Electric Cars Won’t Take Over, Biofuels 3.0 Must Fix the Bugs, & Microorganisms as Problem-Solvers: Big Ideas from Cleantech Leaders

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Facebook. We’re not going to have a bunch of guys in a garage and instantly have a billion-dollar company,” she said. “That’s not how this works. It tends to be about a 30-year process.” But at this point, the industry is well into its current 30-year cycle, she added.

McCormick concurred with that point. “There has to be huge investment in this area, and there has to be a timeline that’s reasonable given the scale of the problem. It’s not a three-month software development timeline,” she said.

The panelists also said there must be a portfolio approach to generating alternative fuels and new clean-energy infrastructure in general. David used a self-confessed provocative example, declaring that he believes large-scale electrification of the modern transportation system will fail.

He said electric transportation could work in some niches—contained areas like major ports, for example, or cities like Seattle or Las Vegas with significant hydroelectric assets. But the change won’t ever be worth the trillions of dollars needed to remake the entire national infrastructure, because so much of the electric supply right now is tied to coal, he said.

“There is a desire among people who think of themselves as green-tech investors to believe in silver bullets—single solutions that solve everything,” David said. “But it’s always been a mix in different settings … the belief that suddenly everything’s going to change, and we’re going to suddenly coalesce the ways we use energy to a smaller number of things, is not based on a full understanding of history.”

Government’s role: The panelists highlighted the interesting regulatory environment of working the broad energy sector, where government is needed to drive major adoption and change, but also is feared for its tendency to get too involved.

David pointed to Winston Churchill’s leadership in converting the British Navy to oil over coal fuel in driving the modern norm for liquid fuels, and the other panelists seemed to agree with his sentiment that military procurement was probably “the most powerful instrument you can use to drive change.”

An audience member posed a great follow-up question: Since the government and military role is so important in making new types of fuels feasible, where’s the trepidation about government picking winners and losers come into play? Isn’t the government picking a winner when it cuts a military procurement contract?

Burow said there’s a big distinction between the military adopting alternative fuels for its fleets and the government mandating broad renewable fuel standards for all vehicles. When the Pentagon picks a contractor, it’s “buying a real product. They’re not picking a winner, they’re picking a partner—and it leaves the industry open for other partnerships,” Burow said.

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5 responses to “Electric Cars Won’t Take Over, Biofuels 3.0 Must Fix the Bugs, & Microorganisms as Problem-Solvers: Big Ideas from Cleantech Leaders”

  1. Even microbes have to have something to make cells out of. At the scale needed for alternative energy – algae requires peak fertilizers of petroleum and phosphate – just like our food crops. Genetic engineering isn’t going to change the non-sustainable nature of or the mass balance negativity of biofuels – especially algae. However, if we fail to ignore this biofuel flaw we can shrink the window of opportunity we have to develop alternative energy by decreasing the amount of food production potential.

  2. Chris Noble says:

    Ned David has it exactly backwards… it is the knowledgeable greentech investors who know about the wide range of renewable energy sources and storage technologies that will eventually contribute to the electrification of the transportation grid, and it is those who can’t see beyond fossil fuels who are waiting for a single “magic bullet” before they change their minds. Fossil fuels are heavily subsidized at every stage: exploration, production, distribution, consumption and passing environmental costs on to the taxpayer and future generations. When will we be willing to abandon these fossil fuel subsidies?