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By Robert Rapier on Jan 6, 2014 with 36 responses

Quick Response on 60 Minutes Story

Tags: Vinod Khosla

As a result of Sunday night’s 60 Minutes story about cleantech, a lot of people are emailing me or clicking in here for the first time. I will have a more in-depth report on my contribution to the story — including bits that didn’t survive the editing process for a more complete context of my positions — but for now let me offer some quick answers to some questions/comments that are coming up frequently. First, if you have no idea what I am talking about, here is the story that aired last night:

Here are some quick answers to questions and comments.

I am Robert Rapier. I am a chemical engineer and author of Power Plays: Energy Options in the Age of Peak Oil. I have spent over 20 years working in the energy business. I have worked in many areas of the energy industry — including a number of renewable energy projects — but have spent most of my time working on liquid fuels. You can view my CV here.

I was contacted by 60 Minutes because I have written a lot about flaws in our energy policies which ultimately resulted in a lot of wasted tax dollars — particularly on advanced biofuel projects. I have been critical of Vinod Khosla’s history of going to Congress, making wild promises, getting tax dollars on the basis of those promises, and then failing to deliver.

My criticisms were two-fold. One was that he had no energy industry experience at all, and thus shouldn’t ask taxpayers to fund his learning curve. By all means, feel free to fail — just not with my money. Note that my criticisms aren’t merely about using tax dollars to push renewable energy; that’s a perfectly good use of tax dollars when done correctly. In Vinod Khosla’s response to Lesley Stahl, he noted all the money that had been spent trying to cure cancer, and asked if we should stop funding cancer research. My answer to that is “No, but we should be selective with our tax dollars. We don’t fund just anyone who claims they can cure cancer — especially if they have no experience in cancer research.”

The second is that by over-promising and failing to deliver (and I had many reasons for expecting this would be the case) he would damage the credibility of the advanced biofuels sector (which he undoubtedly has at this point). Mr. Khosla and I have discussed his approach, and we were not on the same page.

I am by no means a foe of cleantech. I have worked off and on in cleantech for many years, and my current job is in cleantech. I have been involved in scaling up projects that are running today — and I have been involved with some that failed. I am especially a fan of solar power, and have written about it positively for many years. (In fact, my largest investment win of 2013 was First Solar). I will provide more details on this later, but I gave several examples of cleantech successes to Lesley Stahl, and I told her that cleantech is not dead.

My criticism over the years of various biofuel boondoggles isn’t because they failed; it’s because in many cases it should have been obvious they would because we have tried essentially the same approaches that were being attempted. At times the wheel was being reinvented at taxpayer expense. If a venture capitalist funds a biofuel venture and it fails, then that’s not my concern. If he does it with tax dollars, we need to be critical of what’s being claimed — and hold people accountable for failure to deliver.

In the interview I pointed out that Vinod Khosla’s biofuel investments are down by 85 percent or so, but (in comments that didn’t survive editing) I also said that I felt his heart is in the right place and that he is putting his money where his mouth is. Further, I said that since private investors are funding his latest schemes — as in the case of KiOR, Gevo, and Amyris — it isn’t of concern to me as a taxpayer since he isn’t risking my tax dollars. In his earlier biofuel ventures like Range Fuels, he relied heavily on tax dollars to build a plant based on technology that has been around for a long time. As a result, you don’t see me writing much about Gevo, in contrast to my writings about Range Fuels.

Note that I am not trying to distance myself from the story, but rather to provide more context for my comments. I stand behind what I said in the piece. I will have more details on the back story in a day or two, including exchanges that didn’t make it into the final story. Until then you can also find me discussing the story on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

  1. By mtracy9 on January 6, 2014 at 6:52 pm

    If only Robert Rapier would apply his concern for wasting taxpayer dollars to institutions like the Pentagon, then we could really make major progress on saving taxpayer money.

    • By Tom G. on January 6, 2014 at 7:01 pm

      What is the old adage; there are only so many hours in a day :-)

      • By mtracy9 on January 6, 2014 at 8:08 pm

        Quite true. But, as for working against wasteful government spending, our time might be used most productively in regard to working to stop wasteful Pentagon spending. Any acceleration in alternative energy production, on the other hand, saves us money in that not as much taxpayer money need be spent protecting against unfriendly regimes who might disrupt oil supplies (not that the Pentagon wouldn’t be out to spend the savings anyway).

        • By Optimist on January 9, 2014 at 3:07 pm

          You’re way off topic!

          Go find yourself a war… I mean defense blog…

  2. By Russ Finley on January 6, 2014 at 11:21 pm

    Vinod has been at this for many years now. He almost seems obsessed with the idea of making “affordable” liquid fuels out of cellulose …a modern day prospector.

    His cancer analogy fell flat for me. Biofuels just do not have the same priority as cancer research.

    Back when he got started on this adventure, biofuels were a huge fad. That isn’t the case anymore. Fads come and fads go. People finally started to realize the downsides to scaling them up. The E.U. has greatly downsized its biofuel goals because the environmental damage grows exponentially as you scale it up.

    Assuming that he finally finds a way to convert cellulose into a liquid fuel that is even close to economically competitive, costs are likely to rise to exceed fossil fuels once conservationists and farmers begin to limit access to forest and farmland. Converting more land to agriculture is certainly not going to absorb CO2.

    Nature has already evolved two hard-to-beat plants for making liquid fuels: sugar cane and palm oil. Do we want more land going to biofuels?

    These are all questions waiting to be answered if he ever finds a cheap way to convert cellulose into liquid fuels. It’s probably time to stop using tax money to help fund his schemes.

    • By Robert Rapier on January 6, 2014 at 11:25 pm

      “His cancer analogy fell flat for me. Biofuels just do not have the same priority as cancer research.”

      It fell flat for me too. Just because we fund cancer research doesn’t mean we fund everyone who claims they can cure cancer. We fund people that actually have expertise in the field.

      • By mtracy9 on January 7, 2014 at 1:13 am

        Where’s your evidence that those being funded in alternative energy research do not have expertise in the field?

        • By Robert Rapier on January 7, 2014 at 9:23 am

          “Where’s your evidence that those being funded in alternative energy research do not have expertise in the field?”

          Seriously? Vinod Khosla spent his career in Silicon Valley. He had never done anything in the energy field. He came into about a decade ago making a lot of noise about how Silicon Valley’s “can do” attitude was the key to shaking things up. Then, when he began to repeat things that had been attempted again and again — it was obvious he didn’t know the field. You might as well be asking me for evidence that President Obama never played professional baseball.

          “Also, how come people in the cancer research community are not held accountable when their research fails to produce results?”

          You don’t actually understand the nature of my gripe, even though I have repeated it several times. If someone goes to Congress and says “I will cure cancer if you give me this money” — then they should be held accountable. But before they are given any money, the nature of who they are and how they plan to do what they say they can do has to be considered. If someone from Silicon Valley claimed they could cure cancer, and proceeded to push cleansing enemas, then 1). Congress would be stupid to give them money; and 2). The person should be accountable if Congress did give them money.

          • By mtracy9 on January 7, 2014 at 11:38 am

            You make a good argument in this particular instance. However there have several success stories in government funding of alternative technologies. The EV1, which the government funded, was widely regarded as a failure. Yet this funding spurred Japanese manufacturers to develop hybrid cars, and the lessons learned helped GM develop the more successful Volt electric car..

            • By Russ Finley on January 7, 2014 at 10:09 pm

              Even the government can’t always be wrong. It’s the horrifically expensive, brute force way that government sometimes stumbles on viable solutions that is the problem.

              Government funding is a matter of degree. You will be hard pressed to find anything the government isn’t or hasn’t partially funded. Just because the government had a finger in the pie does not mean it was that finger that made the pie a success. The Prius would be a success without the $3,500 credit it received for a year or so.

              The EV1 was an example of the government trying to force a technology into existence and was a total waste of money. It put the cart (electric car) ahead of the horse (battery). Today’s Prius and Leaf would still exist had the EV1 never been built. It was just an electric car in need of a viable battery.

            • By TimC on January 8, 2014 at 2:50 pm

              You are assuming that the goal of these programs is to find viable solutions. I think that’s generous, if not naive. For Washington, the purpose of government spending is government spending. Every dollar spent by a federal program is a dollar not spent by the private sector or the states, and so shifts the balance of power in favor of the Imperial City. If a viable solution is stumbled upon, it is an unexpected (and often unwanted) by-product. Inefficient, expensive, brute force means are not the problem for Washington, they are the goal.

            • By mtracy9 on January 9, 2014 at 3:08 am

              It would be more accurate to say that every dollar spent by the Pentagon is a dollar taken away from education, or some other worthwhile social program.

            • By mtracy9 on January 9, 2014 at 3:06 am

              The Prius and the Leaf would exist if the EV1 had never been built, but they would not have come to market as quickly. The development of the atom bomb would not have occurred before the end of WW2 were it not for govt. funding of the Manhattan Project. Likewise, men would not have already landed on the moon were it not for govt. funding.

          • By takchess on January 8, 2014 at 12:57 pm

            re: Where’s your evidence that those being funded in alternative energy research do not have expertise in the field?”

            Seriously? Vinod Khosla spent his career in Silicon Valley. He had never done anything in the energy field.

            Couldn’t you say the same thing of Elon Musk who has been successful ? Space-X and Telsa were a far stretch from software projects.

            In many of Khosla’s projects he had scientist and engineers driving the technical decisions right? Isn’t he more the money guy and promoter ?

            • By Robert Rapier on January 8, 2014 at 9:37 pm

              “Couldn’t you say the same thing of Elon Musk who has been successful ? Space-X and Telsa were a far stretch from software projects.”

              Those fields are much closer to Silicon Valley than converting biomass into fuel. Khosla was a total novice at this. I am not aware that Musk came into with his hand out, immediately lobbying Congress for money to go make his vision — which was just a fantasy — come true.

            • By Clee on January 14, 2014 at 5:48 am

              Elon Musk has a Bachelor of Science degree in physics, that helps towards the SpaceX stuff.

              While Vinod Khosla has a master’s in biomedical engineering, that’s not really applicable to turning biomass into ethanol in mass quantities.

          • By Forrest and Jan Butterfield on January 11, 2014 at 7:36 am

            The cancer cure might be a good analogy as tax dollars spent did advance the cause. Cancer cure rate steadily improves as cost and capability of advanced biofuel. It may be premature to label a complete waste. Back in CIC Bush days, the country was held hostage to international oil cartel. This was a national security and international economic stability issue. Also, the global warming scientist just starting to ring alarms. I don’t blame private sector investors or financial managers pushing their interests.
            The government process is wholly inefficient and grossly incompetent. It’s a political machine waxing and waning upon public desires. We have gross national bias upon value of federal control. Much history of this bias set per bad education and literature of unions, regulations, robber barons, etc. Were educating the youth to despise wealth creation and businessmen and to bestow way to much value to melting pot population and government action. I still remember a grade school graphic on how to improve the country. Discovery of problem, petition political government to regulate and control for superior outcome. Much damage to country per the false portrayal of government virtue righting all the damage done by banks and open market businesses. The miracle of social security that magically spends more than receives, Manhattan Project to save the world, space space race, and all the propaganda of industrial pollution and profit. The President was just another branch of government, until Kennedy popularity made the office regal akin to royalty. Before Jack the CIC just did their job and stayed out of limelight…how did Ike handle the popularity? Rather boring. Nowadays the CIC outspend British Royalty per recreation, affairs, and transport.

  3. By Forrest and Jan Butterfield on January 7, 2014 at 8:15 am

    60 minutes is famous for one sided hack jobs as most “news” shows per celebrity seekers and popularity. It’s easy to point finger at advanced energy as the job or challenge is daunting and risk high. I was frustrated with hype from companies with hand out. Overselling technology is a sure way to destroy the industry. Way to many oil haters demanding expensive commercial production of these unproven processes and jacking up politicians for the effort. This technology is still in infancy and needs caring nurturing and to do so upon common sense cost effective approach. Taxpayer investment is needed at some level or approach. It’s time dependent as well as investment. Slow and steady always more cost efficient. Now, the alternative energy sector is ablaze with breakthrough technology and silicon valley should be praised for their efforts. Much success, promising breakthroughs and investment money. A lot of countries brightest and most talented on duty. Experience upon energy sector should be utilized. Problem is politics of all groups trying to game all powerful government to their advantage. Market influence a good device to pick winners, but risky technology needs help and protection from wealthy monopolies. This administration a bit to invested in controlling the private economy. This the basic divide to allow soft market decisions or invest in stiff fist of elites empowered by power of government.

  4. By Gerald on January 7, 2014 at 11:13 am

    RR: Kudos for posing some tough questions on this 60 Minutes episode. I agree with you, Vinod doesn’t understand much about the biofuels sector. This is obvious. Hyping his investments in this arena while mis-labeling technologies in order to gain millions in Government grants and loan guarantees – are just some of the issues herein. Khosla HAS hurt the emerging biofuels sector with his stunts and PR tactics.

    What I expected to hear and didn’t was any mention about his $33.75 million purchase of California’s Martin’s Beach property and locking out the public from access to this local treasure. Perhaps he needs to gather up his billions of dot com windfall profits and take it all back home to where he came from. There, he can buy and privately develop some oceanfront beach property in India and ride around on a 50 cc chattering 2-stroke motorbike.

    Surfrider Foundation Lawsuit: Organization Sues Martin’s Beach LLC Over Public Access

    Martin’s Beach is a pocket beach just south of Half Moon Bay. It had long been visited by the public until soon after it was sold in 2008 to a then-anonymous owner for $33.75 million. Not long after the property changed hands, the billboard was painted over and a keycard gate was installed to keep out the public. Currently, the San Mateo County Chapter and local allies are working together to Open Martin’s Beach to the public once again, and to the families who have enjoyed it for generations.

  5. By Curtis on January 7, 2014 at 1:48 pm

    Never fear the reincarnation of Range Fuels, aka Freedom Pines Biorefinery by way of bankruptcy purchase by LanzaTech, January 3,2012 on the Court House steps in Soperton, GA is here. Or, sorta here. Word is that Concord Blue and LanzaTech or going to partner and recycle the dream in Soperton, GA.

    Living twenty minutes from the Soperton site has been entertaining. Locals turned just a tad skeptical and continue to believe that Jack Daniel’s of Old No. 7 fame should take the thing over. There has also been a great silence fallen over the voice and voices that promised a near perfect economic kingdom for Treutlen County.

    I doubt anyone will be showing up in Soperton chirping “there is no down side.” It is easy to believe that the Govt. will throw a million dollar grant at this one. And the beat goes on.

    • By TimC on January 8, 2014 at 11:25 am

      Thanks for the news link, Curtis. I had not heard about Concord Blue’s involvement. It seems odd, because LanzaTech only purchased the front end of the old Range plant, which included the gasifiers. But Concord Blue’s technology is a biomass gasification process. So it seems like LanzaTech will not be using either the front or the back ends of Range Fuels’ process to make biofuels at Freedom Pines? Did they buy it just to get the wood chips handling and syngas cleanup equipment?
      I really think LanzaTech is beating a dead horse in Soperton. Others, like Coskata, have recognized that making syngas from biomass will never be economical, and have shifted focus to natural gas.

      • By Curtis on January 8, 2014 at 4:39 pm

        Tim you’re welcome. Other than industry info. like the link I included, public conversation from the other side of the fence at Freedom Pines – zero. Unlike the Range Fuels operation that made of itself a near circus side show, this go-round we almost park the trucks at the back of the plant. They really do need to repaint the sign. Nothing looks more impermanent than peeling pressboard.

  6. By Clee on January 7, 2014 at 6:31 pm

    Robert, on the topic of biofuels, I would like to hear your opinion on the continuous process algae-to-oil process that the Pacific Northwest National Laboratories (PNNL) has been working on. I’ll post the URL in a separate comment since I suspect my posting URLs has led my account to be temporarily locked out from posting last year. I guess it looks like spam.

    • By Clee on January 7, 2014 at 6:34 pm

      PNNL claims in that they have “simplified the production of crude oil from algae by combining several chemical steps into one continuous process. The most important cost-saving step is that the process works with wet algae. Most current processes require the algae to be dried — a process that takes a lot of energy and is expensive. The new process works with an algae slurry that contains as much as 80 to 90 percent water.”

      • By Robert Rapier on January 7, 2014 at 7:46 pm

        Clee, the basic process is hydrothermal liquefaction and it has been around for a while. I did some back of the envelope energy calculations, and just this step had an energy return in the 7 to 1 range. That’s pretty low considering that’s just one step that doesn’t include growing and harvesting the algae, or processing the oil into fuel.

        • By EngineerPoet on January 8, 2014 at 4:18 pm

          As I keep reminding people, crappy EROI isn’t necessarily an issue.  The return of maize from the sunlight on a cornfield is at least an order of magnitude less than unity, but that never stopped anyone from profiting on it.

          My favorite prescription for HTL is nuclear process heat, which is extremely cheap.  If someone finds halophytes which grow well at very high temperatures, maybe they can combine desert sun with available brines to turn deserts into fuel factories using solar power towers for the process heat.  I won’t hold my breath.

          • By RBM on February 1, 2014 at 7:36 am

            Does anyone have any more significant information on the effort featured in this article:

            Exclusive report – Boeing reveals “the biggest breakthrough in biofuels ever”(

            **Can Disqus support bbcodextra(FF)**

            Significant in the sense of technology used:

            [quote]So far, Boeing and its partners have not given much publicity to their expectations. They did announce the results of their research, but in fairly technical terms. “We have been quiet about it”, says Morgan.[/quote]

            Or projected costs ?

    • By Clee on January 7, 2014 at 6:41 pm

      There was a claim in some article that they could potentially sell this oil from algae for as low as $2/gallon, but when I followed the links, it wasn’t so rosy.

      “The overall energy efficiency on a higher heating value (HHV) basis was estimated to be 69^. The variation range of the minimum fuel selling price (MFSP) was estimated to be $2.07 to $7.11/GGE by combining the effects of selected process factors. Key factors affecting the production cost were identified to be the LEA feedstock cost, final product yields, and the upgrading equipment cost. The impact of plant scale on MFSP was also investigated.”

  7. By Tom Street on January 7, 2014 at 7:24 pm

    I think the basic problem is that they lumped everything into cleantech and then mixed together private venture and government actions. I think solar and wind have been an astounding success, not simply because of government tax credits and funding, but certainly one cannot argue generally that supporting these technologies has been a bad idea.

    Instead, 60 minutes cherry picked a few government supported ventures that failed without looking at the big picture, the incredible reductions in costs and increases in efficiency we have seen over the years.

    • By Robert Rapier on January 7, 2014 at 7:44 pm

      “I think the basic problem is that they lumped everything into cleantech and then mixed together private venture and government actions.”

      Someone mentioned this today to me. They said “this was really 3 different stories that they all lumped together.” I hadn’t thought of it that way, but I can see that.

  8. By Keith on January 13, 2014 at 9:59 am

    So … the first criticism is that Vinod doesn’t know the energy space. I suspect that the teams at Range, Kior, etc, came with impressive energy industry credentials. Vinod’s the venture money, the cheerleader, the guy that goes on 60 minutes, the visionary, etc. He’s not the execution guy. And maybe he’s no good at picking winners in this space as an investor. Have there really been any winners anyway? This is kind of the way venture capital works. And there is an expectation of a high failure rate, even for successful firms. Maybe Vinod would be better off doing a traditional tech fund. Would he have any credibility in social media though? He’s never done that before either. I’m not really sure why the “he has no experience in the energy sector” gets any traction at all.
    And the second criticism is that his failures bring the biofuels sector down and the overpromise and fail to deliver model undermines everyone. So what’s the point here exactly? That he shouldn’t have failed? That he shouldn’t have tried? That he should have known he was going to fail and not tell people he thought he would succeed? Not sure exactly …
    And finally the third criticism, though not numbered in the article, is that it was “obvious” that these ventures would fail. So, since last week, when Kior announced that it would actually be shutting their facility down, and the stock price seems surely headed for $1 or less in no time at all …. is our author getting ready to repurchase all those shares he shorted at $20 in 2011 when Kior’s market cap was $2 billion plus? Since it was “obvious”. Or is it really only obvious in hindsight?

    • By Robert Rapier on January 13, 2014 at 10:12 am

      “I’m not really sure why the “he has no experience in the energy sector” gets any traction at all.”

      Because he has an undue influence on energy policies. He not only has no experience, he is influencing law on energy policy. Promises by two of his related companies — Range Fuels and Cello — were behind the 100 million gallon cellulosic biofuel mandate of 2010, which escalated from there. You have all these companies scrambling to catch up to something that was always a fantasy, wasting investor and tax dollars and losing time in which we could have spent efforts toward more fruitful energy policies. So the damage he did to the credibility of the industry hurt a lot of hard-working companies, and you will hear that from many in the advanced biofuel sector.

      “Since it was “obvious”. Or is it really only obvious in hindsight?”

      You tell me. I wrote this in 2011, making the case that KiOR was grossly overvalued but explaining why I have a philosophy against shorting. I do know someone who did short on the basis of this article: Why I Didn’t Short KiOR. The share price is down 90% since I wrote that.

      I have similar articles well ahead of the bankruptcy of Range Fuels. I was the first to call them out on their broken promises. So you can decide whether it was just a series of lucky guesses.

      • By Keith on January 13, 2014 at 11:53 am

        Fair enough. Thoughtful responses. Thanks. I see that your criticisms are of specifically of Vinod, and are probably fair. The undue influence on energy policy comment is interesting too. He probably shouldn’t be the cleantech / advanced biofuels spokesperson for 60 minutes either.

    • By Robert Rapier on January 13, 2014 at 10:14 am

      “So what’s the point here exactly? That he shouldn’t have failed? That he shouldn’t have tried? That he should have known he was going to fail and not tell people he thought he would succeed? Not sure exactly …”

      This one is pretty simple. You honestly explain to people the challenges and the risks. You don’t overpromise and fail to deliver, because your credibility ends up in tatters and the whole sector is tarred by association. He did it again on 60 Minutes by assuring Lesley that there is no downside. Had he explained that it’s a challenge, and why, but then the reasons we need to do it, his investors wouldn’t always be left wondering what happened since there was no downside to the technology.

  9. By Forrest and Jan Butterfield on January 14, 2014 at 8:28 am

    RR articles always good info, thank you. Some points to consider-
    - “Because he has an undue influence on energy policies”. He has an incredible resume. Not a politician, but an Iacocca league mix of engineer and businessmen with ample charisma to attract attention. He was backing up private capital interest with his personal wealth. This is magnitudes more honorable and responsible compared to easy life style of politicians and government employees working in non compete government sector and spending other peoples money. Sadly we excuse and shelter mistakes made by “public servants” and hammer private sector mistakes. The 60 Minutes story appears to attempt deflecting criticism to private citizen. We must never forget the nations leadership was commanding maximum national effort to this endeavor with powerful expectations. Rhetoric was constant and persuading to change the nations course. We’re educated to believe moon landings were an act of government superiority over private sector, so whose should question success? We falsely believe that federal spending can conquer all.
    - This is surely a rough way to make money….to recycle old ideas to farm naive investors and government money. A temporary job, tons of reporting, and in process destroy one’s reputation. Their must have been quality talent employed in this venture that did believe and risk much for the effort.
    - Silicon Valley is sprouting incredible success outside its expertise. Google is magnificent. I can’t keep up with all of their investments and success. Apple went into foreign market not expert in i.e. phone, shopping, music. Amazon appears to reinvent how we shop. Basic stuff here and they dare to radically change foundational societal ways? I wouldn’t bet on oil keeping its monopoly upon transportation sector with this talent floating about. Learning the ways of petrol may not be that valuable?
    -Leading edge companies often go bankrupt. The pieces picked up for fire liquidation costs and reassembled in more formidable business plan. Petrol companies often enter upon this timing to gain cheap technology and equipment. With little debt loan the process becomes cost effective.
    -Companies such as Kior go bankrupt because projected cost and resulting risky future. It may have been the trajectory of oil prices or biofuel competition. They know the competition more formidable per petrol or competing biofuel technology. Meaning clean tech not dead, just elimination of losers process.

  10. By JefferyHaas on February 28, 2014 at 8:04 pm

    The biggest takeaway I get from this is twofold:
    (A) We look to the wisdom of “the wrong experts” and (B) we are way too impatient, and we lack focus, presently AND historically (in the last thirty years) on long range goals.

    And we fail further when we fail to educate Americans on the meaning of long range planning. Few societies are as heavily invested in instant gratification as our own.
    It’s like we have a national case of societal ADHD, and we don’t like to visit the dentist.

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