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Vinod Khosla goes big on nuclear fusion

Vinod Khosla, co-founder of Khosla Ventures, at the ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit, March 2023. Photo: Sarah Silbiger/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Nuclear fusion and geothermal could replace all natural gas and coal plants by the 2040s, says Vinod Khosla.

Why it matters: The comments from the old-guard contrarian Silicon Valley investor run counter to the way most researchers and industry execs are expecting the energy transition to go.

What they're saying: Khosla, in an interview at the SOSV Climate Summit, was dogmatic that the next generation of climate technologies is still coming.

  • "Most people are optimistic about 2030. I think we'll start to deploy these technologies by 2030 and by the mid-'40s, maybe before 2050, I think we will complete the transition."
  • There's an ongoing debate about whether industries and governments should aggressively deploy current technologies or focus on building better ones. Khosla falls into the latter category.
  • Despite the fact that no one has unlocked nuclear fusion yet, Khosla said that the permitting and NIMBY issues with current nuclear fission are so bad that it's easier and faster to develop nuclear fusion tech than to permit a single fission plant.
  • He said that most geothermal startups today "are toys," since they're not tapping into hotter temperatures at deeper depths.

Zoom in: Khosla has invested in nuclear fusion startups Commonwealth Fusion Systems and Realta Fusion.

Big picture: Silicon Valley has started to take an interest in nuclear fusion, despite the technology's long timelines and daunting science.

  • Helion Energy, a startup backed by OpenAI's Sam Altman, said this week that it has a deal and an investment from steel giant Nucor.

Of note: Khosla also offered a counter-narrative to the long-held view that the Cleantech 1.0 era lost considerably more money between 2006 and 2011 than other sectors like software and health.

  • "People who sustained through this long period and kept with it have very good returns, multiples of 5, 10, 20 times."
  • He pointed to Khosla portfolio companies that have gone public, including battery maker QuantumScape and biofuels company LanzaTech. And there's alt-protein maker Impossible Foods, still private but a unicorn.

Zoom in: In addition to fusion, Khosla has recently shown interest in green steel, direct air capture and even transit.

  • Khosla said that the market for biofuels has shifted over the years to sustainable aviation fuel, but that he hasn't soured on the biofuel market. Khosla was one of the most prolific investors in biofuels startups, many of which went out of business.

Editor's note: This story was updated to clarify the first sentence.

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