Khosla: “If you’re not solving 50% of the problem it’s not material”

My Clean Break column today is largely based on a recent telephone interview I had with Vinod Khosla at Khosla Ventures (and a partner with Kleiner Perkins). Our discussion was mostly about the difference between types of clean technology investments, and Khosla makes a distinction between “good green investments” (i.e. solar, batteries, biodiesel, etc…) and “climate solutions,” the latter being the kind of breakthrough technologies or approaches that have the potential to directly challenge the dominance of coal and oil, and in a big way. This isn’t new to many who have followed Khosla (he is, after all, all over the U.S. media and quite vocal about his views), but the veteran venture capitalist sees solar thermal power and ethanol as true climate solutions. I don’t deal with ethanol in the column but instead focus on the benefits of solar thermal. I also touch on Khosla’s belief that we need to invest heavily in a high-voltage continental grid that can allow us to take advantage of renewables on a large scale, otherwise we’re just “playing with toys.”

As an aside, I should mention I got a chance to read a draft of a white paper Khosla has written that details why he invests in certain areas and the differences, in his view, between a green investment and climate solution. It’s a compelling read, and offers more understanding of his controverial views on (and support of) ethanol. I’m sure he’ll be publicly releasing a final version of this white paper soon.

Khosla: “If you’re not solving 50% of the problem it’s not material”

My Clean Break column today is largely based on a recent telephone interview I had with Vinod Khosla at Khosla Ventures (and a partner with Kleiner Perkins). Our discussion was mostly about the difference between types of clean technology investments, and Khosla makes a distinction between “good green investments” (i.e. solar, batteries, biodiesel, etc…) and “climate solutions,” the latter being the kind of breakthrough technologies or approaches that have the potential to directly challenge the dominance of coal and oil, and in a big way. This isn’t new to many who have followed Khosla (he is, after all, all over the U.S. media and quite vocal about his views), but the veteran venture capitalist sees solar thermal power and ethanol as true climate solutions. I don’t deal with ethanol in the column but instead focus on the benefits of solar thermal. I also touch on Khosla’s belief that we need to invest heavily in a high-voltage continental grid that can allow us to take advantage of renewables on a large scale, otherwise we’re just “playing with toys.”

As an aside, I should mention I got a chance to read a draft of a white paper Khosla has written that details why he invests in certain areas and the differences, in his view, between a green investment and climate solution. It’s a compelling read, and offers more understanding of his controverial views on (and support of) ethanol. I’m sure he’ll be publicly releasing a final version of this white paper soon.

Hymotion targets hybrid battery replacement

Hymotion of Concord, Ont., which was purchased earlier this year by battery developer A123Systems, has certainly hitched itself to the right wagon. A123 is working closely with GM on its new Chevy Volt concept plug-in car, and Hymotion now has a role in helping educate major automakers about the challenges of vehicle systems integration. But Hymotion also has its eye on battery replacement for the hybrid aftermarket. The first Toyota Prius was sold in North America back in 2000, meaning in a couple of years those first cars will need to have their battery packs replaced. Should the owners go with nickel-metal hydride, which is already in there, or higher-density lithium ion packs? And should they consider converting their vehicles to plug-in hybrid models? Hymotion is hoping that its lithium ion packs, based on A123 technology, and its plug-in retrofit expertise will be in demand as more nickel-metal hydride systems come due for replacement. For a profile of Hymotion, click here.

“Green Buildings” not as costly as many think

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development released the results of an interesting survey this week, showing that “key” players in the real estate and construction markets are overestimating the cost of constructing “green” buildings.

Respondents to a 1,400 person global survey estimated the additional cost of building green at 17 percent above conventional construction, more than triple the true cost difference of about 5 percent. At the same time, survey respondents put greenhouse gas emissions by buildings at 19 percent of world total, while the actual number of 40 percent is double this.

Click here for the full report, which was created with participation from cement giant Lafarge, United Technologies Corp., DuPont, Philips, and others. The business council hopes to spread an important message: that existing technologies combined with commonsense design can increase energy efficiency by 35 per cent and reduce heating costs by 80 per cent for the average building in industrialized markets.

If the true cost is only 5 per cent higher than the status quo, isn’t this a no-brainer? Particularly given this premium will be paid off in no time through energy savings… Developed and developing economies should require no less for any new building. Building codes are being updated in places like Ontario, but not fast enough and not aggressively enough to have the kind of impact we need to see. For example, we’re building office buildings in Canada at a record pace. Unfortunately, each new building that’s put up represents a missed opportunity for dramatic efficiency improvements.

The open-source approach to clean energy

There’s an interesting little experiment happening on the Internet, sparked by an information technology guru in Saskachewan whose sole motivation is to help the planet. Robert Rohatensky came up with the idea of an “energy tower” — a solar heat pump system for generating (baseload) electricity year round. But instead of refining the concept behind closed doors on his own, Rohatensky has decided to take an open-source approach. He’s inviting anybody who is interested to participate in the development of this approach. “The hope is that with an open philosophy that the project shows similar Rapid Application Development and success as Linux and other Open Source Software projects and provides a system that can meet future energy requirements in a sustainable manner.”

The energy tower would have a hot air cycle where the ambient air is warmer than the ground and a cold air cycle where the ambient air is colder than the ground. The approach relies on the storage of heat in the ground and convection processes that turn turbines to create electricity. You can read the details on the site.

Rohatensky doesn’t want money. He wants input. “The energy problem and the project to solve it are large and complex and require sources from many fields,” he writes on his site. “The initial design and prototype require engineering resources, but there are many portions of the project that require diverse skills from administration, project management, software and web development, marketing, financial organization or even just fresh baking.”

He welcomes anyone interested in donating time and skill — anyone who sees merit in the proposed system and wants to help. So, if you’re an engineer, techie or strategic thinker with time on your hands and a desire to help, drop Rob a line at bob.rohatensky@sasktel.net