New R&D Strategies for a New Era

April 26, 2013 |

CleantechConservativeBy Douglas L. Faulkner, “The Cleantech Conservative”,
with contributions from Jacques Beaudry-Losique

We all applauded often at the recent Advanced Biofuels Leadership Conference the progress many individual companies are making in getting to market. But, those successes are fighting growing headwinds from the nation’s capital.

What do coaches do when the season is not living up to expectations? They change up the playbook.

We believe it is time for bioenergy industry leaders to take the initiative and chalk up a new comprehensive game plan, reflecting the new reality of leaner federal funding.

The two of us have worked together during our government service to promote the expansion of biofuels. Today, we are teaming up again to give fellow readers of “Biofuels Digest” a new perspective on the road ahead.

Our first play? Refocus valuable resources on R&D and a move away from underwriting open-ended, financially-heavy commercialization support for new projects. As part of that adjustment, we also advocate simplification of the federal processes for funding this research to cut costs, broaden the benefits and speed up the marketplace introduction of the technological fruits borne from that research.

This entails pulling back into a sharper, longer-term focus especially on the upstream barriers, biomass feedstock production (yields) and logistics as well as their transformation into market-oriented product platforms, such as sugars, natural oils and syngas. Each of these platforms can be easily benchmarked for success, as all three mentioned above are traded commodities with commercial specifications and transparent price points.

Furthermore, a thorough analysis of the lessons learned from government and private sector investment successes and failures of the past decade will help identify a small, well-targeted set of remaining technology challenges that can best be solved with rejuvenated private-public collaborations. Examples could include pursuing more powerful synthetic biological pathways, new classes of catalysts to manage biomass-derived syngas and more robust feedstocks.

The federal government should forgo funding end-user product development and let industry do what it does best – – build markets. We realize that other promising intermediate pathways exist and the government should by no means exclude great ideas. These should not drive the national programs.

The federal government should target its diminishing resources on promoting consortia of private-public partnerships through streamlined solicitations aimed at those consortia backed-up by strong balance sheets. Agencies should also consider approaches modeled on DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy by setting aggressive goals, funding innovative ideas and steering away from overly-prescriptive government-led roadmaps.

And, remove from the playbook sending federal R&D funds to new “greenfield” demonstration projects. Instead, create mechanisms to encourage the use of the existing infrastructure of underutilized U.S. pilot plants, many of them taxpayer-financed, on the re-targeted goals. We would also encourage industry to recommend innovative, low-cost legislative, regulatory or other fixes to stimulate commercial production.

These readjustments should help to rebuild bipartisan political support for biofuels.

The battle-tested Biomass Act of 2000, in its last guise as Section 9008 of the Farm Bill, should be restructured legislatively to reflect these priorities and promote a unified collaborative program among domestic research agencies. For example, Congress should encourage Energy to match Agriculture’s investments under the Biomass Act and give more upfront oversight authority to the federal Biomass Board and its private sector companion, the Biomass Technical Advisory Committee.

A more direct inclusion of the State Department and the Agency for International Development would ensure linkages between domestic research and overseas goals for sustainable energy and agriculture. Congress should also give more careful consideration to the roles and responsibilities of the Defense Department in promoting bioenergy with its reduced budgets in a volatile world.

This would of course require not only breaking down walls between and among departments but also between Congressional committees. In this time of shrinking budgets, certainly Congress and the Executive Branch must join in the hard work of collaboration.

Let’s be clear – – the responsibility to achieve this revamped R&D strategy rests with the captains of the biofuels industry. Doug has earlier called for a new dialogue between the private and public sectors, with industry driving the debate. That need is even greater now vis-à-vis revamping federal spending on biofuels support. The bioenergy private sector knows better than anyone what technical hurdles are holding back market progress – – and we must coalesce around establishing a select grouping of R&D priorities that reach out beyond the federal to state governments, universities and laboratories. We suggest that the trade associations could kick start this discussion by asking each member company to name its top three R&D priorities for the mid and long term.

Let us collectively send the old playbooks to be repurposed as biomass feedstock and begin chalking up new plays that build on our successes for a mature bioenergy industrial and agricultural base for the longer term, reduce red tape, move away from subsidies to self-sufficiency and find the best uses of dwindling tax dollars as the pathways to a strong, growing industry over the next few decades.

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