Are we ready for alternative fuels yet?

Hmmm, it's more of this...

Or this.

It’s Day 55 of the BP oil spill, an environmental disaster of epic proportions, with up to 2 million gallons of oil a day gushing out into the lovely, fragile Gulf of Mexico. Anybody up for pursuing an alternative fuel that can be produced cheaply, abundantly, and won’t explode in our faces?

Pongamia oil -- the good stuff!

Introducing TerViva, a new biodiesel fuel company offering technology that is tree-based, ultra-low cost, and environmentally sound. Using an elite strain of the non-edible Pongamia tree, which flourishes in marginal soil, dry conditions and poorly fertilized soil, TerViva harvests the Pongamia seeds, extracts the oil, and uses existing refining capacity to produce a biofuel that is then blended with petroleum (like ethanol).

The Pongamia seed pods holding biodiesel gold.

What makes the TerViva concept so brilliant (it just won the West Coast Village Capital Social Venture award of $100,000) is all the biodiesel traps it avoids. First-generation biofuels were made from edible crops like corn and soy that were produced on valuable land, competed with the food supply, and used tons of water. TerViva is a low-tech, energy farming model that is all about trees that can be grown on dry ranchland, sequester millions of tons of carbon dioxide, and improve biodiversity through reforestation. Most important, TerViva can produce 1,000 gallons of input oil per acre at less than $1/gallon, far below the cost of other biodiesel oils or petroleum.

Naveen Sikka in the field of dreams.

TerViva is also blessed with a team that has the business, political and entrepreneurial chops to make the venture fly. Management includes Joe Andrew, the  former National Chairman of the Democratic National Committee; Naveen Sikka, an MBA from UC Berkeley, and Maggie Kavalaris, a venture lawyer with 25 years’ experience in Silicon Valley.

The hot, dry, unfertile land where Pongamia trees thrive.

Heavy hitters all, they’re swinging for the fence on this one– the first trees from Australia will be planted on 30-50 acres in South Texas this summer, with a 10-year goal to establish 150 million trees on one million acres of marginal land, producing one billion gallons of oil annually.

AP Photo by Charlie Riedel

Now, nobody is claiming that TerViva will be a miracle overnight cure for our masochistic reliance on petroleum. But it is a big idea that is smart, sustainable, scalable and financially viable. And for every gallon of petroleum we stop requiring from deep drilling offshore, I figure another pelican, dolphin and sea turtle get to live. Works for me.

One of these is mine!

Though you can’t contribute to TerViva quite yet, Naveen is going to use my $100 to plant a super big, healthy Pongamia tree, and put my name on it. That tree will produce 450 gallons of oil in its lifetime – enough to run a car for two years. Biodiesel immortality.. I love it!!