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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

RE: viable niche vs. subsidized mass market?

In Wednesday’s WSJ, engineering consultant Josh Prueher argues that the way to promote renewable energy is to encourage adoption in self-funding niches rather than proffering government subsidies to help spur adoption in mass markets.

Prueher points to the inherent problem with any subsidies:
In the renewable energy industry, subsidies typically involve federal and state governments imposing a small tax or an electricity rate hike on each one of us. The government then awards the proceeds to a few winners that, in the best case, have demonstrated the technical and business potential to grow into competitive companies. In the worst case, they've demonstrated little more than superior lobbying capability. In all cases, subsidies deny the market its proper role of directing capital. It's important to note that the traditional energy industry also receives billions of dollars in government subsidies each year; perhaps it's more effectively hidden from public scrutiny.
The PV entrepreneurs and managers say that subsidies are a necessary evil in the short term but they look forward to when they are no longer necessary. Some seem more sincere than others.

Instead of these subsidies, Prueher notes that we already have a fully functioning unsubsidized market where RE has a cost advantage: the off-grid market. This market — whether rural US or military outposts — is typically served by diesel generators.

The logistics cost of supplying fuel to these generators — whether on an offshore platform or the military front lines — are “staggering”:
For instance, unlike you and me, who pay on average from 3 cents to 16 cents for a kilowatt hour of electricity from the grid, these large consumers pay between 50 cents and $2.
From this, we already know what an unsubsidized RE market looks like:
Those high costs are sending a strong, clear price signal to the energy market to provide cheaper and more reliable sources of electricity and fuel. Namely, we need to develop renewables, energy storage and energy-efficient technologies that do not require expensive logistical support. While the off-grid market is small relative to the on-grid energy behemoth, it is of sufficient size and depth to justify strong competition, private investment and product development—without subsidy.
While he’s right in principle, in practice I don’t see how we get from here to there. The venture-funded SV PV companies and the Chinese-funded Big Five are addicted to purchase subsidies, whether as taxpayer rebates or (as in feed-in tariffs or RPS standards) mandated wealth transfers from electricity users.

If I were doing a bootstrap startup, I’d make a self-funded startup that targeted a cost-effective niche. But the nature of venture-funded startups that their founders/owners have to bet it all on double-zero — to swing for the fences — because it’s better (at least for venture investors) to have a small chance of huge success rather than a good chance of a modest success.

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