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Eyeing green tech, Rice tours Silicon Valley

Secretary of state and former Stanford professor meets with execs, espouses interest in technology to "wean ourselves from hydrocarbons."

PALO ALTO, CALIF.--U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with about two dozen technology leaders here Thursday in her adopted home town, but not before checking out Silicon Valley's hottest symbol of green-tech luxury, the Tesla Roadster.

Rice, who was a Stanford University political science professor and provost until 1999, was here on a two-day tour of Silicon Valley with Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer. Their visit included stops at Hewlett-Packard Labs and NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, and a luncheon with government trade officials and technology executives such as CEO Marc Benioff and early Google investor Ram Shiram.

Rice said her visit was designed to help understand what's happening in the most exciting area of the country for technology innovation, with an eye toward maintaining America's global competitiveness.

"We've also been very interested in new technologies for the new green revolution," Rice said during a roundtable luncheon at the Four Seasons Hotel. Such technologies will eventually help "wean ourselves from hydrocarbons...and help us be good stewards of the environment," she said.

Her comments come at a time when the Bush administration is trying to bolster its image in support of the environment and related standards. The Supreme Court dealt the administration a blow last month by ruling the Environmental Protection Agency must consider regulating greenhouse gases in auto emissions under the Clean Air Act.

According to a representative from TechNet, the bipartisan tech policy group that organized and sponsored Rice's visit, the U.S. State Department requested the meeting and tour.

Rice's trip was billed as a "home visit," or what is essentially a coordinated diplomatic meeting with a trip to her old stomping grounds. Last year, for example, Rice traveled to her birth city of Birmingham, Ala., with U.K. Foreign Minister Jack Straw.

Rice met with a wide swath of tech executives and government officials to discuss how to work together on innovation. In a private luncheon, Rice talked with National Semiconductor CEO Brian Halla, Cisco Chief John Chambers, and venture capitalists Geoff Yang from Redpoint, Floyd Kvamme from Kleiner Perkins and Mark Zanoli of JP Morgan. Also at the roundtable was U.S. Trade Ambassador David Gross, who negotiates trade treaties for China.

"It's heartening to be here," she said in a brief speech, in a place "fueled not just by great ideas but also a willingness of the private industry to invest in new technologies."

Before the afternoon luncheon, Rice visited HP labs and Moffett Field to preview the $92,000 Tesla Roadster, an all-electric sports car expected to ship at the end of 2007. The Roadster, already presold to Silicon Valley luminaries like Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, can drive as far 200 miles on one charge.

"Condi and I enjoyed the sports car very much, even though we weren't able to drive it," Downer said.

It's technology like the Roadster, he added, that will get people excited about reducing their environmental footprint.

"Consumers are increasingly interested in clean air and reducing CO2 emissions. And if these environmental problems are going to be solved, it will be sold by technology," Downer said.