Remarks by US Under-Secretary of Energy, Franklin Orr, at the Algae Biomass Summit

October 1, 2015 |

Algae Orr-ABS-2015is an important example of the breadth of work at the Department of Energy, starting with genetics and proceeding all the way to commercial-sized systems and integrations. It’s fundamental science all the way to applied.

Biofuels are an important component of our work, and though there are some who say that oil prices have dropped and supply has expanded and we don’t need to really do much, there are some here old enough as I am to remember the crises of the 1970s and the lessons learned. That a shift in only a few million barrels per day can move prices quite a bit, and we have struggled with oil disruption.

We made investments in the 1970s but then society sort of forgot all about energy in the 1980s and 1990s and then we all paid attention in the 2000s.

The impact of a perceived downturn in China and the impact of new vehicle efficiencies is providing us with lower prices for a while, but we are determined not to forget but to recognize that continued investment in a diversified energy platform is wise. Energy security, employment and greenhouse gas emissions, in each of these areas biofuels can contribute.

Energy security is fundamental to international stability, increased domestic production has strengthened us but oil remains a globally traded commodity, and we would prefer not to be subject to the whims of actors around the world who may not favor us. And the jobs to be gained are by any measure substantial. In addition, transport emissions are something like 30% of greenhouse gases, the second largest behind power generation. The science os quite clear, and there are several lines of evidence now that climate change is underway and human impacts are significant. We have enough data to know that now, and climate change will impact national security and our economy. The 5th IPCC assessment is now out, and each report has a stronger consensus.

We humans are good at taking systems for granted. Clean air, water, food. We interact and impact all of these through our energy system, and it is in all our interests to work on this.

The Obama Administration has set out a three-step policy:

To cut carbon emissions and improve energy efficiency

To prepare for the effects of climate change

to lead international with efforts to combat climate change

The President has committed us to cut 28% of our emissions by 2025, and for those of us who work on energy systems, that’s “Yikes!”. That’s a decade from now and we have a heck of a lot to do. We have to double the pace of reductions from today for the 2020-2025 period. The President has also committed us to a 32% reduction by 2030 in power sector emissions via the Clean Power Plan.

Energy technologies all benefit from learning by doing. For example, when the steam engine debuted it was a wonder in its day because it could turn energy into work, but the first systems were only 1/2 of one percent efficient in doing this. 300 years later there are engines that can beat 70% efficiency in converting stored energy into service. It would be good to pick up the pace, but it is a credit to all of the work and designs through the years that have achieved that improvement. None of it happened overnight, and it’s time to get to work now.

Machines that use sunlight to store energy? We have these in algae, we now need to persuade them to do it at scale.

In our Quadrennial Technology Review, which is just out, we report where we stand on biofuels technology, and the state of play with several hundred technologies and R&D efforts, backed up by 59 energy technology assessments. Our view is that algae represents a diverse bunch of energy devices with lots of potential and that can tap into waste sources to capture and store energy. And can add value to marginal land and produce high-quality products.

And biofuels as a whole remain important for us, even if we are successful in projects to develop advanced batteries than can help power urban transport via electric vehicles, because we don’t see a path to flight now with battery technology.

We have an RFI out right now due back on October 16th which I encourage all of you to take a look at, and BETO is now revising their 30-year program and updating their Algal Technologies Roadmap. Plus, there’s a 2016 update due for the Billion Ton Study that will include algae.

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