Climate Techno-optimist Vinod Khosla’s California Dreaming

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Legendary technologist and venture capitalist Vinod Khosla spoke last night about how his funded companies will soon enable cars and coal to be a big part of the climate change solution, instead of the major part of the climate problem.

All that pesky advice for people “trying to be green,” even expert energy and technology forecasts, will be made unnecessary or erroneous once Khosla and his Khosla Ventures posse reinvent the world’s energy and transportation technologies.

He took potshots at everything from small business “eco-bikinis” to corporate greenwashing, such as Shell”s advertising of “sustainable tar sands.” “Environmentalists are spending too much time on things that don’t matter,” he told the San Francisco Commonwealth Club audience.

Such bravado would be particularly annoying were it coming from someone without as much commitment–in the form of $1.3 billion and many years of effort–as Khosla.

Khosla highlighted four portfolio companies in his presentation, which focused on, “inventing the future, not predicting it….Who would have imagined Twitter two years ago?”

“We need to get rid of fossil oil, which is 70 percent of the climate problem,” he said. Khosla’s goal as a venture backer is to fund companies that are “90 percent likely to fail,” as they have the best chance of leapfrogging current technologies, leading to the demise of monopolies such as Big Oil. He called these disruptive types of companies or ideas, “Black Swans.”

He said smaller companies in the $7 to 70 million range that are taking the big potential high-return risks should be the highest priorities for funding, whether from his own funds ($1 billion large VC fund; $300 million “science experiment” fund) or another source. Khosla credited the US Department of Energy’s year-old ARPA-E program with “doing a great job” in terms of the funding it has provided for smaller, innovative clean tech companies.

Khosla Venture’s current flock of Black Swans include:

  • Calera: Trying to turn the climate change pollutant C02 from coal emissions–along with other hazardous emissions including mercury–into an energy and cement feedstock. “It will be able to reduce the carbon footprint twice as much as solar,” Khosla predicted.
  • Kior: The start-up is aiming at turning wood waste such as wood chips into oil.
  • Ecomotors: Attempting to produce non-hybrid engines that are 50-100 percent more efficient, aimed at cutting world oil consumption in half.
  • Soraa: Engineering circuitry that may use ten times less electricity for lighting.

Khosla said his investments all share the goal of being available at “relevant cost, relevant scale and relevant adoption.” With some current green technologies, he said, “the average person in India could not even turn on the light.”

Regarding the growth of India, Khosla’s homeland, he said Indian car ownership is forecast to increase 5000 percent in 30-40 years (what, trusting a forecast?) and that to meet this demand, “biofuels are probably the right solution.”

He proposed using the 1 billion acres of abandoned agricultural land worldwide to produce biofuel crops such as miscanthus that will replace or improve that degraded soil, and also suggested using cropland for biofuels in the winter that is not being utilized year-round for food crops.

Overall, Khosla and his funded companies are pushing the envelope with some intriguing new ways of addressing our climate and resource crises.

These companies are based in The Bay Area’s Silicon Valley and in Southern California, as well as in more traditional centers of energy (Kior is based in Houston), and transportation (Ecomotors is in the Detroit area). The design innovation and the hundreds or thousands of green jobs they are producing will be critical in transforming our industrial economy.

Khosla suffers from the myopic view, however, that technology alone can triumph without the need for new behaviors, planning, policies and systemic approaches (though he did credit California’s Global Climate Change law AB 32 with encouraging innovation on the order of “creating 10 more Googles because of it”).

Such thinking about the absolute superiority of “progress”–cars, electricity, chemicals, engineered food–has in the past presented us with so many of the dilemmas that we now face.

Global climate change, along with massive resource and species depletion, demands that we not risk betting everything on the hope of techno-fixes, no matter how enticing these partial solutions may be to someone breathing the rarefied air of California’s Silicon Valley.

Warren Karlenzig is president
of Common Current, an
internationally active urban sustainability strategy consultancy. He is author
of
How Green is Your
City? The SustainLane US City Rankings
and a Fellow at the Post Carbon
Institute

 

 

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