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The Energy Entrepreneur Pioneers Take On The Oil Industry Goliath

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A news report -- based on an article in Britain's Guardian newspaper -- hit the wire services earlier this week heralding a "free energy" technology.

According to Sean McCarthy, who heads Steorn, a small high-technology company in Dublin, Ireland, no one was more surprised than he when his firm hit upon a way to generate energy from the interaction of magnetic fields. The jury is still out on whether the breakthrough is fool's gold or the 24-karat variety, but McCarthy is sufficiently convinced of the validity of the discovery that he took out an ad in The Economist inviting the scientific community to investigate his company's findings.

McCarthy is one of a new breed of entrepreneurs, challenged by the dangers our energy usage presents to our lives, our planet. He and his peers have a common goal: Drive a stake through the heart of our fossil fuel dependency, freeing us at long last from our morbid and expensive addiction.

Many of these entrepreneurs have already achieved success and mastered challenges in other fields -- from Silicon Valley to the world of finance. They aren't motivated so much by profit, but by the realization that energy -- its usage as well as the politics of its production -- present a fundamental threat to our lives, our children's lives, and our planet's future. For these entrepreneurs, it's give-back time.

They are people like Vinod Khosla, an especially gifted venture capitalist who early on invested in the likes of Amazon and Google. Kholsa, who was featured in a recent Washington Post article, is passionate in his belief that Americans can grow their way out of their dependence on the oil patch cabal. He is convinced of biofuels' efficacy, and, more tellingly, he is willing to put his money where his mouth is. In keeping with his conviction that ethanol and similar bio-based fuels are a viable alternative to oil, he threw down the following gauntlet earlier this summer to Jeroen van der Veer, Shell's CEO (see Vinod Kholsa "Big Oil's Big Profits and the Big Lies..." 06.30.06). Kholsa offered to supply significant quantities of alternative fuels like ethanol if Shell were to commit to creating a distribution system that would make ethanol generally available to consumers throughout the country.

Here's the kicker: Kohlsa would guarantee a fixed price for five to seven years at an amount that would permit Shell or some similar large organization to sell ethanol for $1.99 gallon all across the United States. The $1.99/gallon would also incorporate a fair profit margin for Shell. Last I heard (in July) Kholsa had found no takers. Will he? I doubt it given the massive profits Shell and its oil patch brethren make on selling fossil fuels from the well to the gas tank.

Ultimately, Kholsa feels the government needs do its part to make us more energy independent and energy secure. First, by requiring or extending incentives to auto companies to manufacture more flex-fuel cars; second, by requiring distributors to add ethanol fuel pumps at their gas stations; and third, to be prepared to vary whatever subsidy programs currently exist (i.e. for corn) to assure continued economic viability should the oil patch drop pricing to destructive levels, say, below Kholsa'S $1.99 marker, placing investment (in production facilities, distribution networks, etc.) for alternative fuels at risk.

He envisages a time in the not so distant future when most of our vehicle fuels will come from our farms, switch grass, and woody crops like hybrid willow and poplar, making us both energy secure and able to enjoy the ancillary benefit of containing carbon emissions.

Then we have the likes of T.J. Rodgers. A committed libertarian who shuns any manner of government support. "What real entrepreneur has the time to run to Washington to lobby for subsidies?" he recently noted. His company, SunPower, has been integrating computer chip technology into solar cells that directly convert sunlight into electricity. Rodgers' technical advances permit up to 50 percent greater efficiencies than his current competition in the solar-power field. SunPower is gearing up to produce 35 million of its six inch black silicon wafers. That should be enough to generate 100 million watts of solar power each year.

These are but a few examples of the new breed of energy pioneers. Their interest in finding the silver bullet to destroy once and for all the fossil-fuel, carbon-belching monster is giving a whole new meaning to entrepreneurship. Whether their efforts are successful remains to be seen, but we are fortunate that they, with their competence and resources, are motivated to take on the oil barons and their ilk.