Casey Handmer, Founder of Terraform Industries, is simultaneously tackling some of today’s toughest issues – providing the world with clean, reliable energy, while also trying to get atmospheric carbon levels under control. The Caltech alum joins Energy.Media to explain why he left his dream job working on spacecraft for NASA to instead help pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. His startup aims to make carbon capture scalable and profitable by cheaply turning CO2 into natural gas for energy reuse.
In this episode, Casey dives into the details behind Terraform’s technology, where he sees the business going, and his overall vision for the future of energy:
- Turning carbon dioxide into natural gas takes a lot of electricity. Terraform is tapping into the cheapening cost of solar to power their machinery.
- Based on Casey’s calculations, it is already cheaper in many places to use solar to produce hydrocarbons than it is to turn that same quantity of hydrocarbons into electricity. The environmental benefits aside, Casey believes solar-produced hydrocarbons from the air will inevitably replace traditional extractive industries from a strictly economic standpoint.
- The company is aiming to create a prototype by the end of the year to prove technical feasibility and ease of manufacture. With simplicity and affordability in mind, Terraform hopes to trigger rapid and widespread adoption of their tech to urgently stabilize atmospheric carbon concentrations.
- Terraform is focusing on conversion to natural gas, rather than traditional green hydrogen methods, due to the technical difficulties of storing and transporting hydrogen. Global infrastructure is already equipped to handle natural gas, making Terraform’s technology backwards compatible with existing energy systems.
Peter Perri 0:00
Hey everybody, welcome to energy superheroes. I’m excited to have Casey Padma. He’s joining us from Southern California. And he’s the founder of TerraForm. TerraForm, has developed a novel way to produce natural gas that’s cleaner and better for the planet. Welcome to the podcast. Casey, we’re glad to have you.
Casey Handmer 0:17
Thank you. It’s great to be here.
Peter Perri 0:20
So Casey, tell me about TerraForm. I’m really excited to hear this most people we talk to are producing hydrogen or some other form of clean fuel. It’s exciting for me having a background in natural gas to hear that you’re producing natural gas, I’d love to hear how you’re doing it and why it’s different and novel.
Casey Handmer 0:38
Thank you. I mean, TerraForm industry is to start up, and we’re trying to convert captured co2 from the air into natural gas. And so this has a couple of different advantages, especially when we make money doing it. The first is that we have a cashflow, a positive way of rolling out enormous carbon capture capacity all over the world, without having to rely on centralized states, handing out vast sums of money to do this, because we’re making money in the process. The second is that the field is backward compatible with the existing distribution structure and usage modalities. And of course, you know, we expect to see continuing displacement of some uses of natural gas and fuel, with electricity, heat pumps, that kind of stuff. That’s all great electric cars, it’s great. But there’s still, you know, an enormous kind of existing usage base of all kinds of hydrocarbons that are, frankly difficult to displace. And if you know, the key thing is, is turning down the flow of, of fossil carbon that is carbon that came from underground, into the atmosphere into the ocean, we’ve got to kind of cut that off at the source. And the way we do that is we can build machinery that is cheaper to operate and high productivity than a natural gas fracked well, or a pipeline from some distant country that you may or may not be friends with. And we could do it right in your backyard. And anytime you have enough power, you basically filter the co2 right out of the air, and at the same time, also taking out various pollutants and other nasties you don’t want in there and and and then just apply copious quantities of electricity to turn that co2 back into methane.
Peter Perri 2:04
It sounds really exciting. If you can turn co2 back into natural gas. Definitely an application for that. Could you tell me about your team? Who have you brought on board to help you execute this?
Casey Handmer 2:18
Yeah, I’m super excited that, you know, a lot of the kind of really smart people that I’ve met over the years, when I was at Caltech, or more recently, I was working at a startup called Hyperloop. One that was doing magnetic levitation. And I also worked at JPL for a few years. And so I’m just kind of very lucky to have this kind of very rich, collegiate kind of background, I guess, of super smart people. And I think as of now, I think four or five or six people have kind of signed on full time, you know, I guess, depends on like when they sign versus when they actually start. But I’ve got a good friend of mine, moving down from Seattle next week, where he was working on Starlink. And he’s going to be heading up in mechanical engineering part of the company. And then Dr. Stephanie Cornell was a colleague of mine at Caltech, who’s come on board, as technical co-lead, and then David Smith, who’s probably greatest claim to fame as is writing software for the Mars Rovers. Although he also wrote software for the space shuttle and for the SR 71 is kind of running the business side of the operation right now. So it’s, it’s a super fun team to work with.
Peter Perri 3:19
Now, that sounds like a really exciting team. You know, in the end, we are trying to solve a big problem. So the execution is really going to be where the rubber meets the road. It sounds like you’ve got a great team. Let’s get into your personal background. You said you were at Caltech. Can you talk about your background? What brought you to Caltech? What do you love to do?
Casey Handmer 3:39
Yeah, I’m a physicist by training. And like a lot of my colleagues, basically, you know, found ourselves in high school, just being incredibly intellectually curious and just wanting to claim the biggest intellectual mountain available. And at the time, I did a lot of pure math and a lot of Applied Math. And I did a lot of theoretical physics. I even did some experimental physics. And then over time, basically worked a lot in optics. I worked a fair bit in chemistry actually back in the day. And then then I came to Caltech and I studied gravitational waves. at Caltech, which kind of coincided with the effort to detect gravitational waves there that that was first done in 2015, and subsequently led to a Nobel Prize, not my Nobel Prize, sadly, but But you know, a very worthy team that basically showed credit for that. And, and then after that, left and went into industry, and Los Angeles is just an incredible city. It’s 1000s and 1000s of companies it’s, it’s the World Center have two enormous industries, both the entertainment industry and also aerospace industry.
Peter Perri 4:36
Now, that’s fantastic. Aerospace is big. We’ve got a lot of aerospace down here in Jupiter as well, with Pratt Whitney being here. And a big focus on natural gas. So it is very exciting that you guys are focused there. What would you say is a word that really describes you? Well, that describes why you’re going to be able to get this done
Casey Handmer 4:59
well, Well, our approach with this is to not try and build an incredibly shiny widget that you know only us, a team of handpicked PhDs know how to build. I mean, there’s technical work to be done, right. But we’re hoping by the end of this year, we will have a technical prototype that kind of, we can show to people, and it exists and it works. And it’s provable, and it uses generic materials, and then really will be encouraging our competitors and collaborators to weld over to be copying what we’re doing as quickly as possible. Because at the end of the day, you know, the overarching goal is to turn off that tap of carbon from crossing the atmosphere as quickly as possible. And that’s going to require, you know, 10s of 1000s of clever people all over the world, basically working on in parallel. And so because the industry is poised to grow by such a huge factor, doesn’t make any sense for us to worry too much about, about trying to exclude competitors. That’s my belief anyway, especially given that many of those competitors will be overseas, and they’ll have zero interest in upholding US IP law. So we might as well help them and help us all solve this problem as quickly as possible. And if in five or 10 years time, I’ve got Chinese and European suppliers who want to sell me some components from a system more cheaply than I can be bothered making their own factory. Great. The more the merrier. We just need to roll these machines out as quickly as we possibly can all over the world.
Peter Perri 6:09
That sounds exciting. You’re reminding me of Elon a little bit, so you said you worked at the Hyperloop. One business?
Casey Handmer 6:16
That’s right. Yeah. But Elon was not directly involved in that. So right, just to be Yeah.
Peter Perri 6:21
But I believe that he made the Hyperloop IP available to all in a similar fashion, are you guys gonna follow that type of a model for your IP,
Casey Handmer 6:33
I think I think it’d be more compelling if we actually have like functioning prototype hardware. And also, like, what we’re trying to do is, you know, Hyperloop, is almost the polar opposite, in that it’s a set of like, 10, incredibly sophisticated systems, that all have to be totally integrated and work flawlessly, it’s a little bit like a supersonic jet or something like that, you know, it’s really, there’s no room for amateur hour, you can only make them in, in one tightly integrated factory with really complex systems. Whereas the systems we’re building, we think we’ll be able to build most, if not all of the other system in basically any any industrial space. And actually, just this week, we finalized the lease on our on our first facility in Burbank, which is part of Los Angeles, and we have 30,000 square feet there. And that should be big enough to get us through a couple years of production, we should be able to turn out a couple 100 units a year without too much difficulty. And then you know, from there obviously, grow, because we need to build about 300 million of these over the next 20 years.
Peter Perri 7:24
That’s unbelievable. What was your eureka moment where you were kind of trying to solve this problem? And then all of a sudden, you said that’s, that’s what I want to go after? Was it? Was it one moment? Or was it a series of discoveries that you made?
Casey Handmer 7:37
It’s kind of a series of things I didn’t I didn’t know very much about gas, I read a couple of books on it probably was two years ago now. And I was like, I guess no, gas is cheap, but it’s not. It’s not infinitely cheap, you know, it’s actually quite labor intensive, and requires quite large technical know how in order to get gas out of the ground at all. And, and in many ways, United States kind of leads the world in that. And I thought, you know, there’s got to be easier things and drilling holes, miles of miles deep underground. And, and so I began to think about this problem, it was quite foreign to me actually, to think about how do I take a system and optimize it for cost rather than that, rather than for performance, which is typically what most engineers are trained to do. And typically, that means, you know, if you’ve got two competing systems, and you’re trying to decide which is best, and one of them is, like, really simple and basic, and, you know, basically badly designed. And the other is like really complicated and fancy, and very high performance, high electrical or energy efficiency, you go with the stupid one, you go with the really basic one. And you see this all the time actually, in, you know, just everyday engineering and stuff. Like, if you look at how are these are built, for example, like, it’s very cost conscious design structure. And that makes a lot of sense for what they’re trying to do. And that’s kind of what we’re trying to do now, which is take a whole bunch of people who spent their careers optimizing stuff that has to fly to space. And then and then train them to apply that, that intelligence that brain to thinking about this problem more generally. And just to go back to your question about, about the kind of the aha moment or the eureka moment, it’s kind of this problem, which is you want to capture a bunch of co2, you want to make money while doing it, the co2 is not not worth that much, especially not in the quantities that we’re going to need to capture, which is like billions of tonnes a year. So what do you do with it? Well, what else do you need billions of tonnes a year off, there’s not that many things. And one of them is, is hydrocarbons. So if you can turn it back into hydrocarbons, then that’s great. But how do you do that? Well, there’s chemistry involved, it turns out, you need a lot of electricity to do it, like way more electricity, really, than you could get by burning the same quantity of hydrocarbons and turning it into electricity. So we’re kind of doing the inverse process, that’s only really possible if you can get really, really cheap electricity. And we’re very fortunate, you know, as a species, that solar power has gotten cheap enough in time to make this happen. And it’s and that trajectory is kind of continuing in a way that I think over the next 1015 20 years will kind of kind of solve this problem. So you’ve kind of got these three interacting components which is like way too much extremely cheap power and I think use it with nothing to use it on right? And then and then a bunch of co2 in the air that is hard to capture and how to do things with but and even if you could capture it, what are you gonna do with it like it’s gas you can’t exactly like pile it up somewhere. And, but if you could pile it that’d be great make like a couple of giant mountains every year. And then And then obviously, this is enormous and service demand for hydrocarbons all over the world. And I should add right now that in the southwest United States, we don’t think we’ll be able to break even in terms of cost until probably 2025, in terms of trajectories of, of solar panel costs and stuff. But today, if there was enough excess solar power available in Europe, or in Japan, and East Asia, practically anywhere on Earth that isn’t, you know, a couple of states away from Texas, that they could be using a process like ours right now and making natural gas more cheaply than they can otherwise get it. So if you’re talking 50, to 100 bucks per 1000 cubic feet, we can, we can beat that right now, our process was the process that we intend to share with the whole world can beat that right now. All that they need is to have, you know, 10s, to hundreds to 1000s of gigawatts of spare solar power laying around which they don’t have. And so just over the last couple of months have increasingly realized that, that there’s two halves to this problem. And one half of the problem is what we’re doing in the other half of the problem is accelerating the production rate, growth of solar photovoltaic all over the world, we can no longer depend on, on just the rate at which China is able to manufacture these cells, we should be building factories that make them in every country on earth.
Peter Perri 11:10
Now, that makes a ton of sense, it’s really exciting. The one thing it makes me think about is this. So there’s a lot of solar and wind that’s going to get built around the idea of creating green, green hydrogen, right. So I think, to the degree that your process can be more cost effective than making green hydrogen. To me, that’s more of a benchmark that you should look at, because the wind and solar is gonna build get build out,
Casey Handmer 11:32
we making green hydrogen, like I just took just to be clear I process makes we make more hydrogen everyone else put together. It’s just that because hydrogen is hard to transport, what do you do with it? Well, we combined it with carbon. And now it’s methane, which is easy to transport, and we have existing infrastructure to do it.
Unknown Speaker 11:46
Okay, that makes sense.
Casey Handmer 11:49
I love I love hydrogen. And I have 3d models of Zeppelin’s hanging in my garage. And I think it’s an amazing chemical for all kinds of reasons. But it is hard to transport it’s hard to handle. And so in our system, our electrolyzers basically piping directly into reactor, so that we only have, you know, 10 meters of piping to worry about as opposed to, you know, rebuilding our entire continent spanning pipeline systems to deal with hydrogen, which even NASA struggles to deal with, you know, that their giant rocket they were testing last week that hydrogen leaks all over the place. So it’s, it’s a kind of a pernicious molecule to deal with the scale.
Peter Perri 12:19
That makes total sense. We’ve had a lot of conversations with folks around the challenges of transporting hydrogen, we’ve seen lots of different ideas around it, you know, and obviously, pulling up the the entire pipeline system and rebuilding it is not a good idea. So I think I’ve seen things that are a pipe within the pipeline, we’ve seen lots of different ideas, but never one.
Casey Handmer 12:43
Yeah, you know, I’m sure every system will work. But I think I think, you know, what I would really want to see is is 1000s of companies jumping up all over the world, trying everything anyone can think of, you know, we’ll have companies doing lectures, electrification, we’ll have companies doing battery manufacturer, we’ll have companies making photovoltaics, we’ll have companies making new wind turbines better, cheaper, bigger, faster wind turbines, will have hydrogen transport. You know, I personally am not going to spend much of my time worrying about ammonia, but other people who like it should, and they should think about how to use it. And actually, I do see a future for hydrogen usage in industrial processes where it is generated on site. So you can have copious green hydrogen generation locally with photovoltaics, providing electricity. And then that hydrogen is piped directly into steel mill. So you don’t have to worry about building an enormous, you know, 1000 mile long pipeline across the country. It’s just there.
Peter Perri 13:32
Yeah, 100% Agree, there’s room for everything. We’re, we’re working on a blue hydrogen project that’s extremely exciting, and can deliver it today at a price that’s cost competitive. So you see a lot of different opportunities. There’s there’s opportunities and biogas opportunities all over the place to help reduce that 51 billion tonnes because as you say, it’s a massive problem. And I think you being an engineer realize the volume of it, it’s easy to say 51 billion tons. But I saw a statistic that said that, that the entire oil and gas industry today moves about 5 billion tons of matter. So if you say think about 10 times of that, trying to move it around and deal with it, as far as co2, it’s an enormous and enormous amount.
Casey Handmer 14:15
Yeah, well, I mean, something like 75% of the weight of the co2 is the oxygen that comes out of the air when the stuff is burned. I could probably do that calculation more precisely, your viewers, but it’s 12 divided by 44, whatever that is. Yeah, it’s it’s just 73% of something. So that’s, you know, so that’s where a lot of the mass comes from. But really, in terms of the energetics capturing the co2 is not the hard part that’s capturing co2 is difficult from a kind of materials and construction standpoint. But what we’re trying to do, we’re trying to build megawatt scale rigs that we can build $50,000, which is like the cost of a mid quality car. So we can build millions of them really cheaply and so we can pay them off, you know, in a year or two, which means that there’ll be competitive project finance be comparable to a fracking wells or, or a Bitcoin mining rig or something like that. So we don’t have to go out and ask governments to create new loan products for us so that we can pay this off every 30 or 50 years, we have to be able to basically put money in and get money back out pretty quickly so that we can support really fast scaling.
Peter Perri 15:17
That makes tons of sense, what what’s your speaking of finance, what’s your, your the model to finance the company?
Casey Handmer 15:25
Well, I mean, essentially, like, right now, we’re very early days, kind of just signed off as lease this week. And we’ve only raised a seed round. So you know, overall, like, we kinda have to demonstrate technical feasibility. And then we have to show that we can manufacture these things cheaply enough and reliably enough and actually deploy them and customers will buy things. So there’s a few milestones along the way. And we need to be clear, clear eyed about these challenges. But long term, I mean, I would imagine that TerraForm will be producing natural gas and selling that directly, but we’ll also be producing the machinery that produce natural gas and selling those. And we’ll also be selling finance products to help people purchase those things. And we’ll be selling maintenance services, kind of everything kind of in that in that general ballpark. So this is kind of a whole set of kind of different levels of this, of this thing. And ultimately, we may be selling the factories that produce the machinery that ultimately produces the gas, because at the end of the day, like, if you want to grow as quickly as possible, you need to, you know, jump up a few levels of abstraction, to kind of make that happen as quickly as possible. If I have to sit there personally, like, you know, wiring together systems, there’s a fundamental limit to how fast we can build this. But if we can cut the ribbon on a new factory every day, for the next five years or something, then then ultimately, the production rate of gas will go up as a quadratic of that of the rate at which we can roll that factories, right, because each factory produces, you know, a set number of machines per day, and then each machine produces a set amount of gas per day, so so that the net amount of gas produced as a function of factories produced kind of ramps up very quickly. But what’s exponential, but
Peter Perri 16:56
it sounds exciting, and quite certain that you guys can benefit from partners in industry, you know, that are using absolutely some of these big size applications.
Casey Handmer 17:07
Yeah, I mean, we have to be set up, we have to be prepared to vertically integrate, right, just as Tesla had to be when when they found out that, you know, their suppliers weren’t able to basically meet the level of their ambition and their scale, and their financing structures. But I’m not wedded to the idea of building TerraForm industries to be a giant, vertically integrated company like Tesla, it seems like it’s kind of a pain in the US. And ultimately, it will limit scale. I mean, like long term, I want there to be 10s of 1000s of companies that feed every part in the horizontal, horizontal position of verticalization. This industry, just as we have with the oil and gas industry right now, where there’s, you know, dozens, 1000s and 10s of 1000s of companies all over the world that all the little pieces of the puzzle, and you can kind of pick and choose which parts you need for local development. And so you know, there is no one size fits all, it’s just kind of a huge industry that’s poised to grow. Revenue will be, you know, trillions of dollars a year as it is right now for oil and gas, ultimately, we will probably be producing a little less than we are right now. Because electrification will displace some usage, and the unit cost of the gas and the oil that we produce will also be less, ultimately, we will, we’ll be producing oil more cheaply than you can get it out of the ground. But there’ll also be substantial costs involved in, in scaling up in like a lot of money and basically building machinery and, and building facilities and building solar farms. So, you know, overall, it’s a trillion dollar industry, for sure.
Peter Perri 18:23
It’s a huge, it’s a huge vision and very exciting. Can you tell us,
Casey Handmer 18:28
like even if TerraForm even if TerraForm completely screws up somehow when we’re intending not to. But even if we do, that solar power is already so cheap, that it is cheaper in many places on earth to turn solar electricity into hydrocarbons than to turn hydrocarbons into electricity, if that makes any sense. So absolutely makes sense physical inevitability that that solar power will displace oil and gas drilling. Right, all the downstream stuff like delivery and so on, that will remain more or less unchanged. But it is it is inevitable that, that across the entire world the cheapest way to get carbon, reduced carbon for all kinds of processes, whether it’s combustion, or chemicals or whatever will be from the air right around us then from miles underground, especially if you don’t happen to live like right on top of the backhand coalition.
Peter Perri 19:13
It makes makes a lot of sense. Absolutely makes sense, especially as we see geopolitical challenges over in Europe and, and other places. So it’s very interesting.
Casey Handmer 19:23
Like people people sometimes complain that there isn’t enough solar power in Seattle, or, or somewhere, something like that. Well, Seattle is kind of a cloudy place. But it only has like two or three times less solar than Los Angeles where I live. And there’s there’s plenty of sun here. It’s one of the sunniest places on earth. Now imagine if someone said I will Seattle’s no good, it’s only got 1/3 as much oil as Saudi Arabia, right, like 1/3 as much oil as Saudi Arabia will be plenty of oil for anyone. And so we just have to realize that the distribution of solar power of the Earth, especially where people live is, is almost uniform by comparison with the distribution of where oil and gas happens to be. And so I think in the future, we’ll see a lot more local local production The consumption of of hydrocarbons as well. Which, for global security?
Peter Perri 20:04
No, it makes a lot of sense. How do you address the energy density challenge of solar? You know, as far as you need a lot of land in order to produce large scale amounts of, let’s say, you know, I’m thinking green hydrogen, you need a lot of land to produce a lot of green hydrogen.
Casey Handmer 20:23
Yeah, so I mean, just to, I mean, to put it in perspective, right now, I believe these numbers are correct. They may be incorrect, but I think the United States uses about 50 million acres to produce soybeans and corn for biofuel, right, a 1 million acres would be enough to displace all current electricity production, so 2% of what we’re currently using. And the thing is, the land that we could use for that doesn’t have to be arable land, it doesn’t have to be, you know, our flawless Midwestern, you know, incredibly deep black soil, which we can grow things on, like the envy of the entire world, there’s United States actually has huge amounts of land, which has not really been used for very much at all. It is not very economically or agriculturally productive. And even though displacing all hydrocarbon production would require quite a lot more solar energy, maybe 1010 times more than just displacing all electricity production, the total amount of land is not a constraint, like, like, the per capita usage of energy would have to grow by like a factor of 100, before then became a constraint, and maybe that will occur to our grandchildren’s grandchildren. That’d be cool, because there’ll be flying rockets to space every day. But that would be a nice problem to have long term in the future. So I think I think ultimately, you know, we have to get used to the idea that we have to pay vast tracts of desert with solar panels. And yet, like there’s always an impact, right. But that impact is going to be a lot less than if all our coastal cities drown due to due to rising, rising sea levels. So that’s kind of to pick your poison in that work in that regard. And I think solar panels are way lower impact and then alternatives.
Peter Perri 21:54
For sure. Yeah, it makes a ton of sense. And the key point is that, that you’re making natural gas, which is ultimately transportable. I think the challenge came in with putting solar panels in the desert, because you have to have for when you’re using it for electricity, you need transmission towers. And it’s very difficult to transmit all that electricity from the desert back into the cities. But when you have natural gas, and you can transport it, it makes it a lot easier to put massive world scale solar farms out in the desert, because you can move a fuel like natural gas, whereas it’s more challenging to build out new transmission capacity to move electricity.
Casey Handmer 22:32
Yeah, I think we’ll need a balance of that. I mean, on the electricity front, I’ve got a blog about this, which people can look up it’s called the The Unstoppable battery onslaught, but it basically points out that we’re production limited, as far as battery deployment goes for the foreseeable future, because no matter how much how many batteries you put on the grid, you can always make money doing it, it’s kind of it’s kind of bananas, it’s like Superman, going into a casino and like using his laser eyes to see through street see through the cards, like can cheat completely in there’s nothing anyone can do about it. And so, in terms of like the, the exact dynamics of demand, but I think long term, we will see much reduced demand for extremely long distance power transmission. So I think like the the very large integrated grids and very high capacity transmission lines, both oil, gas and electricity, that kind of span contents will go away. Because we’ll be we’ll have more robust a local storage of power, for diurnal even a couple of days storage, and then on the solar front, solar will be so cheap that we will just over produce, we’ll have enough solar panels out there that we can produce enough power on a cloudy winter day, then it’s summer, of course, power will be incredibly cheap. So like even cheaper that already is which will come in handy if you know, we have seasonal demand for power for things like aluminium smelting, or in some way we wanted to sell it in a whole bunch of water and use it to irrigate crops, which are no longer being fed by glaciers, the Fed rivers because the glaciers and melted you know, things like this, but I’m talking kind of 2040s plus at this point, but just kind of long term, I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t be personally betting my own money on long distance power transmission, or gas or oil transmission to them. Yeah, I think I think Russia, I think
Peter Perri 24:05
your vision is smart. Can you talk at all about your investors, the guys that invested in your car?
Casey Handmer 24:11
Yeah, we’re super proud to say that. I happen to know Patrick Collison personally, who’s one of our investors, and that Friedman find my wife originally. And for your listeners who don’t know, Patrick Collison is a co founder of stripe, which is a internet payments processing company. And their mission is somewhat aligned to Dallas, which it’s to increase the GDP of the internet. And basically to realize that, as you bring communities of potential entrepreneurs into a modern economy, you can do so via the internet more efficiently than you could in the past. And I think the track record kind of speaks to the success of that vision. And so I made that mistake, as a joke, but I made the mistake of mentioning to Patrick and a few other friends that I was working on this more than a year ago. And Patrick very generously offered to underwrite some of the costs that I was incurring just on In my own garage on my own my own time and money, just buying machinery and running tests and things. And, and he said, Yeah, all I want in return is just keeping up to date, like every month, send me an update, you know, note of what you’ve been doing or something. And I think maybe his strategy was to, was to, like, encourage me to convince myself that it was worthwhile quitting my comfortable job at a JPL working on spacecraft, which is kind of a lifelong passion of mine, to actually make this happen in the real world. And then once I said, I was gonna do that, then he and a couple of his friends got together, including that Friedman, who was formerly the CEO of GitHub, and wrote me a $5 million check, which I like in the world of VC $5 million, is not a huge amount of money. But if you add up, like what my salary would have been for the rest of my career, it’s about $5 million. So it’s like, it’s kind of crazy to have someone be like, Oh, here you go. And obviously, like, I’m not, you know, using that to fund silliness, like we need to, we need to be fiscally efficient. That’s the whole point of our business, like, what what TerraForm is trying to do is actually extremely high productivity, low margin, material manufacturing of stuff, which is really frankly, very unsexy, it doesn’t really have the ability to get extremely huge and profitable, like, say, Google or Netflix or something like that. Because there’s no ability to kind of do this, you know, one person writes a piece of code, and then 100 million people use that kind of thing. But we can still, I think, exploit a lot of the lessons of Silicon Valley and in terms of how we go about solving this problem. So
Peter Perri 26:26
it’s an exciting time, and you’re seeing more and more Silicon Valley entrepreneurs come into the energy energy industry, I couldn’t get it back.
Casey Handmer 26:34
Entrepreneur limited. Like, it seems to me, there’s more money than than founders right now. So if you person listening to this, or you know, someone who’s interested in this, like, I’d be happy to talk to them. Like, let’s, let’s get some ideas going. As I said, there, I think there are hundreds of business models out there that need to be explored, that really aren’t being right now, in particularly in solar PV manufacturing. That’s what I’m worrying about this week, but also in synthetic fuel manufacturing. And there’s a handful of startups which are working on it right now. But as I said, the industry is gonna be big enough to support 10,000 companies. So like, let’s get to work. Yeah,
Peter Perri 27:03
I would say we’re entrepreneur limited and project execution limited. You know, because, as you mentioned, with Google, there’s a, there’s a large, there’s a there’s a challenge in going from a line of with Google, you can go from a line of code to a scalable business, but all this stuff is physical. So it takes more time to identify site and execute on projects. And so there’s that component of the intellectual side, and then the project side. And I’m very interested in looking on financing structures that accommodate both sides, because it is different from the pure traditional venture capital model. You have to have this sort of funnily IP approach, and then also fund the projects approach.
Casey Handmer 27:43
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. So
Peter Perri 27:46
well, Casey, this has been fantastic. Before you go, are you reading any books are you are there is there anybody that you look, look up to that inspires you are you just sort of head down in the science at this point.
Casey Handmer 27:57
I mean, I try and read a lot of books, I tend to go in spurts where I’ll read like, 20 books in a row, and then I’ll write 20 blogs in a row or something, it seems to use the same part of my brain, and I can’t do both at once. But the just recently, I’ve finished reading a book called the alchemy of air, which is a very nicely written kind of historical retelling of the history of nitrogen fixation, which was developed primarily in Germany prior to the First World War, and then expanded and complexified up into and through the Second World War. And it’s like, all history, when particularly in this particular case, it’s kind of complex, because a lot of the key characters were involved in also developing chemical weapons. And, and may or may not have been members of the Nazi regime. And, and there’s all kinds of complications there. But on the technical side, they did work out how to go about making chemicals that are essential for fertilizers, and also explosives, that Germany and frankly, most of the world that did not have, like a huge Navy was unable to get access to. Because the main source for this was in Chile, and an island off the coast of Chile. Just where it like people used to mine it right. And and prior to that point, you know, prior to this being developed, I think the carrying capacity of the Earth would have been about 3 billion people. So right now, like more than half of the world’s population is supported by agriculture, which is supported by artificial nitrogen fixation, which at the time was built in this absolutely colossal plants, that that kind of still exist in Germany, recovering like five or 10 square miles, like just enormous, enormous chemical plants. And they were fed primarily with coal, which is what Germany’s default source of cheap energy was at the time. And what we’re trying to do is kind of on a similar scale, you know, ultimately, the was giving the chemical weapons and we were skipping the genocides but, but ultimately, we’re trying to find ways of, of taking chemicals that are in the air, that are freely available anywhere on Earth in abundant concentrations and and turning them into more useful forms of energy. GE to help people avoid scarcity and avoid starvation and, and discomfort from from a lack of available energy. And at the same time also provide a, you know, a real world mechanism that can stabilize the atmospheric co2 concentration and the level of greenhouse heating in our atmosphere, which is super important if we don’t want to, like find large swaths of the surface to be unlivable in our lifetimes. So, it’s kind of a mixed bag there. But um, it’s been done before, you know, and and, you know, even today, you know, there’s nitrogen plants all over the world that do this. And it’s super, super important for agriculture.
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