Quick Response on 60 Minutes Story

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.