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Bill Joy: Better to be in green tech than Internet

Sun co-founder Bill Joy is plying his trade as a venture capitalist, digging into the "honeypot of innovation" in energy and green tech.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--The legendary Internet technologist Bill Joy has found a better place than the Internet to put his venture capital dollars: green technology.

On Monday Joy gave a talk on why he is exploring a wide range of green technologies as a partner at venture capital firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers. He spoke at the Lux Research conference on nanotechnology where he also predicted major changes in transportation industry and solar energy.

Joy, credited with inventing several Internet technologies as a co-founder of Sun Microsystems, joined the high-profile Silicon Valley venture capital firm in 2005.

Bill Joy, partner at venture firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers. Martin LaMonica/CNET Networks

Apart from some semiconductor companies, he is staying away from Internet investments which he said are "wacky right now."

By contrast, the urgent problem of global warming means that energy and green tech investments represent a great opportunity for innovation, he said.

"Eugene Kleiner, the co-founder of Kleiner Perkins, said there is a time when panic is the appropriate response. And I think we should go into a panic--not only (because) the scale of the problem but also the economic opportunity that becoming more efficient in our use of energy gives to us," Joy said during his talk.

In an interview after his presentation, Joy said that energy and green tech makes for appealing venture investments because there is a large technology component and the markets are huge.

He is confident that there will be good financial returns in green tech, which is seeing an explosion of investment. In the past few years, some clean tech companies in electricity-grid demand management and solar electricity have successfully gone public, while other fields, such as biofuels, have had mixed results.

"We're still finding really high-quality ventures at an early stage where we think the prices are fair. I wouldn't say that's true in the Internet space. Things in Internet space are wacky right so it's nice to be someplace where things aren't so crowded," he said.

Electrification of vehicles
During his talk, Joy forecast how the transportation and electricity businesses could change over the next five to 10 years.

Although biofuels--fuels like ethanol made from plants--are garnering the bulk of investment dollars, Joy thinks that "electric vehicles will beat biofuels." That means that the transportation and electricity grid will be increasingly interlinked.

The key stumbling block to plug-in hybrid cars are electric vehicles is batteries. But Joy is again optimistic there.

"There's a range of new chemistries coming so that you can imagine, say five to ten years from now, instead of 100 watt-hours per liter we're at today, that a break-out company will have a 500 or thousand watt-hours--a five to 10 times (increase in) the energy density," he said.

"It'd be perfectly practical to have a car that you plug into your garage and you never have to go to a gas station," he said.

For longer trips, people could have tanks for liquid fuels. Joy also imagines that cars will be equipped with 40- to 50 percent-efficient solar panels to charge their batteries. "Maybe outdoor parking lot spots will be more valuable," he said.

He said it's more likely that these electric cars will take hold in Europe before the United States because Americans drive longer distances, have heavier cars and drive more trucks as passenger cars.

In solar energy, his long-term bet is on photovoltaics--materials to convert light into electricity.

Solar panels right now require hefty upfront investment, typically for homeowners who don't have as many financing options as large organizations.

Although the efficiency of panels is improving, companies are pursuing solar technologies, such as solar thermal and solar concentrators, which can be more cost-effective.

Kleiner Perkins, in fact, has invested in both solar thermal and photovoltaics. But Joy sees photovoltaics winning out in the end.

Cells made from silicon--the most widely used material for solar panels--have an efficiency of about 20 percent. Joy predicts that advances in materials can boost the efficiency while keeping costs low.

"It's much easier in the long run to get higher efficiency from photovoltaics. The cost is prohibitive today because we're making high-efficiency photovoltaics out of high-purity crystalline silicon which is very expensive to make," he said. "That's not inherent in physics. Physics will win ultimately, I think."