Green

Peter Thiel: “Something seems to have gone quite wrong with cleantech”

Cleantech companies just can’t seem to get it right.

At least, that’s the notion Peter Thiel — a cofounder of PayPal and president of Clarium Capital — subscribes to when he looks at cleantech companies as potential investing opportunities. He made the comments at a Commonwealth Club event in San Francisco Wednesday.

Thiel frequently expresses disappointment that Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial community is all about making profits and not about changing the world, so you’d think he’d be bullish on anything green. But he’s actually been surprisingly bearish when it comes to cleantech companies — those that specialize in producing more energy-efficient and environmentally friendly energy, transportation methods and others. That’s not because he doesn’t believe in the technology, he just doesn’t like the way the companies are run, he said.

“Most of the people who run cleantech companies are sales people, not engineers,” Thiel said. “Something seems to have gone quite wrong with cleantech.”

As a result, most cleantech companies that try to develop alternative energy forms are building power sources that are more expensive. Solar panels, for example, are still not a cost-efficient way to generate power, Thiel said.

“We need something cheaper, not more expensive,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if the energy is cleaner, it doesn’t work if it’s more expensive.”

One potential route for cleantech energies is to work with something that’s slightly more environmentally friendly than current sources — natural gas. It’s a cheaper form of energy that’s much more ubiquitous and has less of an environmental impact than most energy sources today, but has not been harnessed, Thiel said. Entrepreneurs and governments should also explore nuclear power options because they are more energy-efficient, he said.

Outside of producing alternative energy forms, the biggest step has to come in the transportation industry, Thiel said. That amounts to building better and more efficient batteries for electric vehicles that are more environmentally friendly. Tesla Motors, he said, had as good a chance as any other electric car company to get it right.

But Thiel wouldn’t get any more specific about his expectations for the electric car company, despite the history Thiel has with Tesla founder Elon Musk. Musk was also a co-founder of PayPal. Thiel is also coincidentally an investor in SpaceX, another of Musk’s ventures that wants to bring space travel to the masses.