Bill Joy: Time for panic — and green investing

The legendary Internet technologist Bill Joy has found a better place than the Internet to put his venture capital dollars: green technology.

Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, joined the famed venture capital firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers in 2005 (more proof, if needed, that the rich get richer). In a recent talk, Joy said:

“Eugene Kleiner, the co-founder of Kleiner Perkins, said there is a time when panic is the appropriate response. And I think we should go into a panic — not only (because) the scale of the problem but also the economic opportunity that becoming more efficient in our use of energy gives to us.”

What does this technology guru — and sometimes techno-dystopian — think is hot in clean tech?

Although biofuels — fuels like ethanol made from plants — are garnering the bulk of investment dollars, Joy thinks that “electric vehicles will beat biofuels”….

The key stumbling block to plug-in hybrid cars are electric vehicles is batteries. But Joy is again optimistic there.

“There’s a range of new chemistries coming so that you can imagine, say five to ten years from now, instead of 100 watt-hours per liter we’re at today, that a break-out company will have a 500 or thousand watt-hours — a five to 10 times (increase in) the energy density,” he said.

“It’d be perfectly practical to have a car that you plug into your garage and you never have to go to a gas station,” he said.

Can’t argue with a fan of plug-in hybrids. What about solar?

In solar energy, his long-term bet is on photovoltaics — materials to convert light into electricity….

Although the efficiency of panels is improving, companies are pursuing solar technologies, such as solar thermal and solar concentrators, which can be more cost-effective.

Kleiner Perkins, in fact, has invested in both solar thermal and photovoltaics. But Joy sees photovoltaics winning out in the end….

“It’s much easier in the long run to get higher efficiency from photovoltaics. The cost is prohibitive today because we’re making high-efficiency photovoltaics out of high-purity crystalline silicon which is very expensive to make,” he said. “That’s not inherent in physics. Physics will win ultimately, I think.”

I hate to disagree with Joy, but if I were to place one bet on solar, I’d take concentrated solar thermal electricity over photovoltaics. It can be much cheaper and can potentially provide baseload or near-baseload power. I am not dissing PV, but cost ultimately reigns supreme. PV, fully installed, is pricey and likely to remain so for a while.

Still, glad Joy has joined the green side.