First, we need to see giant sums of capital, dwarfing anything in VC, flow to low-risk, already established solar, wind and storage technology, often in countries with weaker currencies and much higher financing costs than the nearly free money we can access in the United States. By our estimates, more than $30 trillion, and therefore more than 10% of all investable capital in the world, needs to be invested in the coming decade, at rates of return of no more than a few percent; otherwise, clean infrastructure will not proliferate fast enough to combat the relentless tide of climate change.
The good news is that giant sums of capital are currently languishing in bonds at rates of return below those in renewables. One of the challenges of this decade is to incentivize other sectors of the financial markets to reallocate some of that capital, especially in emerging markets where demand for power, transportation, materials and food is growing quickly. VC, with its demand for high returns and mismatched scale of capital, will have little bearing on this giant, but pivotal, infrastructure challenge and opportunity.
Many point to “impact investing” as a way around this problem. And it’s true: During our early years, we were often the only capital available to a new startup, and therefore we had the leverage to demand a high return. We could invest in high-impact initiatives without sacrificing our financial incentives.
But as we have been joined by many new funds in pursuing clean tech opportunities, the balance between impact and return has become harder to strike. We need to recognize the potential incongruence between high returns and high impact, and VCs today need to add singular value to justify a higher cost of capital and also remain disciplined amidst great enthusiasm in the sector. It’s very tempting to chase “hot” opportunities and shift focus to proliferating more mainstream technology. From my perspective, clean tech is still ripe for breakthrough technological innovation and the best and most impactful VCs will maintain a contrarian philosophy and focus on areas that are unpopular and unable to otherwise attract capital at an early stage.
Second, the importance of government intervention cannot be overlooked. The market is not pushing incumbents in the energy and other industrial spaces to transition away from dirty, fossil-based systems fast enough. Despite the promises of net-zero pledges and the growing accountability for results demanded by shareholders, government mandates likely remain necessary to speed up this process.