Chu announces carbon sequestration funding; stresses importance of energy crops, ag residue

By Erin Voegele
Energy Secretary Steven Chu traveled to North Dakota July 1 to announce a local power plant has been selected to receive up to $100 million in stimulus package funding to incorporate advanced carbon capture and sequestration technologies.

At the press event, which took place at Bismarck State College's National Energy Center for Excellence, Chu used the opportunity to provide attendees with an update on climate change and the U.S. DOE's programs that are designed to combat it.

"We have an extraordinary energy challenge before us," Chu said. "It affects many things." He said he believes our nation's economic prosperity is going to be intimately tied to the development of sustainable energy sources, and how efficiently we use the energy we produce.

Chu explained to attendees that climate change is occurring much more rapidly than was previously estimated. He spoke of recent studies that project a continued high-carbon economy could result in warmer temperatures, changes in precipitation patterns, and water supply stresses that would negatively impact major agricultural areas in our nation.

"I am very hopeful as a scientist that we can in fact conquer this-it's not too late," he said. "But, we will need a new industrial revolution � so we can get our energy from carbon-free sources and use the energy we have more efficiently." Chu said the U.S. must seize the opportunity to be the leader of this new industrial revolution.

"We will live in a carbon-constrained world," Chu said. "My hope is we will live in a carbon-constrained world a year or two from now." He said that as a country we need to start basing our actions on what the future is likely to hold in regard to oil prices and climate change, rather than basing our actions on where we stand now.

In addition to working to make carbon sequestration technologies economical, Chu also described many other areas in which the DOE is working to combat climate change. These areas of research include wind power, modernizing the electric grid, energy efficient building practices and biomass.

"The Department of Energy is working very hard to improve the ability to generate fuel to offset foreign oil imports using grasses," Chu said. He spoke to attendees about DOE research that is currently focused on miscanthus, a grass energy crop that can be grown without fertilizer or irrigation. He said research has shown that miscanthus can yield 15 times more ethanol per acre than corn. However, the production process is currently not cost effective. Chu said the DOE is working to bring down the cost of production, as well as research ways to convert crop residues and lumber mill residues into fuel. "A conservative estimate says we can replace half our gasoline with biofuels, of which half we can generate from agricultural wastes," he said.

Chu also spoke about the importance of creating energy innovation hubs where researchers work to quickly and effectively move new technologies to commercialization. One example of this Chu offered is the Joint BioEnergy Institute, which is a partnership among six entities led by Berkeley National Laboratory. "Within six months of the establishment of this laboratory, we were able to change yeast and bacteria genetically so that if you feed them simple sugars, they would produce gasoline-like and diesel-like fuel," he said. "Now, we're not there yet because we need to get the yield up much higher. So, for the next four or five years we hope to get the yield up."

By getting a small group of the best scientists together in one place, they are able to expedite the research process and produce effective results. He compared these energy hubs to entities such as Bell Laboratories and Los Alamos, where similar research models were successfully used in the past to produce truly transformational technologies. In order to prevent the drastic implications of climate change, he said, we need to decrease our carbon emissions by more than 80 percent by mid-century. "We don't know how to do that in a cost effective way," he said, which is why we need to concentrate on the development of transformational technologies.