Although the two agreed on many points, the debate also highlighted one of the more interesting aspects of the so-called clean-tech market: Opinions vary widely on which technologies will and will not help the world get off a petroleum diet.
(For the record, Khosla disparaged wind power and solar panels as uneconomical and touted solar thermal power plants. Scheer pointed out cracks in the solar thermal argument, noting that it only works in a few places, and highlighted Germany's success with solar panels. These points have cropped up in other debates on the technologies.)
Khosla wrote the below response to Scheer and included a wide-ranging analysis of other energy issues. In fairness, we will also be contacting Scheer for his views.
Recently, I was on a panel with Dr. Herman Scheer, a member of the German parliament, the president of EuroSolar, and a much-honored "environmentalist." Suffice it to say that there was great commonality of goals but significant disagreement about "how."
From my admittedly biased point of view, his views sounded great but were ineffective and inefficient ways to reduce carbon emission and achieve sustainability. In fact, some ideas were downright harmful to the environment. This difference became vivid to me as we debated the role of PV technology versus that of solar thermal energy, the effectiveness of wind power, charging your cell phones with solar panels, on idealized distributed self-contained homes, and centralized power services and more. It did bring to mind a problem that has reared itself many times in renewably energy--the role of the idealist or dogmentalist versus that of the pragmatist.
Dr. Scheer has been a pioneer in his advocacy of renewable energy and sustainability goals. I agree with him on most of the goals and admire his early insights
Environmentalists versus pragmentalists
First, it is worth reviewing the situation we find ourselves in. Electric power worldwide is over 40 percent of total global carbon dioxide releases, and it is the fastest-growing portion (in terms of human-released greenhouse gases). India, China and other countries are rapidly industrializing and bringing basic electric power services to their peoples. Their development, like U.S. electric power, follows least-cost options.
Our least-cost electric power options--coal-fired power plants--are by far our most destructive and dangerous ones. Coal burning directly kills hundreds of thousands of people worldwide in particulate, sulfate and mercury releases, thousands of tons of radioactive emissions yearly, and emits over twice as much carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour (kWh) as any other form of power generation. The coming costs from worsening droughts from Africa to Indiana, intensified storms, and rising sea levels will bring misery to billions.
Nevertheless, U.S. utilities and their banking partners are planning to build about 150 new coal-fired power plants in the U.S. over the next five years, and China is building roughly 60 large plants every year. (The recent TXU settlement is a step in the right direction but will probably not make a dent.) Electric power is an engine of economic growth, bringing light, cooling, and communication to billions, but every coal-fired power plant is a ticking slow bomb. Knowing this, we need solutions that work--now.
As such, we must address some basic rules: For any energy scheme to be viable, it must be cost effective, and it must be scalable. If solutions don't get adopted in India and China, global warming control efforts are futile. To scale, they must make economic sense in China and India. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects that from 2003 to 2030, non OECD-Asia's (including India and China) energy consumption will grow at 3.7 percent--faster than anywhere else in the world. India and China are also the home of more than one-third of the world's population and are likely to continue to grow furiously in the near future, using lowest-cost energy.
If we allocate the same carbon emission per person worldwide (an equal right to pollute for every human) we are toast at anywhere near current levels of U.S. emissions or even at levels of carbon emission in Europe. It is reasonable to assume that when India and China are part of a global carbon emissions pact, they will demand the same per capita emission rights for their people as we have in the west. This will require huge transfers. The president of the World Bank recently suggested over a hundred billion dollars a year of "quota purchases" unless the new lower carbon emission approach to power generation is cheaper than coal or nuclear-based power generation (Do we want hundreds of nuclear plants in India and China?).
Moreover, these lower carbon emission generation technologies must be attractive not only to government planners, but also to private capital that cares only about economics and regulation--hundreds of billions if not trillions of which needs to become available. Simply put, government money will never be enough to reform the world's energy infrastructure.
To achieve these goals, we must provide services that consumers want and prefer over their non-sustainable fossil competitors, while at the same time be profitable for business (unless it can politically be mandated worldwide through policy, which seems unlikely, especially in India and China). Applications that meet the engineering needs but fail to meet the commercial ones are doomed to failure, which provides one of the key reasons for my disagreements with Dr. Scheer.
Vinod Khosla co-founded Daisy Systems and was the founding chief executive officer of Sun Microsystems. He currently is a general partner with Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.
19 commentsJoin the conversation! Add your comment