Algae: Times and Needs Have Changed

May 16, 2013 |

By Barry Cohen, Executive Director, National Algae Association

The DoE has spent $2.5 billion on algae research but to date nothing has been commercialized. Why? Because their mission is to develop technologies. It’s not their problem or concern what happens to them – they just continue to develop them!

We need your help! We need you to explain what is going on at the Department of Energy’s Bioenergy Technologies Office (formerly, the Biomass Program), and why, while we might reduce our dependence on OPEC oil, we will never achieve energy independence unless someone is willing to speak up.

I am the founder and executive director of the first non-profit algae production trade association in the US. I formed the association because we had over 60 years of algae research, all of which had positive results and promise. Then we learned that all we had was research, most of which was incomplete and/or unproven.

The Bioenergy Technologies Officerecently announced that most of the projects funded with government grant money were fully funded but less than 50% complete. Many of the same individuals who were responsible for that situation are still holding positions of leadership.

Worse than that, we have learned that funding for these DoE projects must, by Congressional mandate, be spent on research and not on development, let alone the large scale commercial development that is needed in order to become less energy dependent. That explains not only the rooms of untested technologies at the DoE and the state-of-the-art equipment at university labs, none of which have value or purpose without commercial development.

The DOE Bioenergy Technologies Office told me that we need to hire a lobbyist to change the wording in the mandate from funding research at universities to funding commercial algae production. We do not believe we need to hire a lobbyist when past grant recipients have stated “all algae technology hurdles have been met. It’s all engineering and scale-up going forward.” What is needed is someone who is willing to admit that times have changed and so have the needs.

The DoE has apparently been successful in deflecting the responsibility to provide feedstock to the USDA. It’s nonsensical that, at this stage of the game, the burden of commercial production of algae should become the problem of the USDA, and that the DoE should have no responsibility or accountability for the fact that it has doled out hundreds of millions of dollars without ever thinking about the future of the technologies it was funding.

What’s even more nonsensical is that the grants are still being awarded to universities to develop more technologies when they themselves know that the technologies have no value unless and until they are proven on a commercial scale and, with regard to algae technologies, there is no commercial production for the technologies to be tested.

We believe that there should be someone at the DoE who is willing to be honest – to tell our elected officials that times have changed, and so have the needs. They are not willing to tell you, but I am. If the US does not do something quickly we will soon be buying our algae biofuel from China and Saudi Arabia.

More on the National Algae Association, here.

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