The renewables industry has an image problem, an influential billionaire investor said this week.

Tom Steyer, who invested $5 million of his own money in last year’s opposition campaign to California’s proposition 23, said “we need the right message but also the right messenger.”

Steyer founded equity management firm Farallon Capital Management and helped defeat the attempt by Valero and Tesoro to stall AB32, California’s pioneering climate change legislation.

“The old fossil fuel industries are going to push very, very hard to make this a fight of jobs versus the environment. And that is a fight we are going to lose if that is a framework for this discussion. We will lose this discussion. In order to make those arguments we have to frame the issue correctly – we have to make the messenger credible,” he told delegates at the REFF West conference yesterday.

He said that as the stimulus funds under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act 2008 were about to sunset, “end all subsidies – that’s got to be our mantra.”

For more on the difficult relationship between jobs and stimulus, see: Defending The Stimulus On Energy Jobs Creation.

He called for greater transparency in government subsidies for the energy industry at large.

“If you include cost of keeping shipping lanes open, gas would cost $13 a gallon. This is really going to be a question of getting transparent, as boring as it sounds.”

He said that health should become a key focus of the renewables lobby in reaching out to the American public on why regulations to control criteria pollutants such as mercury were essential.

“What has to happen is that the arguments that we will win with are health and new jobs versus old.”

“There is no reason why citizens or politicians should listen to me about health. I have an opinion but 300 millions Americans have an opinion. The American Lung Association has been fighting for health for 40 years. Similarly, when it comes to jobs we’re going to need business people making that point because they hire people.

So we need the right message but also the right messenger.

“We are going to have to improve.”

Moving Forward Without The Fed

He added that waiting for a solution to energy policy from Washington was a mistake.

“We’re going to have to persist politically and in a different way than we have so far. Everyone wants to have a Washington solution. Re-regulation of electricity is going to be done at the state and local level.

“Waiting for DC on this is a huge mistake. If we’re going to make gigantic progress, we’re going to do it on a local level by building coalitions around the country.”

For more on energy policy at the federal level, see coverage of the National Clean Energy Summit.

Steyer has established two renewable energy research institutions at Stanford University: the TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy and the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance.

More recently, he established The Center for the Next Generation, a non-profit to promote accelerated adoption of clean and advanced energy technology.

Brights Spots

Despite gloom in the clean energy industry in the US, there were bright spot that were under-reported in the media, he said.

“The new mpg [mile per gallon] standards are a huge deal. Done without any legislation with the approval of Detroit we changed the mpg dramatically and it’s a huge energy saving. That is a gigantic change,” he said.

He also said that in the last few weeks the Obama administration’s support for mercury regulations for coal-fired power stations would act as “agents of change” in electricity generation.