Vinod Khosla @ AlwaysOn: Listening to a cleantech hero

Vinod Khosla
Vinod Khosla

MaRS went to the AlwaysOn Summit at Stanford. From a Cleantech perspective, there was one clear star. The fireside chat with Vinod Khosla of Khosla Ventures.

Vinod Khosla gets it. Not just business. As the founder of Sun Microsystems, former partner at Kleiner Perkins, founder of Khosla Ventures and one of the richest Americans, that’s pretty clear. But Khosla also gets climate change. Its severity and scale, the policy tools we need to tackle it, even the moral arguments surrounding the upcoming talks in Copenhagen that will attempt to forge a post-Kyoto deal.

Clearly, Khosla is in Green with some green. And he loves high-tech. Khosla Ventures has big bucks aimed at cleantech companies — and not just any companies. Only those that have high technology risk; companies that can potentially change the game. Khosla knows that if we are to avert the climate crisis, something drastically different needs to emerge. Smart storage that would let solar energy fly. Biofuels grown at scale on currently infertile land. He’s even game for cold fusion if he could find a good play there. If you’ve got a cleantech play that is game-changing, early stage and high-risk, you might be right for Khosla.

But Khosla is more than just high-risk, green venture.

But more importantly (and more impressive to me): Khosla pulls no punches on three issues:

  1. He calls green wash out for what it is.
  2. He gets the scale of the problem.
  3. He acknowledges the moral arguments put forth by the developing countries, in advance of the Copenhagen negotiations. He puts these ideas forward, clearly and unequivocally, unlike any other star American executive.

What’s green wash for Khosla? A hybrid car. Why? Because, from a cost-of-carbon-reduction perspective, it’s much more effective to put that money towards painting roofs white, reducing energy used for cooling. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t drive a hybrid (he does), his point is more subtle. If the goal is to reduce carbon, that money is better spent on painting roofs white. But the people with the money to spend on hybrid cars, rich Californians like himself (his words!), aren’t going to spend that money painting other people’s roofs white. He’s pointed out a clear failure of the free market. Money will not find the least-cost approach to reducing carbon.

He also acknowledges the scale of the problem. If we all followed every single recommendation in the Lazy Environmentalist, for example, what would it get us? Squat. Diddly-do. Nothing. The scope of our carbon problem is way past those sorts of measures and he’s candid enough to say so.

And moral arguments? “The moral argument that every person on the planet is allowed to emit the same amount of carbon is a very hard moral argument to refute,” he says (paraphrased). That’s the first time I’ve ever heard an American captain of industry acknowledge the validity of the developing worlds starting position on climate change.

Khosla is impressive. Sure he’s smart and successful and a hero to a cleantech player like me. But it’s his willingness to step outside the safe, secure optimism of American big business that sets him apart. We would do well to listen.