Thursday, January 17, 2008

Biofuels and Venture Capital

Recently, venture capitalist Vinod Khosla outlined his support for biofuels on the grist. Khosla is a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, who founded Sun Microsystems and AMD, who now runs Khosla Ventures - a VC fund with a social impact objective. Khosla is currenlty funding Ausura, a solar thermal power company, and many biofuels projects.

In part one of a three part series, Khosla argues against hybrids and plug-in hybrids in favor of biofuels. His main argument is that hybrids cost more to buy upfront than does a car with a slightly modified engine capable of burning petrol or ethanol.
The primary question is one of cost: how many people will pay $5,000 more (today's typical parallel hybrid premium) for a hybrid that reduces carbon emissions by 25%? Especially when they can get a flex-fuel car that costs about the same as a regular ICE car and can reduce emissions by 75% or more when run on cellulosic biofuels?

But Khosla is focusing on up-front cost and not total cost of ownership, especially for plug-in hybrds. He lacks the long view. Total amortized cost of ownership is certainly lower for a plug-n hybrid, but as our economy is stuck in the here and now, it can be an issue. The upfront cost of renewables and efficiency is something we'll have to contend with as a society if we want to see a long term decrease in energy costs.

I contend that, as a good businessman, Khosla understands this and is trying to benefit from it. The car companies don't want electric cars because they require less maintenance and don't make the owner beholden to big oil, which is bad for profits. Khosla sees this and realizes that if he can get you to buy a car that makes you beholden to him for twenty years, it will be very good for business.

Big Oil, biofuels, and hydrogen - all these fuels keep you beholden to a top-down corporate hegemony which concentrates profits upward and out of local communities. When people own their own power (solar panels) and can plug their car into them, the money stays with them in a bottom-up economy with greater income parity and a better chance for long-term economic growth.

But as this distributed wealth can't be captured as easily, its much harder to fund with venture capital. Hence, Khosla.

Khosla does have one laudable outlook:
Our goal has to be solving the global problem in carbon emissions, and we need to pick technologies that will be adopted by market forces worldwide. We will need cost points such that 50-80% of the car buyers worldwide adopt these new "low-carbon" technology automobiles

But, until we can make biofuels that don't harm the environment terribly, this option won't help the global situation. We haven't even figured out the technology to make environmentally benign biofuels here, let alone the cheap and easy technology needed to export to developing countries.

Joe Romm fromg Climate Progress has a great response to Khosla.

Here's a string of more of responses to Khosla's post:

Cost is certainly a question. But as is so typical of efficiency, you have to pay upfront to lock in future savings. Khosla totally ignores the fact that reducing the amount of fuel used over the lifetime of a vehicle may dramatically reduce overall costs. But then, he does understand this, that's why he's investing in biofuels. He wants to keep the top-down oil hegemony and shift some of those profits from the hands of oil companies to his own. Those who want long-term economic growth understand the value of people owning their own power (solar panels to charge your car), which will increase income equality and, in my view, vastly increase long-term economic growth.

Also, Kholsa, you compare hybrids today versus the cellulosic fuels of the indeterminate future. Your point will hold if this comes to pass, and only if. For now, I don't care how many E85 vehicles detroit crams down my throat, because they'll all be filled with gasoline or carbon-intensive(2/3 that of petrol), water-intensive, land-intensive, subsidy-intensive corn ethanol.

Also, these biofuels are going to need a hell of a lot of water, something that will only become more precious. Especially for us Californians who know which way the snowpack is going. Yes, perhaps brackish water can be used. My understanding is that the water needs to be filtered though, which will be an incentive to just hook up to the municipal supply.

Infrastructure, infrastructure, and... oh yeah, infrastructure. Ethanol is too acidic and can't be shipped through existing pipelines. Plug-ins require the plug that is already installed in your garage.

Your point of first costs is understood. But biofuels that don't screw the environment in other ways are a hell of a long way off. I think you'd be better off making this argument after that one gets figured out.

Even though first costs are less, long term economic and social equity costs will be higher. Is your vision for the future really just the same one with you at the top instead of big oil? Wouldn't a more inspired vision of the future be one where people own their own power and efficiency in order to increase their real wages? This is where I hope the future come from, bottom up.

Does your argument about the speed with the car fleet can be replaced matter if the environmentally benign bio-fuel comes along and still requires cars to be built specifically to handle it?

Now, parallel hybrids aren't going to get us anywhere. We can all see that. If every car sold today were a parallel hybrid we would still not be lowering overall emissions from transportation.

Also, the cost premium could be lowered with options like battery leasing and so on.

What about smog in cities? Ethanol has a pretty bad emissions profile.

By the way, I'm from Iowa, and I see monoculture of corn as a problem and ethanol as a way for us to swat at the symptoms and not the sickness. See the Omnivore's Dilemma.

As for the media message, ethanol was a baby doll up until just a few months ago. When some decent reporting finally got done. Its not being positioned as anything its not, and this doesn't seem to be affecting subsidy levels anyway.

Vinod, I understand that you're trying to take the big picture into account, I just think you're doing a poor job of it. And anywhow, reductions on the level we need will likely require bio-fuels and hybrids of all kinds.

1 comment:

dan said...

Nice blog and good comments over at Dot Earth. Keep posting away!

QUESTION RE: "The question is, can you get this positive message to people without scaring them? 1. I think you have to get scared before they are motivated to re-imagine the world. 2. Yet, you won’t sustain that movement without a positive vision."

1. yes, people need to get scared first to reimagine the world. So how do you feel about my blog and visual images of future polar cities to house survivors of GW in the future, say year 2121 or 2500? can you blog on this scare factor, or just email me and tell me your thoughts on this? Thanks. Email is at danbloom GMAIL. one word. You know the drill.

2. Yes, then we need positive vision. And polar cities also offers a positive outcome, survival of humankind via polar cities as an adaptation to GW. What's your take on this?

please blog on this one day or leave comments below or email me offline. thanks

Tufts 1971


Polar city images: