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Bill Joy’s Energy Quest

The technologist turned venture capitalist describes his approach to investing in technologies that can avert climate change.

Bill Joy was one of the seminal figures in the rise of networked computing, and now he hopes to be present at the creation of another world-changing industry, in green-energy technology.

The cofounder of Sun Microsystems, now a partner at the Silicon Valley venture firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, is trying to find and fund companies that can overhaul the economics of energy in favor of renewable sources. Others may debate whether incremental improvements to existing technologies can gain enough momentum to save us from environmental ruin, but Joy—like many energy investors who got their start in IT—argues that we have no choice but to spend more money developing longer-shot breakthroughs. “Given the number of people on the planet with legitimate aspirations to a better life,” he said Thursday night at an interview session staged by the MIT Enterprise Forum, “fully deploying existing technologies wouldn’t provide enough headroom.” Later, he added: “And I don’t think the legendary venture returns will come from incremental advancements.”

Questioned on stage by Jason Pontin, editor in chief and publisher of Technology Review (video below), Joy said he believes some renewable sources of energy are already close to being competitive with traditional forms of power when the unpredictability of oil or gas prices is taken into account. But he added that the world still desperately needs ancillary breakthroughs in energy storage and energy efficiency. The combination is one reason why VCs expect tantalizingly huge returns on at least some of their investments in greentech companies, because if you can make consumption five times more efficient and double the efficiency of production, you’ve gotten a “10x improvement” in the economics of energy, Joy argued.

Joy said Kleiner Perkins began investing in green tech in earnest six years ago, when he joined the firm after leaving Sun. Back then, Kleiner Perkins had investments in three clean energy companies, and now it has stakes in more than 60, Joy said. They include companies trying to solve the energy-storage problem, such as the Carnegie Mellon spinoff Aquion Energy and the more disappointing EEstor; and companies developing novel methods of producing fuels, such as Siluria Technologies. Kleiner Perkins also backed Amyris, which went public last year. But that IPO, or the one of battery maker A123 Systems, was small-scale compared to what the cleantech industry still must have. “We need a Netscape moment,” Joy said. “We haven’t had that moment that changes everyone’s consciousness about it. We’ll know it when it happens.”

Video of the Q&A session with Bill Joy.

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