Khosla on technological black swans

Vinod Khosla, the famed tech venture capital investor, spent a considerable amount of time reflecting on the climate challenge and twenty years ago wrote the following on his blog, which speaks exactly to the importance of funding high-risk technologies like advanced nuclear and CCUS:

The looming twin challenges of climate change and energy production are too big to be tackled by known solutions and time-­honored traditions. Incremental remedies are fine for incremental problems, but they are insufficient for monumental, potentially life-­altering threats, which need to be approached with a disruptive mindset. There are 5 billion people coveting the energy-­rich lifestyles currently enjoyed by 500 million people, mostly in the developed world. Incremental technology progress will not satisfy this craving. We need non‐linear jumps in technologies — Technological Black Swans! We can invent these future technologies.

. . . My basic thesis is that investment in true innovation is the key to reinventing the infrastructure of society and enabling 5+ billion people to sustainably live the energy affluent lifestyle that 500 million enjoy today. While there is no shortage of existing technology providing incremental improvements—whether today’s thin film solar cells, wind turbines, or lithium‐ion batteries—even summed, they are not likely to address the scale of our problems. While these technologies will continue to improve and sometimes this incremental ecosystem will result in products compliant with the laws of economic gravity, such as wind in certain locations or lithium‐ion batteries in certain applications, I suspect this will not be enough. Regulation and clever accounting will help many pundits justify and push these technologies, but in order to drive the necessary resource multiplication, we need to (and can) reinvent the infrastructure of society through the creation of Black Swan energy technologies.

These Black Swans are technologies that are market competitive without subsidies once scaled, and hit the Chindia price point (the price at which people in India and China will willingly purchase without subsidy) while providing sufficient scale to have measureable impact. They may have up to a 90% chance of failure, but if they succeed, everything changes. Ironically, many appear to have a high probability of failure mostly because they have not been given sufficient scientific focus. Because of this, the skeptical questions such as “wasn’t this tried before?” or “why now?” keep many people from even trying.

At Khosla Ventures, Black swan thesis of energy transformation, by Vinod Khosla, August 28, 2011, which is a blog-length précis of Khosla’s excellent forty page white paper of the same name and date.