Energy efficiency and solar are the low hanging fruit for American companies both at home and overseas, former President Bill Clinton said yesterday.

“We should pick the low hanging fruit. It always begins with efficiency. We’re much more energy efficient than we used to be but we have not made a serious attempt to get it to scale,” Clinton said in the closing keynote of the National Clean Energy Conference in Las Vegas last week.

In 2009, the Clinton Global Initiative partnered with Johnson Controls on a $500m retrofit of the Empire State Building in New York that will reduce energy consumption by 38%.

Despite such landmark projects, the US had yet to reap the great economic benefits from energy efficiency retrofits, said Clinton, citing a Deutsche Bank report that showed building retrofits had the highest rate of employment.

“You get 870 jobs for every $1bn spent on a coal plant [retrofits], less for every $1bn spent on a nuclear plant, about 1,900 for solar, 3,300 on wind if all the components are made here, and 8,000 on building retrofits.”

CGI had also worked on a retrofit at a large indoor shopping mall in Mumbai.

“They’re so impressed, they are expanding it across their portfolio. It’s a big deal if you realise how many people in India lost power and 400m of them don’t have power in the first place.”

The former president also said that the CGI was helping the government of Gujarat build one of the biggest solar thermal projects in the world.

Clinton said that US companies could look to overseas countries like India to help develop their solar industry.

You can’t get anything of this done without public-private cooperation. The government has to make it attractive in the beginning.” – Clinton

“First, let’s go out and help the 400m people that don’t have any power at all right now and do it in a sustainable model that will create manufacturing jobs making solar panels, that will create maintenance jobs. And then if the Indians want it we could help them with the rest. They’ve got a grid they have to modernise.

“There’s a whole different set of challenges for the 600m who lost their power. The Indians are fully capable of doing it and they have money and people who can do the investment if they believe that they [can] modernise it, de-politicise it and run it in an efficient way.

“But I think the clean energy opportunity starts by saying you’ve got no back up, you’ve got an antiquated energy system.”

Maximisation of solar power potential in villages and major waste to energy projects at India’s urban rubbish tips as seen in Slumdog Millionaire would be the first areas to work in, he said.

Clinton has recently been increasingly vocal in support of President Barack Obama in the lead up to this year’s elections on issues such as healthcare and loans to clean energy companies. Clinton elaborated on the failure of Solyndra and the rapid consolidation in the solar industry on the level of subsidies offered to Chinese companies.

“Solar energy is low hanging fruit. One of the reasons that Solyndra failed and some of the other loans that the DoE issued were not successful is that after they were issued, the Chinese came in with $32bn more in subsidies for solar which bankrupted some of their own operations.

“And they are now taking up some of the less efficient lines out and selling them off for scrap – something which I have asked them not to do. I asked them to sell them to me at cost so I can put them up in Africa and the Caribbean.”

But he said that cooperation between the government and private sector was vital in creating a clean energy industry.

“You can’t get anything of this done without public-private cooperation. The government has to make it attractive in the beginning.”

Despite Optimism, Some Face Challenges

Earlier in the day, Elon Musk, the founder of the luxury electric vehicle maker, Tesla, told the NCES that the next 6 months would be critical to his business.

The California-based startup backed by VantagePoint Capital began production of its second car, the Model S sedan in June. This month, the company said that it would meet its target of delivering 5,000 Model S vehicles this year.

“The challenge Tesla faces over the next several months, which is a very difficult one, is to scale up production and achieve enough of a gross margin on the product that we get to a situation where we’re cash flow positive. If we aren’t able to do that we will join the graveyard of all the other car company startups of the last 90 years.”

“It’s definitely going to be a pretty tough period over the next six months. We can’t afford to make a lot of mistakes. If we don’t make too many mistakes we’ll get through that period and then be able to bring out larger volume cars that are more affordable.”

Tesla raised $226.1m on IPO in June 2010, 40% higher than its target. Since then, its stock has routinely traded much higher than conventional car manufacturers. However, stock has recently slipped after equity analysts cast doubt on the company’s production targets for 2012.

Musk said that if margins improve, Tesla would begin making “a couple of 100,000 units” of its 3rd generation car with a $30,000 sticker price and 20%-25% lighter than the Model S.

“We can show that it’s technologically possible to other manufacturers. If Tesla doesn’t make it I hope we have nonetheless served that purpose. I don’t want to sound dour but it’s definitely going to be a tough six months.”

But the company had diversified by manufacturing drive trains for Mercedes and Toyota’s new all-electric RAV4, said Musk. Tesla’s battery expertise was also being applied in the solar sector to supply energy storage on PV systems via SolarCity, another company established by Musk.

“We announced recently a deal between SolarCity and Walmart where we’re going to do solar and energy storage installations in 90 Walmarts around the country.

“It’s a pretty sensible economic decision. If they were to lose even one day of power all the cold produce would rot and they’d lose a tonne of inventory and they wouldn’t be able to sell any goods that day. So even being able to protect against occasional power outages in one day can pay for the entire system. It’s really quite compelling.”