I wanted to point out a great set of posts over at Grist by cleantech VC Vinod Khosla. The backstory: at a conference last month, he drew a lot of attention (and criticism) for this comment regarding plug-in vehicles:
"Forget plug-ins," he said during a keynote address at ThinkEquity Partners' ThinkGreen conference in San Francisco. "They are nice toys. But they will not be material to climate change."This perspective was subsequently challenged by a number of individuals in the online cleantech space for a variety of reasons.
However, much kudos for his 3 part set of posts at Grist during the past few days ("Pragmatist vs. environmentalist") that outline his thoughts in much greater detail.
Prius: Green or greenwash?
Hybrid emissions: Facts and numbers
Hybrids and biofuels: The road ahead
At the risk of simplification, it seems his argument focus essentially on two points: cost economics and emissions reductions.
According to Khosla, it is simply much cheaper for the consumer to go with biofuel powered vehicles. Plug-in electric vehicles and hybrids require thousands of dollars in additional up-front costs, while flex-fuel vehicles would have essentially the same cost as a "regular" vehicle. Further the predictability of long-term cost reductions in cellulosic ethanol on a dollar per gallon production cost are much greater compared to the limits on change in cost per kwh of battery capacity.
In addition, in comparing carbon emission reductions among the technologies, he concludes that exclusively cellulosic powered vehicles would have 75% lower emissions than a 2010 GM Volt.
Even though Vinod acknowledges that hybrids and biofuels are “complementary strategies”, he is first and foremost a venture capitalist, seeking investments with the least (knowable) risk and greatest (potential) profitability. Thus, the crux of his argument:
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.While I could raise several points to debate this perspective, I actually think many of the commenters on each post do a more effective job in challenging this argument. (just a sampling):
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.
- Are the full life-cycle costs for the vehicle and fuel incorporated into the analysis?
- Is the comparison of current hybrid vehicles with futuristic cellulosic powered vehicles (nowhere close to commercialization) fair?
- How much does the build-out of a new ethanol distribution infrastructure costs?
- What about the life-cycle environmental impact of biofuels compared to electricity generation?
Flex-fuel plug-in hybrids are not impossible but these two technologies [battery and ethanol] are basically competing to be the green car solution of choice for government, industry and venture capital investment.UPDATE: Great commentary on this subject from Marianne Lavelle who writes US News' energy blog - Beyond the Barrel. She also points to a prescient US News article she wrote back in 2006 that is a fun read.