Khosla Invests in Coal-to-Gas Startup Ciris

Natural gas power plant in Portland, Oregon

The inevitable future of clean(er) power is natural gas. Startup Ciris Energy, which uses biotech to convert coal into methane gas, announced Monday morning that it has brought on high-profile venture investor Khosla Ventures for a Series B round, which also included existing investors Braemar Energy Ventures, Rho Ventures, and GE Energy Financial Services.

Three-year-old Ciris was founded by oil industry vet Robert Downey and is run by CEO Jerry Clark. The company is pretty vague about its technology on its website and release this morning, but the basics are that it biochemically converts coal reserves into methane gas. While natural gas is, of course, a fossil fuel, the idea of converting coal to gas seems to be to extend the life of already-tapped coal beds, which could actually lead to fewer new coal sites opened, and could discourage some of the most damaging coal extraction methods.

Luca Technologies, which is working with soil microbes to produce methane from coal, is a competitor that is also backed by high-profile investors including Kleiner Perkins, and One Equity Partners. Luca has raised at least three rounds of financing so far.

Ciris says it will use the new funds to commercialize its technology and bring its first commercial-scale projects to market. The company claims its edge over competitors is that its technology is “more economical than conventional and unconventional natural gas development and thermochemical gasification processes.”

The findings of abundant shale natural gas in the U.S. (an estimated resource of over 2,000 trillion cubic feet) will fundamentally change the landscape of power generation in the U.S. The U.S. could see 21 percent of its electricity in 2011 coming from power plants running on natural gas, and that stake will likely grow to 40 percent by 2035, according to a study by the engineering and construction firm Black & Veatch in Kansas.

At 40 percent, natural gas will become the dominant source of electricity for the country. At the same time, renewable electricity such as wind and solar could account for 4 percent in 2011 and 11 percent in 2035. Hydroelectricity will add another 7 percent to the pie in 2011 and 6 percent by 2035.

Natural gas is not a zero emission clean power, but coal-fired power plants generate twice as many emissions as the natural gas variety. Stanford geophysics professor Mark Zoback told me last year he estimated by replacing 30 percent of coal-fired generation with gas (without CCS), it would get the U.S. almost to the point of what climate bills have called for: a 17-20 percent reduction of carbon emissions by 2020.

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Photo courtesy of Portland General Electric

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