Algae. Why Now? What’s Next?

While algal biomass as a potential renewable energy source has been studied for decades, only recently has it received the type of intensive R&D and investment needed to translate that potential into reality. As some readers of may know, algal biomass has risen to the top of the field for renewable fuel feedstocks.

Algae’s ability to absorb and store carbon presents sizable environmental and economic benefits, which are appealing to large carbon emitters such as heavy industry and utilities. Additionally, algae’s potential yields of 3,000-6,000 gallons of oil per acre per year (gpa) are an order of magnitude higher than those of first generation feedstocks, which range from 50 to 600 gpa. Finally, algae can be grown on marginal, desert-like land with minimal fresh water needed, often times preferring “nutrient-rich” water supplies such as waste water or agricultural runoff.

Why Now?

Times and circumstances have changed since the National Renewable Energy Lab shut down its Aquatic Species Program in 1996. At that point oil hovered around $20 per barrel, causing this promising program to fall victim to a euphoric time of cheap oil and near zero public awareness of the notion of a “carbon footprint.” But today’s new economic, environmental and political realities have created the need for sustainable, low-carbon alternatives to fossil-based energy sources.

There are three drivers behind the unprecedented push to develop algal biomass for energy. The first is the high price and volatility of petroleum. As the scarcity of oil reserves increase and those supplies that do exist become difficult to access due to environmental restrictions, geological barriers and political instability, the need to develop long-term alternatives continues to grow. Algae may be one of the only feedstocks that provide high enough yield per acre to generate quantities of oil needed to serve a global market.

Second, the alternatives not only must be plentiful, they must be less carbon intensive than their predecessors. Looming requirements on local, national and international levels to reduce carbon emissions from power generation facilities as well as low-carbon fuel standards are forcing major energy and oil companies to find low-carbon alternatives. Not only do algae consume naturally occurring carbon, they can also consume additional CO2 from large emitters, such as a coal-fired power plant.

Third, and for possibly the first time in history, there is growing political will to take aggressive steps toward reducing emissions and developing a cohesive energy strategy that is focused on reducing emissions, creating jobs and increasing our energy independence. From his first day in office, President Obama has been committed in both policy and funding to change the way Americans and the world, view the future of sustainable, renewable, and economically viable energy sources, including algae.

What’s Next?

As the leading trade organization in the industry, the Algal Biomass Organization (ABO) and its members have been working hard to promote the science and policy needed to accelerate commercialization of algae-based energy sources. Given the meteoric rise in the number and scope of advances in algal fuels in just the past year, they have been precluded from enjoying the funding and regulatory benefits as are by current first generation feedstocks, such as corn, soybeans and even cellulosic material. That said, the ABO, our members and many other organizations are working diligently to change this.

For the past year, most of the focus of ABO’s efforts, beyond education of policymakers, has been to secure this financial and regulatory parity for algae. The ABO believes algae must receive the same tax incentives, subsidies and other financial benefits currently accorded to other “incumbent” feedstocks, that algae must be recognized as an effective carbon reduction strategy, and that algae are considered safe for commercial production under the same regulations governing other traditional renewable fuel feedstocks.

While the ABO did not have direct influence on House Bill 2454 — American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (ACES), it does include provisions important to the industry, including defining algae as “renewable biomass.” The bill also has a number of provisions promoting the capacity of biological resources in the United States to produce biomass, store carbon and reduce emissions as part of an overall climate change mitigation strategy.

The facts and implications of our reliance on fossil fuels are well outlined and widely accepted at this point in history. The question that remains is how we will respond to the associated environmental, economic and energy challenges facing our nation and world. Given the wide-ranging benefits of algal-based energy sources, the expedited development of the algae industry must be a priority for both public and private sectors. Let’s continue to work together as an industry and with our governments to address the clean energy needs of the future.

Mary Rosenthal is the Executive Director of the Algal Biomass Organization, the leading trade organization for the algae industry. The ABO will host its 3rd Annual Algae Biomass Summit on October 7-9 in San Diego, CA.

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