VC Steve Westly on the election, the California exodus, and betting on electrification

By | November 7, 2020

A former controller and CFO of the state of California, Steve Westly is enthusiastic about authorities. The onetime eBay exec and early Tesla board member has additionally been a proponent of fresh vitality for roughly 30 years, so he’s feeling optimistic proper now, with former U.S. VP Joe Biden amassing a rising variety of electoral votes and widening his main Donald Trump as he inches towards an election win.

We talked earlier in the present day with Westly, who based the enterprise agency The Westly Group 13 years in the past and which is at the moment elevating as much as $250 million for a fourth fund, in response to SEC paperwork filed earlier this week. We wished to know whether or not he thinks Biden will be capable of obtain any a part of his local weather plan within the possible state of affairs that Republicans proceed to manage the Senate. We additionally puzzled what he makes of VCs leaving California, and the place he sees essentially the most alternatives proper now. We kicked off our dialog with the information of the day. Our chat has been edited calmly for size.

TC: As we speak, Joe Biden appears to be on the cusp of profitable the U.S. presidential election whereas Donald Trump continues to tweet about taking his claims a couple of rigged election to the Supreme Court docket. Are you involved about that rhetoric, on condition that Republicans don’t appear to be pushing again towards it?

SW: It’s a must to be fearful about such issues, however I believe most individuals are wanting on the massive image. This isn’t going to be a 270 to 268 [electoral college] vote. Biden may get 290 to 306 [electoral votes]. It’s a decisive distinction. He additionally acquired greater than 4 million extra [popular] votes than Trump. The folks have spoken, they usually’ve spoken loudly.

There are guidelines in most states that say should you aren’t inside a % or half a % — i feel [Biden has a] 1.6% [advantage] in Nevada and 1.4% [lead in] Arizona proper now — there received’t be a recount. I believe his lead in Pennsylvania will rise to 100,000, so the window [for a Trump win] is diminishing fairly shortly.

I’m additionally seeing extra Republican officers, like Senator Bob Toomey of Pennsylvania, saying that we depend the votes, we observe the principles, what the president is doing is irresponsible, and it’s time to maneuver on.

TC: You’re elevating a fund that you just’ve already informed me you received’t speak about, citing SEC guidelines, however I’m questioning: has Westly Group’s mandate has modified over time? I keep in mind when the agency was first fashioned that it was one of many solely pure ‘cleantech’ enterprise companies, but it surely looks like it has broadened out a bit.

SW: Sustainable vitality has turn out to be the brand new scorching factor and it makes me snigger as a result of I’ve been concerned in vitality for 30 years [including in government roles]. I wrote two books on the way forward for vitality within the ‘80s, so I’ve been at this a bit.

Our thesis continues to be that there are revolutions occurring in sensible vitality, mobility and sensible buildings, and they’re being pushed by renewable vitality, which prices lower than carbon-based fuels in just about each a part of the world in the present day, from the U.S. to India to Africa. That’s not a political assertion; it’s a reality.

Absolutely 70% of latest vitality coming on-line now’s sustainable, so persons are sensible to concentrate to that. As a result of prices are happening and the price of storage goes down precipitously — the price of lithium ion batteries got here down a lot that we reached an inflection level in 2018, and the price of a kilowatt per hour prices less than $150 now  — everyone goes electrical.

Carmakers haven’t wished to say this publicly as a result of it freaks out shareholders, however we’re headed towards a world the place nearly all of vitality will probably be sustainable within the close to future and many of the automobiles will probably be electrical and that may occur rather a lot sooner than folks assume.

Buildings play a key position, too, as a result of they’ve traditionally been dumb; now they’re digitized buildings with energy storage, and shortly each residence, constructing, hospital, and college [will run off digitized energy] and also you‘ll see arbitrage taking place constantly between buildings, properties, and autos, the place folks received’t pay a penny for electrical energy or gasoline each once more. A decade in the past after I mentioned this, folks thought I used to be nuts, however now California requires that each one newly constructed properties will need to have photo voltaic panels.

TC: With issues transferring extra shortly in that path, what does all this misplaced income imply for PG&E, the corporate that powers most of Northern California and whose infrastructure is already crumbling and inflicting wildfires?

They need to observe the lead of sensible utilities like Duke [a Westly Group investor] and European firms which might be transferring past conventional income streams to new income streams. Each utility in the present day has a menu, and if yours solely options electrical energy ions and fuel molecules, that’s not an excellent menu. It’s like saying we have now soup and meat, interval. These firms ought to have a particular menu for residential clients and a unique menu for business and industrial clients and they need to be desirous about putting in energy partitions and placing photo voltaic on roofs; they need to be considering long-term contracts, like even financing electrical autos.

TC: PG&E is in a nasty spot, however California could also be, too, as lots of people go away the Bay Space, citing taxes, amongst different causes. Are you fearful a couple of broader motion out of the state and what it may imply?

SW: That is the massive query of the subsequent 10 years. California is about to face a wall of debt. We’ve gone from a surplus to what might be a $40 billion deficit in a really brief interval [because of COVID-19].

This yr will probably be lined somewhat as a result of there’s nonetheless an lively IPO market [as capital gains are taxed the same as income, making the state heavily dependent on the stock market]. However there are 12.6 million Individuals out of labor, and a disproportionate variety of them are in California, so possible a Democrat-controlled legislature will attempt to begin to cross a collection of taxes.

Prop 15 [which would have taxed properties based on their current market value rather than purchase price and would have increased property taxes on commercial properties] failed, so this will probably be an ongoing challenge. Nonetheless, if we proceed to boost taxes, we run the danger of shedding entrepreneurs to different states. I do know firsthand many pals who’ve moved to Austin. We have to have a balanced method to managing out bills with out pushing folks off to different states.

TC: Any vibrant concepts on that entrance?

SW: I used to be the CFO of California, and your possibility beside taxing extra is spending much less. These are the alternatives.

Long term, we want a serious overhaul of the tax system so we aren’t aren’t so depending on capital positive factors, which is a curler coaster system the place once you hit a trough available in the market, you must go and lay off a bunch of academics, then attempt to rent them again when the economic system is best.

TC: It’s wanting like Joe Biden goes to win the election, however there’s additionally a powerful likelihood that he’ll be working with a Republican-controlled Senate. In the meantime, local weather change was not within the prime 5 issues for voters of both occasion. Does this may get kicked down the street once more?

No, it simply means they’ll need to work collectively and that he’ll need to go on to the problems which might be hottest to get them by means of.

Trump had no clue that sustainable vitality is immensely in style in the present day and that among the states that used to dam inexperienced initiatives — together with Texas, North Dakota, and South Dakota — are more and more changing into wind and photo voltaic powers, such that their senators who used to say, ‘pure fuel ceaselessly’ are additionally saying that photo voltaic and wind are using increasingly folks of their states.

What do you see as first steps?

SW: Biden will convey the U.S. again into the Paris local weather settlement. You’ll additionally see him on the entrance of this world motion towards the electrification of every thing, and there will probably be assist for EVs and assist for sustainable vitality.

You’ll additionally see some form of penalties or restrictions on carbon-based fuels due to the elevated information we have now that carbon within the ambiance is inflicting public well being issues, decreasing air high quality and that giant insurance coverage firms are having to pay for [these things]. Now that Munich Re and others say, ‘We just about know what the fee is, and we’re charging you again,’ the federal government can use that information to cost carbon producers appropriately.

TC: Conventional vitality firms– the most important carbon emitters — say they’ve resolved to handle this downside. Do you assume that’s principally optics?

SW: Rather a lot is optics, but it surely’s additionally a realization that you just both change your online business mannequin otherwise you go down with the ship. You don’t wish to take the Kodak method. You wish to be Apple and reinvent your self.

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