear (arguably) primarily dedicated to nuclear power advocacy is the most effective use of climate change funds, and the degree of interconnectivity between the organisations funded in this space. I do not feel I have conducted the necessary research to comment more on this, but note these issues in case FP if they would like to say anything on them or in case anyone else would like to research this further.


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Thanks for the question, Kieran! I am on leave this week so I'll try to keep my answer short (famous last words), but I will be try to answer all of your key questions on:

(1) what qualifies Qvist (he’s a leading expert on repowering), 
(2) what the grant is about (techno-economic studies in five countries), (3) whether it is big (not compared to scope), 
(4) whether a small starter grant would have been an alternative (not in this case),
(5) whether it is all about nuclear (no),
(6) whether FP Climate Fund grants in 2022 were all about nuclear (no)
(7) how it relates to to other grantees (complementary)
(8) and, in broad strokes, why we think it is a good bet.

First of all, apologies for not having published more on this grant yet. This has simply been an issue of prioritization under resource constraint, we did quite extensive analysis for the repowering coal grants (of which the Qvist one is an example), but we have not yet had the chance to polish this for publishing. We're in the process of tripling the team, so we should be in a better position of closing reasoning transparency holes more quickly in the future.

I'll try to answer your questions in Q&A style. 


1. What qualifies Staffan Qvist? 

As another commenter has pointed out, Qvist has published several papers on repowering coal, indeed a project by Qvist preceding our grant produced the first papers on repowering coal in the Polish and Chinese context. He / his consultancy has played a large role in putting this idea on the map (alongside other grantees, TerraPraxis). He is one of the world's leading experts on this idea and recognized as such by other actors (eg TerraPraxis credited him with writing the first paper on repowering coal).

2. What is this grant about?

This grant is about conducting and disseminating techno-economic research on the feasibility of repowering coal in five key jurisdictions -- China, Indonesia, India, South Korea, Japan with local teams, Qvist Consulting is the facilitator/lead but will not do most of the research. It is quite close, though somewhat increased in ambition, to the work that resulted in the publications on Poland and China repowering mentioned above.

Zooming out, it's fundamentally about increasing the option space for tackling one of the hardest decarbonization challenges, decarbonizing lots of young coal capacity in (emerging) Asia. 

3.Is this a big grant?

If you take into account that this grant covered five jurisdictions over two years, it's at about 150k / jurisdiction / year. This is not high but close to the lowest level of "play", of being able to meaningfully engage, e.g. find and hire local teams to conduct the research in their countries. In general the budget for this grant is very lean compared to pursued activity. 

4. Why not do a small starter grant? 

A smaller starter grant would simply mean not doing this work or not doing this work at a scale that it has a reasonable probability of impact. 

Small starter grants are indeed a typical way of engaging but we think its seeming derisking (not invest much, feel out impact of charity) is dominated by the incurred risk of important work not being funded.

In this case it was clear from context that the counterfactual having most probability was not "others would fund this" but "this will not happen".

Given the background belief that the impact of climate philanthropy is decreasing over time (increased lock-in of emissions and technological trajectories) we think it's often good to have a bias towards action rather than waiting longer. 

It's also worth noting that this grantee was introduced to us by another funder who could, for impact-unrelated reasons, not fund this but had good experiences with prior grants. 

5. Is this grant all about nuclear?


It's about repowering coal with advanced heat sources, which could be advanced nuclear, but also advanced geothermal (eg super hot rock) or, if you believe it materializes on climate-relevant timelines, fusion. I don't put much weight on fusion-readiness, but when we model this the fact that this could also work with geothermal does increase the cost-effectiveness significantly (because it makes repowering coal feasible even if advanced nuclear fails to scale).

6. Are all the grants you list predominantly about nuclear? 


Of the four grants you list only one is exclusively about nuclear (the TerraPraxis one).

Repowering coal is about nuclear and other sources of clean dense firm power (see 5).

The CATF grant has no relation to nuclear beyond CATF being an organization that, among many programs, also has one on nuclear. The Breakthrough Agenda grant has 0 relation to nuclear. 

7. How is this grant related to other grantees?

Qvist pursues an approach to repowering coal that is complementary to TerraPraxis and has different risks of failure (roughly, TerraPraxis pursues a high innovation approach to repowering that could strongly reduce cost, but also could fail; Qvist is lower tech but thus has a higher risk of failing due to cost).

So there is a complementarity on the intervention level and, hopefully, an increased overall success probability. 

Qvist has been an advisor to CATF but we did not get introduced to Qvist via CATF but through another funder in our network. 

8. Why do we think it's a good grant? 

This will be clearer in the published write-up yo come but briefly: It's a bet (i) to contribute to solving one of the hardest decarbonization challenges, a bet that  (ii) looks high impact even on quite conservative assumptions about success, a bet that has a (iii) high likelihood of not happening for the wrong reasons (given that pro-nuclear climate philanthropy is small for reasons related to the history of environmentalism).  (iv) The grantee has a clear track record of implementing similar work to the grant and (v) this work has had important uptake by relevant stakeholders.

This is an awesome response, thank you Johannes - especially while you're on leave! I hope it didn't take eat too much into your time off. 

Obviously, there are inevitably follow up questions/other queries that come to mind, but your answer is an exceptionally thorough and concise account of your reasoning, that massively increases my confidence (coming from a place of naivety) in this grant and your decision process in general. 

It makes me wonder if there might be some middle ground where such an account could be provided, in the interim before publishing a more extensive analysis, when grants are made - especially since you seem to have been able to put this together (I hope) relatively quickly. Take this as a humble passing thought, however, you, of course have a much better understanding of the relevant constraints/considerations. 

Thanks again for giving such a great answer so quickly, and enjoy the rest of your time off! 

you seem to have been able to put this together (I hope) relatively quickly.

Johannes is being polite, which is a good response to public criticism, but as someone unrelated I'm going to be more blunt. You looked into a decision an org made and ended up with a lot of questions. Instead of asking the org or running a draft by them so they could prepare a response you posted your questions publicly in a way that looks a lot like an accusation of corruption. Practically, the organization needs to respond as soon as possible or many people will see your post, some will downgrade their view of the org, and most will never see the follow-up. That he was able to assemble something so quickly while on leave mostly speaks to the (unnecessary) urgency you gave to this situation, and not to how easy the task was. His response probably also skipped some steps grantmakers commonly have in writing publicly about their decisions, like running it by the grantee for accuracy.

As a positive example, I think the recent critical post Why I don’t agree with HLI’s estimate of household spillovers from therapy handled this well: if James had published that publicly on a Sunday night with no warning ... (read more)

While I agree it would have been significantly better to send this to the org ahead of time, I think on the margin I really wish we had more random spot-checks and discussions of org decisions, and still prefer seeing a post that puts an accidentally heavy burden on the org than not seeing one at all.

I do think this is a hard balance, and as someone whose writing motivation is far stronger with the reward of immediate publication, it's one I've struggled with and probably one I've gotten this wrong in both directions. A norm of sharing a draft ahead of time and giving them, say, a week to prepare a response if they want, though, seems pretty good?

[EDIT: expanded this into a post]

I'm starting to think posts should get a pinned mod comment if the poster doesn't assert that the person/organization had a specified amount of advance notice. That could be a tricky norm to define, as there can be valid reasons not to provide advance notice (e.g., breaking news or a situation where delay could risk clearly identifiable harm), and it's not trivial to define with precision what type of posts warrant an advance-notice norm. I'm not envisioning a hostile pinned comment, but I am wondering if there should be an "official" statement that says something along the lines of: "we don't delete criticisms that were not shared with the person/organization in advance, but -- at least absent special circumstances -- no one should expect a prompt response where the poster chose not to share the post in advance."

Edit: typo

It was always my intention to avoid criticism and merely put questions to FP. It is difficult to defend myself here without now straying into criticism, which I am also disinclined towards (particularly publicly for the reasons you state), and because it would seem particularly unfair given Johannes' sincere engagement with those questions.  I therefore make note of a few things that were relevant to my decision:  - It has been ~nine months since the grant was made.   - The grant was for a large amount of money.   - Near zero information is publicly available regarding the decision making for the grant, or for the grantee.   - In comparison to the HLI case, the post was made on the basis of a lack of information, not on the basis of detailed information made publicly available.  - In comparison to the HLI case, the post took the form of a request for further information, rather than a criticism of publicly available information.  Obviously, the timing of the researcher responsible being on leave was unanticipated and unfortunate. Happy to take on board criticism/feedback regarding whether questions should be put privately first/notice should be given (particularly from Johannes), but I'll also just note that, obviously, I'm just some guy. The administrative burden of having to follow up with an org seems greater than should be required (though perhaps it should be preferred) for mere questions about funding decisions on a public forum, in my view.  Along the lines of Ben's comment, this seems like it would be a disincentive for questions to be asked regarding these decisions, and my personal view is that many more questions should be asked. Not because there are necessarily any issues, but because facing questions and giving transparent answers increases credibility, and makes the org stronger and more effective. 

I don't think that any of those justify not sending either your questions or a writeup of the post to the org in advance. They have a public email address. It's at the bottom of their home page. I don't think it's a particularly excessive burden to send a copy once you're done and give them a week. Perhaps two if they apologize and ask for a bit more time. I understand why people might be suspicious at the moment, but forcing people to scramble while on vacation is not a good norm. As you say, this post clearly wasn't that time-sensitive. I don't think that the Forum should have taken your post down, but that's a much higher bar.

For comparison, when I posted a piece that was somewhat critical of CEA's admissions and transparency policies, it was after I had asked in a more private Slack channel and gotten an answer I was not satisfied with. You can see that they clarified that they did inform people, and that others chimed in to thank me for informing them with the post.

Looking at this comment after Nonlinear, I think it holds up. There exists a point at which an org loses the (moral, not legal) right to see questions / a writeup in advance, and Nonlinear was past it. Legal threats, contacting the people you spoke with, and contacting your employer are classic examples of this. I am also sympathetic to journalists covering industries that are known to react strongly, such as oil and tobacco. But the items in the list you provide do not come close to the bar of the org being untrustworthy, and that is the bar I think must be cleared. 
Do you mean Leverage or Nonlinear?
Nonlinear, thank you. Edited.

I think this is one of those cases where reaching out to the organization prior to posting on the Forum would be helpful. That may have led to a conclusion that deferring this discussion until the grant justification was posted would be more fruitful (and probably would have led to timing it when @jackva wasn't on leave).

Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

For some further information on Qvist's background, you could also check out his google scholar page: https://scholar.google.com/citations?hl=en&user=JFopkowAAAAJ&view_op=list_works&sortby=pubdate


Two 2022 papers have 'repowering coal' in the title so presumably might have some further background on the strategy or basis of these ideas, though I did not check them out myself:


Repowering a Coal Power Unit with Small Modular Reactors and Thermal Energy Storage

Repowering Coal Power in China by Nuclear Energy—Implementation Strategy and Potential

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