TR: Does building wind turbines using coal power vitiate their value as an alternative energy?
VK: Many technologies today have long payback periods before the energy invested in them is returned. If it takes so much coal power to produce the solar cell or wind turbine that we are not clean-energy positive for four or five years, is that really a problem? But technology is not static, and all the newer technologies will improve, and the payback period will get faster and faster. These kinds of arguments are generally advanced by proponents of traditional energy and economists who are not used to rapid improvements in technology.
TR: Does nuclear energy have a place in a clean-energy future? After all, France generates 75 percent of its power through nuclear energy.
VK: Nuclear could have a future. That said, I suspect we are unlikely to go to mostly nuclear power in the U.S., because the political and regulatory risks are too high and the time line to build plants is too long. What we really need is to build a big, high-voltage DC power grid, and let nuclear, wind, solar photovoltaics, solar CSP, electricity from biomass and waste, and anything else innovators can think of get on the grid. We need to kick-start the alternatives and let the competitive ones prosper.
TR: Do you believe in the hydrogen economy that President Bush and others have promoted?
VK: Hydrogen makes no sense to me. There are forces that like any technology that is far enough away that they don’t have to make any real changes. We will want to reëvaluate hydrogen in 10 years, but it does not look like a winning option to me today.
TR: Apart from energy, you’ve also shown some interest in investing in new markets for microloans. Why?
VK: Microloans are the most effective tool in addressing poverty. I am not a big believer in the aid and development programs that big governments favor. But if entrepreneurs use microloans to make biomass an important feedstock, for instance, we will do more to address poverty than all the foreign aid from all the developed world. And biomass can be used to produce fuels, electricity, plastics, and much more