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Khosla on clean tech: Let's get real

Silicon Valley investor Vinod Khosla says the clean-tech industry needs to focus on "real stuff, not fashion."

FORT BAKER, Calif.--Silicon Valley investor Vinod Khosla has a message for and about the clean-tech industry: it's not about style, it's about substance.

San Francisco, for example, likes to show off its solar-panel installation at the Moscone convention center, he said. "But it's a foggy city," Khosla quipped here during a talk Tuesday at the GoingGreen confab. Toyota's Prius hybrid may be a hit in Hollywood, but he said, it's less carbon efficient than biofuel-powered cars and likely won't penetrate markets in India and China.

"The Prius sells well, but so do Gucci bags," he said.

Vinod Khosla, head of Khosla Ventures Martin LaMonica/CNET News

Finally, he'd like people to stop paying attention to the musician Sheryl Crow's public message about using only one square of toilet paper. "This is about real stuff, not fashion."

"The new green is about engines, lighting, appliances, batteries, gasoline diesel," Khosla said. "It's not about clean tech, it's about main tech. If you're going to find climate change solutions, it's got to be about main tech."

Khosla delivered a keynote speech on the first full day of the Always On GoingGreen conference, a three-day event focused on clean technology topics. Khosla, the founding CEO of Sun Microsystems who's risen to green-tech fame by investing in companies through his firm Khosla Ventures, spent a good portion of his talk pooh-poohing technologies he believes won't work in the long term.

For example, he criticized investor T. Boone Pickens' plan for natural gas-powered cars and targeting only a 20 percent reduction in carbon emissions within 10 years.

"This planet needs at least 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions. Natural gas is still a fossil fuel. I just don't think it makes sense," Khosla said.

On another front, Khosla said he likes nuclear as a renewable energy source, but it takes 15 years to try out new nuclear technology.

He also estimated that hybrids--versus cars that run on cellulosic fuel, E85--have a larger carbon footprint per mile driven. "It's not that I don't like hybrids--we'll probably look for new investments. But if you're going to change this business, we need to improve batteries," he said.

He said that the Tata Nano has sold millions in India, and the Honda Civic Hybrid has sold in thousands. "How do we make this car (the Nano) low carbon at $2,500? The technologies not only have to be fashionable but they have to be relevant at scale," he said.

So what's the answer? He said his firm is concentrated on investments in energy efficiency, biofuels, electricity, and new materials. For example, it has money in lighting technology for home and outdoors. It is investing in materials like water infrastructure tech, bioplastics, and cement that can sequester carbon. It is also backing companies working on energy-efficient engines, such as EcoMotors.

In the last six months, he has also proposed that the government or public interest groups adopt a method called "Claw" for measuring biofuels, giving each a rating much like an LEED rating for buildings. He said in an interview that he's tried to talk to the Natural Resources Defense Council and others to take up the cause.

"What I have proposed is that we measure biofuels with a rating--a carbon rating, a land rating, air quality rating, and water quality rating. (Claw) measures all environmental impacts of biofuels and puts a scientific basis about measuring this industry," he said.

"Once we have such a measurement, we can focus on the right fuel," he added.