Making Cleantech Happen

For those wanting to take a break from the campaign, here is a report on climate change and clean technology....

When it comes to addressing climate change how do we do more than play at the margins? That was the challenge posed by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom at the latest Cleantech conference bringing together venture capitalists, hedge fund managers, clean tech entrepreneurs and others seeking market solutions to climate change. Noting that San Francisco has the largest fleet of plug in hybrids in the country-three, Newsom warned that despite all the promise of new clean technologies, rollout has barely begun A lot of low hanging fruit is out there, Newsom exhorted, but mayors, governors, corporations and people need to do reach out and pick it.

At the latest Cleantech, a conference that has gone from filling a room to an entire hotel in just three years, a host of visionaries and venture capitalists looking to cash in on what John Doerr says is a bigger opportunity than the Internet, exchanged the latest news on thin film solar technologies, biofuels, windmills and electric cars as oil economists predicted gas prices of over $4 per gallon this summer and higher prices ahead. With global oil production at close to full capacity and China and India just beginning their consumption trajectories, oil prices (as well as those of natural gas) seem almost certain to continue to climb. Falling prices of batteries, solar power and other renewables have made clean technologies the obvious solution to a looming energy and climate disaster. But first costs have to drop and acceptance has to increase.

Concentrating solar power through mirrors is one promising way to bring the cost of solar power down. So are thin films-the use of sun absorbing foil and other materials--in place of expensive silicon. To store intermittent wind, water and solar energy, better and cheaper storage, whether mechanical or chemical in the form of lithium ion batteries, will be critical. Finally, new business and pricing models will be important to the rollout of electric cars, home generation of electricity and other consumer methods of creating power.

While the technologies on display were impressive, they are not developing quickly enough to stop, for example, the melting of the summer Arctic ice cap. That's where policy will be critical. The easiest lift is efficiency. California consumes only one half the energy of the country as a whole at no loss to consumers. Speakers agreed on the need to "put a price on carbon" whether through a carbon tax or cap and trade system with several projecting that the United States would have a cap and trade system in place within 24 months. A "feed in" tariff such as that employed in Germany that pays consumers for producing power, predictable instead of on-and-off subsidies and decoupling of production from purchase markets were also mentioned as critical levers.

Blocking progress has been the stodgy nature power utilities-the largest customer for many products--that operate under a web of regulation. Absent in the industry so far has been the adrenaline of cost reduction through mass production-the driver of the consumer electronics, cell phone and Internet revolutions.

While no one has yet figured out a way to marry the speed of the Internet to clean technology, next month Vice President Gore's Alliance for Climate Protection will begin a multi million dollar ad campaign to raise awareness of the danger of climate change and hopefully accelerate action.

Indeed, other countries are arguably outpacing the United States. At the conference, Dr. Sultan Ahmed al Jaber of the UAE accepted an award for the UAE's $15 billion clean tech initiative, Masrad. If the US has one strength it is innovation and high tech companies are rushing to get into the game with Google, in particular, making a huge push to reduce its carbon footprint and offering $10 million to companies making a plug-in hybrid car. Google has installed one of the world's largest collections of solar panels the Googleplex.

I'll be back in California later in the month to meet with clean tech participants and NDN members to learn about your efforts and insights regarding this challenge. Or email me at