November 18, 2009
Why the Private Sector Can’t Do Energy Alone
Update: As Alexis Madrigal points out at WIRED, it's great to see the list of "heavy hitters" on the American Energy Innovation Council embrace a technology innovation agenda like the one Breakthrough has been working to advance. Let's hope this welcome show of support will be followed up by a serious commitment of financial resources.
An op-ed from Microsoft's Bill Gates and DuPont's Chad Holliday gives voice to the private sector's support for public investment in clean energy because energy, as Breakthrough has long argued, "requires a public commitment."
Gates and Holliday lay out three reasons why the private sector can't make this investment on its own:
What makes energy different from, say, electronics? Three things.
First, there are profound public interests in having more energy options. Our national security, economic health and environment are at issue. These are not primary motivations for private-sector investments, but they merit a public commitment.
Second, the nature of the energy business requires a public commitment. A new generation of television technology might cost $10 million to develop. Because those TVs can be built on existing assembly lines, that risk-reward calculus makes business sense. But a new electric power source can cost several billion dollars to develop and still carry the risk of failure. That investment does not compute for most companies.
Third, the turnover in our power system is very slow. Power plants last 50 years or more, and they are very cheap to run once built, meaning there is little market for new models.
It is understandable, then, why private-sector investments in clean energy technology are so small. Yet, while it may make sense for individual companies to make these choices, accepting the status quo would condemn our country to very bad options.