Betting on Black Swans

The phrase “Black Swan” was coined in the book of the same name by author Nassim Taleb to describe an event that is hugely important and influential that was not anticipated but yet in retrospect could have been.

September 11, 2001 is a classic example of a Black Swan.  It was only a failure of imagination by most Americans (including myself) to never have contemplated beforehand the possibility of such a dreadful day.  But, the terror attacks of that fateful day were pulled off with pitiful ease, without requiring any enabling technical or social developments.  Upon reflection, we should have seen it coming.  And, because it came, most countries around the world undertook a host of incredibly expensive actions.  Everything changed on 9/11.  The trajectory of human events was irrevocably and dramatically altered.

Of course, there have been many other Black Swans in recent history:  the Pearl Harbor attacks, the unveiling of the atomic bomb, the launch of Sputnik, JFK’s assassination, and so on.  Each was shocking, and changed the course of history.

These are all geopolitical examples, but there have been commercial examples as well.  In the past 50 years, the way we live has been wholly altered by such inventions as the transistor, graphic user interfaces (GUIs), touchscreens, and the Internet.  The way medicine is practiced has been overturned with the advent of medical imaging and non-invasive surgery, and the Genome project promises radical breakthroughs that we generally can’t foresee yet.

In energy, probably the most significant Black Swans in our lifetimes so far relate to advanced methods for discovering or extracting oil and gas from resources that were previously believed to have little economic opportunity.  This most notably includes hydraulic fracturing (a.k.a. “fracking”) to tap natural gas and oil from shale formations, but also embraces deepwater offshore exploration/production and steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) recovery of the Athabasca oil sands in Alberta — all of which were pipe dreams (at best) a decade or two ago.

These hydrocarbon breakthroughs were largely made possible by the emergence of massive computational power to enable 3-D seismic imaging of deep geology and precision control of drilling and subsurface operations, assisted by dramatic improvements (in many cases, evolutionary over decades) in materials and mechanical technologies.  Some wags have said that the best rocket science occurring today is not aimed towards the heavens but instead is aimed underground.

Needless to say, these Black Swans in energy have transformed the oil/gas sector — one of the largest economic enterprises on the planet — which in turn has shifted the economic and financial fortunes of many players in the industry by untold billions of dollars.

So, the question becomes, are there Black Swans lurking ahead in the cleantech space?

Vinod Khosla certainly thinks so.  One of the most visible of the cleantech venture capitalists, Khosla penned last year a wide-ranging and ambitious thought-piece entitled “Black Swans Thesis of Energy Transformation”.

Khosla thinks that many other venture capitalists — including, presumably, me — are too cautious in pursuing “what could be” in energy.  By focusing mostly on the potential for attractive returns, venture capitalists have become captive to the pursuit of incremental improvement, and are thus overlooking “game-changers” that admittedly have higher risks.  A large part of his argument is built on the notion that forecasts are largely bogus, and too much weight in investing and managing is placed on the projections of the future by even the most expert of observers.

Khosla acknowledges that failure is a strong possibility with his bolder philosophy, but that is the price to be paid for aiming high and achieving great things.  Quoting Robert F. Kennedy, “only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.”  Now, maybe having a billion dollars of your own wealth, stemming mainly from his role in founding Sun Microsystems, helps to give Khosla the confidence to accept a high likelihood of failure.  However, through his fund vehicle Khosla Ventures, he is investing other people’s money too, so he can’t afford to be too cavalier — at least for very long.

Khosla’s mantra is “shots on goal”:  making lots of bets in potentially transformative technology areas.  In his paper, he singles out twelve of the portfolio companies of Khosla Ventures as being particularly ambitious, with the potential for huge returns.

His lament is that there aren’t more firms or funds or organizations taking similarly audacious and numerous “shots on goal”.  “If there were a hundred such Black Swan venture funds [similar to ours], each with its own points of view, we would have 10,000 ‘technology’ shots on goal over a decade, or at least more than 1,000 non-overlapping attempts.  With that number of shots, or even just a thousand, I believe we would have a near certainty of at least ten assumption-shattering successes in major market segments.”

I don’t have a clue as to where the other 99 funds like Khosla’s will come from.  I don’t know many investors who have that risk-appetite, especially in today’s turbulent world.  There may be some needles in the haystack out there, but they are few and far between.  Moreover, it’s unclear how much wealth those rare individuals possess and can allocate to helping hatch the Black Swans of cleantech.

It’s notable that Khosla supports the efforts of ARPA-E, the group within the U.S. Department of Energy tasked with providing funds to risky but promising energy innovations.  He probably knows that the other Black Swan funds he’d like to see from the private sector aren’t likely to emerge.  Indeed, in his white paper, Khosla really doesn’t offer much of a logical investment thesis for Black Swan investing, beyond some wishful thinking and a deep trust in the law of large numbers.

Alas, low-cost public sector capital is simply more well-suited than private capital to cleantech Black Swans, which after all are big/bold bets offering large long-term social value.

In turn, this reliance on public sector grant support for new energy innovation causes many observers in the political realm to buck up their backs in opposition, complaining that the government shouldn’t be in the business of “picking winners and losers”.  Unstated but underlying this criticism is the belief that our conventional energy system based on hydrocarbons never benefited from such largesse, so why should cleantech?

Tell that to George Mitchell.

For many years during the 1980s and 1990s, Mitchell and his firm experimented with fracking, with limited success.  Many in the oil patch told him that he was wasting his time…and his money, about $6 million of it.

But, as this recent analysis by The Breakthrough Institute concludes convincingly, the development of fracking technology to enable the production of shale gas would not have happened if the U.S. DOE hadn’t provided a substantial amount of support for decades along the way.

Today, years later, shale gas has dramatically reshaped the playing field in the energy sector.  The tireless efforts of George Mitchell and his willingness to bet big bucks have rewarded him with a fortune worth billions.  He built that Black Swan.

But, then, he did so with the help of U.S. taxpayers.  Mitchell almost certainly wouldn’t have achieved what he did without substantial involvement of the government.

It’s the kind of public-private partnership that will need to be replicated to achieve more breakthroughs in cleantech in the decades to come.  The resulting Black Swans will also generate a number of cleantech fortunes, and these should be celebrated, as the appetite for risk-taking by devoted entrepreneurs and inventors must be commensurately rewarded by enough examples of success.

And, it should be hoped, these future cleantech billionaires can plow back large shares of their fortunes into philanthropy and investment in efforts to address and solve the world’s problems of that later era for subsequent generations.  Much like Vinod Khosla is doing today.

Houston, We Have A Solution

NASA has been working on innovative energy technologies virtually since its inception.  After all, you can’t run electrical systems in space using the types of power generation devices common on earth.  Consequently, NASA has been a major contributor to the advancement of fuel cells, batteries and photovoltaic systems into the products available today.  Indeed, for several years in the late 1970s and early 1980s, given its expertise in aerodynamics, NASA was also responsible for the U.S. wind energy research program.

For the past several years, several groups within NASA have been exploring how to get more involved in energy technology commercialization, in the wake of diminished clarity on NASA’s space mission and the rise of energy as a global imperative.  A new thrust being pursued is the announcement of the LAUNCH: Energy Challenge, whos goal is “to identify 10 ‘game-changing’ innovations that have the potential to transform current energy systems, and help support a more sustainable future.”

Managed by the open innovation group Nine Sigma, and sponsored by NASA in conjunction with USAID, the Department of State and — for reasons unclear to me — Nike (NYSE: NKE),  the LAUNCH: Energy Challenge is seeking proposals from innovators in three categories:  energy generation, energy harvesting and storage, and industrial applications.  Proposals are due by September 9, and representatives from the 10 most promising that are selected will convene at Kennedy Space Center in November to brainstorm with industry leaders on how to accelerate their path forward in/to the marketplace.

It’s an unorthodox collaboration and format, so the jury is out on the effectiveness of this approach.  Let’s hope that this program surfaces some promising solutions — and more importantly, boosts them into higher orbit.

Failure Is An Option: Cost Is Not No Object

I’m pretty skeptical when it comes to polls about energy issues.  Way too often, the questions are posed in such a way that they practically compel the respondent to answer in a certain way. 

Seriously:  if someone asks you “would you like the energy you use to have less environmental impact?”, are you going to answer “no”?

Valuable polls force people to make tough tradeoffs, as it is under “either-or” situations that true preferences are more accurately revealed.  In the case of energy polls, since most consumers are fundamentally economic decision-makers, questions have to be wedded to the potential dollars-and-cents implications.

And so I put a bit more credence in the results of a recent poll by the investment banking firm Lazard (NYSE: LAZ), in which they asked U.S. voters how much more they were willing to pay for lower-carbon sources of electricity. 

As reported in an article by the Financial Times, the Lazard poll indicates that, on a scale of 1-10 (1 meaning highly unwilling, 10 meaning highly willing), only 21% of respondents reported a score of at least 8 in terms of willingness to pay more for clean energy, with an average willingness to pay of an extra $9.74 on the monthly electricity bill.

Since the average American household spends about $100 per month on electricity, these findings suggest that the average American would be willing to tolerate about a 10% increase in electricity bills.  Implicitly, this means that the average American would be willing to pay about twice as much as they normally pay for electricity — for 10% of their electricity supply.  Given that the average price of electricity in the U.S. is about 10 cents/kwh, the typical American would thus be willing to spend up to 20 cents/kwh for 10% of their electricity to support an accelerated transition to cleaner power generation. 

Unfortunately, many clean electricity generation options — especially those that can achieve large-scale in the many locations not endowed with truly excellent renewable resources — remain at costs at or above 20 cents/kwh delivered to the customer. 

Consequently, it’s unrealistic for clean electricity technologies to supply more than a small portion of the overall power generation portfolio in the U.S. unless and until that fact changes.

In other words, without significant cost reductions, the promise of many clean energy technologies will remain just that:  promise.  Customers — citizens, voters — will not bend over backwards economically to foster a high degree of penetration of new clean energy technologies.  And, we’ll keep more or less doing what we’re doing today.

Against this backdrop, it’s interesting to read the recent report by Google (NASDAQ: GOOG), “The Impact of Clean Energy Innovation”.  Google recognizes that the clean energy movement needs significant cost breakthroughs to become massive in scale, and aims to depict what could happen if such breakthroughs were achieved over the next few decades:  offshore wind down from 20 cents/kwh today to below 5 cents/kwh, solar from 15-20 cents/kwh today to 2-4 cents/kwh, and carbon-sequestered coal generation from ???? (i.e., unavailable) today to below 5 cents/kwh.

As much as anything, the report is a call to unstick the lethargy and break from the status quo do-nothing posture that tends to befall the energy sector.  It’s as if Google aims to goad the energy industry into action, with such implorations as “Technologies that innovate fastest win” — something that Google should know about first-hand.  The closing line of the study couldn’t be any clearer in prodding for acceleration:  “The benefits [of energy innovation] are clear, so let’s go!” 

But Google is fundamentally a nimble and entrepreneurial Internet company, and they are shouting into the din of the massive and bureaucratic energy sector.  It seems naive, to me, that their words will resonate with their (presumably) intended audience.

Alas, along with the rah-rah cheerleading, the Google report’s authors also identify the immense obstacles to the path they themselves promote.  Notably, they confess that “smart policies are needed to drive innovation.”  In today’s toxic political environment, it is difficult to imagine any substantive new policies encouraging further energy innovation being implemented, much less so-called “smart” policies — always difficult to achieve in the best of times.

And, as Devon Swezey of the Breakthrough Institute notes in his recent essay “The Coming Clean Tech Crash” in the Huffington Post, “In an era of heightened budget austerity,  the subsidies required to make clean energy artificially cheaper are becoming unsustainable.”

At bottom, Google recognizes the challenge:  “Coal is very hard to displace on economics alone.”  Coal-fired generation is just so damned cheap (as long as environmental issues are overlooked), that its 50+% market share in the U.S. will be hard to dent materially if the invisible hand of the market is the only hand on the tiller.

Compounding the issue is the return of cheap natural gas.  As Google notes, greater utilization of natural gas generation driven by recent low gas prices would be good in the short-term for reducing emissions, but will slow innovation leading to wider-scale deployment of truly clean (i.e., zero or near-zero emissions) energy solutions truly necessary for the long-term:  yet another example of the type of tradeoffs often faced in the energy sector and indeed in society at large — with the short-term usually winning out over the long-term.

So, ultimately, a cleantech utopia is only achieveable with major technology breakthroughs to reduce costs to politically acceptable levels, yet clean energy innovation is greatly hindered (though not entirely stymied) by many of the forces at work.  This is the playing field on which we in the cleantech sector are faced with playing.  Sound like fun to you? 

Before you opt in, be aware that failure is indeed an option.  Don’t jump into the game thinking that this will be easy, because it will be anything but.  And, the way to score big points in the game is to reduce costs, period.

On Innovation

Last Thursday, I was involved in not one but two interesting meetings on the topic of innovation.

First, I attended a morning session held at the Center for Innovation and Growth at Baldwin-Wallace College, where the discussion focused on how Procter & Gamble (NYSE:  PG) had launched its “Connect and Develop” open innovation program to improve its ability to collaborate with outside partners in technology research and product development.

Of particular interest were the comments of Chris Thoen, P&G’s Managing Director of External Innovation and Knowledge Management.  Noting that P&G headquarters had long been considered “the Kremlin on the Ohio River” by outsiders seeking to partner with P&G, the former CEO A.J. Lafley had made it a priority for the company to reinvent itself by becoming the type of partner to others that the company itself wanted from its partners.  Breaking down the “Not Invented Here” syndrome was a major if predictable challenge, and Thoen expressed the phrase “Proudly Found Elsewhere and Applied With Pride” as the counterpoint the company sought to embody.  With 9,000 researchers, Thoen said that P&G probably could do anything it wanted internally — but not as fast, cheaply, or well as it could by reaching outside.  And, in the disciplines of interest to P&G, there were 2 million experts worldwide:  almost three orders of magnitude greater of resources than were available in-house.  Thoen also pointed out what he felt was the Moore’s Law of innovation — that a second deal with the same partner takes half the time and creates twice the value of the first — which revealed the accelerating returns resulting from productive partnering.

Perhaps Thoen’s presentation about P&G’s experience is more sizzle than steak, but assuming that P&G has in fact been successful in pulling off this transformation to a considerable extent, it would be nice to say that I’ve seen this degree of open innovation by players in the energy industry.  My experiences with large electric utilities, oil companies, equipment vendors, and engineering/construction firms — of a comparable magnitude and global reach as P&G — have not been so encouraging in figuring out how to play nicely with outsiders.

The notion of how innovation plays out in the energy sphere brings me to the topic of my second meeting of the day, hosted at The Cleveland Foundation.  Spurred in large part by the leadership of Peter Teague at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, a gathering of about 40 people convened to discuss how to increase the impact of philanthopy’s role in energy debates.  As reflected in this article co-authored by Teague, philanthropic involvement in energy debates has largely focused heretofore on the need for climate change policy to address environmental considerations, and now is seemingly at a dead-end in the face of the collapse of prospects for cap-and-trade legislation, but a different and hopefully more fruitful path may be able to muster bipartisan support if the story is centered on the economic benefits associated with energy innovation.  

Jesse Jenkins of The Breakthrough Institute presented some of the key findings of his report “Where Good Technologies Come From”, which makes the compelling case that the Federal government has always — dating back to George Washington in 1792, and through Presidents of both parties to the present day — played a hugely important catalytic role in commercial innovation, even in technologies (e.g., the iPhone) that seem on the surface to have been developed solely by “the free market”.  Teryn Norris of Americans for Energy Leadership discussed the recent issuance of “Post-Partisan Power”, which was co-written by contributors from both The American Enterprise Institute and The Brookings Institution (“Dogs and cats living together!  Mass hysteria!”), and illustrates the potential for a consensus around a national energy policy — if the agenda is framed around the economy rather than the environment.

In my view, which I shared with the group, the biggest need in energy innovation is not new ideas but capital.  What philanthropy can do with its balance sheet its allocate some of their endowments towards investing in new energy innovation.  From a grantmaking perspective, it can support regional economic development efforts rooted in energy innovation — such as here in Northeast Ohio with NorTech Energy Enterprise, the Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation and the Great Lakes Energy Institute — and it can support advocacy in the public sector to encourage policies (such as tax credits on energy R&D) or other initiatives (such as ARPA-E) that facilitate the flow of more private sector capital to energy innovation.

P&G seems to demonstrate that big companies can dramatically improve via accelerated and amplified innovation.  P&G serves an intensely-competitive market, where customers can select or not select their products every day, so the company has come to recognize, with Thoen invoking Darwin in his commentary, that survival goes not to the strongest or the swiftest but to those that can best adapt.  To date, many aspects of the energy sector (particularly in the electricity industry) have largely been shielded from the imperative to innovate.  It is my belief that, if we can get the financial incentives right and can expose companies in the energy sector to the perils of undue comfort in the status quo, we can unleash immense innovation in energy — with large side-benefits to our economy and our environment.

Obama’s Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future

Last week, President Obama unveiled his Administration’s “Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future”.

Like most big-picture strategic summaries of complex subjects, a whole lot of content gets reduced to a few simple phrases that have become almost devoid of meaning.  In this case, the Obama Energy Blueprint distills into three priorities:

  1. Develop and secure America’s energy supplies
  2. Provide customers with choices to reduce costs and save energy
  3. Innovate our way to a clean energy future

How can anyone object to these motherhood and apple-pie themes?

At the next level of detail, the Obama Energy Blueprint  proposes a long list of individual recommendations, such as incentives for more domestic oil/gas development, programs to facilitate the transition of the vehicle fleet away from petroleum fuels, tighter energy efficiency requirements, and a national clean energy standard.

One by one, most of the listed initiatives have merit.  Unfortunately, some are probably pretty ineffectual, each has its own set of unintended consequences, and there is considerable potential for interference among programs in such a voluminous mixed bag of policy items.

Alas, this is what happens when government is forced to accept suboptimal solutions because the optimal approach is foreclosed due to political realities. 

At a fundamental level, with this Blueprint, the Obama Administration is seeking to simultaneously (1) end American reliance on foreign oil for transportation, (2) reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions caused by burning fossil fuels, (3) ensure that the U.S. profits from development and adoption of next-generation energy technologies, and (4) accomplish (1)-(3) without costing U.S. citizens more money on energy expenditures.

The challenge is that all four of these objectives cannot be achieved simultaneously, especially in the near-term. 

Actually, objectives (1), (2) and (3) can be achieved pretty quickly, say within a decade or so, if you’re willing to ignore the fourth objective about reducing energy costs to citizens.  But, alas, the fourth objective is really the only one that most Americans care about with any intensity, and if the U.S. is going to focus on the fourth objective, the first three are hard to tackle in any meaningful way.

To achieve the first three objectives, all that’s required is some fairly simple — if broad-reaching — policies:  namely, higher taxes on oil imports and a carbon tax.  With higher energy prices facing consumers, the millions of economic actors across the U.S. will make investment and consumption decisions that will spur the development and deployment of alternative energy approaches to displace oil and reduce emissions while fostering U.S. leadership in the clean energy industries of the future. 

But, of course, such taxes — for that mattter, any taxes — are anethema in Washington these days.  Having spent all of his political capital (and then some) over the past two years on health care reform and economic stimulus, Obama does not have the strength to propose a straightforward energy policy to achieve the goals that implicitly underlie his Blueprint. 

Frankly, I think the energy policy imperative is a great opportunity for a politically bold leader to take on the issue of restructuring U.S. taxes so as to boost economic output.  Maybe I’m naive, but I don’t see why increased taxes on energy cannot be enacted as part of a quid pro quo for reduced taxes on income and capital gains — which would be unquestionably a tonic for the economy. 

I know that a common rationale for opposing such a change is that a shift in taxation of this kind would be regressive (i.e., fall disproportionately highly on lower-income citizens), but it shouldn’t be all that difficult to come up with some mechanism for providing rebates on increased energy tax burdens borne by the poor.  In other words, there should be an answer that reconciles higher energy taxes among the populists on both the left and the right of the political spectrum.

Actually, I think the real reason that higher energy taxes don’t get any traction in D.C. is that the major incumbent energy companies would be unambiguous losers, and they simply won’t allow that to happen.

As a result, President Obama must resort to issuing documents like the one released last week:  a blueprint that looks like a building designed by a hundred architects each working on a different room.