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By Robert Rapier on Dec 28, 2007 with no responses

Vinod Khosla on Plug-in Hybrids

I am in rural Oklahoma with dial-up access currently indicating 50.6 Kbps, but I wanted to get this out there. Odograph pointed this PHEV story out yesterday, but now Vinod Khosla has dropped by and left his comments in the story:

Vinod Khosla blows his credibility dissing plug-ins

Khosla’s comments (which I broke into paragraphs and corrected a couple of typos):

First, bloggers jump the gun without understanding the details of what one is saying. My paper on Biofuels Pathways (www.khoslaventures.com/resources.html ) explains the details.

The key question is how many people will pay $5000 more for a basic hybrid car that reduces carbon emissions by 25% (about the same as corn ethanol by the way) versus a flex-fuel car that costs no more and can reduce emissions by 75% or more when run on cellulosic biofuels?

A plug-in hybrid would cost $15000 more for the average buy and may reduce carbon emissions by a larger percentage today depending upon the location and source of your electricity (how much fossil fuel is used in your power grid). That might reach 100% reduction when we have all renewable power in a region and all cars are fully plug-in, but when might that happen?

Even if we could get 50% of the cars in the US to be hybrids, reducing emissions by an immaterial 10-15%, could we get people in India and China, the fastest growing car markets, to ante up this much additional money when the biggest thrust in volume cars in India is to reduce the cost of the whole car to $2500?

When can we get enough cars on the road? Battery costs will decline and performance increase but once one gets inside the technology one understands that the upside with known chemistries is limited to maybe 2-4x change in cost/performance – not nearly enough to change the hybrid or plug-in hybrid cost dynamic.

Having said that we are investing in batteries to try and enable breakthroughs that might change this. Other technologists are doing the same but the outcomes look very uncertain. We will need 50-80% of the car buyers to pay for these new technology automobiles to make a material difference.

When will that happen and at what cost point in the US? In the world? Add 10-15 years after new car sales to reach these percentages and you have a “low carbon fleet”! long term I still believe we can reach this laudable goals but probably not in the next decade or even two!

The only thing I will comment on at the moment is the assertion that a flex-fuel car run on cellulosic biofuels would reduce emissions by “75% or more.” That’s a projection, but one that nobody in the world has demonstrated. It is based on a number of assumptions that I believe will prove to be invalid once commercial production is underway. Yet it is stated here as a fact. I say that none of the cellulosic plants currently being built will reduce emissions by anywhere near 75%. There are multiple problems yet to be solved, some of which I discuss in the following essays:

Cellulosic Ethanol Reality Check

The Logistics Problem of Cellulosic Ethanol

Cellulosic Ethanol vs. Biomass Gasification

Of course if one is willing to hand-wave away these sorts of problems without extending the same courtesy to PHEVs, then over course cellulosic ethanol vehicles are going to look better.