Energy: April 2010 Archives

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As I Twittered early this morning, the BP Gulf oil spill now has the potential to become larger than the catastrophic Exxon Valdez spill of 1989, which spilled 10.8 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound, devastating the Alaskan fishing industry and state's economy.

The Exxon Valdez spill resulted in an estimated $5 to 7 billion dollars (in 1989 dollars) of damage over a two-year period (shore clean-up below).

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The fire-caused break and leak of BP's oil well is blasting a now-estimated 210,000 gallons a day (5,000 barrels) into the Gulf deep under 5,000 feet of water. An attempted controlled burn of the oil is occurring before the oil is forecast to hit the wetlands and beaches of the Gulf Coast tonight or tomorrow.

A BP spokesperson said on the McNeil News Hour this afternoon that the UK corporation will be sending two ships to drill nearby relief wells. The wells will take up to 90 days to get in place, meaning 18,900,000 gallons of oil may spill in the meantime--almost twice the amount of oil spilled in the Exxon Valdez incident.

Look for the event to have major consequences on US energy and disaster-response policy, the Gulf fishing and tourism economies in up to five states (Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida), and wildlife. The economies of New Orleans; Biloxi, MS; Mobile, AL; and Pensacola, FL, and Panama City, FL, are the communities most vulnerable to the spill.

Oil prices and the debate about a potential coming 2014-2015 energy crunch may also flare up with this tragic event. Already, 11 lives of workers were lost on the offshore rig when it blew up.

Drilling for oil under such enormous and biologically sensitive areas like the Gulf Coast is a reality that is occurring to meet the demands of the current global economy.

Without new sources of renewable energy, better planning and comprehensive clean energy policy and clean tech job creation, the Gulf and many of our nation's (and our planet's) waters, our coastal communities, and marine and shore animal-bird populations will be at severe risk, as easy-to-drill oil becomes less and less available.

In the meantime, there will be an acute need to drill even deeper, in more sensitive places and to drill almost everywhere, until we diminish our global addiction to oil.

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, an internationally active urban sustainability strategy consultancy. He is author of How Green is Your City? The SustainLane US City Rankings and a Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute.      

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Legendary technologist and venture capitalist Vinod Khosla spoke last night about how his funded companies will soon enable cars and coal to be a big part of the climate change solution, instead of the major part of the climate problem.

All that pesky advice for people "trying to be green," even expert energy and technology forecasts, will be made unnecessary or erroneous once Khosla and his Khosla Ventures posse reinvent the world's energy and transportation technologies.

He took potshots at everything from small business "eco-bikinis" to corporate greenwashing, such as Shell''s advertising of "sustainable tar sands." "Environmentalists are spending too much time on things that don't matter," he told the San Francisco Commonwealth Club audience.

Such bravado would be particularly annoying were it coming from someone without as much commitment--in the form of $1.3 billion and many years of effort--as Khosla.

Khosla highlighted four portfolio companies in his presentation, which focused on, "inventing the future, not predicting it....Who would have imagined Twitter two years ago?"

"We need to get rid of fossil oil, which is 70 percent of the climate problem," he said. Khosla's goal as a venture backer is to fund companies that are "90 percent likely to fail," as they have the best chance of leapfrogging current technologies, leading to the demise of monopolies such as Big Oil. He called these disruptive types of companies or ideas, "Black Swans."

He said smaller companies in the $7 to 70 million range that are taking the big potential high-return risks should be the highest priorities for funding, whether from his own funds ($1 billion large VC fund; $300 million "science experiment" fund) or another source. Khosla credited the US Department of Energy's year-old ARPA-E program with "doing a great job" in terms of the funding it has provided for smaller, innovative clean tech companies.

Khosla Venture's current flock of Black Swans include:

  • Calera: Trying to turn the climate change pollutant C02 from coal emissions--along with other hazardous emissions including mercury--into an energy and cement feedstock. "It will be able to reduce the carbon footprint twice as much as solar," Khosla predicted.
  • Kior: The start-up is aiming at turning wood waste such as wood chips into oil.
  • Ecomotors: Attempting to produce non-hybrid engines that are 50-100 percent more efficient, aimed at cutting world oil consumption in half.
  • Soraa: Engineering circuitry that may use ten times less electricity for lighting.

Khosla said his investments all share the goal of being available at "relevant cost, relevant scale and relevant adoption." With some current green technologies, he said, "the average person in India could not even turn on the light."

Regarding the growth of India, Khosla's homeland, he said Indian car ownership is forecast to increase 5000 percent in 30-40 years (what, trusting a forecast?) and that to meet this demand, "biofuels are probably the right solution."

He proposed using the 1 billion acres of abandoned agricultural land worldwide to produce biofuel crops such as miscanthus that will replace or improve that degraded soil, and also suggested using cropland for biofuels in the winter that is not being utilized year-round for food crops.

Overall, Khosla and his funded companies are pushing the envelope with some intriguing new ways of addressing our climate and resource crises.

These companies are based in The Bay Area's Silicon Valley and in Southern California, as well as in more traditional centers of energy (Kior is based in Houston), and transportation (Ecomotors is in the Detroit area). The design innovation and the hundreds or thousands of green jobs they are producing will be critical in transforming our industrial economy.

Khosla suffers from the myopic view, however, that technology alone can triumph without the need for new behaviors, planning, policies and systemic approaches (though he did credit California's Global Climate Change law AB 32 with encouraging innovation on the order of "creating 10 more Googles because of it").

Such thinking about the absolute superiority of "progress"--cars, electricity, chemicals, engineered food--has in the past presented us with so many of the dilemmas that we now face.

Global climate change, along with massive resource and species depletion, demands that we not risk betting everything on the hope of techno-fixes, no matter how enticing these partial solutions may be to someone breathing the rarefied air of California's Silicon Valley.

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, an internationally active urban sustainability strategy consultancy. He is author of How Green is Your City? The SustainLane US City Rankings and a Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute



 

 
 

About the Author

    Warren Karlenzig
Warren
Warren Karlenzig, Common Current founder and president, has worked with the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (lead co-author United Nations Shanghai Manual: A Guide to Sustainable Urban Development in the 21st Century, 2011); United Nations Center for Regional Development (training of mayors from 13 Asian nations on city sustainable economic development and technology); provinces of Guizhou and Guangdong, China (urban sustainability master planning and green city standards); the United States White House and Environmental Protection Agency (Eco-Industrial Park planning and Industrial Ecology primer); the nation of South Korea ("New Cities Green Metrics"); The European Union ("Green and Connected Cities Initiative"); the State of California ("Comprehensive Recycling Communities" and "Sustainable Community Plans"); major cities; and the world's largest corporations developing policy, strategy, financing and critical operational capacities for 20 years.

Present and recent clients include the Guangzhou Planning Agency; the Global Forum on Human Settlements; the Shanghai 2010 World Expo Bureau; the US Department of State; the Asian Institute for Energy, Environment and Sustainability; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; the non-governmental organization Ecocity Builders; a major mixed-use real estate development corporation; an educational sustainability non-profit; and global corporations. Read more here.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Energy category from April 2010.

Energy: March 2010 is the previous archive.

Energy: May 2010 is the next archive.

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