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Articles by Vinod Khosla

Khosla is a technology innovator and venture capitalist based in Silicon Valley.

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  • Where will biofuels and biomass feedstocks come from?

    When it comes to biofuels we have choices. We can do it poorly, using short-run approaches with no potential to scale, poor trajectory, and adverse environmental impact. Or we can do it right, with sustainable, long-term solutions that can meet both our biofuel needs and our environmental needs.

    We do need strong regulation to ensure against land-use abuses. I have suggested that each cellulosic facility be individually certified with a LEEDS-like "CLAW" rating, and that countries which allow environmentally sensitive lands to be encroached be disqualified from CLAW-rated fuel markets.

    We think a good fuel has to meet the CLAW requirements:

    C -- COST below gasoline
    L -- low to no additional LAND use; benefits for using degraded land to restore biodiversity and organic material
    A -- AIR quality improvements, i.e. low carbon emissions
    W -- limited WATER use.

    Cellulosic ethanol (and cellulosic biofuels at large) can meet these requirements.

    Environmentally, cellulosic ethanol can reduce emissions on a per-mile driven basis by 75-85% with limited water usage for process and feedstock, as illustrated later. Range, Coskata, and others currently have small-scale pilots projecting 75% less water use than corn ethanol, with energy in/out ratio between 7-10 EROI (though we consider this a less important variable than carbon emissions per mile driven).

    Sustainable land use

    The question about biomass production that arises first is about land use: how much will we need? What will it take? Is it scalable? For conservatism, I assume CAFE standards in the U.S. per current law, though I expect by 2030 to have much higher CAFE and fleet standards (hopefully up near 54mpg or a 100% higher that 2007 averages), which will dramatically reduce the need for fuel an hence biomass. Yes, this would include lighter vehicles, more efficient engines, better aerodynamics, low-cost hybrids, and whatever else we can get the consumer to buy that increases mpg.

  • Hybrids and biofuels: The road ahead

    Many people make the mistake of comparing apples to oranges. One has to compare futures to futures and current status to current status. All technologies improve, but some improve more than others.

    The Prius gets 46 mpg, while a similar-sized Toyota Corolla gets 31 mpg. One of our investments (Transonic) is trying to make an engine that (if it works!) can be placed in a Prius to produce a vehicle that will have lower carbon emissions than the hybrid Prius at below $1,000 in marginal cost. Other efficient engine efforts abound. If battery technology efforts like Seeo (one of our investments), EEstor, silicon nanowire batteries (or similar efforts that others have funded and many we are evaluating) are successful, we will get the same effect (better petroleum mpg) with a plug-in -- if we can also clean up our grid at the same time!

    From my perspective, if I have to pick between a 5-10 times lower cost/performance battery and a cleaned-up electrical grid in the next 5-10 years (or even 20-25 years), or pick cellulosic fuels in 50 percent more efficient ICE engines, I consider the latter lower risk and significantly more probable.

    I am confident that cellulosic biofuels without significant land-use impact or biodiversity impact can achieve costs of $1.25/gallon in less than five years and below $1.00 per gallon in 10 years (more details on that, especially on land use / biodiversity and sources of biomass, in a upcoming paper). At this price point, the technology will be adopted broadly and rapidly worldwide, even if oil prices decline substantially.

  • Hybrid emissions: Facts and numbers

    Having laid out my views in part I, let me turn to the actual data regarding hybrids -- both from an environmental and economic perspective.

    How do carbon emissions per mile driven compare for various cars? The Volt is expected to be "less than $30,000" with a 1.0L engine. Compare this to the Corolla, with a 1.8Lengine (peak hp of 126; 31 mpg) and a price of $14,400. It's worth noting that this is in the optimistic, no-gasoline-use scenario for the Volt, computed below along with carbon emissions for the Volt running on cellulosic ethanol and gasoline, and emissions for comparable-sized ICE cars. Questions on the Volt's actual usage patterns remain: how many people will recharge everyday? What percentage of total miles will be on the grid, and what percentage on gasoline?

  • Prius: Green or greenwash?

    I have been accused of dissing hybrids. I was mostly discussing Prius-type parallel hybrids and all the support they get, when one can get the same carbon reduction by buying a cheaper, similar-sized and -featured car and buying $10 worth of carbon credits. I was objecting to greenwashing (powered by a large marketing machine) that suggests hybrids can solve our problems.

    Corn ethanol, which has been heavily maligned in the mainstream media, reduces carbon emissions (on a per-mile-driven basis) by almost the same amount as today's typical hybrid. Despite the similar environmental profiles, one is a media darling and the other is demonized, despite its more competitive economics.

    My main complaint has been the lack of critical analysis in this space. Corn ethanol (which I don't believe is a long term solution) has been framed by the oil companies' marketing machine, farm policy critics, and impractical environmentalists (though the NRDC and Sierra Club support corn ethanol's transition role as I do, subject to certain constraints). The Prius and hybrids have been positioned by Toyota's marketing machine. The public is gullible.

    I am open and hopeful, especially longer term, on serial plug-in hybrids (a point I'll address in Part III). Price still remains a major issue. Even for serial hybrids, the ability to keep cost, or at least monthly payments, close to that of a regular ICE (internal combustion engine) car is unclear. Maybe another blogger with knowledge of practical automotive costs can detail the likely trajectory of serial hybrid costs (say, with a typical 40-mile "battery range"), as this remains the critical question.

    The Prius is the corn ethanol of hybrid cars, and we should recognize that. It has increased investment in battery development, but beyond that it is no different than Gucci bags, a branding luxury for a few who want the "cool eco" branding (70%+ of Prius buyers make more than $100k per year).

    In this series, I will try to lay out my views on hybrids as a whole -- what I believe hybrids are good for and what they are not. (My paper on Biofuels Pathways (PDF) delves into the details.)