Obama gives biomass/biofuels a boost

By Anna Austin
Posted May 7, 2009, at 1:23 p.m. CST

President Barack Obama has proven his support for the biomass and biofuel industries by providing nearly $800 million in funding and forming a market development program.

On May 5, Obama announced $786.5 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds would be awarded to U.S. renewable fuel projects, and also signed a Presidential Directive to establish a Biofuels Interagency Working Group. To be co-chaired by the secretaries of agriculture and energy and the U.S. EPA administrator, the group will work with the National Science and Technology Council's Biomass Research and Development Board to identify new policies to support the development of next-generation biofuels; increase flexible-fuel vehicle use and assist in retail marketing efforts; coordinate infrastructure policies impacting the supply, secure transport and distribution of biofuels, and identify new policy options to promote the environmental sustainability of biofuels feedstock production while taking into consideration land use, habitat conservation, crop management practices, water efficiency/quality and life-cycle assessments of greenhouse gas emissions.

The new funds will be allocated under the directive of the U.S. DOE biomass program across four main areas which include $480 million to the solicitation for integrated pilot-and demonstration-scale biorefineries, $176.5 million for commercial-scale biorefinery projects, $110 million for fundamental research in key program areas, and $20 million for ethanol research.

Numerous renewable energy companies voiced their approval and support of the funding and working group, including ethanol giant Poet LLC. "The creation of this working group to develop the ethanol industry and infrastructure is exactly what's needed to keep the country moving toward cleaner, greener fuels," said Poet CEO Jeff Broin. "The federal government can play an important role by encouraging the production of flexible fuel vehicles and the installation of blender pumps and other ethanol infrastructure."

Poet currently operates a 20,000-gallon-per-year cellulosic ethanol pilot facility in Scotland, S.D., which utilizes corn cobs as a feedstock.

John Scott, the chairman of algal technology developer PetroAlgae, said that although the initiatives are a good first step, it is not the end game. "Going forward, two things will be critical: investing in micro-crops like algae that are more productive and do not jeopardize our food and water supplies; and making sure we back solutions that are commercially viable today and sustainable over the long term," Scott said.

PetroAlgae recently won the Sustainable Biofuels Technology Award in the technology supplier category at the 2009 World Biofuels Markets, for its work toward the growth and harvest of oil and animal feed from algae.

The executive vice president of Biotechnology Industry Organization's industrial and environmental section Brent Erickson said the Obama administration is sending a strong message to the industry that the federal government is committed to biofuels. "Though a number of federal programs support biofuels, the resources to coordinate and fund these programs has been lacking," he said. "This working group can coordinate the development of new feedstocks, transportation and delivery of products, alternative fuel distribution networks and vehicles, and many other parts of the biofuel value chain. This decisive move by the Obama administration to form a high-level group to oversee the continued advancement of biofuels is the strong signal the marketplace has been waiting for in these tough economic times."

President Obama has called on Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to immediately begin restructuring investments in renewable fuels as needed to preserve industry employment and to develop a comprehensive approach to accelerate the investment in and production of American biofuels.