Cleantech hits the jackpot: George Soros to invest $1 billion in green energy

Billionaire philanthropist George Soros has thrown his hat into the green-investment ring, pledging to spend $1 billion on clean energy. The 29th richest man in the world with a net worth of about $11 billion, Soros suggested he is interested in investing in technologies that are profitable and that are effective in reducing global climate change. "I want to apply rather stringent criteria to the investments," Soros said in a speech in Denmark on Saturday.

If he is true to his word, however, his investment would seem to rule out a technology into which he has already invested -- carbon capture and sequestration, which has been shown to be riotously expensive and dubiously effective, as in this recent post.
In addition to the $1 billion, Soros, who has spent $6 billion in philanthropic foundations since 1979 to support free and open societies, education and public heath issues, launched a new foundation, the Climate Policy Initiative. The foundation will advise policy makers on climate, energy and environmental issues. It will be funded with $100 million over the next 10 years.

"The problem of global warming," he said, referring to the reason for forming the foundation, "is primarily a political problem at this point. The science is beyond dispute, but how do we achieve the objectives we all know are necessary? That is a political problem."

Thomas Heller, a professor at Stanford University's School of Law, will head then new institute, which Heller characterized as "part advisory service, part policy developer and part watchdog."

A key issue for the new institute will be carbon legislation. Soros has said that he prefers an outright tax on carbon emissions rather than a cap-and-trade program. Why? According to Soros, who famously gamed the currency markets, cap and trade "can be gamed; that's why financial types like me like it -- because there are financial opportunities."

Soros's announcement comes at a time when green energy investment is booming. Even against the backdrop of an economic recession, for instance, more than $155 billion was invested worldwide in clean-energy companies, nearly four times as much as in 2004, according to Global Trends in Sustainable Energy Investment, published last June. The report, for the United Nations Environment Programme's (UNEP) Sustainable Energy Finance Initiative, was prepared by New Energy Finance.

If Soros wants to see what's profitable and what works, it would be hard to do better than wind and solar power, two of the biggest prime movers last year, according to New Energy Finance. Wind power received the most new investment -- $51.8 billion globally, a 1 percent increase over last year, confirming wind power's status as the most mature and best-established sustainable generation technology.

Solar continues to the the fastest growing sector for new investment, however, with $33.5 billion invested globally, a nearly 50 percent increase over last year. As I reported here recently, costs for solar panels are expected to drop 43 percent in 2009.

Mark Svenvold, author of Big Weather: Chasing Tornadoes in the Heart of America, teaches at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey.

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