CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — At MIT's EmTech conference, venture capitalist Vinod Khosla made a shocking assertion: Electric cars are irrelevant. Unless some unlikely breakthrough in battery technology comes about, they will never take enough of the market to matter. This is a financially convenient argument for Khosla to make: He has invested heavily in biofuels startups. But he raises a point few in the privileged West think about: Will the rising middle classes of China and India buy a $25,000 Prius, or a $2,500 Tata Nano?Make no mistake: Khosla intends to overturn oil-based transportation, and make a bundle while doing so. He is a skeptic of corn-based ethanol, but favors biofuels made from cheaply grown biomass like switchgrass. But he also thinks combustion engines can be improved to reach 100 miles per gallon — a "diesel Prius," he calls. Electric cars? Too burdened with heavy batteries, too costly to ever make up a large portion of our transport. Oh, but just in case he's wrong, he's got a couple of long-shot startups in his portfolio which could make them practical. (Photo by James Duncan Davidson/O'Reilly Media)
When asked about his his $200 million investment in an ethanol startup in Brazil, where corruption is rife, labor standards lax and the environmental track record abysmal, investor Vinod Kohsla replied, "We have a very professional management team." Those responsible for actually cutting the cane might tend to disagree after being subjected to inhuman working conditions which some activists describe as "slave labor."
The Brazil Renewable Energy Company, or Brenco, was the target of the Brazilian Labor Ministry's slave-labor investigation unit last month. Brenco produces ethanol from sugarcane, which is more carbon-efficient than corn-based ethanol but incredibly labor-inefficient — cane farming is some of the hardest work on Earth. How did the company, backed in part by Vinod Khosla's VC firm, address this inefficiency? By paying workers less than a dollar an hour, packing them cheek-to-jowl in substandard living conditions, preventing them from leaving the unsanitary housing on their free time, feeding them poorly, and (rather ironically for an ethanol manufacturer) banning alcohol.