Almanac

News - June 2, 2010

Green entrepreneur Vinod Khosla is bullish on internal combustion, nuclear power

by Dave Boyce

Vinod Khosla, a Portola Valley resident and a venture capitalist noted for his interest in cutting-edge green enterprises, is a native of India so you'd think he'd have some respect for sacred cows.

He doesn't. In addressing an audience of about 600 at the Mountain View Performing Arts Center on April 26, Mr. Khosla dismissed as not useful on any meaningful scale several grassroots answers to the planet's climate crisis, including solar panels, hybrid vehicles and vehicles powered by lithium-ion batteries (at least not as we know these batteries today).

From a comfortable chair on a stage he shared with KQED-radio talk show host Michael Krasny, Mr. Khosla said he is bullish on the futures of the internal combustion engine, agriculture dedicated to producing bio-fuel, and nuclear power, but again, not as we know them today.

He used the expanding economy of India as an example. Which vehicle will the now-impoverished millions be likely to choose when they can afford a car, he asked. A $2,500 Nano ultra-compact powered by a traditional gasoline engine, or a greener but more expensive hybrid?

The Nano, he predicted, will be the vehicle in which "99.5 percent" of the miles are driven. Therefore, he said, the best target for reducing India's greenhouse gas emissions should be the efficiency of the engine in the Nano.

A 50 percent improvement in efficiency is possible and would cut the car's emissions by 50 percent, he said. Add in bio-fuel made from plant material grown on land not used for food production and you can cut emissions by another 50 percent. Problem solved.

Planting crops for bio-fuel would, in turn, raise standards of living in rural communities everywhere, he added, including farmland in the United States as winter cover crops. Such a change could simultaneously improve soil vitality, cut petroleum use, and eliminate fertilizer-based nitrogen runoff that pollutes streams, rivers and deltas, he said.

Specificity is Mr. Khosla's metier. Amorphous goals of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by 2020 are the wrong focus, he said. Better to develop technologies that actually and significantly reduce emissions of vital processes, then deploy those systems everywhere.

Politics, of course, complicates things, he added.

An audience member asked Mr. Khosla about proposals for planetary engineering, such as adding tons of iron filings to the ocean to increase the uptake of atmospheric CO2, or adding tons of sun-reflecting particles to the upper atmosphere.

"I think that's too dangerous," Mr. Khosla said. We should study such ideas, but not deploy them without a "95 percent" certainty that they would work as planned.

"The planet is such a complex system that I don't think we can correctly assess the risk," he said. The hidden complexity behind the recent financial meltdown is a case in point, he added.

Mr. Khosla recommended reading "The Black Swan" by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and "Cradle to Cradle" by William McDonough and Michael Braungart.

Technology is the answer

Today's nuclear power plants are bit of a headache to operate, Mr. Khosla noted. They must be refueled every 18 months, their radioactive waste is dangerous and must be transported and stored safely for a very long time, and they increase the supply of potential bomb material.

An idea for a new type of power plant is under development at TerraPower in Washington state, Mr. Khosla said. If the idea bears fruit, such plants would run on existing stockpiles of nuclear waste, would refuel on a 60-year interval and, with fissionable waste material not a problem, they would greatly reduce proliferation risks.

"Are there other ideas like that? I'm sure there are," Mr. Khosla said. "When we get the brightest minds to focus on these problems, we'll come up with solutions."

Technologists in India, he noted, are busy developing breeder reactors, which would dramatically increase supplies of fissionable material. "If you could replace (that technology) with something better, it'd be so nice," he said.

"The power of capitalism and the power of technology and ideas is what solves the world's problems," he said. As a venture capitalist, he is not exactly unbiased when it comes to technological solutions, he noted.

Among his many ventures: locking carbon dioxide emissions inside building materials as calcium carbonate, the stuff sea shells are made of. California imports roadbed material from British Columbia, but with calcium-carbonate-infused aggregate, "suddenly, your city streets would be as green as a prairie," he said. Unsuccessful efforts to address the climate crisis are not "a failure of technology. This is a failure of imagination."

For the foreseeable future, electricity production in major national economies will rely on coal, Mr. Khosla said. Electric cars will thus be expensive in terms of carbon emissions, reason enough to improve the internal combustion engine and, if done properly, switch to bio-fuel, he said.

INFORMATION

• The program was part of the annual Wallace Stegner Lecture Series, presented by the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) and sponsored by Bill and Jean Lane of Portola Valley.

• Go to openspacetrust.org for more information on POST and the lecture series.

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