Clean-Tech: Force It or Fund It?

Two experts favor different strategies to prompt the innovation of clean alternative energy technologies

James Duncan Davidson/O'Reilly Media, Inc.

The world is eager for energy alternatives that greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But where will the impetus come from for developing cheap, clean technologies? Two primary strategies have emerged: a top-down approach in which government imposes mandates that force companies to change or a bottom-up approach in which entrepreneurs craft solutions that must meet the test of the marketplace.

One of those who believes that government must take the responsibility to push innovation forward is Daniel Esty, a law professor at Yale University and head of the school’s Center for Environmental Law and Policy. He favors government-issued price caps or penalties that, directly or indirectly, compel companies to pay for the carbon dioxide they emit; if a company emits a certain amount, then it must pay a specific fee—a fee high enough to encourage that firm to find less expensive, green solutions.

In contrast is Vinod Khosla, founder of the venture capital firm Khosla Ventures in Menlo Park, Calif., who maintains that government mandates often produce solutions that are uneconomical and therefore not widely adopted. Instead entrepreneurs utilizing private capital—perhaps with some short-term government assistance where needed—are better positioned to provide solutions cheap enough to be employed even in developing countries, necessary because climate change is a global problem. Little government regulation would be required.

The two men’s positions reflect their backgrounds. In the early 1990s Esty, a Rhodes Scholar, was responsible for strategic planning and review of climate change initiatives at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Khosla became a billionaire by co-founding Sun Microsystems and later as a partner with venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. His own firm has invested in dozens of new companies focused on future fuels, electrical efficiency, and solar, geothermal and biomass energy.

Esty: Mandate Limits
Business is already investing billions of dollars in technology to improve energy efficiency and lower greenhouse gas emissions. But with pressure mounting to address climate change in a more sweeping way, Esty believes it is time for governments around the globe to push innovation more vigorously. The way to do that, he says, is to charge for emissions.

Those charges—or “price signals” in financial jargon—come in many flavors. Harm charges, for example, impose a tax on companies that produce specific pollutants; government analyses suggest that a rate of $50 per ton of carbon dioxide emissions would be just high enough to force change. Another signal is a cap-and-trade system. To stay below the government-set limits on emissions, which become more stringent over time, companies must either reduce emissions or buy allowances on the open market from other firms well below the goals.

The first great advantage of price signals is that they create “a strong incentive for companies to be smart for their own operations,” Esty says, and, second, they create “an opportunity for any company that can be a solutions provider to others. With everyone being obligated to reduce emissions, someone who finds a clever way to do it can not only fix their own emissions but also sell their answer to everyone else. That’s the real spur to innovation.”

Esty also urges strict regulatory standards in the construction industry, where current incentives run against investments in energy efficiency. “You probably want to have standards set by fiat that dictate more efficient lighting, more efficient heating and air-conditioning systems, new standards for high-efficiency windows and better insulation, and elements of that sort,” he says. This approach would overcome the problem of developers building as quickly and cheaply as possible “without full attention to the running costs of the buildings. This is where you need a societal-level intervention.”

This article was originally published with the title "Clean Tech: Force It or Fund It?."

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