Clean energy will make Gore rich

November 21, 2007, 3:50 AM UTC

The Wall Street Journal editorial page opined Tuesday about the Al Gore-Kleiner Perkins connection. Predictably, they didn’t have much nice to say about Gore, Kleiner or anyone else who believes there’s a climate-change crisis. Marc Gunther and I wrote a long article in the current issue of Fortune on the subject, which the Journal‘s eco-skeptics graciously referenced.

A few of the points in the Journal editorial merit hashing over. First, the Journal rightly focuses on Gore’s financial opportunity. It’s worth quoting the paper in full.

[L]like the energy barons of an earlier age, Mr. Gore has the chance to achieve enormous wealth after being named last week as a new partner at the famously successful venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins. No fewer than three of his new colleagues sit on the Forbes list of wealthiest Americans. If Mr. Gore can develop market-based solutions to environmental challenges, we will cheer the well-deserved riches flowing his way. On the other hand, if he monetizes his Nobel Peace Prize by securing permanent government subsidies for nonmarket science projects, he’ll have earned a different judgment.

The Journal is onto more than it realizes here. Gore has said, and it has been printed in several places, that he’ll donate his (undisclosed) salary at Kleiner to the Alliance for Climate Protection, an advocacy group of which he is chairman and which he founded. (He’s also giving the group his Nobel winnings of $750,000.) What nobody reported on is that he is NOT giving away his profits from Kleiner’s investments. (I know this because I specifically asked Gore’s spokeswoman.) When venture capital is done well the profits, also known as carried interest, are much, much bigger than a partner’s salary. The profits also currently are taxed at a lower rate than ordinary income, which is the subject of current legislation in Congress.

As for the subsidies issue, it’s not like Sand Hill Road never has benefited from government intervention. The Internet itself grew out of a Defense Department project. And the lions of VC-land have lobbied successfully on a range of issue from visas for skilled immigrants to the accounting of stock options.

The Journal‘s most salient point, and one we made in our article, is the inherent riskiness of applying venture capital to the energy industry. Energy projects take time and money, and lots of both. VC projects tend to be fast and cheap. As the noted venture capitalist Bill Draper told me recently, when I asked why his firm, Draper Richards, isn’t invested in green tech: “Capital intensity tends to be anathema to a venture capitalist.”

It’s simply too soon to prove the following point, but I believe that Kleiner’s investment in green technology carries with it the highest possibility of failure of anything it’s ever done. Then again, venture capital is the ultimate example of risk capital. Failure is assumed, and one sensational hit can make a fund.

If these guys succeed, not only will Al Gore get richer but the planet most likely will be in better shape. The Journal says it would be “as happy as the Sierra Club if one or more of these new technologies turns out to solve the secrets of cheap, efficient energy.” But could they stomach a breakthrough like that and Al Gore taking credit?