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Vinod Khosla has challenged conventional ideas on the cost of ethanol and then walked the walked by investing in America's first cellulosic ethanol plant. What does Vinod think about plug-in cars and battery technology? According to Greentech Media, during a keynote at a ThinkEquity conference, Vinod says "Forget plug-ins. ... They are nice toys. But they will not be material to climate change."

Vinod's real problem is with battery technology and not plug-ins specifically. "Are we more likely to get a [fivefold] reduction in cost in cellulosic ethanol than a [fivefold] reduction in cost of batteries?" Vinod asks in his keynote. At 5:37 into the video above (part of the Keynote), Vinod says, "I don't believe they [batteries] are going to be material to climate change solutions in the near term or the next two decades."

Vinod does say batteries are a good investment even though it won't have a material impact on climate change. What do you expect? A big investor in ethanol to sing the praises of batteries in a keynote at an investment conference? 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.

We want to know what you think. In 20 years, which technology will have a greater impact on cleaning up the planet: batteries or ethanol?

[Source: YouTube, Greentech Media via Grist, Treehugger]


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  • 22 Comments
      • 7 Years Ago
      VK sounds like he's been indulging in recreational chemistry--something way stronger than mere ethanol.

      As others have pointed out, the key comparison is not between the cost per unit of ethanol and the cost of a battery, as the first is an ongoing cost and the other is a one-time, up-front expense. We should be looking at the per-mile expense of the technologies. Electrified transportation uses so little energy/mile that it can offset a pretty hefty up-front cost. Ask all the people driving hybrids today that depend on battery packs.

      The other big issue he conveniently overlooks is the arrival of quick-charge batteries. Toshiba and others are working on this, and once we can build a Civic-size car that will drive 150 miles/charge and can be recharged at a filling station in 10 minutes, we drastically reduce the demand for a car that can go 300 miles between charges. That's the scenario that ethanol and other liquid fuels can't begin to compete with.
      • 7 Years Ago
      I think he is trying to use FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) to kick sand at what looks like a much more solid possibility (plug-ins). I don't know Khosla's MO that well, but this may be a sign that all is not well with his cellulosic ethanol bets. It's unfortunate that he using these tactics because in the area of cleantech/greentech I believe savaging your competition has more negative consequences for the savager than the savagee. Cleantech, unlike IT is both business and a movement, so the rules of marketing are different.

      I think he is also wrong.

      Also he is overlooking a potential market for ethanol with flexible fuel plug ins. Not the brightest comments perhaps in line with not the brightest investment he has ever made.
      • 7 Years Ago
      "Are we more likely to get a [fivefold] reduction in cost in cellulosic ethanol than a [fivefold] reduction in cost of batteries?" Vinod asks

      And his answer is wrong. It illustrates the principle that nothing hinders understanding more completely than having your job depend on not understanding. It is far more likely that we will get a (that is, *another*) 5x improvement in the price/performance of battery (and supercap) technology than a 2x improvement in the cost of ethanol from any source.
      • 7 Years Ago
      Why not use both, the power density of a hydrocarbon fuel with the balance, efficiency and low local pollution of electricity . A fuel cell using hydrocarbons reformed into hydrogen and applying new membrane technology to eliminate heat loss. Output balance and alternative energy via in line accumulators and additional capacitors for peak load
      • 7 Years Ago
      Ethanol maybe ok, when it is really economic to produce, both in terms of money and in CO2 balance. In this last sense, ethanol manufacturing is improving through investigation aand results are showing.
      Then, we have Hidrogen, which can be produced quite cleanly. Maybe the future of transport depends more on the efficiency and price of fuel cells.
      • 7 Years Ago
      NEITHER.

      Batteries run smack into limits defined by the periodic table itself. Ethanol runs into limits defined by solar input (remember, every gallon of petroleum is thousands times that much original input of solar energy).

      People need to get used to the idea that driving alone in huge SUVs is very soon going to be a thing of the past, period.
      • 7 Years Ago
      There is no doubt that transportation energy of the future will be stored not as chemical potential in liquid fuels, but as electrical potential in either batteries, capacitors, or some combination thereof.
      Battery cost/mile is dropping quickly, not because Battery cost/capacity is dropping so fast but because battery lifetimes (calendar and charge cycles) are increasing dramatically. Instead of looking at cost/Kwh capacity, pay attention to cost/Kwh total over the battery lifetime.
      • 7 Years Ago
      Two Words: NanoTube Batteries.

      • 7 Years Ago
      We won't know whether he's right or wrong for at least a few years. The point is, he is making really big bets. If he doesn't believe in his technology he has no business in the business. Other people are making other bets on other technology. The market will sort it out in the end. We don't have to pick winners - at this point no one knows what the right solutions are. If enough smart people try enough things with enough venture capital cash good things are bound to happen.
      • 7 Years Ago
      Both.

      PHEV (since electricity is still cheaper on a cost per mile basis) recharged via a range extender that is either an optomized ICE (burning E85 or purer ethanol) or a "direct ethanol fuel cell"
      • 7 Years Ago
      M1EK. . . Batteries will run into limits defined by the periodic table itself -- eventually. We aren't there yet, and batteries are already starting to become practical for cars. By the time batteries are fully optimized, it's possible that supercapacitors might be ready to take over.

      As for driving alone in a big SUV. . . It doesn't make a lot of sense today and it won't make any more sense in the future, but a global shortage of energy won't be what stops it.


      • 7 Years Ago
      I just read a piece on Khosla's ideas in the MIT Technology Review. I applaud what he's doing for fuels, but the part where he dismisses hybrid technology, and battery electric vehicles in general is way off base.
      Ethanol is not a magic bullet. Burning 100% ethanol doesn't guarantee a 100% reduction in greenhouse gases produced. Ethanol is a fuel just like gasoline, so CO2 will result in combusting it, just like gasoline.
      The idea of hybrids and plug-in hybrids is to vastly improve the efficiency of the automobile by capturing energy that would otherwise be wasted, or using grid electricity, which can be generated from clean sources like solar or hydro power. It's insufficient to just say we can keep the bulky inefficient cars that we have today and just swap out the fuel for ethanol. That will not solve the energy crisis and alleviate climate change by itself. We have to encourage conservation, and higher efficiency, which is what hybrids are all about.
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