‘Subsidy Risk’ in Green Tech

Two-and-a-half years ago, I attended a venture capital conference that focused a good deal on “clean tech.” I wasn’t impressed.

[T]he current vogue for “clean tech” differs from the information technology revolution that has done so much for the economy and society. Venture investors may be turning to government subsidy and regulatory advantage for their portfolio businesses, rather than producing to meet a market demand. “Going green” may mean “going red” in at least two senses—a more socialist political economy and a government even deeper in debt.

Essaying to instill some doubts among investors who were banking on “political will,” I asked pointedly how VCs assessed subsidy risk and the vagaries of public policy. The responses weren’t insightful or memorable.

Some vindication of my doubts comes in an article called “The Crisis in Clean Energy” ($) by David Victor and Kassia Yanosek in the July/August Foreign Affairs.

In the United States, most clean-energy subsidies come from the federal government, which makes them especially volatile. Every few years, key federal subsidies for most sources of clean energy expire. Investment freezes until, usually in the final hours of budget negotiations, Congress finds the money to renew the incentives—and investors rush in again. As a result, most investors favor low-risk conventional clean-energy technologies that can be built quickly, before the next bust.

Elsewhere, they write, “With clean energy suffering from long time horizons, high capital intensity, and a heavy dependence on fickle public policies, some Silicon Valley venture firms are scaling back or even canceling their ‘clean tech’ investment arms.”

Alas, Victor and Yanosek don’t call for the federal government to clear the field so entrepreneurialism can flourish. They offer three bland “shifts in approach” that amount to more of the same. Until the federal government does clear the field, watch for the subsidy muddle in green tech to suppress profound innovations while government-directed investment brings modest returns to investors/tax-consumers at the expense of taxpayers.