Green Technology Most Likely to Succeed
In the January, 2011 issue of Scientific American, writer Mark Fischetti interviewed legendary clean-energy investor Vinod Khosla about which green technologies are most likely to succeed in the coming years.
Khosla, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, says that so far innovation isn’t happening at the rate it needs to be at for widespread adaptation to take place. Wind power is incredibly promising and costs are declining, but everyone is doing the same thing. Changes are made incrementally, at minute levels, when they need to be radical in order for progress to truly be made.
He makes some important points about scalability in this article. If we’re to compete in clean tech with countries like India and China, then these start-ups have to have an economically competitive product within 5-7 years. And, that time includes R&D. Right now, Khosla says, too many companies are taking tiny, tiny steps forward.
He offers up a great example of the Nissan Leaf. It’s a $26,000 electric car with $20,000 worth of batteries in it. For most people (myself included) it’s simply not worth that incredibly high price tag. And then in 5 years, when the batteries start to lose their punch, you’ve got to pour more money into the vehicle to upgrade. It just doesn’t make sense economically.
Another fascinating part of this interview is when Khosla starts talking about what his firm is investing in. He calls it “main tech”, which I took to mean the technology we use everyday to live our lives.
For instance, they’re working on a clean engine that is 50% more efficient than today’s engines, and costs less. They’re working on air conditioners that cost the same as the ones on the market today, but use 80% less energy.
To me, that’s incredibly exciting. People might not rush out to buy solar panels and wind turbines, since it’s harder for them to envision how that technology will truly pay off in their life. But an air conditioner is something they use everyday. It’s real, and it’s familiar. So upgrading to a model that’s going to save them money immediately, and not cost anything extra up front, could truly make a difference in the world.
Khosla is also really excited about the potential for innovation in fields, such as mechanical engineering, that haven’t seen much change in the past 50 years. Established designs like gear boxes and engine cams all have room for drastic innovation and improvement to become more efficient. And, he’s looking into hundreds of small start-ups that are focusing on this potential.
I’d highly recommend reading this wonderful feature in Scientific American. It appeared in the January, 2011 issue, and you can also listen to the podcast here.