Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson served as Energy Secretary under President Bill Clinton; made waves in his home state by setting aggressive clean-energy portfolio mandates; and sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008 by casting himself as the “energy president” and promising aggressive action to boost the U.S. clean energy sector and curb carbon emissions. 

Speaking exclusively with Entelligent, Gov. Richardson explains how investors are helping to move the needle on climate change, why energy storage is the biggest current opportunity for clean-tech investors — and why Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric is doing real harm to the U.S. alternative energy sector. 

 

Governor Richardson, you’ve served on the boards of numerous clean-energy companies. Have you learned anything in the private sector that you wish you’d known when you were in office? 

Well yeah, obviously — the sexy subjects we have now weren’t around when I was energy secretary or governor. The important energy areas right now in renewable areas are carbon pricing, R&D expenditures, efficiency standards — and, from the government side, trying to find coherent tax and subsidy policies. 

But the biggest emphasis now is on climate change — and the private sector has taken the lead in implementing the Paris agreements. The issue now is no longer whether changes will happen on climate change, but how fast they’ll happen, and how rapidly the private sector can scale up investment in them. And that will happen — the investment community is key, and they’re moving, I can see they’re moving. 

 

Do you think we’re reaching a point where alternative energy can compete without government assistance? 

You’re still going to need active political support — you need a viable regulatory regime from the government, and you need clear standards. But the need for subsidies will start subsiding in the days ahead as energy innovation grows. 

 

Where do you see the biggest opportunities for investors?

The agenda for investment is almost totally different than it used to be. On the innovation side, the real future is going to be advanced energy storage: how do you store renewable energy at scale, to make sure electricity is available and affordable for future use? If I were an investor, that’s where I’d put my money — on storage technologies.

Another area that’s important: we have to develop what’s called energy infrastructure. The key is that if you’re going to drive innovation in clean technologies, clean transport, agriculture, smart cities, then you need infrastructure — both storage and transmission. That’s where we’re currently lacking, but I see big opportunities there. 

 

We’ve recently seen both Abengoa (OTCMKTS:ABGBY) and SunEdison (OTCMKTS:SUNEQ) run into trouble, like Solyndra before them. Should energy investors be worried? 

I don’t think so — in many of those cases there were debt issues that weren’t related to the importance of the technology itself. And look, energy is risk. Nuclear power is risk, coal is risk, oil and gas is risk. You’ve got to realize that there’s always risk, even in renewables — even though I think renewables are the safest and the most promising of all of them. 

That’s why government needs to maintain a role, through loan guarantees, or a clear regulatory regime, or insurance protection. You can’t just say, “Let the private sector do it all” — there has got to be a public-private partnership that works, and not just rhetoric. 

 

Donald Trump says he’d scrap the Paris climate accord. Could the U.S. clean-energy sector survive a Trump presidency? 

Trump would have difficulty implementing that, but it’d cause investors to recoil — with his very negative rhetoric, and his lack of understanding of energy issues, it’d be troublesome. And look, I don’t think Trump will be elected, but just his rhetoric causes uncertainty — he’s a major presidential candidate from one of our two main parties, and he’s also a businessman, and people respect that. So when he has such a Neanderthal view of renewable energy, it causes concern. 

He’s basically saying that he’d wipe out the renewable energy sector. He wouldn’t be able to carry out many of those threats — he could do a lot of damage with executive orders, but the private sector, especially solar and wind, would be able to step up. Still, it’d be damaging if he were elected. The fact that he’s spewing all this negative rhetoric is troublesome, and harmful to the sector. 

European investors are already holding back, because they don’t read the polling data the way we do. Trump is already causing damage — not permanent damage, but it’s holding investment up. It has a chilling effect. 

 

Is Trump sincere when he says he thinks climate change is a hoax? 

He’s become a climate denier mostly because it’s the politics of the Tea Party. He’s just playing politics, but it’s still damaging. 

 

When you ran for president, you set out an aggressive clean-energy plan. Has Obama done enough to support the clean-energy sector? 

Yes, especially in the climate change area, with the Paris agreement, and the bilateral agreements with China and India. He’s been a good president for the renewable energy sector, and he’s going to leave a good legacy. 

Clinton would continue that, and probably be even more ambitious — the policies she’s proposed go significantly further than Obama’s. She’d continue and probably enhance the things Obama’s done.

Ben Whitford is the US correspondent for The Ecologist. He has written for the Guardian, Newsweek, Mother Jones, Slate, and many other publications.