The Politics of Algae: Solazyme & Schwarzenegger

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.