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November 18, 2009

Opportunities in Alternative Energy

Nate McMurry ’10
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Last Thursday, Warren Buffett, MS ’51, and Bill Gates visited Columbia Business School. During the event, Gates identified energy — including renewable sources, like solar — healthcare and IT as the three sectors he sees as having the most opportunity for transformative growth in the foreseeable future. Buffett highlighted the high energy-efficiency and low environmental impact of rail transport as one of the key drivers of Berkshire Hathaway’s recently announced purchase of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad. More MBAs than ever are looking for career opportunities in developing and investing in renewable energy. Where can they be found?

This past weekend, 50 Columbia Business School students were among the 2,400 attendees at the 2009 Net Impact conference at Cornell University. Net Impact is an organization for MBA students who share an interest in using business to make an environmental or social impact. Among the many panelists were leading investors in clean energy from Blackstone, Kleiner Perkins, JPMorgan Chase and Sequoia who spoke about what technologies and business models they believe have the greatest growth potential.

The investors focused on technologies that could, in the long run, be competitive without any subsidies or government support. To this end, they identified specific niches within energy-efficiency and waste-to-energy, as well as solar power.

Solar energy is viewed as an area with tremendous growth potential, with the U.S. market projected to grow 20-fold by 2020. Traditionally, solar energy has been extremely expensive and reliant on erratic government subsidies; however innovative leasing models, falling silicon prices and technological breakthroughs have reduced costs dramatically. Continued cost reductions along with carbon prices could make solar cost competitive with coal and natural gas.

Within solar energy, there are many technologies, and each has its own value proposition. Photovoltaic panels can be installed on rooftops for residential, commercial and industrial applications, or standalone, for us in utility-scale plants. Thin-film PV technology is very low cost but less efficient, making it the optimal solution for sites with plenty of space. Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) plants use mirrors to concentrate sunlight, which generates steam that spins a turbine to allow a much larger scale operation. All these technologies also have their downside — distributed PV generation does not permit economies of scale. Desert sites like those in the Southwest are most attractive for CSP, but CSP also requires a lot of water for cooling, as well as a challenging permitting and transmission environment.

In addition to solar, there is tremendous growth in wind, geothermal, combined heat and power, waste-to-energy and efficient energy. Nuclear energy is also slated for resurgent popularity. Repowering the world will provide tremendous opportunities for MBAs to generate value as investors, developers and operators of clean energy companies. Famed VC investor Vinod Khosla has invested in dozens of clean energy startups in the belief that the space will generate many $10 billion+ companies.

Photo credit: greenlagirl