Green tech seeks its 'Netscape moment'

Entrepreneurs and investors at a clean-energy conference say they are hopeful that new technologies can shake up the energy industry but are frustrated with the pace of change.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
4 min read

Updated at 11:00 am PT with correction to Podesta's comment.

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.--If you're wondering what the next big thing in green tech will be, this is a good place to look.

The ARPA-E Summit, a conference designed to showcase potential breakthrough clean-energy technologies, started on Monday, attracting some 1,700 investors, entrepreneurs, and policymakers all vying to reinvent the energy infrastructure to be cleaner and more efficient.

Given the makeup of the group, the mood is optimistic that new technologies can shake up even the slow-moving energy business. At the conference, scientists and entrepreneurs showed off early-stage ideas, such as kinetic energy storage systems or methods for low-cost solar power.

Arun Majumdar, the director of ARPA-E, is looking for home runs in clean energy technology. Martin LaMonica/CNET

At the same time, there's an undercurrent of concern. Attendees here appear convinced that clean energy industries--everything from algae fuels to efficient LED lighting--will be the engine of economic growth in the future. But they also know that it will be a competitive global race. And few of the experts here, it seems, believe that the U.S. is firing on all cylinders when it comes to converting to a cleaner energy system.

In addition to technology breakthroughs, the other key pieces to the puzzle--financing and a cohesive energy policy--need work before green tech can move from niche to mainstream, according to some of the speakers.

"We need to have a Netscape-like moment when a company goes public and its potential and success infects the average American, so that there's a change in attitude toward this essential product--energy," said John Doerr, the famed venture capitalist from Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers, during a panel on Tuesday. "When that happens, pardon the pun, it will be electrifying." The venture capitalist is an investor in Bloom Energy, which has attracted a lot of attention in recent weeks for its power plant-in-a-box known as the Bloom Box.

Right now, Doerr said the U.S. simply isn't matching the speed of transition in energy in other countries. China's cars are already 30 percent more efficient, its government spent 10 times as much stimulus money as the U.S. on energy technologies, and its leaders, most of whom are engineers, have a five-year plan. In another panel, Center for American Progress CEO John Podesta said that China has a commitment to clean energy and is spending $12 million a hour on clean tech.

By contrast, Doerr said that the U.S. energy policy could be called the "sum of all lobbyists," a process that yields an inconsistent set of rules and chronic underfunding of research and development. General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt said during a talk on Tuesday that U.S. policies in many energy areas, including coal and nuclear, are unclear.

One company vying for ARPA-E funding is Energy Focus, which makes LED bulbs that can replace existing fluorescent bulbs, offering more control and higher efficiency, according to the company. Martin LaMonica/CNET

In general, green-technology investors and entrepreneurs argue that putting a price on carbon emissions will act as an incentive to businesses to develop low-carbon energy. Also, many argue that utility regulations need to change so that all utilities have an incentive to use energy more efficiently.

Financing, meanwhile, remains a challenge for many budding green-tech companies because many businesses require hundreds of millions of dollars to produce their products at scale. During a panel, Andy Karsner, the CEO of Manifest Energy and a former Department of Energy official, said that renewable energy is starting to scale up but not in the U.S., in part, because of the financial environment.

Tech showcase
The technology side of the picture is more optimistic. On Tuesday, a handful of companies and researchers, who are vying for or have received research grants from ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy), presented results of their ongoing work.

For example, MIT Professor Daniel Nocera described the solar-power hydrogen storage system that his company Sun Catalytix is developing. Meanwhile, FloDesign Wind Turbine CEO Lars Anderson said his company is making progress in bringing the company's jet-engine-like wind turbine to market.

There was also a showcase of dozens of companies working on wide range of energy-related technologies, including solid state batteries, LED lighting, efficient car engines, and magnesium plates that can store hydrogen for fuel cell vehicles.

One early-stage idea at ARPA-E Summit is the use of thousands of magnesium plates to store hydrogen for a fuel cell vehicle. The system from Plasma Kinetics uses a laser, just like a CD player, to remove fuel and power the vehicle. Martin LaMonica/CNET

The ARPA-E agency was first funded last year with a $400 million budget with a goal of nurturing breakthrough energy technologies. ARPA-E Director Arun Majumdar said the agency is structured to yield "home runs" by focusing research in different areas, such as grid storage or carbon capture and storage, which can be developed within the next three to five years.

On Tuesday, the agency opened additional grant solicitations in grid storage to complement wind and solar power, energy-efficient air conditioning, and efficient power electronics for wind turbines or LED lighting.

While entrepreneurs and scientist toil away on these early-stage ideas, many of the attendees are closely watching the development of green-tech companies now reaching the point of commercialization. Lithium ion battery company A123 Systems went public last year, and this year a few more companies, including electric carmaker Tesla Motors and solar company Solyndra, are hoping to raise money on the stock market.

The success of these early companies, although still not global powerhouses, shows that new technologies are penetrating the market faster than many would have predicted five to eight years ago, said Stephan Dolezalek, who heads the clean-tech practice at VantagePoint Ventures.

But to make a large-scale impact, the industry still needs a handful of enduring success stories, said Don Paul, executive director of the University of Southern California Energy Institute.

"It will be a complex ecology with different players," he said. "But ultimately for us to compete in the world, we must have global players because that is what is out there."