The ethanol pit bull bites again

Ethanol pitchman Vinod Khosla meets his No. 1 debunker

Published July 31, 2006 10:41PM (EDT)

R-Squared, Robert Rapier's one-man war against corn-based ethanol, started out as a blog that I described here as "entertainingly obsessive." But after his two-part series on venture capitalist/ethanol promoter Vinod Khosla, I'm thinking I have to come up with some new adjectives. Amateur journalism has a new standard-bearer.

Vinod Khosla is a pillar of Silicon Valley, doubly famous for his role as a founder of Sun Microsystems and as a partner in high-flying venture capital firm Kleiner-Perkins. Khosla now runs his own V.C. company, and has been specializing in "green" investments, with a heavy emphasis on ethanol. And in these alternative energy-crazed days, he's been getting a lot of attention.

Rapier is a chemical engineer who works for an oil company, is worried about peak oil, but is strongly, some might say militantly, convinced that grain-based ethanol is a bad bet for solving our energy woes. He's made it his mission to point out what he sees as a constant stream of errors, misstatements and outright falsehoods that fester in media coverage of ethanol and biofuels. Given Khosla's media profile -- everyone loves a rich venture capitalist who is convinced green technology will make scads of money -- I was looking forward to the inevitabe R-Squared takedown.

Last Monday, the debunking arrived. Rapier went through all the public statements of Khosla that he could find with a fine-toothed comb.

Rapier, as he likes to do, invited Khosla to engage in a debate. I was skeptical -- it's one thing to challenge other members of the blogosphere to a point-vs.-counterpoint scrum. That's what bloggers live for. But I wasn't expecting Khosla to pick up the gauntlet.

I was insufficiently respectful of the Power of the Blog. Word must have gotten out to Khosla that there was a pit bull with its jaws clamped onto his hype. So Khosla called Rapier and talked with him for more than an hour. You can read the full story in today's missive from R-Squared. Talk about your unmediated journalism!

What can we make of the whole back-and-forth? Rapier's main criticism of grain-based ethanol focuses on its presumed energy inefficiency. Depending on which study you believe, corn-based ethanol is either an extremely inefficient way to make fuel, or at best, barely tolerable. When applied to a nation of SUV-lovers, the corn-based ethanol math doesn't look so hot.

But Khosla, in Rapier's words, "preempted my entire argument" by dismissing as irrelevant the question of whether corn-based ethanol was energy-efficient, because, as he sees it, corn-based ethanol is just "priming the pump" for an ethanol economy based on either cellulosic ethanol or butanol.

Cellulosic technology enables the conversion of woody fibers and other forms of biomass into fuel. Corn husks, instead of corn, for example. Or switchgrass, a plant indigenous to the prairie that doesn't require much in the way of nutrients. Cellulosic ethanol sounds great in theory, but there's a hitch -- it requires technological advances that have yet to be put into mass production -- specifically the development of enzymes able to break down those tough fibers.

Khosla told Rapier that in his position as a venture capitalist, he is privy to proprietary research and business plans that have convinced him that cellulosic ethanol is just about ready to roll.

The rest of us are not so lucky. We have to take such pronouncements on faith. And, if we, like Rapier, are convinced that we'd better get our energy act in gear quickly before serious energy-crunch-induced economic disruptions occur, it makes us a little nervous to believe in declarations from on high, no matter how flashy the résumé of the person making claims.

However, we are lucky to see those declarations challenged and defended in real time. The relative merits of ethanol and biofuels as answers to the end of the era of cheap oil are being endlessly debated right now, on the Web, in print, in the halls of government and business. It's a huge challenge to make sense of it all. But Robert Rapier, with his obsessive little blog, is making a pretty good stab at it. When you get a phone call from the likes of Khosla, you know you're doing something right.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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