The third Principal Voices roundtable of 2006 took place in San Francisco on December 5, discussing alternative energy sources such as solar power.
Renewable, alternative forms of energy like solar power and ethanol already exist in viable forms, and are far more efficient and cost-effective than most people realize.
That was the key message from the third Principal Voices roundtable event of 2006, which gathered energy experts, entrepreneurs and academics before an invited audience in San Francisco to discuss the future of such fuels.
One point was reiterated again and again: beyond any environmental case for alternative energies, there is compelling economic reasons for countries to use them.
"I'm happy to tell you that I'm an optimist in completely believing that that time and that technology is here today," Vinod Khosla, a high-tech "serial entrepreneur" who now heads investment company Khosla Ventures, said in his opening remarks.
"There is no economic reason -- forget the environmental considerations -- that we can't have cheaper fuels than gasoline today."
The growth of alternative energy industries will bring "unbelievable job creation and wealth creation," added Bill Gross, founder and head of high-tech companies incubator Idealab, while adding that sometimes people had to be encouraged to make the right move.
"There's many, many cases where the government can signal things that are actually win-win all the way around, and the only reason aren't doing them now is because there are hidden costs all over, people aren't looking at the full picture," he said.
The 'hidden' costs of traditional energies, such as the effects of pollution from oil and coal fired power stations, and treating nuclear waste, was holding back the growth of alternative energies, Khosla argued, adding that there are also a lot of vested interests lined up against solar power and the like.
"The best way to explain it is that every time the price of oil changes by $4, it's worth in asset value to Saudi Arabia a trillion dollars -- for a country with a fraction of the population of California. So there are powerful economic forces focused on keeping the playing field un-level," he said.
Harrison Fraker, Dean of the College of Environmental Design at the University of California, Berkeley, discussed plans he is involved in to build an experimental energy self-sufficient community in China.
"The numbers are very, very exciting. It's possible at a scale of anything from 5,000 units to 10,000 units on about a one kilometer square to make neighborhood entirely self sufficient," he said, dismissing the idea that such plans were irrelevant to the real world.
"There's nothing idealistic about the things we're doing in China. We're using off-the-shelf technology," he explained.
"My point is that when you integrate them together and use them wisely as a whole system, they become cheaper and more cost-effective. That's the purpose for operating this way -- it's not to create some idealized community, it's trying to use existing technology in a smarter way."
The fourth panel member, Martin Roscheisen, head of California-based solar power company Nanosolar Inc, also stressed that solar energy was far more competitive than most people realized, especially when the true costs of other sources were taken into account.
"We're leveling the playing field in terms of competing at a clean level -- it's clearly a public policy issue," he explained.
"We are working very hard to do our part in terms of cost efficient solar electricity systems."