Former oil executive leading Sorrento Valley company’s goal to convert pond scum into the fuel of the future
Sapphire Energy, the Sorrento Valley company that’s on a mission to turn algae into the fuel of the future for cars and jets, is on a roll. And Cynthia “C.J.” Warner — who joined the company in 2009 as president and was tapped as CEO this year — should know.
Last month, the company completed $144 million in financing from Arrowpoint Partners and Monsanto. Original investors include Bill Gates (Cascade Investment), VenRock (Rockefeller family ventures) and Britain’s Wellcome Trust.
Next month, Sapphire launches its new “green crude farm” in Luna County, N.M., where it will begin to grow multiple acres of algae in open ponds. The goal for the demonstration plant is 100 barrels a day by 2015 and by 2018 a projected 5,000 to 10,000 barrels a day.
Though several years off, full commercialization will be a game-changing payoff for America, says Warner, whose career straddles big oil and beginning green.
A chemical engineer, Warner, 53, was group vice president for BP (once known as British Petroleum), overseeing all of its refineries worldwide. She was the first — and only — woman to do this for a major oil company. Warner moved from London to Del Mar just before the Macondo/BP blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. “It’s wonderful to be on the side of the angels,” she laughs.
She sat down recently with U-T San Diego to talk about energy.
Q: What’s your take on gasoline prices? Will they stay up or go down nationally?
A: Gasoline prices are established by five major factors, the primary one being crude price. The others being transportation, taxes, your actual formulation, and refinery capacity.
We’re seeing a crude price that is actually pretty sticky, above $100/barrel for an extended period. ... You have lumpy demand profiles because of things going on and lumpy supply profiles because a new field has been discovered or we get a bunch of tight (fracked) oil, or whatever.
Q: You said five things, but what about China, India, and outside demand?
A: The growing nations’ demand for energy continues to grow because they are starting to modernize and modernization is energy intensive. India and China don’t supply much energy. They pull energy from the rest of the world. You have to replace your reserves. You have to find new reserves. Will we be able to continue to do that? I don’t think so. That’s why I’m here. I think probably we’re getting pretty close to peak oil, and that’s why our prices are so volatile. Deep-water gulf is a huge gift to us and tight (fracked) oil, but they are not enough.
Q: Why did you make the switch from BP to Sapphire?
A: It was a pretty big step for me, and some of my friends thought I had lost my mind. But I decided I would never forgive myself if I didn’t try to make it work.
What attracted me was the fungibility of algae, that it can be dropped into gas tanks and existing pipelines without damaging them and still provide the same energy as crude oil. Corn ethanol, for instance, gives a driver less mileage, less energy, and cannot be put into existing pipes. Electric cars are nice but only as clean as the power plants that produce the electricity. Algae’s other advantage is scalability. And I was starting to get really concerned about the supply and demand gap that was coming, and that we needed to transfer to a more sustainable way of doing things. That is not easy to do when you realize how big the system is. We consume about 85 million barrels worldwide every single day.
Q: You went to Vanderbilt, and then the Illinois Institute of Technology, but 30 years ago running an oil refinery was viewed as a man’s job.
A: It totally was. A few guys said to me on the first day, “Honey, you know you’re going to get dirt under your fingernails out here.” Like that was going to be shocking to me!
I was told that in my lifetime there would never be a female refinery manager, and of course I became a refinery manager, and then I became the manager of all the refinery managers. The world started to appreciate that gender diversity added a lot, especially in the executive room. Women can approach things differently. As long as we listen to each other, this adds a real richness.