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What the President Didn't Say

president.jpgBY JOHN SHEEHAN
As someone who has been engaged in the development of biofuels for almost three decades, I was struck most last night in President Obama's State of the Union address by the big gaping hole he left in his list of clean energy technologies. I'm referring to the one where biofuels and bioenergy used to sit. The President talked wind, solar, batteries and even efficiency. But in his laundry list of technology frontiers that he refused to cede to China or Germany--nary a word about biomass.
Just an oversight in a packed one-hour speech? Unlikely: We all know that every single word of the State of the Union address is thoroughly vetted both inside and outside the government.
What, then, does this lacuna mean? My diagnosis is CDS--Chronic Disappointment Syndrome. After investing more than $1 billion in partnerships on advanced biofuels, the government has nothing to show. Yes, that might change (and I hope it does, soon). But the annual disappointment we have now come to expect as EPA revises downwards its targets for cellulosic ethanol in the federal Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) is a regular reminder of our failure to deliver.
Add to that disappointment our inability to address the genuine questions that continue to be raised about the ethics of burdening our food system with energy demands, and it comes as no surprise that biomass has lost its place at the table.
I believe biofuels and biomass are a crucial part of a sustainable energy future. But hype and dogma have clouded our vision. Let's change that. Now is the time for the biomass community to come together to develop a feasible and ethically sound vision for biomass energy that is fully integrated in a sound and sustainable vision for global agriculture.
The only thing worse than a passionate battle over the good, the bad and the ugly of biomass energy is silence and dismissal. That's what we got last night. We know there is a need for energy that can only be filled by biomass-derived fuels. We know that there are very real trade-offs and risks associated with burdening agriculture with yet one more demand. We need a bold and courageous approach to building a vision for biomass. So, let's reinvigorate the debate. I miss it already.
John Sheehan is science director for the Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment, a program of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.


I agree with the gist of your argument; the absence of biofuels in the State of the Union is strong disappointment. That said I add the following observation: Much of what Obama did talk about is at the deployment end of the development spectrum and focused on electrical demand. With subsidies comparable to those afforded (?) to fossil fuels, deployment of wind and solar technologies at scale is now a technology policy issue rather than strictly a research challenge.

As you point out, biofuels are still very much in the research exploration phase of their development. They are some years (decade?) behind in their research and development process. In addition when we have figured out how to produce biofuels, they are likely to occupy, in large part, a different niche in our energy portfolio.

All of this highlights the importance of not only a technology policy, but a comprehensive road map for our energy portfolio over decades to come. We must continue to invest in research in biofuels and in improving wind and solar systems. We must learn how to deploy new energy technologies / systems as they come up to scale. And we must develop sensible policy frameworks that encourage innovation through out the commercialization process and that minimize human disruption of Earth's biophysical systems.

I couldn't agree more. Indeed, for over four decades, this country has failed to produce a credible energy strategy. At the heart of that failure is the lack of understanding of the size and complexity of the challenge. Completely retooling our energy system is a daunting task. Political processes (especially today) are too prone to quick-solution approaches. And technologists are all too willing to encourage quick fixes. So, the key word is credible. Starting with Jimmy Carter's failed Synfuels Corporation all the way to today's failure of Solyndra, we continue to repeat the same mistakes. There are lots of reasons for both failures, but the biggest is our failure to look comprehensively at the technical, market, environmental and social hurdles these technologies face.

As to whether we should view biomass as still "research"—I think there is room for both near and mid term successes in biofuels. But so far, we've not looked at all the pieces of the puzzle that are needed to succeed in either time frame.

And, without a doubt, we need to work aggressively on both the near and long term fronts if a sustainable energy system in general (and a biomass contribution to it) is going to be robust.

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