Observations of Algae's Renaissance

By Tim Portz | September 27, 2012

As I write this, the 6th annual Algae Biomass Summit is wrapping up and the gathered attendees wheel luggage around, hail cabs and exchange final goodbyes. The overwhelming sense you get is that this is an industry finding its feet and positioning itself to begin realizing the incredible potential of algal cultivation, harvest and conversion.

Sixteen years ago, the Department of Energy shelved a nearly twenty year, and $25 million effort to establish algae as a viable renewable energy input. In that regard then, we find ourselves now in algae’s Renaissance and the road to commercial scale operations has many travelers. And now, the DOE is back in the algae business with a nearly $200 million investment. I had the privilege of moderating a panel that included Valerie Reed, Acting Biomass Program Manager at the DOE and I asked her what had transpired in the last sixteen years that led the DOE to resurrect its efforts in algae. She pointed to a combination of scientific advances and a steady rise in the price of oil that in tandem have brought the economic viability of algae derived fuels as close as it ever has been.

It seems inevitable that all renewable energy technologies advance in fits and starts. Energy prices are volatile and periods of high prices are a catalyst for increased investment in alternatives. The question the industry is working to answer now is whether this era of increased public and private investment will deliver the ultimate dividend, economically viable commercial scale production.

Next year, this event moves to Orlando. Where will the industry find itself when the 7th Annual Algae Biomass Summit opens? Will the producers who shared their commercialization progress with this year’s audience be able to point to continued operations, expansions and additional groundbreaking? Will there be new players toeing the line in the race to commercialization? These and other questions will be answered over the course of the next year by the professionals now dispersing from Denver.