June 2011

Alternative energy nation?


Congress is considering legislation to promote and develop laboratory-based biofuel production. 

Biofuel pumps at a gasoline station near Pentagon City in Arlington, Va. Image courtesy of Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz.

As summer approaches, vacationers are staring at gasoline prices approaching $5 per gallon, energy bills soar as air conditioners run full throttle, and favorite tourist destinations around the world are befouled with the fallout from disasters involving energy production. Though these issues seem to have little to do with the lab, basic biological research has a big role to play in their resolution.

The establishment of Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy was one of the major accomplishments of the America COMPETES Act. ARPA-E is intended to “bridge the gap between basic energy research and development/industrial innovation,” incorporating tools across the life sciences spectrum to facilitate high-risk, high-reward projects that, according to the agency’s mission statement, promise “genuine transformation in the ways we generate, store and utilize energy.” The primary focus at ARPA-E is on developing alternative energy sources while improving the efficiency of energy usage and storage. The agency funds 121 groundbreaking projects divided among 10 overarching categories; tellingly, the Conventional Energy category contains but a single project.

Within this broad agenda there are several niches into which biochemistry fits. The Direct Solar Fuels program funds projects that use genetically modified bacteria to harness solar energy to drive the production of fuel sources from natural products such as carbon dioxide. Alternative fuel sources also are at the heart of the Biomass Energy program, which is aimed at improving the conversion of plant material into fuel by means of biochemical modifications, including enhanced enzymatic activity.

The types of projects funded by ARPA-E are considered by private industry to be too risky to warrant significant investment. To help spur development of these alternative energy sources, Congress is reviewing and considering several legislative courses of action. Numerous bills have been introduced during the 112th Congress that would greatly expand existing programs focused on alternative fuel production while also providing tax incentives for producers. Historically, most bills aimed at alternative energy sources and biofuels focused on alcohol-based ones such as ethanol or an ethanol/gasoline blend; however, the recently introduced legislation calls for expansion of current guidelines to include the newer forms of biodiesels, notably cellulosic and algae-based fuels.

House of Representatives bills

• H.R. 1149 (sponsored by U.S. Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-Calif.) would update existing legislation to include algae-based biofuel in the renewable fuel program, thus making tax benefits that had previously only been available to producers of plant-based biofuel available to producers of renewable algae-based biofuel. 

H.R. 851, the Clean Energy Jobs Act of 2011 (sponsored by U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa), would extend tax credits for algal fuel development and repeal some fossil fuel subsidies.

Senate bills

• S. 187, the Biofuels Market Expansion Act of 2011 (sponsored by U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa), would amend the Energy Policy Act of 2005 to make renewable fuel pipelines eligible for loan guarantees for projects that avoid, reduce or sequester air pollutants or anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases and employ new or significantly improved technologies. 

S. 748, the Algae-Based Renewable Fuel Promotion Act of 2011 (sponsored by U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.), would update existing legislation to include algae-based biofuel in the renewable fuel program, thus making available to producers of renewable alga-based biofuel tax benefits that had previously only been available to producers of plant-based biofuel.

These bills represent clear opportunities for politicians to make good on their repeated calls for energy independence by continuing to support the path laid out by the formation of ARPA-E. In addition, they will help propel innovative laboratory discoveries across the “valley of death” that so often is an impediment to commercial development of basic research. Clearly, America’s goal of a greener future will rely on both scientific ingenuity and political will.

Benjamin CorbBenjamin Corb (bcorb@asbmb.org) is director of public affairs at ASBMB. 



Geoff HuntGeoffrey Hunt (ghunt@asbmb.org) is the ASBMB science policy fellow. 

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