The Algae Fuel Backlash: Here Come the Skeptics

algaefuel2Judging from the flurry of venture-capital deals, big oil company investments, and attention from politicians on startups creating biofuels from algae, it might seem like the world has fallen in love with the technology to power vehicles with pond scum. But after all of the algae euphoria this summer, we’ve started seeing a few signs of an algae fuel backlash, with several prominent investors publicly questioning the economics of algae fuel.

At the AlwaysOn’s GoingGreen conference, outspoken cleantech investor Vinod Khosla said his firm has aggressively been looking at algae technologies, but hasn’t found one viable plan after looking at “maybe two dozen.” “The economics of algae don’t seem to work,” he said.
(You can watch the video here by clicking on “Renewables at Scale.”)
Read More about The Algae Fuel Backlash: Here Come the Skeptics

Waiting for Next-Gen Ethanol in 2009? Forget It

In the summer of 2008, 2009 looked like it could be a breakout year for the next generation of ethanol. There were dozens of companies racing to be the first to churn out cellulosic ethanol made from non-food crops and plant waste from pilot and even commercial-scale plants. Well, that was before the credit crunch hit and investors starting to close their wallets. Now there are just a couple cellulosic ethanol makers that have started producing the next-gen fuel on a pilot scale, and plans for commercial-scale have been largely been pushed from 2009 into 2010. And who knows if those deadlines will be met if we’re still deep in the downturn?
Range Fuel’s CEO David Aldous confirmed with us last week that the startup, which uses a thermochemical process to turn biomass into synthetic gas and then fuel, doesn’t expect its commercial-scale plant in Soperton, Ga., to start producing fuel well into 2010. The plant is supposed to be able to scale up to 100 million gallons per year and was originally planned to produce fuel in 2009. Range Fuels was an early mover in the space, and is still a little better off than some, having snagged an $80 million loan guarantee from the Department of Agriculture under the 2008 Farm Bill to complete construction of the commercial plant. Aldous says Range Fuels is also looking to get in on the next round of loan guarantees that the DOE is starting to hand out now.
Read More about Waiting for Next-Gen Ethanol in 2009? Forget It

Biodiesel Takes Another Body Blow

Talk about getting kicked while you’re down. Already, the biodiesel industry has seen its margins squeezed since petroleum prices plummeted last fall. Now, the news coming out of Brussels earlier this week is that the European Union plans to slap punitive tariffs on imports of U.S. biodiesel for six months. The $400-$500 per ton duty will make U.S. biodiesel less attractive in the European market at a time when U.S. manufacturers need all the buyers they can get.

diesel-prices_eia1So, how bad off is the industry? Banking-sector, or government-bailout bad? Maybe. As the economy slumped last year, demand for diesel dropped with it. That sent the price of petroleum diesel and biodiesel down so low that manufacturers now can barely cover production costs, let alone capital costs. And profits? Forget it: “The pressure is really to a point that biodiesel processing using canola oil or soy oil is unprofitable these days,” said David Woodburn, an analyst with investment bank ThinkEquity Partners. “The revenue you get per gallon of soy biodiesel in most cases isn’t enough to cover the cost of feedstock plus processing.”
Read More about Biodiesel Takes Another Body Blow

The Green Rich List: Wealthy Doesn’t Mean Savvy

Just because you’re among the world’s wealthiest doesn’t mean you’re good at investing in clean technologies. The London Times has released a “Green Rich List,” which looks at the world’s top wealthiest people that have some sort of investment in clean technology — from alternative vehicles to solar power. The list ranks the investors by net worth, not by how much they’ve invested in cleantech. Perusing the list, you can see that despite some smart green moves, these investors, particularly in the top 10, have made more than a few missteps.

Take No. 2 Bill Gates, worth £26 billion ($36.42 billion). He is lauded for his investment in corn ethanol maker Pacific Ethanol through the private investment and holding company he controls, Cascade Investments. Well, Pacific Ethanol, like most of the corn ethanol industry, has been crippled by the downturn and high corn prices last year, and just last week announced yet another round of plant suspensions. In late 2007, Gates’ Cascade Investments announced a plan to sell its 20 percent stake in Pacific Ethanol after the stake lost a good deal of its value. In mid-2008 Cascade started to chip away at that stake, selling it off trade by trade. We’re not sure if it’s all gone by now, but it wasn’t pretty.
Read More about The Green Rich List: Wealthy Doesn’t Mean Savvy

Former Imperium CEO Martin Tobias Goes Kashless

We’ve been wondering what the former CEO of biodiesel company Imperium Renewables, Martin Tobias, was going to do next. When we interviewed the serial entrepreneur and angel investor back in May at the Future In Review Conference he said he was mulling over his options — including the intersection of Internet and green — and said he still had another company in him. Well, we caught up with Tobias this morning, and he confirmed that he has founded and is running re-commerce company (noted here and here, and in this job posting).
Tobias won’t say much about the company, and the site is in private alpha right now. But Kashless is a return to the software/Internet side of green, and Tobias previously founded and ran streaming-media company Loud Eye. And compared to running Imperium, which raised hundreds of millions and was at one time planning an IPO, Kashless sounds like a much less capital-intensive way back into the entrepreneurial world.

Read More about Former Imperium CEO Martin Tobias Goes Kashless

Imperium Renewables ‘Royally’ Screwed?

One year after the vaunted opening of its 100-million-gallon-a-year, $78 million biodiesel plant at the Port of Grays Harbor, Imperium Renewables has lost its contract to supply Royal Caribbean with 18 million gallons of biodiesel annually, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported. The news –which also revealed that the cruise ship company sold off its $10 million stake in the plant — broke just days after the Seattle-based biodiesel firm said it had closed its two-person Hawaii office.

The Royal Caribbean contract was named as a critical business opportunity in Imperium’s $345 million IPO filing, which was withdrawn in January. The company’s SEC filing noted the substantial negative impact the loss of the contract would have on its business.

Read More about Imperium Renewables ‘Royally’ Screwed?

Legend of Neil, Synchronized Office Swimming on NTV Station Today

Most people, especially today, dream just a little bit of being an Olympic superstar. But what if you’re a Russian office worker stuck at a desk? Well, with the help of a video camera and four friends, you could just create your own event — synchronized office swimming.

And speaking of a different kind of game, today we look at The Legend of Neil, a thoroughly adolescent and hilarious spoof on the original NES Legend of Zelda. What elevates this web series above the pack? Aside, of course, from a hilarious supporting performance by Dr. Horrible/The Guild‘s Felicia Day? Find out at NewTeeVee Station!

Martin Tobias: The Fate of Next-Gen Biofuel Startups

The 10 next-generation biofuel startups that got funded last quarter were 10 of the reasons that cleantech venture investments hit a recent record. But how well are all these biofuel startups going to do in the market? We’re not sure, but Martin Tobias, angel investor and former CEO of Imperium Renewables, decided to give his take on how the younger crop will fare on his blog. While he agrees that some have promising technologies in the labs, he says getting the economics to work on the necessary large scale is an entirely different story.

Tobias’ favorite company is Sapphire Energy, a one-year-old startup that is looking to squeeze high-octane gasoline from algae that has raised $50 million from ARCH Venture Partners, the Wellcome Trust and Venrock. He likes the idea of skipping the big oil-controlled channel and going directly to the independent oil refiners, but wants to see more details on how the economics will work.
Read More about Martin Tobias: The Fate of Next-Gen Biofuel Startups

World Time Engine Knows Timezones

ScreenshotWe’ve discussed the hassles of dealing with multiple timezones and distributed web-working teams before. New site World Time Engine (in open beta) tries to bring order to this chaos. At root, it’s a huge database: type in a location (like “Scotland” or “Indianapolis” and it will show you the current time – with choices if your chosen location is ambiguous. But there’s a lot more here as well.

The best feature for web workers is probably the meeting planner – type in a whole set of locations and a proposed time, and it shows you what that time, and other times, works out to across all those locations. They also have a phone interface and a developer API available. You can also purchase their timezone maps for use in your own web site.

Think $4 Gas Is Bad? Try $6 Biodiesel

Think $4 per gallon gas is bad? Try $6 per gallon biodiesel. While the prices for gas and diesel have been climbing higher and higher, biodiesel prices have been rising, too, crunching biodiesel makers and making large diesel purchasers rethink making the switch to biodiesel. Seattle-based biodiesel maker Imperium Renewables has had a 2 million gallon deal with King County Metro Transit put on “an indefinite pause” because the price has jumped so much since the agreement was signed less than a year ago, the Seattle Times reports.

Biodiesel prices are being pushed up by a confluence of events. With oil nearing $140 a barrel, all of the petroleum-powered biodiesel processing steps have become that much more expensive. Increased demand, including municipal contracts like that of King County, have pushed up prices. Also, farmers have been increasingly turning to the more profitable business of producing corn for ethanol, as opposed to growing soybeans for biodiesel, which has been shrinking the biodiesel supply. The Seattle Times estimates it takes $4.66 worth of soy to make one gallon of biodiesel, which doesn’t include any processing costs. Meanwhile, petro-diesel prices are around $4.80 a gallon.

Such market fluctuations will wreak havoc on young startups that don’t have the capital to weather the storm. Imperium’s move to withdraw its IPO earlier this year was likely a good one. (Even if Imperium’s former CEO, Martin Tobias, doesn’t think so). But unless diesel prices start climbing even faster or soy prices drop, the gulf between petro- and biodiesel could continue to grow. We’ll keep an eye out for more large contracted fleet customers backing out of their biodiesel deals.