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Green energy needs to be more than just clean

There's two definitions of green energy espoused by attendees at the Future in Review conference: it needs to be clean, and it needs to make money.

CORONADO, Calif.--Looming energy problems present noteworthy challenges for the world, but big thinkers in science, business, and technology know they have to compete with the status quo without a helping hand.

The Future in Review conference has always been about sketching a picture of the technology and business landscape five years into the future. But this year, attendees and presenters are focused on a more pressing issue: the need for alternative energy sources to replace fossil fuels sooner, rather than later.

Stephen Evans of the BBC, Elon Musk of SpaceX, and Lyndon Rive of SolarCity (left to right) discuss solar power. Tom Krazit/CNET

As such, the early talk at the Hotel Del Coronado is all about alternative energy, whether that's cellulosic biofuels, photovoltaic panels, and carbon-reduction strategies. Vinod Khosla of Khosla Ventures kicked off the conference Tuesday night with an after-dinner speech urging the technologists, venture capitalists, and entreprenuers in attendance to focus on greener technologies that make economic sense, rather than crowd-pleasers like hybrid cars or Sheryl Crow's toilet-paper reduction strategy.

Khosla is plunging his dollars into technologies like enhanced geothermal, cellulosic ethanol, and efforts to improve the efficiency of products we already use, like engines and light bulbs. The key investment decision, in his mind, is whether these alternative technologies can work at utility-grade levels.

"(Alternative fuels) have to compete with the cost of fossil fuels without subsidies," he said, and they also have to be scalable. Technologies like food-based ethanol, wind power, and regular geothermal aren't scalable to meet the needs of a huge energy provider like PG&E, but if we could perfect ways to create ethanol from non-food sources, effectively store the energy generated by wind power, or drill geothermal plants anywhere on the surface of the planet, that goal of scalability comes into sight.

The other goal is that alternative sources of energy have to be price-competitive with current sources of energy such as oil, coal, and natural gas. The public will embrace cleaner, sustainable energy sources as long as they don't have to pay for it, Khosla said.

Martin Tobias of Ignition Partners, Erik Blachford of TerraPass, and David Morris of EcoVerdance talk about carbon-trading systems. Tom Krazit/CNET

Khosla is betting on the future, but he thinks that significant changes could arrive in the energy market as soon as five years from now. Other presenters on Wednesday morning discussed their current businesses, such as Lyndon Rive of SolarCity and David Morris of EcoVerdance.

Rive has a thriving business installing solar panels on California homes but is working overtime to try to ramp up the supply of solar technologies to meet demand, which illustrates Khosla's scalability issue: prices are way, way too high.

Morris' company is working on carbon trading by allowing businesses to purchase credits for a chemical called Accele-Gro-M, which is then given away to farmers in developing economies. This "all-natural plant growth enhancer," according to EcoVerdence's site, is used to boost crops yields; 1 gallon can treat 12.5 acres, Morris said. The increased yields not only improve the food supply in those areas, the additional plants take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

Carbon-trading markets have a bad reputation because many people feel they don't work to actually offset carbon production and give carbon producers ways to feel better about their production without really solving the problem. Morris' co-panelist, Erik Blachford of TerraPass, agreed that carbon-trading markets aren't perfect, "but they work."

Morris agreed. "The most costly thing we can do is nothing," he said. The FIRe conference runs through Friday, and several more panels will discuss the energy opportunity from several different points of view.