SAN JOSE, Calif. The big opportunity for solar energy is in utility plants, according to Vinod Khosla, who gave back-to-back keynotes on the subject here Tuesday (Oct 16.). The iconic venture capitalist who has started his own alternative energy investment company also stumped for California's Proposition 87, which would fund research into so-called clean technology.
"I now believe that thermal solar will be cheaper than coal-fired electricity plants. It is far more risky to build a coal-fired plant than a solar thermal one today," said Khosla, speaking at the Emerging Ventures conference.
Photovoltaic cells have made significant advances with thin film, multi-junction technology. Utilities represent an opportunity for solar energy that could amount to hundreds of billions of dollars, said Khosla, who earlier in the day he delivered a keynote at a solar power conference a block away that attracted an estimated 7,000 attendees.
Although many developers are pursuing the low-cost solar cells, Khosla said "that's exactly the wrong way to go.
"Solar systems would still cost $2 kiloWatt/hour if the cell cost went to zero. What we need are higher efficiency cells. We should be saying we will accept higher costs to get 30 percent efficient cells," he said.
Separately, Khosla spoke out in favor of California's Proposition 87 that would levy a fee on petroleum to be used in part to fund alternative energy technologies.
"This is probably going to be the most expensive race in the country this year," Khosla said, estimating oil companies have already spent $67 million attacking the measure and could spend $80-$100 million before the November vote.
Thirty percent of the Prop. 87 funds would go to university R&D, Khosla said. "Clean tech R&D has been declining in this country for 30 years. We absolutely need to have more R&D in this area," he said.
Another 57 percent of the Prop. 87 fees would be used to lower oil consumption, he added.
"Oil companies get a 500-percent depreciation on some assets. That's just one of a half dozen clauses I know of that are in effect subsidies for oil companies," he said.
Khosla is mainly known for funding a number of Silicon Valley's biggest ventures as a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers. He now devotes much of his time to the clean tech area which is the focus of Khosla Ventures. The new company has a broad portfolio of investments including bets on as many as eight alternative fuel companies.
"When oil went above $40 a barrel, a host of things became viable," said Khosla.