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The Politics of Algae: Solazyme & Schwarzenegger

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Solazyme1Algae fuel has become the latest beloved cleantech product of politicians. Last month Congressman Edward Markey (D-Mass.), co-sponsor of the Waxman-Markey climate change bill, toured algae fuel startup Aurora Biofuels’ lab and earlier this month kicked off an algae-fueled road trip (using fuel from Sapphire Energy) in front of San Francisco’s City Hall. Continuing the trend, this afternoon California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the French Secretary for Overseas Trade, Anne-Marie Idrac, will tour the labs of algae fuel startup Solazyme.

What is it about algae and politicians? Algae delivers the promise of biofuels — a low-cost, quick way to transform our current vehicles to low carbon — without the taint of using land needed to grow food crops. With all the corn ethanol and biodiesel bankruptcies lately, no politician wants to get close to those options, but given electric vehicles will take many years to hit the mainstream, some sort of biofuel solution will be embraced by the market.

The often bright-green photosynthetic organisms also spark something in the imagination — of primordial ooze and bodies of water filled with the single and multi-celled organisms — that energy crops like jatropha just don’t. That “ooh” factor alone is enough to draw in the media, as well as politicians, eager to jump on the latest cleantech craze.

Solazyme is one of the companies that is leading the pack in terms of producing algae fuel at scale. The company, founded in 2003 with $80 million in venture capital backing, makes a renewable diesel product that can be used in diesel distribution and pumps. Solazyme, which had one of the first development deals with an oil company, Chevron (s CVX), expects to be able to commercialize its technology in the 2012-2013 time frame, with a production cost target at $60 to $80 per barrel.

24 Responses to “The Politics of Algae: Solazyme & Schwarzenegger”

  1. Bob Wallace

    Jason – that “10-20” year thing. I’m pretty sure that’s your creation as I don’t see where I made any such prediction. But it got me thinking.

    Here’s my optimistic guess of how things will play out….

    Stage 1. EV and PHEV introduction. The next 2-3 years.

    Take a look at this page from Plug in America that tracks electric vehicles destined for the US and look at all the companies with plans to introduce electrics in the 2010-2012 time frame. Probably some will not meet their estimated introduction date, but a number should.

    Stage 2. Getting to know you. Roughly five years.

    A small number of EVs will be sold during the first couple of years to “true believers” and those wanting to make a statement or personally do something to aid the climate problem. Those people will be the real world test cases and their experience will be fed to a larger audience. I’m assuming that the majority of buyers will be satisfied with their EV driving experience.

    Fuel prices will already have been climbing as the world economy recovers and desire for personal vehicles grows in the rapidly developing parts of the world. Differential annual “fueling” costs are going to begin to loom large in many people’s minds.

    12,000 US average miles per year with a 0.26kWh EV and $0.105kWh power = $327.60.

    12,000 US average miles per year with a 30MPG ICE and $5 gasoline = $2,000. Add in oil changes, etc.

    Stage 3. Serious market penetration.

    After the “first seven” battery prices should have more than halved. Range should be at 150 miles or more. Charge points and battery swap stations should be common in urban areas and along interstate highways.

    Purchase price of EVs and ICEs should be roughly equal. Most of us should be able to do 98% of our driving without stopping for a battery swap or quick recharge, just plugging in at night. And the lower “fuel” cost and lower maintenance costs will tip the scale.

    Summary. “10-20” was you number, but I’m thinking it’s possible. Given that there is no intrinsic reason to stick with ICE vehicles, aside from nostalgia, economics will force the switch.

    We’ll probably continue to build EV/ICE hybrids for those folks who truly need to drive long distances in more remote areas and for larger vehicles that would require massive battery packs. But I can’t see why we would continue to build pure ICE vehicles.

  2. Bob Wallace

    Can’t put my hand on the 50%/5 year link at the moment, but here from the Transportation Research Board.


    Add in a skew favoring newer vehicles as many older ones have already gone to their deaths.

    PCs didn’t become “office ready” until well into the 1980s. By the mid-1990s you would have been hard pressed to find offices using adding machines and typewriters.

    In 2000 consumer digital cameras reached the two meg level which was not a 35mm film replacement. Now we’re at the 12 meg level and film is practically dead.

    As far as I can tell almost no company is still making film SLRs. Canon and Nikon list one model but sales may largely be from warehouse stock.

    And, no, “the original” is not the champ. There is almost no where that film outdoes digital and plenty of places where digital leaves film in the dust.

    Film’s done. Color film will largely disappear in a few years. B&W will hang on a lot longer because it’s pretty low tech to manufacture.

    Digital got “good enough” to produce what people wanted to produce. And with the other advantages that digital brings, film got pushed out in well under a decade.

    Yes, people sleep at night. Offices and businesses shut down at night. Many industries don’t run 24/7. That frees up capacity that is needed when people are awake.

    We can absorb all the EVs we can produce right now and utilities see EVs coming. The grid will be built up where needed to accommodate them.

    The scarcity of “peak rare earth minerals” (lithium) is about current production levels, not occurrence. Lithium is no more rare than lead or nickel. As demand increases more production will come on line (as it already is).

    On top of that, lithium batteries use very little lithium and it is not consumed. It is recyclable.

    Nissan is in partnership with a company called eTec which is in the process of installing 12,500 charge points in five states by the time the LEAF comes to market in the US. A few weeks ago they already had 400 installed.

    There are a bunch of other companies doing charge point installation as well.

    Better Place is testing their battery swap technology in Japan with taxi fleets.

    Then add in the drivers who have garages. Many/most already have 110vac outlets installed. And installing a 220vac outlet is not a big deal. It’s just like putting in a dryer outlet – a circuit breaker, a three prong outlet, some wire, and a few bits and pieces.

    And don’t forget, we already have the distribution system in place. We don’t have to build fuel depots and tankers or gas stations.

    The plug-in Prius conversion uses 0.26 kWh per mile. Average US electricity price $0.105 per kWh. $0.027 per mile.

    (The Tesla uses 0.23 kWh per mile.)

    A 30 MPG car with $3 gas. $0.10 per mile.

    That’s 3.7x.

    And gas will not stay at $3 for long.

  3. The average age of cars on the road is 9 years. I don’t have any reason to believe that people aren’t driving the old ones as much as the newer ones, but point me to a statistic and I’ll look at it.

    It took PC’s 20 years to replace mainframes and guess what – the worlds most critical data is STILL run on mainframes.

    Digital photography took many times longer than that to replace print – and again, the original is still the champ.

    “the grid is ready now” – that’s ridiculous, come on. You’re right we have extra capacity at night, but people are sleeping at night and don’t need the electricity as much.

    i’m sure that the battery cost will drop – but there is much more than cost to consider. there is “peak rare earth metals” which power those batteries, among others.

    charging/swap may replace gas stations, but it took 50+ years to develop the sophisticated worldwide supply chain and infrastructure to deliver liquid fuels. Replace it in half the time it was built and you’re still talking 25 years.

    Drive for 1/4 the cost? forget about it. you’re living in a fantasy land that doesn’t have multinational corporations, lobbyist, large government, or cheap oil. Now that I think about it, maybe you’re living in the future – 25-50 years from now.

    I hope that I’ve at least given you pause on your timeline here. Please consider this input and revise your expectations to 20-50 years for mass electrification. I’ve enjoyed the discussion, but have nothing else constructive to add.

  4. Bob Wallace

    Once a replacement technology achieves “good enough” status and offers other advantages change can happen very quickly. Look how quickly digital photography replaced film. Look how quickly personal computers replaced main frames, adding machines, and electric typewriters in businesses.

    IIRC roughly 50% of US driving is done with cars five or less years old. People who drive a lot are buying new cars more frequently than those who drive little. Those people are also spending more than average for fuel. Give them a choice of a car that costs 1/4th as much to fuel and costs less to maintain and that segment of the market may switch quickly.

    The grid is ready now. We’ve built our grid to service high peak demand – hot summer afternoons when air conditioning is sucking the power. The difference between maximum peak and low off-peak demand is somewhere around 3:1.
    That means that we have lots of surplus capability during off peak hours.

    Batteries have reached “good enough”, see “range” below. They will get better. And they will soon get less expensive. A study by Argonne National Lab projected battery cost to drop at least 50% when manufacturing volume hit 100,000 units.

    Range. Nissan’s LEAF is offering a 100 mile range with < 10 minute 80% recharge and swappable battery packs (<5 minutes). The majority of US drivers drive less than 40 miles on about 85% of days. Range is already there for the vast majority of drivers.

    (Tesla’s S is supposed to offer a 300 mile range, but the overall vehicle cost is going to be high for most people. The numbers might work for someone who drives a lot every day and spends something extra for comfort now.)

    Interoperability. I don’t know how that comes into play. Tire shops will still sell and install tires. Body shops will still fix crumpled fenders. Midas will still do brakes, just no mufflers.

    Service stations will gradually be replaced by charging/swap stations just like service stations replaced liveries.

    You’re right about the Earth never being the same. We’re going to be able to drive just as much for 1/4th the cost while not pumping pollutants into our air and CO2 into our atmosphere.

    And am I more optimistic about EVs than about algae? Sure. The EVs are being manufactured right now. Algae, still looking for a proven process at the moment.

  5. Bob, the only thing we disagree on is the time frame. Electric vehicles may take over, and I hope that they do. But nothing I’ve seen would suggest it will happen in the next 10-20 years. Battery technology, grid capacity, interoperability, consumer acceptance of limited range – these are all major hurdles that will take time to overcome.

    You can’t just say that things “may happen” or most likely this or that. I can’t believe that you don’t see your overly optimistic scenario for electric vehicles is exactly the same as the overly optimistic scenario for algae!

    Let’s make this transition happen by working together, not against each other. And by educating ourselves on the REAL challenges of paradigm shifts in a global economy that runs at a scale that most can’t appreciate, we can start to have intelligent discussions about what the advantages and disadvantages of the various technologies are.

    There is no silver bullet, only “silver buckshot”. We are talking about displacing 300 BILLION gallons of liquid fuel per year, just in the US alone. The BTU content of that fuel is staggering. You don’t just go out and replace it – you spend a lifetime with incremental changes and hope that the whole house of cards doesn’t come crumbling down by risking the whole bet on one technology that has to be able to do it all. There will never be another free ride like we’ve had with petroleum oil, and life on Earth will never be the same when it’s gone.

  6. Bob Wallace

    Jason – I don’t have time at the moment to do a lot of digging for links for you, but let me hit the high points.

    On this site you’ll find an article about the city of Boulder installing a smart grid and it took about a year to get the job done.

    Hit the Smart Grid button at the top of the page and you can get some more info.

    Dirty coal. We produce about half our electricity in the US from coal.

    If EVs were to be fueled by 100% coal-produced electricity it would result in less CO2 being pumped into the atmosphere. So a switch from an ICE to an EV results in more than a 50% reduction in carbon release.

    Renewables are becoming a larger portion of our grid supply. They hit 13% this spring, up from 9.4% in 2006. And coal fell from 50% to 46%.

    And we are installing wind turbines at an increasing rate.

    (It’s not that people won’t “allow” nuclear. It’s that it just costs too much. Wind, even wind with CAES storage is cheaper. And solar is rapidly getting there.)

    Yes, we will most likely need liquid fuels for air and ocean travel. That’s the roll that algae and non-farm biofuels can fill.

    Truck/train. More freight may well move to rail rather than 18 wheeler. And trains will most likely move to electricity and away from liquid fuels over time. We already have local trucking moving to electricity, hybrid and EV.

    BTW, I just discovered that ocean freighters are making much more use of sky sails than I expected. Sky sails present a very cost efficient way to significantly cut fuel usage.

  7. Bob, almost nobody shares your optimistic estimates of major changing happening “very fast”. just like biofuels ran into supply side issues, “food vs fuel” arguments, tariff disagreements, etc., there is more to ramping up a global supply chain than a few cities with smart meters and a claim that it is very cost saving for utility companies.

    there are 750 million cars on the road, and we will hit a billion within a few years (

    Also, most electricity in the US is produced using dirty coal, so the emissions move from the tailpipe to the smokestack. We will need to move to nuclear + wind + solar + biomass electric in a large scale to get past coal. Popular or note, nuclear would have a major impact, if people will allow it.

    If you feel you have something more to back up your claim of such a fast turnaround, please quote some facts and figures showing what is actually happening in the business world. I have painfully learned that it is hardly ever as fast or easy as individuals (particularly early investors or adopters) want it to be. Surely there is a research paper out there that has considered the topic and can add weight to this discussion.

    In my most optimistic projections of electrons taking over, the hurdles of air travel, sea transport of goods and truck transport of goods are still enough to warrant many years of liquid fuels.

  8. Bob Wallace

    Jason –

    “Also, any time there is a commodity value for something (aka diesel or veg oil), the replacement product will be priced in the neighborhood of the existing product.”

    Sure. If someone can manufacture biofuel for well under the current cost of gas/diesel they will sell it at market prices. They’d be foolish not to.

    But that extra earnings is what economists call “extraordinary profit” and extraordinary profits bring more investment/competition into an activity.

    If someone can create cheaper liquid fuel and sufficiently scale it up the result will be that future consumer prices will drop.

  9. Bob Wallace

    Jason – the grid is already being made smarter. At two levels.

    IT capability is being added to help manage the flow of power on divergent paths in order to minimize overloads and outages. This will be a very fast implementation. It’s very cost saving for utility companies.

    And making the grid smarter at the user level will also happen fast. Smart meters are already in place in a few cities. Smart appliances are being ‘real world’ tested right now. Smartness will cost little per unit and if one has a smart meter and time of use pricing that bit of intelligence will be recovered very quickly.

    It might take many years to get all the old inefficient refers out of people’s houses, but once they see the cost of running a dumb refer on their monthly bill, change will happen faster. And, like happened in CA some years ago, look for incentives from the government and utility companies to speed the transition.

    As for cars, in 2002 there were 590 million cars in the world. Half a billion.

    And we don’t need to change over all those cars to EV to create a huge impact. In the US 50% of driving is done with cars 5 or less years old. Were we to get half of our driving switched to electric power we would make a very large dent in carbon release and a lot of pressure off importing oil (plus pressure off declining oil supplies).

  10. first off, i love the fact that we’ve got an algae/biofuels guy, an electricity guy, and a skeptic (me) all talking about this! I respect all opinions, but after being in the biodiesel industry for 4 years, I must temper my dreams of abundant energy of any type with the reality of what that takes to make happen.

    Algaepreneur – name a company that I can buy a 5 gallon jar of algae oil for $8 plus shipping. I’m ready to buy it to test transesterification immediately. Also, any time there is a commodity value for something (aka diesel or veg oil), the replacement product will be priced in the neighborhood of the existing product. If an algae OIL producer can make oil for 50 cents a gallon, and it replaces vegetable oil that is worth $2 a gallon, they’re going to sell it for around $2 a gallon because that’s what it’s worth.

    Bob – making the grid smarter and replacing a billion ICE cars with electric will take a generation or more.

  11. Bob Wallace

    Prototype prices are not indicative of what may come to be.

    The first computer I bought (OK, our lab bought with federal “get computers to the masses” funds) had 16K of RAM, stored programs and data on punched paper tape, and cost $28,000. (About $130,000 in today’s money.)

    Price per gallon for biofuels is likely to greatly decrease when there is a dedicated facility to crank the stuff out. But the build out time is likely to be the reason that we won’t be doing much of our driving with the stuff.

    Electricity is just a deal killer for liquid fuels. Given a doubling of range and a halving of battery cost (both highly likely in the near future) EVs are likely to replace the ICE for personal transportation. The price per mile is just too sweet.

    We are likely to improve batteries, beef up the grid, and install public charging points much faster than building immense algae harvesting plants.

  12. algaepreneur

    The National Algae Association (a non-political,non-profit, algae trade association in the US)has ‘algaepreneurs’ currently building algae production plants throughout the US using all off-the-shelf existing proven technologies.

  13. Algae is neither quick nor low-cost right now. There is not a single algae plant in the world at commercial scale! While I hope that algae does indeed deliver on its many promises, to say that it is low cost and quick TODAY is absurd.

    Please temper your enthusiasm with a deeper understanding of what it takes to grow from 20,000 gallons to the billions of gallons we need to even make a dent. The entire biodiesel industry today, for example, only produces about 1 billion gallons. And doing that involves a massive amount of infrastructure, trucking, capital investment, etc.

    You even mention Chevron commercializing it in 3-4 years. From commercialization to billions is more years. So in 5-10 years, maybe it’s a relevant player – and I hope that it is!

    Your comments were picked up by Biofuels Digest, so many people are reading this and thinking that algae is here today, when it is not.

    Thank you,
    Jason Burroughs
    DieselGreen Fuels, Austin TX

  14. PappaDaddy

    If I read this right, Solazyme is to deliver 20,000 gallons of fuel for testing at Pax River, Md., and/or Hawaii. And I believe I’ve seen the contract award amount is $8.5 Million. Consulting my trusty calculator yields a price of over $420 per gallon. I could sell the dod my illudium Q36 explosive space modulator for much less than that! I’ve also got a deal on my dilithium crystals I salvaged from an old warp drive!

  15. stefan lagrange

    excellent comment from Sir Wallace. i think electric is the way to go now and we should keep renewable fuels for our future air travel where companies are in the certification process of these fuels…but that takes time of course before allowing comercial flights powered by these biofuels but we will get there…rather sooner then later hopefully cause time is running!

  16. Bob Wallace

    “…given electric vehicles will take many years to hit the mainstream,….”

    What’s the meaning of “many”?

    “Many” as in long enough for someone to figure out how to make oil from algae efficiently enough to be financially viable? And long enough for vast algae farms and refineries to be built?

    “(C)ommercialize its technology in the 2012-2013 time frame” most likely does not mean large scale production. Just a demonstration plant.

    Or “many” as in “we don’t have a clue”, but algae might work out someday?

    Electric cars are already on the market. Many are coming to market during 2010 and 2011. Charge points are already being installed.

    Given an affordable, 150+ mile range EV that can be ~80% recharged in a few minutes are people likely to purchase a vehicle that costs 4+ times as much to drive?

    Or is algae more likely a way to fuel our existing ICE fleets while they wear out and our future air travel?