No Time for Small Bets: The Decades-Long View of Sapphire Energy’s Jason Pyle

1/19/11Follow @bvbigelow

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the pilot plant in New Mexico and producing 1 million barrels will require an additional $105 million and two to three years. And from there, if successful, “you have to get to scale-up that is somewhat unprecedented,” Pyle says.

“Energy is not something that you can snap your fingers and get in the world,” Pyle says. “It’s not software. It’s not even biotech.”

Jason Pyle

At a time when most companies are tied intractably to meeting short-term, i.e. quarterly, expectations, Pyle has a decades-long view of the emerging technology. “A number of solutions have been brought to bear to develop liquid biofuels,” Pyle says, “but one of the trends in thinking we are starting to see is ‘What will work at massive scale?’ So we focus on solutions that offer much more broad applications.”

Compounding the problem of scaling up production is financing, Pyle says. “The issue is not whether these investments are good. The question is whether the current investment structure [with its expectations of relatively quick returns] is tolerant of the inevitable risks and mistakes” that come with producing biofuels on a massive scale. In terms of generating demand for algae-based biofuels, Pyle sees an inherent challenge in creating a scheme in which decades-long technology development can be remunerated. In other words, he says, “How do you generate sustainable, long-term incentives?” Compounding the problem, Pyle adds, is the volatility of the existing markets for crude oil, “which sends the wrong messages to financial markets.”

While such pronouncements might sound exceedingly cautious, or even pessimistic, one recurring refrain of the panel discussion is the likelihood, in the words of Boeing’s Lakeman, “of some pretty adverse outcomes down the line” if we fail to act to develop alternative fuels.

“One of the things that people have not grasped yet is that there are now 7 billion people on the planet,” Mayfield says. To feed them, we take fossil-based crude and convert it to fuel, and we use fertilizer created in the process to grow needed food crops. But prices are soaring. Mayfield says the price of crude oil recently reached $93 a barrel—and with corn at $6.31 a bushel and rising—”We simply have no choice. We simply have to solve the energy problem. We’re going to burn through our remaining fossil fuels in the next 100 years, and certainly the high-quality fossil fuels in the next 35 years. I don’t see how we’re going to feed the 7 billion people on the planet now, much less the 8 billion who will be here in five years. Now is not the time to be timid. It is no time to make small bets.”

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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