Skip to Content

What clean-energy innovators can learn from Apple

A worker inspects solar panels at a solar farm in Dunhuang, 950km northwest of Lanzhou, Gansu ProvinceA worker inspects solar panels at a solar farm in Dunhuang, 950km northwest of Lanzhou, Gansu Province
Fewer smokestacks, more solar panels and wind turbines.Photograph by Carlos Barria — Reuters

We noted in an earlier piece that Bill Gates’s “moonshot” investments to stop climate change, while well intentioned, are misdirected. We do need an Apollo Project for clean energy but it should be an effort that focuses on global deployment of technologies we already have—not on new invention.

When it comes to clean energy innovation, today we are where the information technology world was in 1995-2000. There has been a huge number of clean tech startups, but many have failed to commercialize and generate real revenue. Yet just as the seeds we sowed in IT prior to the dot-com crash of 2000 are still bearing rich fruits today, so too will the seeds we sowed in clean energy between 2000-2008 generate benefits for decades to come.

Why? Because these explosive periods of idea generation and company formation are at the heart of “creative destruction.” These periods of creativity are necessarily followed by periods of competitive carnage, which drive down costs and yield a handful of surviving companies. The destructive crush of competition has eliminated most of the solar companies launched in the early 2000s, but it has also caused PV solar prices to fall precipitously – just as the competition among PC manufacturers in the late 1990s caused PC prices to fall so significantly.

Also, many clean energy inventions that previously hit commercial dead-ends are now ready to be transformed by a new generation of entrepreneurs into new and better solutions – not necessarily with additional technical advancement, but with strong business insights that use these inventions to create solutions and services that can be deployed globally now. A good example is how a conventional electric motor, a state-of-the-art laptop battery, and the EV equivalent of parallel processing were combined to form the elegant drive train that propels the Tesla Model S sedan. Just as Apple (AAPL) changed how we thought about personal computing (even as it was near bankruptcy in 1997), Tesla has irretrievably changed the way we think about electric transport (even if it still has challenges ahead).

Indeed, bringing new financing solutions or business models to capable but revenue-challenged inventions can change the world. Someone like Bill Gates could jump start this critical phase of growth by joining forces with other like-minded entrepreneurs and leading corporations to create a private, non-government funded effort to further drive down the cost of clean energy technologies and bring them to all parts of the world just as he is doing with clean water and health technologies.

As with PCs and smartphones, we need to make these breakthrough technologies affordable for everyone. In developing countries, the need for more energy, water and food is so fundamental that the costs of climate change and pollution are trivial by comparison. These countries will continue to burn wood, coal, and oil to pursue a better standard of living if we don’t develop sustainable alternatives.

Developing countries can’t wait for large-scale carbon capture or the next generation of nuclear power. Distributed solar, wind, battery, and microgrid solutions are available today, are already the cheapest solution in a number of areas and will continue to get better and cheaper every year. For example, in 2009 diesel fuel was the cheapest solution for most of Africa. Despite oil price declines, solar is now the least expensive way to bring electricity to much of Africa. If we can make these technologies even more affordable through financing and business model innovation, developing countries will adopt them just as rapidly and widely as they did the cell phone, leapfrogging inferior technologies that we depended on for years.

It’s time to recognize that any solution that fails to scale and deploy existing clean energy technologies – for the benefit of all – is not a real solution.

 

Stephan Dolezalek, Stefan Heck, and Andrew Shapiro, long-time clean energy investors and advisors, are the founders of Resourcient, a new initiative to promote scalable investment in resource efficient businesses.