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Sunday, May 27, 2012

Solving the EV chicken & egg problem

As part of a settlement over the 2001 California energy crisis, NRG Energy promised to spend $100m to build EV charging stations across the state. On Friday a rival charging station company sued to block the settlement.

The settlement itself was fraught with ironies, since many saw NRG as the next most “evil” big business (after Enron) in the whole crisis. The settlement was trumpeted March 23 by Governor Jerry Brown, while the brownouts and blackouts brought the forced retirement (through recall) of his protegĂ©, Gray Davis, who’d been chief of state (and a stabilizing influence) on Brown during his infamous “Governor Moonbeam” days.

According to the GTM coverage of the deal, NRG’s $100m would fund “a statewide infrastructure of at least 200 public fast-charging stations and another 10,000 plug-in units at 1,000 locations.”

There are other aspects of the plan that belong in la-la land, such as the Governor’s vision that (again according to GTM) “California’s personal transportation is to be essentially all-ZEV by 2050.” Fortunately for the state (and the governor), Gov. Moonbeam will be at least 20 years in the ground at that point, with his fanciful promise long forgotten. (For a whole range of reasons ± starting with batteries — electric vehicles will remain a niche product through the first half of this century.)

Still, EVs face a crucial chicken-and-egg problem: they will only get limited adoption without charging stations, and nobody wants to spend big bucks to install charging stations before there is an installed base of EVs. The governor’s settlement of his predecessor’s screw-up allows him to take credit for solving this (very real) “green” problem without spending any taxpayer money (which makes it a rare opportunity indeed). Or, as Michael Peevey, the head of his Public Utilities Commission, noted in the official press release
The settlement will launch a virtuous circle in which ever more Californians will feel comfortable driving EVs, and growing EV sales will in turn attract ever more investment in charging infrastructure to our state.
On Friday, San Francisco-based Ecotality sued the state over the governor’s deal with its competitors. As the Merc reported
Ecotality argues that the agreement "punishes" NRG for price gouging during the energy crisis by allowing it to invest money into its own business.

"Such 'punishment' is equivalent to a motorist settling his speeding citation by simply being required to buy a faster car, subsidized by the public," reads the lawsuit, filed Friday in the 1st District Court of Appeal in San Francisco.
I loathe crony capitalism as much as anyone, but the Ecotality suit seems to be minimizing the very real risk that NRG is running of owning a fleet of white elephants. (If the suit says California should take its lawsuit settlements in cash rather than business investment, that seems like a more promising argument to make.)

Not everyone share’s Ecotality’s pessimism — or fear — about the impact of NRG’s buildout. As the other Bay Area newspaper, the Chronicle reported:
Jay Friedland, legislative director of an electric car advocacy group, said California's market for charging equipment should grow big enough, fast enough for multiple companies to thrive.

"We think this market is going to expand out pretty rapidly," said Friedland, with Plug In America. "And NRG could be a viable player, just like Ecotality and Coulomb could be."
Ecotality is right that NRG will have a leg up if this turns out to be a good business investment, but it’s lying to claim this will create a “monopoly.” (Electric charging stations are no more monopolistic than gas stations — the national market will support at least 3 competitors.)

Yes California is a desirable market to dominate, but if Ecotality wants to build its own stations, it is free (in a free market) to do so. It just needs to find a deep-pocket source of funding — a problem it had before March 23, and a problem that is solvable by selling itself (earlier, at a low valuation) to a major energy company like Edison, Exelon or PG&E.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Video for all-star biofuels panel

The video from Tuesday’s MITCNC biofuels panel discussion has been posted to MIT’s video channel, TechTV.

For those who were not in Menlo Park, here is the program:

How Biotech is Changing the Energy Industry

John Melo – CEO, Amyris
Jonathan Wolfson - CEO, Solazyme
Bob Mayer – CEO, Cobalt Technologies
Noubar Afeyan – Chairman, LS9

Don Keller – Partner, Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe

May 8, 2012
Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP
1000 Marsh Rd
Menlo Park, CA 95025

Participant biographies:

John Melo is CEO of Amyris. Before that, he was president of US Fuels for BP Plc, where built up its ethanol blending business. He serves on the board of Kior and US Venture and previously served ass a director at Ernst & Young in San Jose.

Jonathan Wolfson is CEO and co-founder of Solazyme. He previously served as co-founder and COO of InvestorTree. He is a director of the Clean Economy Network and the Biotechnology Industry Organization. He holds a JD and MBA from NYU.

Bob Mayer is CEO and chairman Cobalt Technologies. His experience in biotechnology includes president of Genencor International and Danisco USA. He holds a ScD in Chemical Engineering from MIT, and was an assistant professor in MIT’s chemical engineering department.

Noubar Afeyan is managing partner and CEO of Flagship Ventures, and is co-founder and chairman of three biofuels companies: LS9, Joule and Midori. He holds a PhD in Chemical Engineering from MIT and serves as a Senior Lecturer at the Sloan School.

Moderator Don Keller is a partner at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP, where he is one of the firm’s 11-member board of director and has advised clients on more than 60 IPOs. He holds a JD from Boston College Law School and serves on its Board of Overseers.

Emcee Joel West is a professor at the Keck Graduate Institute of Applied Life Sciences, one of the Claremont Colleges. He holds a PhD from UC Irvine and a SB from MIT.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

State of the US biofuels industry

On Tuesday, the MIT alumni club in Silicon Valley hosted a freewheeling discussion by four executives from leading US biofuels companies, discussing the opportunities and challenges of building a new industry from scratch.

Update May 12: The video and program have been posted.

A capacity crowd of more than 100 people heard John Melo (CEO of Amyris), Jonathan Wolfson (CEO and co-founder of Solazyme), Bob Mayer (CEO of Cobalt) and Noubar Afeyan (a VC who is chairman and co-founder of LS9, Midori and Joule) discuss the industry. As the organizer of the event, I was pleased to hear that it was the first time all four had spoken together.

As CEOs of two of a handful of public biofuels companies, Melo and Wolfson have often been paired and seemed ready to complete each other’s sentences; both had just come off earnings calls — Solazyme on Monday and Amryis on Tuesday. For the MIT alumni, it was gratifying to hear that the other two men, Mayer and Afeyan, had doctorates in chemical engineering from MIT, and in fact Afeyan noted his 1987 dissertation was on converting cellulose to ethanol.

The four had a largely convergent view of the business and technical environment. The clear reality is that not having scale or huge balance sheets to fund ramping up to scale, the firms need to be nimble in arbitraging opportunities to more cost-effectively produce commodities that are needed by the market.

However, each emphasized a different approach to making money in that environment:
  • Melo said Amryis is engineering microbes (i.e. yeast) to convert carbohydrates into high-value chemicals. Because of his four years at BP USA — which included squeezing small ethanol plants that lacked their own distribution — he’s convinced that any path to success includes vertical integration.
  • Wolfson quoted Solazyme’s tagline that “we convert low cost plant sugars to high value renewable oils – for fuel, for food, for life.” The emphasis was on technical flexibility that allows creating oils for blending that are in regulatory favor — such as rapeseed oil in Europe.
  • For Cobalt, Mayer said the goal is to ferment hemicellulose to butanol — such as from sugar cane bagasse — without distributing the sugar production. The company hopes to exploit an secular trend in butanol prices rising faster than oil prices, at the same time that natural gas prices fall.
  • As managing director of Flagship Ventures, Afeyan has funded a number of biofuels startups, starting in 2003 with Mascoma that was converting cellulose to ethanol using the same organism (clostridium) that Afeyan studied in his PhD dissertation. He outlind the technologies of three of his companies: LS9 (engineering e-coli to create fatty alcohols), Midori Renewables (using a solid catalyst to degrade cellulose to produce sugar at 1/4 of current prices) and Joule (which would use cyanobacteria to directly convert CO2 to n-alkanes).
Afeyan aptly summed up the challenge of biofuels (and other tech entrepreneurs) when he said that entrepreneurs were chasing “what is not yet known not to work.”
MITCNC panelists (left to right): John Melo, Jonathan Wolfson, Bob Mayer and Noubar Afeyan
A major theme of the industry was partnering — for access to capital, distribution and (presumably) ultimate exit.

Noting a parallel to the funding of the biotech industry by oil and chemicals 30 years, Afeyan wondered when the CEO of the big oil and chemical companies will take a real interest in biofuels (rather than “just run nice ads”).

Mayer held out Dupont as an example of a company that “gets it.” Each of the CEOs had their own key partners. For Amyris it’s Total (a French oil company), for Solazyme it includes Dow, and Cobalt is partnered with Solvay/Rhodia, a specialty chemical company based on Brazil.

Not surprising for an industry that produces commodities (even high value one), the three CEOs repeatedly talked about execution. From his own career, Mayer said “industrial biotechnology is very much about execution.” Melo said the industry needed to “industrialize the process of developing the technology,” much as the biotech industry succeeded in doing. Meanwhile, Wolfson said success for a biofuels company — as with any other innovative Silicon Valley company — was about continuously innovating and creating new technologies to keep ahead of other companies.

The two public company CEOs were very wary of the unpredictable nature of government incentives. As Melo, “the US doesn’t care about long term strategic issues.” He questioned whether the Federal Renewable Fuel Standard will be around in five years, while Wolfson worried about the variability and arbitrary changes in life cycle carbon estimates — whether by private methodologies (such as LCA) or from state or Federal regulators such as the California Air Resources Board.

The challenge for the firms — and the investors — is that building a biofuels industry will take years, with many shifts of market and regulatory forces along the way. Melo said it took John D. Rockefeller 30 years to make oil a successful transportation fuel — although he hopes that biofuels can make it in 15 years. In the meantime, he said the first priority of any firm to generate revenues and cash flow to stick around. Or as Wolfson said, “In order to be involved in a commodity market, you need to be around long enough to get there.”

In the meantime, Melo predicted the next 24 months will bring consolidations and exits for many companies. I am inclined to agree: it probably won’t be as brutal as solar — where there are more companies — but clearly firms without positive cash flow (or at least solid balance sheets) will find it increasingly difficult to get the capital necessary, particularly as the IPO market appears to have closed for biofuels companies.